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From Medieval Mnemonics to a Social Construction of Memory - page 18 / 23





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and that social consciousness was critical to human progress. Similarly, he argued that morality was ultimately an instantiation of this very social con- sciousness. Thus, individual morality, as a product of an underlying collective consciousness, bound society together in a profane world (Durkheim, 1912/ 1995, p. 224).

According to Durkheim (1912/1995), to aspire to a perfect society of truth, justice, and beauty was only a “desire rooted within the depths of man” because in a profane world, nothing outside of humanity could obviously account for such aspirations; striving for a perfect society “was an idea that expresses itself in consciousness of our more or less obscure aspirations toward the good” (p. 423). For Durkheim, consciousness was an external expression of a person’s desire for the good, and this desire multiplied in society was the social force behind the civilizing, historical, progress. Moving toward a more ideal society required collective action by which society could realize its position and its active cooperation (Durkheim, 1912/1973, p. 191). If collective action was pro- moted to the point of effervescence, people would experience a world to which they could attribute a higher dignity. From this dual perspective, people could witness an ideal world through collective action and effervescence (Durkheim, 1912/1973, p. 195; Durkheim, 1912/1995, p. 233).

In Durkheim’s (1912/1995) analysis, individual consciousness is really only part of larger social consciousness: “If collective consciousness is to appear a sui generis synthesis of individual consciousness must occur” (p. 426). According to Durkheim (1915/1965), a person left alone to his or her own perceptions would not be a social being and therefore would be “indistinguishable from the beasts” (p. 487). Self-affirmation was released through ritual activity and myth- ological thought (Durkheim, 1912/1995, p. 426), which by their very nature was totalizing:

This idea of the all which is at the basis of the classifications which we have just cited could not have come from the individual, himself, who is only a part in rela- tion to the whole and who never attains more than an infinitesimal fraction of real- ity. And yet there is perhaps no other category of greater importance; for as the role of the categories is to envelope all the other concepts, the category par excellence would seem to be this very concept of totality. The theorists of knowledge ordi- narily postulate it as if it came of itself, while it really surpasses the contents of each individual consciousness taken alone to an infinite degree. (Durkheim, 1915/ 1965, p. 489)

Although Durkheim’s (1915/1965) analysis assumed a totality, it also assumed that individual consciousness was divided and that a person’s soul was divided as well. Because individuals have something impersonal in them, so too they possess an inevitable social instinct (Durkheim, 1912/1995, p. 447). Durkheim (1912/1973) cited Pascal’s formula that the human is both “angel and beast,” and yet it is exactly this “perpetual division against ourselves” that ele- vates humankind above and distinguishes humans from other beings (p. 154).

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