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From Medieval Mnemonics to a Social Construction of Memory - page 19 / 23





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Durkheim (1915/1965, p. 494; 1912/1995, p. 447) ventured that humans live antagonistic lives because of the biblical Fall. Ultimately, he claimed that the individual was a duality of the sacred and the profane.

Maurice Halbwachs joined the Durkheim school as a statistician, but he devoted much effort and writing to the examination of collective memory. After studying with Bergson, Halbwachs joined with the social scientists and had some interest in refuting Bergson’s teachings. Halbwachs’s writings on memory were published in English posthumously and titled The Collective Memory (1950/1980) and On Collective Memory (1952/1992). In these works, he asserted that memory and consciousness formed a sort of dyad from an early point in sociology. Halbwachs maintained the Durkheimian position that all memory was social memory and society determines what is important to remember, underscoring the fact that memory was an acknowledged aspect of consciousness. Halbwachs was interested in perception, and his ideas could have been inspired by Mead, although Mead (unlike Halbwachs) favored Bergson’s work.

Traumatic memories and dreams were problematic for Halbwachs because they could not be corroborated. Individuals could not escape from themselves except by responding to others—not through dreams, art, or meditation (Halbwachs, 1952/1992, p. 44). Yet memory was liberating, Halbwachs (1952/ 1992, p. 50) argued, because it gave us the illusion of not always being impris- oned by groups. Although Durkheim’s dualistic, collective, totality concept does not accommodate conflict any more than it relinquishes its sacred/profane duality, Durkheim and Halbwachs together staked an important claim for soci- ology to explore the social construction of consciousness and memory—inherit- ing this project from the vanishing metaphysicians of the past and sharing the project with future generations of psychologists and sociologists.


This article discusses the role of human memory in the social construction of self-knowledge in early European and American history. Medieval society used human memory as a source of knowledge and a conscious practice to advance moral and conscientious behavior in a time of turbulent change when the state, and its attendant forms of civil behavior, was not well developed. Medieval sub- jects could aspire to perfect themselves in a dualistic (Manichean-Gnostic) social context that viewed being and “activity” as virtuous and the opposite as evil. Contradictions within this faith-based dualistic belief system contributed to the onslaught of secularization, the Inquisition, and the Reformation.

Martin Luther and Protestant sects promoted an ascetic and independent life- style that turned faith inward, away from a profane world. The development of modern, urban capitalism required the religious changes brought about by the Reformation. The socially constructed moral guidelines of medieval society

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