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Augustine And The Locus Of Collective Memory

3915 words - 16 pages

In the books X and XI of his Confessions, Augustine aims to tackle the intriguing questions of memory and time, respectively. His phenomenological as well as rigorous approach has attracted many later commentators. Also Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005) can be taken as one of these, although Ricoeur’s angle is decisively distinct from that of Augustine’s – it can be said to represent a certain “hermeneutical rationality”. By using Ricoeur’s material as a springboard, this paper aims to examine both the possibility and the locus of collective memory (part I) as well as Ricoeur’s reply to Augustine’s challenging question “quid est enim tempus?” (part II).


The first question could be titled as “between historical consciousness and collective memory”. However, the inquiry will begin by memories that are most notably as private as they are subjective. Ricoeur asserts in Memory, History, Forgetting (2000, in English 2004) that there is a “tradition of inwardness” in understanding memory. He defines it by laying out three distinct characters: 1) “memory does seem to be radically singular: my memories are not yours”, 2) “it is in the memory that the original tie of consciousness to the past appears to reside” and 3) “it is to the memory that the sense of orientation in the passage of time is linked”.
This notably (Neo-)Platonic tradition is already potent in the texts of its initiator, St. Augustine, but Ricoeur sees the tradition to really gain its force with Locke, Kant and Husserl. Whereas Augustine was not able to distinguish between identity, self and memory, and also lacked the conceptual tools for a transcendental definition of the word “subject”, the modern sense of “inwardness” is brought up with these later thinkers. Indeed, it is the (phenomenological) mind that “expects and attends and remembers”. However, when approached in this manner – from the viewpoint of a tradition – the question of the relationship between individual memory and the operations of “collective memory” appears as a radical one.
Ricoeur notes: “the entire tradition of inwardness is constructed as an impasse in the direction of collective memory”. The “tradition” is not capable of considering the enigma of shared memories in a satisfactory manner. Ricoeur states this like a thesis that immediately shows its certainty: “The price to pay for this subjectivist radicalization is high: any attribution to a collective subject becomes unthinkable, derivative, or even frankly metaphorical.” Although being yet a different problem and distinguishable from the notion of “collective memory” – because history provides a further category of the past, namely, impersonal one – the question of historical time is also apparent.
This should be noted, because the notion of the past, understood as a (personal) history, cannot be superseded with Augustine. For him it is exactly memory – residing in the subjective mind as its “stomach” and “storehouse” – what is needed for a...

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