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Nietzsche Past & Future

To Forget or To Remember?

Paul Doolan on what Nietzsche thought we can, and can’t, get out of history.

The final work of the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur, History, Memory, Forgetting (2008), provides a densely argued defence of the concept of collective memory. In one chapter he considers the short work on historiography by Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life (1874). Ironically, what earned Nietzsche this special attention was Ricoeur’s need to ‘set apart’ Nietzsche’s work because it “contributes nothing to the critical examination of the historical operation.” Ricoeur saw Nietzsche as assaulting remembrance. By contrast, David Rieff, who attacked the concept of collective memory in his 2016 book, In Praise of Forgetting, applauds Nietzsche, and encourages the reader to take up Nietzsche’s moral imperative of ‘active forgetting’. Ricoeur and Rieff are on two different sides when it comes to social memory, but both authors share the view that Nietzsche prioritised forgetting over remembering history. As it turns out, both are wrong.

Nietzsche did assert that forgetting is a sign of health, claiming that “it is possible to live with almost no memories, even to live happily, as the animal shows: but without forgetting it is quite impossible to live at all” (Advantage, trans. Peter Preuss, p.10). He further argued in On the Genealogy of Morals (1887) that forgetting is an active capacity, vital for “governing, anticipating, planning ahead” – a capacity whose function can be compared to that of a concierge “preserving mental order, calm and decorum” – and repeats that forgetting is a sign of ‘robust health’ (pp.39-40, trans. Douglas Smith). He claimed that a happy life of health, strength, and fruitfulness can only be lived within a horizon that one draws around oneself. The antidote he recommended to combat an overdose of the historical was to have the strength “to forget and enclose oneself in a limited horizon.” (Advantage, p.62)

However, Nietzsche saw his own age as being dominated by a particular type of bad historical practise: scientific, objective history. “History,” he wrote, “conceived as pure science and become sovereign, would constitute a kind of closing out of the accounts of life for mankind… With a certain excess of history life crumbles and degenerates, and finally, because of this degeneration, history itself degenerates as well.” (p.14) He described this objective type of history as aspiring to ‘the status of a mirror’. Here the historian refrains from playing the judge but simply ascertains and describes. He concludes, “I dislike the tired and used-up men who wrap themselves in wisdom and have an ‘objective’ view.” (p.132) He regarded the claim to objectivity as no more than a form of superstition. One of the fallacies of the approach to history that makes the false claim to objectivity, is that it leads the historian to make generalizations based on perceived laws. But “so far as there are laws in history, laws are worth nothing and history is worth nothing.” (p.55) In Nietzsche’s view there are no absolutes and no certainties about the past (except, perhaps, the idea that there are no absolutes).

Nietzsche opposed the type of history practiced by the stuffy professional historians who dominated German universities also because it stifled any life-giving impulse. However, as the German theorist Hans-Georg Gadamer argued, “Nietzsche’s view that historical study is deleterious to life is not, in fact, directed against historical consciousness as such, but against the self-alienation it undergoes when it regards the method of modern historical sciences as its own true nature” (Truth and Method, trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, 2013, p.316). In other words, aiming for absolute objectivity kills what is vital in human nature. Nietzsche’s fear was that scientific history robs living things of their vital aura.

Michel Foucault, a philosopher fascinated by historical development, argued that what Nietzsche ultimately objected to was the historian’s pretension to have gained a suprahistorical perspective that lends historical judgments an ‘apocalyptic objectivity’. Such historical accounts falsely present themselves as crystal clear mirrors of completed historical developments (‘Nietzsche, Genealogy, History’, trans. Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon, in The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow, 1991, pp.86-87). Foucault agreed with Nietzsche that the modern historian creates a charade in which he “effaces his proper individuality” and replaces it with “the fiction of a universal geometry… to adopt a faceless anonymity.” (p.91) Nietzsche’s perspectivism means that on the contrary, our historical interpretations will always be coloured by our presuppositions. We might today talk of our positionality : the socio-political contexts that shape our identity, perspectives and biases. Any historian’s denial of his or her own positionality is, frankly, a form of dishonesty. But, Nietzsche never meant to condemn the entire practice of studying history, thereby endorsing absolute forgetfulness. Instead, he saw the historian’s task as being to embrace the creative aspect of representing the past. Nietzsche proposed that the historian should “describe with insight what is known, perhaps a common theme, an everyday melody, to elevate it, raise it to a comprehensive symbol and so let a whole world of depth of meaning, power and beauty be guessed in it.” (Advantage, p.36)

This creative act of the historian seems to me to be essential. Nietzsche practised it himself. He used historical criticism when attacking religion in, for instance, 1888’s The Anti-Christ. He also used a historical approach in his polemical revaluation of Western morality in On the Genealogy of Morals the previous year.

Nietzsche understood that to demand of people that they should never attempt to remember and never practice history would be asking the impossible. On the contrary, “only through the power to use the past for life and to refashion what happened in history, does man become man.” (Advantage, p.11) He enumerated ways in which history can be useful: firstly, presenting monumental examples of greatness from the past; secondly, offering contentment and pleasure through approaching the past with reverence; and thirdly, using history in a critical manner to shatter and destroy something that endangers life. What is essential in each of these approaches is that none are objective. Rather, the historian begins her creative work from a certain perspective.

Nietzsche realised that a historical sense always draws from a perspective, and that this perspective should never be concealed. The worst form of concealment came about through the pretentious appeal to scientific objectivity. Nietzsche did not prefer forgetting over remembering, but he did alert us to the fact that remembering is a creative act.

© Paul Doolan 2020

Paul Doolan teaches History and Philosophy at Zurich International School.

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