The ethics of memory [electronic resource] /
Avishai Margalit.
Cambridge, Mass. ; London : Harvard University Press, 2002.
xi, 227 p.
0674013786 (pbk.)
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Cambridge, Mass. ; London : Harvard University Press, 2002.
0674013786 (pbk.)
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Includes bibliographical references and index.
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First Chapter


Remember the Name

What's in a name. A great deal. Or so I shall argue. My case rests on the most meager memory of a person: remembering her name. Or rather on the horror lest the name be forgotten. Why do we care about that? The memory of a person's name is all we need to get our basic question going: Is there room for an ethics of memory?

The modern man's daily prayer, says Hegel, is reading the daily newspaper. In one of my own daily prayers I came across a report concerning the speedy and problematic career of a certain army colonel. The colonel was interviewed about a publicly known incident in his past, when he was the commander of a small unit. One of the soldiers under his command had been killed by so-called friendly fire. It turned out that the colonel did not remember the soldier's name. There followed a flood of outrage directed at the officer who did not remember. Why wasn't the name of this fallen soldier "scorched in iron letters" on his commander's heart?

I was struck by the moral wrath heaped on this officer simply for not remembering something, and it led me to think about the officer's obligation to remember-and if indeed he has an obligation. Let us stay for a while with our little story, as a first crack into the larger issue of obligation to remember in general. Is it really of special importance that the officer did not remember his dead soldier's name? Are there special obligations to remember people's names, or at least some names in certain situations?

On the face of it, asking about remembering the name of the soldier is just a metonym for asking about remembering the young soldier himself. In much the same way, Joseph Brodsky questions the Soviet marshal Zhukov in his poem "On the death of Zhukov": "Did he weep for his men? As he lay dying, did he recall them?"

It seems that the least the officer could, and should, remember is the soldier's name. But had the officer recalled some definite description of the soldier, he would have done just as well-he would have shown that he actually remembered the young man himself. So on the face of it, remembering the name is remembering the soldier, but the obligation, if it is an obligation, is to remember the soldier and not necessarily to remember his name. This claim should be hedged right away. Not just any definite description will do. The required description would present the soldier in a good light or at least in a neutral light. If the description is insulting in some way, it will not work. It will just add insult to injury. "I forgot his name, but I remember him all right. He had a huge red dripping nose" is not a good answer.

Discounting negative descriptions, we are still left with the impression that what the officer was accused of is not remembering the soldier rather than not remembering the name. I think that as far as the case of the officer is concerned, this is true. But then again, I believe there is a powerful picture with respect to remembering personal names that molds our view of memory as an ethical and, I hasten to say, as a religious subject.

David Edgar's play Pentecost tells a story of children on their way to a concentration camp. They are squeezed into a cattle truck, so hungry that they eat the cardboard nametags tied to their necks. It is clear that no trace of the children and no trace of their names will be left after they perish. What is so terrifying in this play is not just the knowledge that the children are on their way to be murdered but that they are going to be murdered twice, both in body and in name. This image of the double murder is, I believe, at the core of our attitude toward memory in general, and in particular toward the memory of personal names as referring to the essence of human beings in a way nothing else does.

The Bible is a rich source for this double murder (or double killing) image. The biblical expression "to blot out the name" captures both: "And the lord shall blot out his name from under the heaven" (Deut. 29:20) means both killing the man and destroying the memory of him. There is no doctrine of the immortality of the soul in the Hebrew Bible, but there is, I believe, a distinct idea of the survival of the name as the predominant vehicle for carrying the memory of the dead. The best bearer of a man's name, and the best guarantor of its survival, is the dead man's sons and, by extension, his "seed" (his sons and daughters and their descendants). "Swear now ... that thou wilt not cut off my seed after me, and that thou will not destroy my name" (1 Sam. 24:21).

Absalom, King David's rebellious son, erects a monument in his own name, saying "I have no son to keep my name in remembrance" (2 Sam. 18:18). It is not clear that there is an etymological connection in Biblical Hebrew between Zekher (memory) and Zakhar (male), and even less clear that there is any etymological connection between Isha (woman, wife) and Neshia (forgetfulness, oblivion). Still, there is a strong suggestive association between the words of the first pair, and not merely a phonetic association.

The memorial sanctuary for the Holocaust victims in Jerusalem is famously called Yad Vashem. In September 1942 Mordechai Shenhabi, a member of a secular kibbutz, suggested setting up a memorial under the name Yad Vashem for the Jews murdered in Europe. At the time he made this suggestion, most of the people who were to become victims were still alive. The name Yad Vashem is based on the verse in Isaiah 56:5 which promises a memorial even to the pious eunuch (or castrated man), who is a "dry tree" in the sense that no one will carry his name after his death. "Even unto them will I give in mine house and within my walls a place and a name [yad vashem] better than of sons and of daughters: I will give them an everlasting name, that shall not be cut off." God, the ultimate guarantor for the survival of one's name, will establish a memorial place in his city, Jerusalem, so that the names of the eunuchs will survive after them. The eunuch here stands for all those who, without intervention, would leave no trace. By calling the memorial for the Holocaust victims Yad Vashem the idea is expressed that the Jewish victims in Europe are like the eunuchs who leave no trace, and that there will be a national depository for their names, on the model mentioned in Isaiah.

My claim is that in the Bible one's name is not just a convenient tool for preserving one's memory but is taken as intimately related to one's essence. If the name survives, the essence somehow survives as well. A personal name has the semantic property of designating the same person in each and every possible situation. A personal name is what Saul Kripke calls a rigid designator . He coined it as a term of art, but his expression made it to the Oxford English Dictionary . A rigid designator refers to the person's essence. That is, it refers to that specific person in all "possible worlds."

A personal name is also perceived in magical thinking not just as expressing but also affecting one's essence. I believe that the peculiar semantics of names is responsible for the magic of names, harming and benefiting by the use of the name. At any rate, the two, semantics and magic, are related.

The idea that the essence of a person is referred to and expressed by a personal name gives the name a particular role in memory. And I believe that the quasi-magical thought of the survival of the name, as the survival of the essence, is what lies behind the doctrine of the double killing: killing the body and killing the name. Thus the biblical metaphors threatening to "destroy" the name (Deut. 7:24), "cut off" the name (Josh. 7:7), let the name "rot" (Prov. 10:7) or "perish" (Psalms 41:15) suggest two killings: one of the body and the other of the name.

What name is remembered may vary with history and culture. Clifford Geertz tells us of the peculiar use of personal names in the Balinese culture. Each person has a unique, private name made of nonsense syllables, so that there is an unlimited supply of non-repeated names. This name is rarely used and is usually known only to one's elders and peer group, not to younger people. When a person dies, his personal name pretty much dies with him. But there are other means of reference, which for all intents and purposes are just like a personal name-for instance, the use of teknonymous labels ("the father of so and so"). So the Balinese remember one not by a personal name but by means akin to a personal name.

What makes a label akin to a personal name, whether it is a nickname, a definite description, or some other device of that kind, is the fact that the label is without content. Of course some first names have lexical meaning, such as Grace or Gore, and with last names it occurs even more. Think of Green, Good, Gold. The sense in which these names are without content, in my account, means that the meanings of those names in the language do not determine their reference. Mr. Young will be called Young even in old age, and Mrs. Small can be very tall and still referred to by that name. Someone named Gay may not be gay. And so it is with nicknames. "Stumpy" may have been, in her childhood, short and stocky, but now she is tall and lanky, yet Stumpy has stuck with her for life. Its emptiness in terms of content, though not in terms of reference, is what makes personal names and their cognates the last barrier from the abyss of oblivion.

Let us conduct a little thought experiment. If I ask you which you prefer: that a momentous work of yours will survive after your death, but only anonymously, or that your name will survive but none of your works will (as happened to the legendary Dedalus), how would you answer? Miguel de Unamuno, the Spanish philosopher, knew his preference, and believed that he knew yours. He believed that you, as he, would opt for the survival of your name rather than the survival of your work. I don't share his preference, and I don't know your preference. Yet the mere fact that I do not know your preference is enough to underline Unamuno's point: how strong the desire is for even such an insubstantial immortality as that of a name.

It is this strong desire for immortality that religion expresses so forcefully. The source of the wish for an immortal name is not mere vanity. Nor is it merely the desire to "make a name for yourself" in the sense of achieving glory. It is rather a horror of extinction and utter oblivion. The human project of memory, i.e., commemoration , is basically a religious project to secure some form of immortality.

Benedict Anderson asks a striking question: Why do we not erect monuments for the unknown social democrat or for the unknown liberal, as well as for the unknown soldier? The answer surely has to do with the fact that under these labels we do not find "natural" communities of memory, because such ideologies are not engaged in the businesses of immortality, in whatever form. That is both their strength and their weakness. But nations, like religious communities, do. Secular groups, perhaps more than religious groups, face the problem of who will remember the "unheroic dead" (Siegfried Sassoon). It is no accident that Anna Akhmatova blurs the distinction between the secular and the religious by calling her great poem of the Red Terror "Requiem." The anxiety to remember the names is all there. She writes: "I want to name the name of all that host, but they snatched up the list and now it is lost." I would like to distinguish remembering as a religious issue, which I believe to be of utmost importance to the politics of memory, from the ethical issue of remembering.

Memory and Caring

In Edward Albee's The Play about a Baby , one of the protagonists tells the audience, in a rather cheerful tone, the following chilling story. He was standing at a party in his house with two young women of very ordinary names. An elderly lady who looked painfully familiar to the speaker approached them. He introduced the young women to the old lady, but when it came time to introduce her to them he was stuck: he couldn't for the life of him remember her name. As the two young women turned away, the old lady chided him: "So my dear boy, you don't remember your mother's name?"

Albee's play is fiction. But if I encountered anyone who, while being in his full mental capacity, with no sudden lapses, and very familiar with his mother, suddenly forgot his mother's name, I would doubt his sanity, not his morality. I would, in Wittgenstein's phrase, feel myself very distant from him. But unlike Albee's case, there is nothing eerie or mad about an officer who does not remember his soldier's name, even if he was the only soldier killed in action. What is at stake here is the officer's caring , not his craziness. The point of the story about the officer's forgetfulness is that we take it as a strong indication of not caring about the young soldier.

Our little story about the officer's forgetfulness highlights a triangle of relations that is at the center of an ethics of memory. One side of the triangle connects memory and caring, the second connects caring and ethics, and only then we are ready to connect memory with ethics. This is the path I shall now pursue.

What is the relation between memory and caring? It is, I maintain, an internal relation-a relation that could not fail to obtain between these two concepts since memory is partly constitutive of the notion of care. If I care for someone or for something, and then I forget that person or that thing, this means that I have stopped caring for him or it. To say that the officer still cares for the young soldier but does not remember him is incoherent. The case of the officer hinges on the index of time. The fact that the officer does not remember him now (at the time, say, of the interview reported in the newspaper) does not necessarily mean that he did not care about him then (at the time the soldier was killed). But is not the fact that the officer does not remember now at least a strong indication that he did not care then?

In answering this question, let me shift from the army colonel to the enigmatic character of Don Juan. Tirso de Molina, who created Don Juan's literary image in the seventeenth century, viewed him as a religious heretic who did not care at all about the women he seduced and abandoned but used them to express his defiance of the Church. The Don Juan of Ernest Theodor Wilhelm Amadeus Hoffman, on the other hand, is a romantic who cares deeply for the ideal woman but not for the flesh and blood women whom he encounters.


Excerpted from THE ETHICS OF MEMORY by AVISHAI MARGALIT Copyright © 2002 by President and Fellows of Harvard College
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Choice on 2003-10-01:
The chapters of Margalit's latest book had their genesis as lectures. Margalit (Hebrew Univ.) succeeds in his goal of retaining this mode, both in form and substance. Philosophical references and intratextual links are minimal; Margalit also rarely develops an argument beyond a few paragraphs. Some ideas, such as the importance of caring to memory, distinctions between thick and thin interpersonal relations, an associated distinction between ethics and morality, and the import of religious (primarily biblical) understandings of memory recur but are not developed as themes. Readers must therefore seek elsewhere for a systematic account of, or an argument for, an ethics of memory. Margalit instead considers a series of topics linked with memory. His most interesting discussions are on forgiveness, the idea of a moral witness, and the possibility of collective memory. Despite the author's emphasis on the importance of care and caring in building a connection between memory and ethics, he neither refers to nor seems aware of the work of Nel Noddings et al. on the ethics of care. Some purportedly factual statements in the areas of psychology and sociology are similarly uninformed by recent research. ^BSumming Up: Optional. General readers and undergraduates. P. J. O'Connor CUNY Brooklyn College
Appeared in Library Journal on 2002-08-12:
Margalit (philosophy, Hebrew Univ., Jerusalem) maintains that people sometimes have ethical obligations to remember past persons and events, but he is anxious to guard his own thesis from over-expansion. He distinguishes his position from religious doctrines that are bound up with the past, holding that an ethics of memory has secular sense. Further, he does not support traditionalism, that is, the retention of past institutions as a value in itself. He also warns of "moralism," by which he means "the disposition to cast judgments of a moral kind on what is unsuitable to be so judged." To counter moralism, he distinguishes between ethics and morality. The former deals with our relations to those with whom we have special ties; the latter, our obligations to humanity as a whole. Margalit maintains that we have ethical obligations to remember particular people and, more controversially, that a community can have, and ought to have, collective memories. The stricter obligations of morality involve issues of memory only in unusual circumstances. We are, for instance, obligated to remember the evils of the Nazis, since they endeavored to undermine morality altogether. This illuminating study is highly recommended. David Gordon, Bowling Green State Univ., OH (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Appeared in Publishers Weekly on 2002-11-01:
Plato taught that the search for knowledge is tied up with memory, the effort to recall something we collectively knew. Freud took memory even further, positing that repressed memories are the key to shaping us as individuals and as a society. Margalit, a professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and author of The Decent Society, takes up these issues in respect to an idea of communal memory. Acknowledging that historical religions "can make a bid on moral memory," he instead poses a question: "Is there an ethics of memory?" His answer is a qualified yes, but it's the exegesis that is most compelling. Discussing memory's relation to emotions, morality, ethics and forgiveness, Margalit reads the Bible, writers (such as Wordsworth, Edward Albee and E.M. Forster), myths and other philosophers (Kant and Max Weber) in order to make his finely nuanced argument. (Nov.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review Quotes
This stimulating, profoundly humane little book about the ethical dimension of memory could not have appeared at a more appropriate moment...[It is] a set of brilliant, challenging interrogations and propositions...The richness of Margalit's approach lies in its avidity, in the author's respect for every facet of existence; he can draw, in just a few paragraphs, examples from ordinary life and from momentous events.
This volume is novel in orientation, rich in suggestions and full of arresting lines that stimulate reflection and thought. The main unifying theme, as the title signals, is the treatment of memory, individual and collective, as something responsive to ethical evaluation. Many subsidiary themes are woven in and around this central motif, making for a rich, stimulating text.
To say that it makes a substantial contribution to scholarship on an important topic would be an understatement. There is nothing like it in literature. It is morally powerful, deeply learned, closely argued, and elegantly and engagingly written. Margalit has an unparalleled ability to write clearly and forcefully about subjects that concern almost everyone, yet about which almost no one can say anything without sounding either banal or sentimental. He combines a remarkable sense of literary and cultural nuance with an analytic philosopher's eye for conceptual clarity and fine distinctions.
Margalit weaves a wonderfully clear account of what goes on in our minds and hearts when we encounter the past...[A] subtle and incisive book. Reading [Margalit], one realizes that the allocation of such labels as 'heroes' or 'victims' when we remember (or forgive) need not be a darkly inscrutable process in the depths of our minds. He brings it out in broad daylight, and the wonder of his exposition, which touches unblinkingly on a number of horrible subjects, is that it carries such a distinctly humane flavor.
So is there an ethics of memory, a duty of remembrance? Margalit worries the issue from all sides before giving a qualified yes. He doesn't think that memory obligations are inevitable. If you aren't caught up in what he calls "thick" relations, family relations or relations of love or friendship or community, then you may have none at all. But if you are involved in such relations you do have obligations of memory, individual and communal...A lovely and often brilliant book. Margalit is, as he says, an illustrator rather than an explicator.
Margalit...explores questions that affect human behavior and relationships in an unusually sensitive way. Humanistic, Jewish, and psychological perspectives come together in his exploration of memory, an aspect of our being not under our control and beyond our understanding... The Ethics of Memory offers philosophy for human use in our time.
Margalit maintains that we have ethical obligations to remember particular people and, more controversially, that a community can have, and ought to have, collective memories...This illuminating study is highly recommended.
Margalit...explores questions that affect human behavior and relationships in an unusually sensitive way. Humanistic, Jewish, and psychological perspectives come together in his exploration of memory, an aspect of our being not under our control and beyond our understanding...The Ethics of Memory offers philosophy for human use in our time.
Avishai Margalit explores the ethical significance of memory and forgetting, with special reference to the potential value or even obligation to serve as the agent of historical memory for those who suffered and perished in the Holocaust. His subtle, nuanced, and elegant arguments are formed in a synthesis of traditional, British analytic philosophy and a profound sensitivity to the complexities of history and memory.
Avishai Margalit's book is a wonderfully effective antidote to both the marketing of memory and the "discourse" of memory, a gift to all of us who are engaged by the contemporary arguments and who are radically unhappy about them...[Margalit] is a public philosopher, and one of the uses of this book is to display the resources of a good philosophical mind: the analytical skills, the grasp of the relevant example, the patience in argument, the capacity for indirection. It isn't often that these resources are on display in such an accessible book, dealing with a topic so central to its non-professional readers.
Discussing memory's relation to emotions, morality, ethics and forgiveness, Margalit reads the Bible, writers (such as Wordsworth, Edward Albee and E. M. Forster), myths and other philosophers (Kant and Max Weber) in order to make his finely nuanced argument.
Do we have a responsibility to remember the past? If so, why? And what people and what events ought we to remember? And who is the 'we' who ought to remember? These are the questions pursued by Avishai Margalit in this fascinating, provocative, and often exasperating book.
In an analysis that limns sophisticated distinctions with rare clarity, philosopher Margalit explores the way we rely on memory to give meaning and substance to the "thick" ethical relationships of family and friendship...A timely challenge to assess the meaning of what we individually and collectively remember--and forget.
[A] thought-provoking book...For Margalit...the paradigm is Jewish memories of the Holocaust, not Muslim memories of humiliation. Still, his sensitive meditations show how these two strains of hurt might be overcome. In a marvelous chapter called "Forgiving and Forgetting," Margalit asks whether we have a duty to forgive those who have wronged us. His answer is elegant...Margalit is an astonishingly humane thinker. His philosophy is always tied to making sense of us humans in all our complexity. And yet he is committed to making sense of us in ways that will make us better.
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Bowker Data Service Summary
'The Ethics of Memory' draws on the resources of millennia of Western philosophy and religion to provide us with healing ideas that will engage all of us who care about the nature of our relations to others.
Main Description
Much of the intense current interest in collective memory concerns the politics of memory. In a book that asks, "Is there an ethics of memory?" Avishai Margalit addresses a separate, perhaps more pressing, set of concerns. The idea he pursues is that the past, connecting people to each other, makes possible the kinds of "thick" relations we can call truly ethical. Thick relations, he argues, are those that we have with family and friends, lovers and neighbors, our tribe and our nation--and they are all dependent on shared memories. But we also have "thin" relations with total strangers, people with whom we have nothing in common except our common humanity. A central idea of the ethics of memory is that when radical evil attacks our shared humanity, we ought as human beings to remember the victims. Margalit's work offers a philosophy for our time, when, in the wake of overwhelming atrocities, memory can seem more crippling than liberating, a force more for revenge than for reconciliation. Morally powerful, deeply learned, and elegantly written, The Ethics of Memory draws on the resources of millennia of Western philosophy and religion to provide us with healing ideas that will engage all of us who care about the nature of our relations to others.
Table of Contents
Intensive Care
Past Continuous
The Kernel
Emotions Recollected
A Moral Witness
Forgiving and Forgetting
Table of Contents provided by Publisher. All Rights Reserved.

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