Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Forgetting as an Unwitting Confession of Your Values

I woke this morning to find my Facebook feed full of reminders to "never forget" the September 11 terrorist attacks. I am reminded of the Jewish community's insistence that we keep vivid the memory of the Holocaust. It says something about a person's values, I think, what that person thinks worth striving to vividly remember -- a grudge, a harm, a treasured moment, a loved one now gone, an error or lesson.

What we remember says, perhaps, more about us than we would want. Forgetfulness is an unwitting confession of our values. The Nazi Adolf Eichmann, in Hannah Arendt's famous portrayal of him, had little memory of his decisions about shipping thousands of Jews off to their deaths, but he did remember in detail his small social triumphs with superiors in the Nazi hierarchy. He vividly remembered the notable occasion, for example, when he was permitted to lounge around by a fireplace with Reinhard Heyrich, watching the Nazi leader smoke and drink (Arendt 1963, p. 114). Eichmann's failures and successes of memory are more eloquent and accurate testimony of his values than any of his outward avowals.

I remember obscure little arguments in philosophy papers if they are relevant to an essay I am working on, but I can't seem to keep track of the parents of my children's friends. Some of us remember insults and others forget them; some remember the exotic foods they ate on vacation, others the buildings they saw, others the wildlife, and still others hardly anything specific at all.

From the leavings of memory and forgetfulness we could create a nearly complete map, I think, of a person's values. What you don't even see -- the subtle sadness in a colleague's face? -- and what you might briefly see but don't react to or retain, is in some sense not part of the world shaped for you by your interests and values. Others with different values will remember a very different series of events.

Michelangelo is widely quoted as having said that to make David he simply removed from the stone everything that was not David. Remove from your life everything you forget; what is left is you.


Anne Cunningham said...

Love your blog, and especially this post ... it got me thinking, and "talking" again ...

baopu81 said...

I can appreciate much of your post, though it left me wondering: if one chooses to live in the present, is one without values? Without a self?

clasqm said...

There are supposed to be a few people who remember everything. Ask them what they had for breakfast on 8 January 1985 and they will tell you. There's a medical term for it, I think.

Now that must be hell, if such a thing were to exist. To be constantly bombarded with trivial memories ... I do wish I had a better memory. Learning new languages is hard for me. But the way the human mind works, reforming masses of data into a general gestalt, must have some kind of survival value.

Anonymous said...

Interesting and thought-provoking... What about those people who try very hard to remember things that are valued by them, yet fail?

Tony Dardis said...

As it happens, I am more or less completely unable to remember plant or bird names. That blunts my concern for plants and birds: I'm unlikely to act specifically in defense of hoopoes. But I'm not convinced that that reveals a valuational attitude toward plants or birds in general.

Scott Bakker said...

Hyperthymestic syndrome is the name for the inability to forget autobiographical details. I gave it one of my favourite characters, Disciple Manning, for those interested in philosophical detective fiction. It's fascinating for researchers because of the ways it reveals the import and necessity of forgetting certain things. Disciple is a monster precisely because he can't extract himself from 'Michalangelo's Stone.'

Your post brings out the peculiar difference between memory and *commemoration.* The idea that Eichmann's autobiographical memory somehow plucked narcissistic detail out of the morass and misery commemorated out of the Holocaust is something that strikes most people as immediately and obviously offensive.

Commemoration involves a social imperative to remember certain events a certain WAY - it is an invitation to punish as much as not. If you think of all we've learned about the plastic nature of episodic memory, and the kinds of intimate overlapping of lives you see in hunter-gatherers, for instance, it makes you suspect that the functions subserved are quite different than the 'moral' ones we think them to be.

Collective memory literally becomes a yardstick by which to judge the proprieties of individual concern, a way to flush the vanities out, and so sort the trustworthy from the not.

So much so, that I decided to wait until *after* 9/11 to post this, for fear of committing some small social crime.

But the upshot is clear. Memory is moral, and so social, perhaps especially when its 'auto' biographical.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, folks!

baopu81: Living in the present would not be to live entirely without memories -- but there is probably still a kind of forgetting (of worries, of past wrongs) that reflects a set of values.

clasqm: Straightaway you must read Borges's story "Funes the Memorious"! See also Scott's comment below.

Anon: That's an interesting type of case. Some such cases may be cases where one's meta-values and one's lived values are rather different (one *wants* to value X but one doesn't really value X). Other cases won't work that way, though, and I feel pulled both directions by them.

Tony: Maybe you don't value the names, but do you still remember, e.g., exotic plants and birds you see?

Scott: I agree completely. Interesting reflections!

nad eem said...

That we deem only episodes relevant to our ingroups and not to those of others equally if not more catastrophic I believe to say more about our moral propensities.

nad eem said...

(Cont'd)What is shown by this ingroup bias is that an ethical framework rigid and all encompassing will not be effective unless we attempt a globalising of thought(the net is certainly this in action)