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Collective Memory and the Historical Past

There is one critical way we honor great tragedies: by never forgetting. Collective remembrance is as old as human society itself, serving as an important source of social cohesion, yet as Jeffrey Andrew Barash shows in this book, it has served novel roles in a modern era otherwise characterized by discontinuity and dislocation. Drawing on recent theoretical explorations of collective memory, he elaborates an important new philosophical basis for it, one that unveils important limitations to its scope in relation to the historical past.

Crucial to Barash’s analysis is a look at the radical transformations that the symbolic configurations of collective memory have undergone with the rise of new technologies of mass communication. He provocatively demonstrates how such technologies’ capacity to simulate direct experience—especially via the image—actually makes more palpable collective memory’s limitations and the opacity of the historical past, which always lies beyond the reach of living memory. Thwarting skepticism, however, he eventually looks to literature—specifically writers such as Marcel Proust, Walter Scott, and W. G. Sebald—to uncover subtle nuances of temporality that might offer inconspicuous emblems of a past historical reality.

Author Information

Jeffrey Andrew Barash is a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Amiens in France. He is the author or editor of many books, including, most recently, Martin Heidegger and the Problem of Historical Meaning and The Social Construction of Reality, the latter published by the University of Chicago Press.


“Barash has not left any of the different disciplines of the humanities and social sciences untouched. Through this convincing treatise, he has brought our understanding of collective memory a great step forward. This is a pathbreaking work, extremely original and containing a wealth of analytical narrative embedded in a comprehensive world of knowledge. It is a masterpiece of scholarship.”
— Doron Mendels, author of Memory in Jewish, Pagan and Christian Societies of the Graeco-Roman World

Collective Memory and the Historical Past is a must-read for scholars of the past, no matter their approach. In this comprehensive and lucid study, Barash tackles the most vexing questions that have plagued the fields of history and memory studies alike. Barash’s work is vibrant and thought-provoking, and it inspires the reader to contemplate the ways that ‘collective memory’ and the ‘historical past’ overlap, interweave, and yet must be seen as separate and distinctly defined categories. In so doing, Barash develops an original theoretical approach to the phenomenon of collective memory that defines it precisely but also delimits the scope of the concept in relation to the historical past. It is a major accomplishment and the first intervention of its kind.”
— Ethan Kleinberg, author of Generation Existential

“Barash employs a philosophical method derived from Paul Ricoeur, Ernst Cassirer, and Reinhart Koselleck to argue, convincingly, that each generation encounters and interprets history from the perspective of a ‘horizon of temporality’ in which ‘webs of experience’ emerge. It is through these largely unnoticed webs of experience that each generation gains access to the past. Thus, Barash claims, there is an unbridgeable gap between the past as a lived experience and subsequent attempts to retrieve it from the vantage point of present experience. By demonstrating the fundamental difference between historical experience and the production of collective memory, Barash seeks to safeguard history from mythology. He provides a helpful introduction to the concept of memory as developed in Western philosophy, and in several chapters he applies his method to historical cases, most notably the assassination of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. Though the book is deep and wide-ranging and the material is complex, the author’s prose is clear and accessible. Highly recommended.”
— Choice

“[A] highly insightful and erudite book on the complex relationship of the past to the present. Moving capaciously from the ancient period to the present, [Barash] addresses a wide range of issues regarding what it means to remember… It raises a host of important questions about memory and history, while placing an important emphasis on history as an affirmation of the transience of human life.”
— Michael Meng, Journal of the History of Ideas

"His study is admirable for the way he relates the story of philosophers’ thinking about memory to today's crisis about its relationship to history. There are several informative studies that explain the workings of digital‐age memory. But Barash's study is distinctive for his insight into the politics of its technologies from a humanist perspective. His review of the historical role of collective memory as living memory is welcome at a time in which such memory, so widely referenced in academic discourse, is in fact contracting in the face of technologies of communication that are remodeling contemporary culture. His analysis might be read as an apostrophe to our society at large concerning the way publicity‐driven values of media are fast crowding out the living memory that serves as collective memory's core."
— History and Theory

"For a long time collective memory has been asubject of debate, but Barash’s work convincingly reopens the discussion and shows a new perspective. This is done through linking academic debates on the nature of memory to a philosophical analysis that not only stretches towards every corner of the humanities and the social sciences, but also relates to the interplay between collective memory, literature, politics, everyday life, and most importantly: history. Thus, this multifaceted contemplation provides us with both a profound and extensive analysis of the role of collective memory in all aspects of modern society, as well as a new conceptual framework to be used in current philosophical debates."
— Journal of the Philosophy of History

Audience: Professional and scholarly;