The Duty of Memory Revisited: Ricoeur’s Contribution to a Crisis in French Historiography

Human Studies 44 (3):453-471 (2021)
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The relationship between memory and history, which has preoccupied historiography and the philosophy of history since the middle of the nineteenth century, took a particular course in France at the end of the millennium. The forms this relationship took in this particular context have been the subject of heated debate around whether the reconstruction of the past should bear the sign of a moral imperative or, on the contrary, it should be kept away from any moral conditioning. To address this question and underline its particular relevance to the present, I will revisit a significant debate, based around Paul Ricoeur’s interpretation of the duty of memory developed in his book Memory, History, Forgetting. I will do this by means of a three-step approach. First, a short introduction will provide several guidelines for understanding the issues at stake in the debate in which Ricoeur was caught and explanations regarding the significance of the main notions around which the discussions took place, i.e., the duty and work of memory. Second, I will identify how historical debates, political decisions and civic concerns about the past gradually coagulated into two different “camps” in France during the 1980s and 1990s, i.e., the advocates of memory against those of history, foreshadowing the emergence of a historiographical crisis, the stakes of which I will analyse in detail. Finally, I will show how Ricoeur’s solution to this debate, i.e., an incomplete dialectic between the duty and the work of memory, developed on the horizon of justice, continues to have relevance for the present, being an innovative form of “defatalizing” the past.



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Truth and Method.H. G. Gadamer - 1975 - Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 36 (4):487-490.
Memory, History, Forgetting.Paul Ricoeur - 2004 - University of Chicago Press.

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