2015-04-07

Ehrman Misremembers Halbwachs: “Everybody Wants ta Get inta the Act”

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by Tim Widowfield

Cropped screenshot of Jimmy Durante from the t...

Everybody wants ta get inta the act!” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Early this morning, I was sipping coffee and catching up on some Biblioblogs. Hey, did you notice we’re number 31 on the list of the Top 50 Biblioblogs? Thanks for reading Vridar! Anyhow, I was reading the latest posts on the Ehrman blog, and lo and behold it turns out Brother Bart is interested in memory.

On 29 March, he told his readers he had lost interest in a project (a commentary on gospels for which we have only fragmentary remains), and was focusing his attention squarely on a book about how early Christians remembered Jesus.

As many of you know, I have spent almost all my research time for more than a year now working on issues of memory. I have now read all that I need to read for my next book, a trade book for a general audience, on how Jesus was “remembered” by early Christians in the decades before any of the Gospels were written. My plan is to start writing on Tuesday. Gods willing, I’ll have the book in draft by the end of April. The idea is to have it published next year about this time, early spring 2016. (Ehrman, “My New Project on Memory”)

I’m somewhat envious. I have clearly not read all I need to read on memory. I will probably still be slogging through my series on memory on into 2018, if I’m lucky. Of course, my interests are quite different from Dr. Ehrman’s, but I’ve found that the subject matter is so vast and difficult to grasp, that I’m still doing basic research, even to the point of re-reading what I thought I had already understood.

Sometimes you can’t read a book until you’ve read it, which may sound like a Yogi-ism, but that’s often the way it goes. Just as individuals need a social framework for memory, so we also need intellectual scaffolding to understand scholarly works on sociology, psychology, history, etc. Often the initial frameworks we construct fail, and we must rebuild them.

If I hadn’t read and re-read Maurice Halbwachs (just as I had to read and re-read William Wrede), I would probably still hold to the incorrect impressions left by the Memory Mavens, especially Barry Schwartz. I would have only a sketch, a caricature of Halbwachs, instead of a more complete understanding, which I’m still trying to gain.

And that brings us to Ehrman’s post from 3 April, in which he wrote: 

The Maurice Halbwachs that Schwartz invokes here is one of the truly great pioneers in the study of memory –specifically, memory as held by social groups, “collective memory.” We will meet him again in chapter 6. Halbwachs had a rather extreme view of how we remember. He thought that literally all of our memories are social memories, that we can’t actually have any personal, private memories, but that every memory we have is necessarily influenced by, shaped, and provided by our various social contexts. (Ehrman, “Remembering Lincoln,” emphasis mine)

The parts in bold in the above quotation are misleading, if not flat-out wrong. Say what you will about Ehrman, but you can’t deny that he expresses himself clearly and knows how to reach a broad audience. Hence, the excuse that we can anticipate from his defenders — namely, that Ehrman didn’t mean what he wrote — simply won’t hold water. I think we have a right to be concerned that Erhman does not understand Halbwachs’s views on social memory, which does not bode well for his upcoming book.

Halbwachs actually did draw distinctions between individual memory and social memory. And he understood that all memory actually resides within the people who comprise the group.

While the collective memory endures and draws strength from its base in a coherent body of people, it is individuals as group members who remember. (Halbwachs, 1980, p. 48)

So, what exactly did he mean by “group memory” or “collective memory”?

We are not accustomed to speaking, even metaphorically, of a “group memory.” Such a faculty, it would seem, could exist and endure only insofar as it was bound to a person’s body and brain. However, suppose that remembrances are organized in two ways, either grouped about a definite individual who considers them from his own viewpoint or distributed within a group for which each is a partial image. Then there is an “individual memory” and a “collective memory.” In other words, the individual participates in two types of memory, but adopts a quite different, even contrary, attitude as he participates in the one or the other. (Halbwachs, 1980, p. 50, emphasis mine)

Halbwachs differentiated between the autobiographical memory of a person and the collective memory within which individuals participate. But neither resides in a vacuum. There exists a symbiotic relationship between each type of memory.

On the one hand, [the individual] places his own remembrances within the framework of his personality, his own personal life; he considers those of his own that he holds in common with other people only in the aspect that interests him by virtue of distinguishing him from others. On the other hand, he is able to act merely as a group member, helping to evoke and maintain impersonal remembrances of interest to the group. These two memories are often intermingled. In particular, the individual memory, in order to corroborate and make precise and even to cover the gaps in its remembrances, relies upon, relocates itself within, momentarily merges with, the collective memory. Nonetheless, it still goes its own way, gradually assimilating any acquired deposits. (Halbwachs, 1980, p. 50-51, emphasis mine)

Why is it important to understand that there are two different kinds of memory? I don’t think I’m putting words in Halbwachs’s mouth when I say it’s essentially because one is a psychological phenomenon, while the other is a sociological phenomenon, and as such they serve different needs, have different characteristics, and follow a different set of rules.

The collective memory, for its part, encompasses the individual memories while remaining distinct from them. It evolves according to its own laws, and any individual remembrances that may penetrate are transformed within a totality having no personal consciousness. (Halbwachs, 1980, p. 51)

Ehrman is right when he says that all our memories are “influenced by, shaped, and provided by our various social contexts,” but if he really thinks that Halbwachs argued that “literally all of our memories are social memories,” then he has badly misread the source material.

Why does it matter? In Bart’s case, it’s important because he has much to say about false memories and memory distortion. I fear that he will once again focus on the psychological reasons for distortion (recall his overuse of the telephone game metaphor) and ignore the sociological reasons, which by their nature will be quite different.

I’m not suggesting that we ignore the inherent problems with eyewitness accounts or the frailty of human recollection. Instead, I’m insisting that collective memory brings with it an entirely different set of problems with respect to the practice of history, and we need to understand those issues if we want to have any hope of getting it right.

On 4 April Ehrman wrote:

In the context of talking about memories that can be frail, faulty, and false, I will be discussing memories of Jesus’ life and death in particular. Here I will try to show that some of the memories of Jesus held and passed along by early Christian story tellers — as evidenced by stories still preserved in the written records of the Gospels, both canonical and non-canonical — were false. It’s certainly true that some of these story tellers may have intentionally made up stuff that happened. We really can’t tell any longer whether or not the false memories were intentional deceits (although this seems inherently unlikely to me; but it doesn’t really matter one way or the other); but once these stories were in circulation, they affected how other people did remember the life and death of Jesus. And so I will be trying to isolate some of the most important false memories still preserved in the Gospels. (Ehrman, “Sketch of My Book,” emphasis mine)

But check it out — he has a special deal for his fans. If anyone would like to read Ehrman’s book in advance with the goal of gentle correction, all you have to do is donate $1,000 to his blog. For that meager sum, he’ll send you an advance draft and thank you by name in the acknowledgments.

I think I’ll pass.


Halbwachs, Maurice

The Collective Memory, Harper & Row, 1980

15 Comments

  • Scot Griffin
    2015-04-07 04:24:15 UTC - 04:24 | Permalink

    It should be fairly obvious that “collective memory” boils down to what we are TAUGHT about our past, not what we actually experience. Even to the extent that we experienced something in our past, our memory of that event is subject to our expectations of what the collective will deem appropriate. We went to war with Iraq in large part because of its non-existent involvement in 9/11, after all.

    • Tim Widowfield
      2015-04-07 05:53:51 UTC - 05:53 | Permalink

      It isn’t simply taught; it’s relived through rituals and commemoration. And since all memory is constructed in the present, we have the chance to remodel it over and over again.

      There are still large numbers of Americans who think that Iraq (“eye-RACK”) really had battle-field ready WMDs, and that we were engaged in a noble effort topple a tyrant (“Tim, he gassed his own people!”) and establish democracy. They are captive to a set of group dynamics that protect their image of the U.S. government as a force for good in the world. So they must construct a memory of America under threat, but always doing the right thing. As you said, it’s “what the collective will deem appropriate.”

      Even politicians who know better will take part in the national dialog of self-deception. For example: “Vietnam was a noble cause that went awry.” They know that if they tell the truth, the hard right will turn it into a question of “Why do you hate our troops?” And the compliant, lazy media will help out, asking questions like: “Some say you hate the troops; how do you respond?”

  • john dauria
    2015-04-07 08:42:30 UTC - 08:42 | Permalink

    Hello there,
    your posts on memory surely provide the bones of an interesting book on the subject matter outlined.
    It would be hard to imagine Halbwachs having the extremely reduced view assigned him by Ehrman even after reading just the M Mavens posts.
    Well done to you both on the popularity of the blog!

    • Tim Widowfield
      2015-04-07 12:42:50 UTC - 12:42 | Permalink

      Thanks for the words of encouragement.

  • Blood
    2015-04-07 12:41:56 UTC - 12:41 | Permalink

    I suspect that Ehrman read Schwartz and decided that memory theory would be a great idea for his next Jesus book. He doesn’t realize how Schwartz distorted Halbwachs, and therefore is already approaching Halbwachs from a wrong perspective.

    • Tim Widowfield
      2015-04-07 12:49:12 UTC - 12:49 | Permalink

      Yes, Mr. Blood, I think that’s part of the problem.

      I have a pet theory for why many mavens distort the memory of Halbwachs. Maybe I’ll approach the subject in a later post as an example. How does the collective memory of Halbwachs within NT scholarship differ from the real man — and why?

  • Gingerbaker
    2015-04-07 14:41:35 UTC - 14:41 | Permalink

    So, Ehrman is using (misremembered) theory from a so-called memory expert (who is not a historian nor has not a whit of neurology, if not to say biology training), whose very theory advocates the unreliability of individual memory, to build a case for the historicity of Jesus Christ?

    This should be convincing.

  • exrelayman
    2015-04-07 16:27:45 UTC - 16:27 | Permalink

    Fabulous irony. What the memory expert said being misremembered. And the misremeberer (sic) being revered as an authority. Well, what else in a country where a Rush Limbaugh can be widely acclaimed?

    • Bee
      2015-04-07 20:23:42 UTC - 20:23 | Permalink

      It looks as if, for the really pious, acknowledging a sin in holy men, first causes one to feel authorized to also adopt that sin, oneself.

      Possibly the really religious cannot quite rid themselves of the lingering feeling that if holy men do it, it must still somehow, be good.

      Or maybe….

      In any case, it is easy to see they are falsely remembering memory theory, to use it to arrive at traditional false religious dogmas once again.

      Or perhaps they hope we will see it, if they are so obviously false?

      Their whole psychology gets very Dostoyevskian very quickly.

      • Tim Widowfield
        2015-04-07 20:53:43 UTC - 20:53 | Permalink

        In actuality, the roots of the problem are probably more mundane — inattention, laziness, jumping to conclusions, etc. Which is not to say it’s a small problem.

        Putting forth the effort to understand what the foundational material says can be exhausting, but that’s what real PhDs are supposed to do. It takes an extra effort in the case of scholars whose works were never fully translated into English. So, for example, we see a Memory Maven writing about how dismayed he is that Halbwachs never mentioned Constantine in La topographie legendaire des evangiles en terre sainte, not realizing that in the original, longer, French work, he did.

        I don’t expect things to get better any time soon. For things to change, it’s going to have to happen from the inside. When amateurs like us try to point out the issues in NT scholarship, they tend to hunker down and protect one another.

        • Bee
          2015-04-08 07:28:01 UTC - 07:28 | Permalink

          Well said. But don’t underestimate the role that conservative ideology has, in religious folks and academics too seeing – and remembering – only what they want to see and retain.

          Biblical warnings that no one is as blind as the servant of the lord, at time seem surprisingly prescient.

  • Mark
    2015-04-08 15:06:16 UTC - 15:06 | Permalink

    Aren’t you sort of over-reading the tiny bit Ehrman says? This kind of discourse is fated to be a morass, but …

    The passages you quote from Halbwachs are talking about a group or collective as the many-headed ‘subject’ of ‘memory’ and compare this to the more familiar idea of an individual human being as the subject of memories. He wants there to be both ‘individual’ and ‘group’ or ‘collective’ memories, but wants, as is customary, to foreswear any mystical Group Minds. And so on.

    In the bit from Ehrman you put in bold face, he is only ever talking about *individual subjects of memory and their memories.* The claim he is imputing to Halbwachs is something like this: the memories of an individual subject – genuine ‘psychological’ memories – are somehow ‘social’ in character; there is no pure personal snapshot, the raw impact of the past on the individual apart from various social connections. This has little to do with The Collective as itself a subject of memory. The point would seem to affirmed outright in the bit from Halbwachs you immediately quote against him:

    it is individuals AS GROUP MEMBERS who remember

    Meaning something like, it is not individuals as mere havers of a neurological system who remember.

    Suppose someone held (what is presumably wrong): ‘all individual memories are intrinsically linguistic’ , i.e. expressible in the agent’s language and, if you like recorded in it. This claim would impute a ‘social’ character to each memory – which is all Ehrman is so far getting from Halbwachs – by affirming its intrinsic dependence on the linguistic community, but would itself have nothing to do with claims about collectives as subjects of memory. On such an account we could say ‘it is individuals as speakers of a language (i.e. members of a linguistic community) who remember, and apart from this there is no memory’. This kind of sociality is different from the Halbwachs is thinking of when he says ” it is individuals AS GROUP MEMBERS who remember”, but it would be a different way of validating that conclusion, and this is all that Ehrman is affirming in the bit you quote, no?

    • Tim Widowfield
      2015-04-08 17:32:16 UTC - 17:32 | Permalink

      You ask some good questions that deserve careful attention.

      Mark: “He wants there to be both ‘individual’ and ‘group’ or ‘collective’ memories, but wants, as is customary, to forswear any mystical Group Minds.”

      Excellent point. Halbwachs wasn’t talking about the Jungian collective unconscious. For him social memory is deposited in the individual and dependent only on ordinary, natural, corporeal brains.

      Mark: “In the bit from Ehrman you put in bold face, he is only ever talking about *individual subjects of memory and their memories.* The claim he is imputing to Halbwachs is something like this: the memories of an individual subject – genuine ‘psychological’ memories – are somehow ‘social’ in character; there is no pure personal snapshot, the raw impact of the past on the individual apart from various social connections.

      If that were all Ehrman is saying, then we would have to agree. All memories are affected by social frameworks. One uncontroversial point Halbwachs makes early on is the idea that we all think and remember in words, and the very language we use is part of our most basic social framework.

      Mark: “On such an account we could say ‘it is individuals as speakers of a language (i.e. members of a linguistic community) who remember, and apart from this there is no memory’. This kind of sociality is different from the Halbwachs is thinking of when he says ” it is individuals AS GROUP MEMBERS who remember”, but it would be a different way of validating that conclusion, and this is all that Ehrman is affirming in the bit you quote, no?”

      Ehrman says a few things, and I want to be very clear where I think he’s right and where he’s wrong.

      Ehrman: “[1] Halbwachs had a rather extreme view of how we remember.”

      I disagree. But let’s see why Ehrman considers Halbwachs’s view “extreme.”

      Ehrman: “[2] He thought that literally all of our memories are social memories . . .”

      That’s technically not correct, since Halbwachs clearly differentiated between personal, autobiographical memory and social, collective memory. However, we could say that “all our memories are affected by our social framework, whether they are individual memories or social memories.”

      Ehrman: “[3] . . . that we can’t actually have any personal, private memories, . . . ”

      That’s completely wrong. We do have personal, private memories, even if they are affected by our social frameworks.

      Ehrman: “[4] . . . but that every memory we have is necessarily influenced by, shaped, and provided by our various social contexts.”

      That’s correct, and uncontroversial.

      Ehrman: “[5] Not everyone agrees with that view, but on one point there is much wider consensus.”

      I’m not sure which expert out there disagrees with the view that memory is “influenced by, shaped, and provided by our various social contexts.” I simply can’t think of any memory scholar who would seriously argue with that view.

      Recall that when Barry Schwartz criticizes Halbwachs, it isn’t because of some imaginary claim that “we can’t actually have any personal, private memories.” He even says in “Where There’s Smoke There’s Fire” that “French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs proposed the first systematic explanation [of collective memory], and few scholars today take serious issue with it.”

      Instead, Schwartz is focused on the idea that all memories are constructed in the present. He calls such constructivist thinking “cynical,” and thinks it does nothing but annihilate the past. So, if you asked him what he thought Halbwachs’s “rather extreme view of how we remember” was, Schwartz would point to his so-called presentist and constructivist approach.

  • Kunigunde Kreuzerin
    2015-04-08 16:28:33 UTC - 16:28 | Permalink

    Always interesting and very informative! Thanks Tim

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