Chapter 1 Introduction

In: Oblivionism
Oliver Dimbath
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Mirko Wittwar
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In 1759, French Enlightenment philosopher and encyclopaedist Jean Baptiste Le Rond d’Alembert stated in a critique of the academic eulogy how eulogies on princes were fundamentally different from eulogies on scholars. Princes, he said, were much more praised during their lifetime than after their death, whereas scholars were criticised, sometimes even forgotten, during their lifetime and praised only after having deceased.1

Indications that scientific insights and their originators have been forgotten can be found at many places. For example, we may say that a formerly influential scientist has been completely forgotten in our days, perhaps because his work was not really “sustainable”. In such cases, oblivion appears as a process of “cleaning” the sciences, that is, separating the wheat from the chaff. As another reason, we may refer to the coming and going of scientific paradigms: some research perspectives are pursued, others are not. This does not mean that the work was of inferior quality, but it may simply be due to the stream of scientific progress taking a different course and due to formerly promising orientations suddenly turning into backwaters.

One example of such a kind of oblivion, which is rather popular among science historians, is the fate of heredity researcher Gregor Mendel. In the solitude of his monastery, this Augustinian Father and amateur researcher had created perfect conditions for his experiments and is today considered a pioneer of modern genetics. His discoveries were indeed published but hardly acknowledged during his lifetime; after his death, they were forgotten – even among scientists. Only thirty years later, two research teams working independently of each other achieved similar results and discovered Mendel’s works in the course of their research.2 Since then, Mendel has been considered an example of the Briar Rose phenomenon. His work was a sleeping beauty hidden in the thorn bush, waiting for the prince to kiss her awake. Why such an important pioneer could fall into oblivion has been the subject of different explanations by the history of the sciences. They reach from statements such as “it was a good idea, but the time was not ripe” as far as to conspiracy theories about machinations by the monks of his Augustinian abbey. Considerations on the influence of social and political circumstances, such as power structures and thus attention structures of the scientific discourse of those days, compete with presumptions according to which this must have been due to more or less controlled processes of wanting to forget and making forget.

As demonstrated by the Mendel case, there are kinds of oblivion among the sciences, which are obstacles to progress or the gain of knowledge. On the one hand, such a kind of oblivion seems to be dysfunctional; indeed, several institutional mechanisms are meant to prevent such ways of losing knowledge. On the other hand, oblivion is described as being functional. To maintain the stock of knowledge, revising and discarding redundant or obsolete knowledge or knowledge that is neither original nor unique is necessary. One example of such a kind of oblivion revision is the sociological diagnosis of time. Although publications belonging to this genre have sometimes been very important at the interface of science and the public, their “half-life” is comparably short. This is not only because they discuss the societal present, which is particularly momentary. Sometimes, it is also a result of arguing and presenting a topic based on the scientific spirit of the time, which becomes unfashionable. Accordingly, a science-historical study by Walter Reese-Schäfer states:

The forgotten diagnoses of time, from Rathenau to Freyer, are not even of antiquarian significance any more. Explaining this fact with the help of oblivion may be useful also in this concern, because from this we might derive a criterion for deciding which of the currently produced diagnoses will probably soon be discarded again. In Rathenau’s case, the reason is massive and ostensible racism, which makes reading agonising. (Reese-Schäfer, 2006, p. 430)

Other diagnoses are filed under a certain kind of philosophy of history, in a sense or in the tradition of Oswald Spengler, without taking the criticism of the philosophy of history into consideration.

The falling into oblivion of Mendel and the historically-oriented diagnosticians of time produces similar results: in both cases, the knowledge produced by them was – at least temporarily – lost because one did not make use of it, because one did not believe to need it. Whereas such a kind of oblivion is obvious, the reasons these works lost their significance must be left to further research. In Mendel’s case, one can presume that he was ignored because of his role as an amateur researcher and outsider. Accordingly, there are presumptions according to which Mendel never developed “professional” publication strategies for his discoveries. Others believe that being an amateur researcher, he was mostly ignored by the scientific community of his time.3 On the one hand, the fact that the diagnosticians of time fell into oblivion is said to be due to outmoded attitudes (racism); however, this explains their falling into oblivion only from today’s point of view. On the other hand, there are indications of a change of perspective regarding the construction of historical knowledge, which made these texts look outmoded already at their time. The sciences are capable of ignoring false knowledge from a certain point of time onwards and forgetting every trace of it; also, any decision about truth or falsehood is always only possible among – and thus from the point of view of – the sciences’ respective present.

Independent of the textualisation and archiving of scientific knowledge, there are rules and routines coordinating access to this knowledge. In other words: those knowledge contents the production of knowledge is based on as a relevant past are constantly redefined. What must be remembered for further use and what may be forgotten is decided according to the respectively valid socio-historical context. Follow-up communication and referring to knowledge gained in the past, which may also be called experience, happen at the level of individuals by interaction and social relations. However, even social groups – in this context most of all organisations – develop path-dependencies by communicating. Finally, we may look for general regulations that make the selection of knowledge contents either a matter of course or probable.

In this study, we will pursue the question of what the social orders of referring to knowledge look like: We will not analyse the choice of what is already known, but what is chosen to be forgotten, that is oblivion. Thus, what we are talking about is obliviology or a doctrine of oblivion from a sociological perspective. Oblivion is nothing that is newly discovered or can be concluded only now. It is probably as old as thinking itself, and philosophical reflection on this topic is ancient. Given the communicative creation of the past, which is used for providing orientation and legitimating actions, we must assume that oblivion is not only a neuro-physiological-psychological phenomenon but moreover a social phenomenon. However, from a sociological point of view, the way of dealing with oblivion must be different. As sociological research approaches usually do not provide experimental or quasi-experimental ways of proceeding, it is difficult to simulate or reconstruct the oblivion process as a model. On the one hand, we must refer to oblivion in the sense of a blank that always appears when we find traces of past events we do not understand or admit that we do not know something anymore. On the other hand, oblivion may as well be understood both as a topic of communication and as the objective of quite purposeful actions. The insight that something has been forgotten can be concluded from the perception that there are traces or elements of relations referring to any kind of object. Apart from this statement, oblivion becomes also “social” in everyday life when somebody is assumed to have forgotten something. Furthermore, groups of society, or “we”, are assumed to have forgotten about something sometimes. The allegedly sudden insight that something is not part of collective consciousness which, against the background of a shared experience, might also have triggered common expectations and might have provided action orientation, demonstrates that the phenomenon of oblivion, which is initially understood to be a failure of individual brains, may as well be transferred to collectives.

If the thus connected mechanisms may be equated with the neuro-scientifically researched processes happening in individual brains or consciousness systems is debatable and requires sociological assessment. In particular, the individual-psychologically tricky question of the possibility of purposeful oblivion can then be pursued by way of focussing on social relations and groups. This way, it will be proven that a sociological concept of oblivion is open to interpretation and must thus be much wider than the amnesia terminology of the neurosciences.

The debate on the connection of amnesia and amnesty happens at the interface of neuro- and sociological sciences.4 For example, not only the science of history5 or the political-scientific field of transitional justice6 provides several indications of the social function of a kind of oblivion that cannot be understood as a misperformance. Beyond any quasi-natural-scientific experimental logic, there is also the problem of reliable data. Only in exceptional cases it is possible to experimentally research or model social or collective oblivion. Thus, the sociological research of oblivion – if it works with traces at all – rather depends on the methods of archaeology, of the science of history, or of criminalistics.7 It always deals with hints at something that is not (or no longer) present and can thus not be presented as evidence.

The sociological conceptualisation of oblivion points to a problem that itself prevents any solution. Whereas positive findings – in several respects – become the subject of scientific analysis first, the negative or the negated is frequently ignored. The “knowledge of the victorious” principle, meaning that preferably those being successful are granted with being remembered later, also holds for reporting and documenting in the context of the sciences.8 In this way, oblivion research deals with the “knowledge of the losers” or with lost knowledge while at the same time being confronted with the difficulty of having hardly any “material” such as empirical sources or evidence at hand and thus producing a kind of knowledge which can only be given “positive” expression with difficulty. To avoid this problem – at least partly – the development of a sociological concept of oblivion mostly aims at what has fallen into oblivion in a “material” way. This requires an extended concept of oblivion, which includes the process of “forgetting” as such but also the problem of having disappeared and the orders of regulated oblivion.

However, due to the unique nature of oblivion as a kind of not-knowing, there is the followingproblem: how are we supposed to empirically research something which is currently non-existent or at last inaccessible? Everyday-practical oblivion research starts where traces seem to “fizzle out”, and remembrance is needed.9 However, such constructions of remembrance create the illusion that something gone could be reconstructed. Usually, they do not ask how a particular topic could fall into oblivion. By way of sociological analysis, such a task can be completed by another approach, by distinguishing typical kinds of social oblivion and, by the help of categories, by systematically analysing both institutional and practical fields of society. It is typical of such an analysis that it does not require any empirically exploring kind of research first – currently, the methods and techniques of empirical social research are hardly suitable for this, and established approaches are mostly “blind” to such questions. Thus, the first step towards an analysis of oblivion is – abductively and by way of thinking around corners or moving between theory building and the analysis of the topic – to work out a social-scientific understanding of different kinds of oblivion. Once this has happened, the respective topical field can be confronted with several new questions. Only in a second step, it is possible to operationalise and research the problems empirically. However, how far this will be necessary will turn out only after discussing the previously worked out and communicated hypotheses on oblivion.

This way, it is possible to develop perspectives of a sociology of oblivion that go beyond applying existing theories, as interpretative systems, to a new context. At first, any sociological analysis will produce interpretations extending the interpretative horizon of the phenomenon. Thereby, oblivion is taken out of its connection to neuro-scientific ways of understanding and out of terminologically vague everyday language. As a concept, it will be deconstructed and thus, for a start, become more diffuse. It requires differentiation as a consequence of becoming more multifarious. Based on a description of social connections, a theory of social oblivion will increase the awareness of contingency while at the same time raising questions about allegedly matter-of-course selectivity in the course of socio-genetic processes. Moreover, by systematising the knowledge of the structural features of not-knowing-anymore, it will then be possible to develop a new and different view of how social change processes happen.

The analytics of social oblivion to be unfolded here claim to provide analysis heuristics that can be applied to all fields of the social. It will stay an open question if such a kind of research will produce a general sociological theory of oblivion or if – fundamentally suggested by systems-theoretical thought – we will have to distinguish divergent mechanisms of oblivion in different social functional fields. The unfolded case example of modern science as a “big” social institution serves to test the theoretical-conceptual toolset. The idea is to provide sociology, as far as it deals with this topical field, with a new interpretational framework and provide it with new orientations for further research. Science has been chosen as a particularly distinct field because the problem of oblivion concerns some of its fundamental matters. For example, at least the positivist (natural) sciences must assume a perfect or complete memory10; by organising archives, they must take care that nothing will be forgotten if ever possible. Accordingly, the institutionalised system of regulations of modern Western science appears like a predestined subject if the latent, yet undiscovered or concealed kinds of social oblivion are to be uncovered. At the same time, the sciences are not much different from other institutions. Also, their sociological analysis has, for the time being, exclusively addressed the problem of stabilising and maintaining the organisational and procedural knowledge of time. The well-known argument that institutions relieve action from the necessity of constant replanning11 is inevitably linked to selecting alternatives and reducing the number of open possibilities12. It concerns all social fields of activity. Thus, the argument is also linked to a kind of oblivion whose awareness is cushioned or hushed by institutions, norms, or values. This reflection bumper may be very helpful for stabilising action routines; however, for sociology, this is no reason to stay away from a – in the broadest sense – functional analysis of oblivion in all contexts of social regulation.

Such clarification is mostly lacking when it comes to the theoretical exploration of phenomena of social change. Furthermore, with its interest in patterns of interpretation applied to thinking about oblivion, oblivion research contributes to systematising the vast horizon of traces. This way, it extends the project of searching for clues, beyond a material analysis, by investigating social attributions of meaning in view of the often enigmatic processes of disappearance. Apart from analysing aspects of oblivion, it is then no longer only about sounding out the automatisms, mechanisms, routines, programmes and plans of the (re)production of structures of social meaning and regulation structures. Instead, there is the possibility of looking at decay and destruction as conditioning structures while at the same time asking which mechanisms and circumstances make things disappear – not only from our eyes but also from our minds.

However, these general questions about aspects of social oblivion are intensified again if we look at the few clues indicating oblivion in the sciences. Roman philologist Harald Weinrich believes that a trend towards instrumental rationality permeates scientific oblivion and, according to his both ironic and critical analysis, directs our attention at new kinds of purposeful oblivion. Weinrich states that the practice of knowledge production, in particular in the natural sciences, is permeated by a culture of oblivion. For example, he states, the scientific publication is oriented at rules of conduct consisting of forgetting

[…] anything published in a language other than English […]; anything published in any genre other than the journal article […];anything not published in the respected journals x, y, z […]; anything published more than about five years ago. (Weinrich, 2004, p. 267)

The oblivionism concept presented by Weinrich appears in the guise of a time-diagnostic discussion and escalation of social oblivion as a cultural phenomenon. His neologism describes a tendency towards oblivion to the extent that far exceeds any kind of oblivion that might be considered “normal”.

If the word oblivionism appears as the title of the presented study, this either indicates a sociological diagnosis of our time, pointing out to an urgent problem of society and critically assessing society’s fertile ground for such a development. Alternatively, it is a hypothesis that is already laid out by choosing the term and must be pursued. However, the latter approach seems to be more promising not in the sense of test theory but for purposes of exploration and, after all, terminology and categorisation. When observing a group-related or societal loss of knowledge, may we speak of oblivionism? If, how could the phenomenon be described by referring to sociology’s toolset of concepts and theories?

Also, dealing with science as an example is only possible by generating hypotheses. It is impossible to cover all aspects of this highly complex social field in this first step. However, the choice of the research topic is not free of being inspired by the alarmism of the diagnostics of our time, according to which a culture of oblivion determines modern society. Nevertheless, it will assess the range of the oblivion concept first. With the help of an improved understanding of the term, it will then fathom out the limits of the plausibility of diagnosing oblivionism when it comes to modern science. Furthermore, the analysis is open towards new kinds of oblivion, as yet undiscovered in this field, so that for a start, a comprehensive assessment of already existing observations and diagnoses of social oblivion is indispensable. The search for oblivion in/of the sciences does not happen in the strictly empirical sense but in view of (self-)descriptions of this societal field of activity. However, the obvious terminological substantiations and systematisations are supposed to apply to other fields of modern societies. In other words: the thesis of oblivionism in the sciences offers a trace that is worth pursuing if phenomena of social oblivion are to be grasped systematically. Still, only a generalisation of the findings, which can be expected, may result in formulating a knowledge-sociological thesis of oblivion, an obliviology of society. Once this has been achieved, it may also be possible to – in terms of a diagnosis of our time – decide if modern society is a society of oblivion.

Weinrich’s assumption of oblivion is of a normative-critical kind. It is based on the idea of the sciences being free and independent, such as according to Humboldt’s university concept. Such a kind of science makes an independent and functional contribution to social progress. However, due to both endogenous and exogenous structural change, this autonomy seems to be increasingly under pressure due to Humboldt’s originally “free” scientists bowing – sometimes voluntarily, sometimes involuntarily – to imperatives of usefulness, evaluation and control ratios. From a science-historical point of view, it is frequently stated that the assumption of such colonialization by the system media of power (bureaucracy) and money (resources and reputation) cannot be substantiated in so far as actually, one refers to an ideal type of free sciences which is hardly supposed to have ever existed.13 As it is common with diagnoses of time, the time-diagnostic aspect of the oblivion assumption construes, when it comes to modern science, the nostalgic illusion of a past in the sense of a beautiful world of the sciences, without any publication competition, third-party funding imperative, tight resources, mass universities, university bureaucracy and university policy or deadline pressure resulting from academic self-government. The success story of modern science, with its impressive growth rates, particularly of staff and funding, and its social recognition, is not considered.14 Similarly, the representatives of oblivionist criticism may be confronted with the accusation of, after all, arguing against the background of their fear of a loss of significance and recognition, whereas the so-called leading disciplines are still flourishing.

On the other hand, why should we deal with oblivion among the sciences if accusing them of oblivionism can be unmasked so easily as an exaggeration or doom-mongering? Maybe oblivion criticism is not just based on the fear of being disadvantaged. Perhaps oblivion in the knowledge society must be reassessed once we have become aware of the technology-induced shifts of the relevance structure.

Against this background, oblivionism appears as an umbrella term for criticising various kinds of intentional or systematic forgetting about traditions and the past in modern society. The consequences of such a turning away from tradition cannot be predicted; that is, turning away from the presentist construction of the past as history, or the increasing focus on situative adjustment and orientation at the future as it must be diagnosed for the sciences in modern Western societies. Likewise, there is no need to mourn the “good old days” which have never existed. Still, it is worthwhile to pursue this criticism to learn more about the adaptability of modern society. This adaptability may at least partly be described as a certain way of reflecting. The disenchantment of the traditional as a result of Enlightenment allows for recognizing, assessing and then either confirming or rejecting it. If rejected, this kind of knowledge may fall into oblivion – a kind of oblivion conservative people are afraid of, and archaeologists encounter as traces of past knowledge.

Before the individual stages of argumentation are presented in the following passages, the range of thinking about oblivion must be determined from a sociological perspective. Compared to concepts of both memory and remembrance, oblivion rather appears as an unexplained residual category or as something unknown.15 Simply due to this marginality, it should not be dealt with without a careful analysis of sociologically connectable concepts of memory and remembrance. A systematic analysis of this knowledge-sociological phenomenon requires a clarification of the relation of the three concepts of memory-remembrance-oblivion. As memory, remembrance, and oblivion always refer to the past, the sociologically relevant concepts of time and continuity should be included in the analysis. Memory -theoretical and oblivion-theoretical motifs are found in many sociological theories, which is why an examination of the sociological offer of theories is necessary. We will abstain from a detailed preparation of the case example by referring to the literature on the history of science, the philosophy of science, and the sociology of science, as those aspects as being relevant for our purpose can be taken into consideration. The preliminary considerations are concluded by a work programme which is structured into three parts.

First of all, the dimensions of the meaning of the concept of oblivion in everyday language as well as in the humanities and cultural studies are examined (Chapter 2). For this purpose, both everyday language and lexical meanings are analysed and combined with concepts and typologies of oblivion from the histories of philosophy and culture first. Following this, light is shed on time and continuity in the course of an excursus, preceding a closer look at the theoretical context while referring to concepts of memory and remembrance. As the social way of dealing with time is mutually conditioned by the triad of memory, remembrance and oblivion, it seems that any discussion of the perpetuation and decline of structures requires the definition of a concept of time as a necessary precondition.

Secondly, crucial aspects of the debate on social memories are collected, which serves as a foundation for working out a concept of social oblivion (Chapter 3). First, this passage focuses on the concept of memory. Sociological approaches are examined and assessed for implicit references in the form of memory equivalents, at the end of which the concept of social memory is defined. Following this, sociological references and interfaces concerning the issue of oblivion are surveyed. On this basis, it is then possible to present heuristics of social oblivion, which help to analyse both “natural-evolutionary” and intentional oblivion, thus providing an analysis tool with the help of which different kinds of social relations, as well as social facts, can be analysed for their implicit aspects of oblivion.

The third chapter demonstrates which problem and analysis horizons can be displayed based on an oblivion-sociological approach (Chapter 4); this is exemplified by the case of “science”. After a cursory characterisation of the subject of analysis, there is a reflection with the help of the previously developed heuristic tool. Finally, this tool promises to answer whether social oblivion in the sciences is rather oriented at a universal order – such as in the sense of social mechanisms – or if it is subject to a kind of oblivionism that must be attributed to modernity. The analysis is concluded by considering the possibilities of a transfer to other institution-guided action fields of the social and perspectives of a universal theory of social oblivion are outlined.


Alexandra Zimmermann (1994, p. 222) in her contribution on academic eulogies refers to this statement by d’Alembert.


On this see e. g. the deliberations by von Heinrich Zankl (2006, p. 58).


See the remarks on the Mendel case in Michel Foucault (1992, p. 24–25) as well as in Eugene Garfield (1970b).


On this connection, which can most of all be pointed out in the context of the political science debate on post-conflict societies and, typographically, as amnesia/amnesty, we find overviews and applications e. g. in Helmut König (2008), Aleida Assmann (2007) or Siegmar Schmidt, Gert Pickel and Susanne Pickel (2009).


On this see the discussion in Christian Meier (2010).


As one example out of many, here we may refer to the overview presented by Jon Elster (2005).


This was inspired not only by Michel Foucault’s (1972) method of an archaeology of knowledge but also by collecting evidence in the fields of medicine, arts history or literary studies, which has frequently been called “investigative” and is discussed, in view of scientific methods, among others by Carlo Ginzburg (1989), Paul Connerton (2009), or recently also by Luc Boltanski (2014).


If there is an ethos of the scientist as described by Max Weber (1946), in order to distinguish him/her from somebody working scientifically just to make a living, then falling into oblivion must be perceived as a narcissistic insult. Then the mystic background of such a motif would be Dante’s Inferno, from where those having fallen into oblivion call on the wanderer to take care that posterity will not forget about them (see Weinrich, 2004).


Thus seen, stating that oblivion must have preceded all remembrance is common place with the research of memory.


This is what e. g. Geoffrey C. Bowker (2008) points out.


On this see the concept of institutions according to Arnold Gehlen (1963).


The concept of open possibility goes back to Alfred Schütz (1962). It means that action may as well be directed into different directions. Only the action plan reduces this openness and determines a limited number of action alternatives.


For example, Max Weber (1946) hints at the precarious careers of scientists already at his time, and the question if today application-oriented or basic research are confounded, is negated e. g. by Donald E. Stokes (1997), who points to the practice-related basic motivation of any science.


On this see John D. de Solla Price (1963).


This is how Ben Herzog (2009) defines the problem of social oblivion.

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Forgetting and Forgetfulness in Modern Science