The Existence of Forgetting Has Never Been Proved

Friedrich Nietzsche? Thomas De Quincey? W. H. Auden? Louis Kronenberger? Apocryphal?

memory08Dear Quote Investigator: A provocative comment about human memory has been attributed to the controversial philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche:

The existence of forgetting has never been proved: we only know that some things do not come to mind when we want them.

This statement suggests that human memory is more capacious than we imagine, but recollection is hampered because retrieval is sometimes difficult. As an experimental psychologist researching the plasticity of human memory I find this perspective fascinating, and I would like to include the statement in an article under preparation. Unfortunately, the lack of a good citation is problematic. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: In 1881 Friedrich Nietzsche released “Morgenröthe: Gedanken über die moralischen Vorurtheile” which has been given the English title “The Dawn of Day”. The work consisted of more than 550 short numbered sections, and in the 126th Nietzsche discussed memory and forgetfulness. The beginning of this excerpt from a 1911 translation by J. M. Kennedy strongly matched the quotation under examination. The full passage was somewhat convoluted. Boldface has been added to excerpts 1 2

FORGETFULNESS.—It has never yet been proved that there is such a thing as forgetfulness: all that we know is that we have no power over recollection. In the meantime we have filled up this gap in our power with the word “forgetfulness,” exactly as if it were another faculty added to our list. But, after all, what is within our power? If that word fills up a gap in our power, might not the other words be found capable of filling up a gap in the knowledge which we possess of our power?

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1821 “The London Magazine” published excerpts from a sensational and influential work titled “Confessions of an English Opium-Eater” by Thomas De Quincey. While under the influence of opium De Quincey believed that he had re-experienced forgotten childhood memories. The following passage included a thematic precursor and employed a vivid and instructive astronomical simile: 3

Of this at least, I feel assured, that there is no such thing as forgetting possible to the mind; a thousand accidents may, and will interpose a veil between our present consciousness and the secret inscriptions on the mind; accidents of the same sort will also rend away this veil; but alike, whether veiled or unveiled, the inscription remains for ever; just as the stars seem to withdraw before the common light of day, whereas, in fact, we all know that it is the light which is drawn over them as a veil—and that they are waiting to be revealed, when the obscuring daylight shall have withdrawn.

De Quincey’s work was reprinted in many editions over a long period, and the phrase in bold above was widely disseminated. For example, in 1868 an essay writer in “Chambers’s Journal” included a concise instance together with a metaphorical restatement: 4

It is now that we learn that ‘there is no such thing as forgetting;’ that Memory only slumbers—never dies.

In 1881 Friedrich Nietzsche published a volume in German that was later given the English title “The Dawn of Day” as mentioned previously. Several translations have been created. The following two sentences appeared in a 1997 rendering published by Cambridge University Press. The word “forgetting” was used instead of “forgetfulness”: 5

Forgetting. — It has not yet been proved that there is any such thing as forgetting; all we know is that the act of recollection does not lie within our power. We have provisionally set into this gap in our power that word ‘forgetting’, as if it were one more addition to our faculties.

In 1960 a business book titled “Effective Work Management” by Milon Brown included the following passage which invoked Nietzsche but did not employ quotation marks. The phrasing and vocabulary were considerably closer to the modern saying: 6

Although some things do not always come to mind when needed, Friedrich Nietzsche pointed out long ago that the existence of forgetting has never been proved. Hypnosis and truth serums can be used to bring back experiences that apparently had become completely forgotten.

In 1966 the prominent poet W. H. Auden and the critic Louis Kronenberger released a compilation titled “The Viking Book of Aphorisms: A Personal Selection”. An entry in the volume credited the quotation to Nietzsche. This instance was almost an exact match to the questioner’s version. The phrase “our mind” appeared instead of “mind” and the expression ended with “to”: 7

The existence of forgetting has never been proved: we only know that some things do not come to our mind when we want them to. NIETZSCHE

In January 1967 a newspaper in Winters, Texas called “The Winters Enterprise” printed an instance of the saying as a filler item. No ascription was given, and the word “our” was omitted: 8

The existence of forgetting has never been proved; we only know that some things don’t come to mind when we want them to.

In 1972 “The Kansas City Star” of Kansas City, Missouri published an instance credited to Nietzsche under the title “Quips and Quotables”. The expression exactly matched the version in Auden’s compilation. 9

In 1984 a text book titled “Psychology” from Little, Brown and Company of Boston, Massachusetts was published. The version in Auden’s compilation was used as an epigraph for the chapter on memory. 10

In conclusion, in 1881 Friedrich Nietzsche did write a passage that corresponded to the quotation being examined. The 1911 and 1997 translations given above did differ from the common modern statement, but the similarity was easily perceived. A scholar may wish to present a direct translation in conjunction with the original German text.

Thomas De Quincey wrote a thematically relevant statement many years earlier in 1821 that achieved wide distribution.

Image Notes: Warped clock representing memories from mikegi on Pixabay. Photograph by F. Hartmann of Friedrich Nietzsche circa 1875 via Wikimedia Commons.

(Great thanks to Tom Hardwicke whose inquiry provided QI with the impetus to initiate this exploration. The question was constructed by QI. Special thanks to my local librarians for help verifying the 1960 citation.)


  1. 1911, The Complete Works of Friedrich Nietzsche, Edited by Dr. Oscar Levy, Volume 9: The Dawn of Day, Translated by J. M. Kennedy, Section 126, Quote Page 131, Published by T. N. Foulis, Edinburgh. (HathiTrust Full View) link link
  2. 1924 (Copyright 1911), The Dawn of Day by Friedrich Nietzsche, Translated by J. M. Kennedy, Section 126, Quote Page 131, Published by George Allen & Unwin Ltd., London. (Reprint of 1911 edition) (Internet Archive) link link
  3. 1821 October, The London Magazine, Volume 4, Number 22, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater by Thomas De Quincey, Part 2, Start Page 353, Quote Page 373, Taylor and Hessey, Fleet-Street, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1868 May 9, Chambers’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science and Art, Conducted by William and Robert Chambers, Maxims by a Man of the World by James Payn, Start Page 289, Quote Page 290, Column 2, Published by W & R Chambers, London, (Google Books Full View) link
  5. Year: 1997 (Reprint 2003), Title: Nietzsche: Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality, Series: Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy, Authors: Friedrich Nietzsche, Maudemarie Clark, Brian Leiter, Editors: Maudemarie Clark, Brian Leiter, Aphorism Number 126, Quote Page 78, Publisher: Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK. (Google Books Preview)
  6. 1960, Effective Work Management by Milon Brown, Part Two: Planning and Making Sound Decisions, Quote Page 26 and 27, Published by The Macmillan Company, New York. (Verified on paper)
  7. 1966, The Viking Book of Aphorisms: A Personal Selection, Compiled by W.H. Auden and Louis Kronenberger (Wystan Hugh Auden), Quote Page 361, Published by Viking Press New York. (Verified on paper)
  8. 1967 January 27, Winters Enterprise, (Filler item), Quote Page 4, Column 3, Winters, Texas. (NewspaperArchive)
  9. 1972 June 21, The Kansas City Star (The Kansas City Times), Quips and Quotables, Quote Page 14C, Column 6, Kansas City, Missouri. (Newspapers_com)
  10. 1984, Psychology by Henry L. Roediger III (Purdue University), J. Philippe Rushton (University of Western Ontario), Elizabeth D. Capaldi (Purdue University), and Scott G. Paris (University of Michigan), (Quotation appears as epigraph of Chapter 7: Memory), Quote Page 233, Little, Brown and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified with scans)