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How historical time has been theorised by three different historians Exploratory Essay

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Updated: Sep 4th, 2019


Historical times have been a matter of contention as critics use time as a major factor when questioning the work of historians. Historians argue that they often use periodic brackets such as the nineteenth century to mark the earliest period that an event took place, but critics argue that this formula leaves a huge gap by generalising time, and hence indicating that historic work is uncompleted and prone to future improvements.

However, history is a lifetime subject and proponents argue that future historic facts will be used to improve the qualities of past works, thus diminishing the huge periodic gaps that exist in most historic works. This paper looks into three historians and analyses how each has theorised historical time in a given historic work.

Historical Time

Historical time is an essential element for the validity and eligibility of a historic work for the main objective of history is to tell of the facts about the past. Time is an element that adds value to a fact and thus it needs to be real. There are some exemptions where historiographical data cannot be traced due to various factors such as the damaging of evidence of generational discord.

For instance, the world’s oldest library is believed to have been in Egypt, but historians say that it was burnt down before the contents were used for historical evidences.

Consequently, historians had to rely on information from people who had that information, which has been passed to them from one generation to another. Such information is not always credible due to generational discords where those with the information may have failed to share it with the next generation or in some cases shared the wrong information.1

Due to misfortunes such as generational information passage discord, it has been difficult for the modern historians to give evidence that can be judged based on their period of occurrence.

Hence, historians have no choice, but to apply periodic brackets that mark that earliest period that an event supposedly took place. In addition, based on evidence about the later events, it is easier to use periodic bracket to tell the latest period that an event could have taken place.

Under such conditions, periodic brackets are acceptable for important historic events need to be taught to the future generations, which can only be possible through publishing and preserving such historic works. However, in some periods, the usage of periodic works lacked seriousness of the involved historians in the collection of historic information.

According to some critics, it is acceptable to use periodic brackets for periods such as the early seventieth century when there were no developed methods of communication such as publications. Hence, the events that took place in such periods could not be traced through publication evidence, but only through the interview method.

However, for the late seventeenth century, some nations had developed publication means that have been used to trace historical evidence. Such nations include the United States, China, Japan, and the United Kingdom, among others. At some instances, historians have taken advantage of the historic time to make their work easier, thus creating questionable works.

By generalising time, a historian escapes the task of collecting historiographical data that adds weight to the relevance of the historic work. Instead, some historians use their hypotheses as proven historical evidence and worse still they base the events on periods that are hard to trace their historical evidence.

According to critics, modern historians have a much greater challenge of validating the works of their predecessors as a few of them tried to use real-time for the historical events of their work.

To the modern historians, historic time is the biggest challenge for their career for they have to use the works of their predecessors for studying evidences and events that took place in the past during their time. It is unfortunate for they have to use such works, and thus compromise their historic works, which will then be used by their successors in future.

This aspect implies that past historians could have corrected a continuous trend of mistake. In other words, a majority of the past historic works in which historians used periodic brackets as historic times can be said to be more of believed theories or hypotheses rather than the truth of events, unless there are practical evidence such as artefacts.2

History is a good subject for passing information to the future generations and hence a point of reference for the relationship between the past and the current events.

Therefore, it would be better to have valid historiographical evidence that would not be doubtable in the face of the future generations than to have historical works that used periodic brackets that could not allow the collection of valid historiographical evidence.

It is a challenge to both the modern and future historians that they use real time dates to validate the historical events for they would add value to their work for referencing by others in the future.

Looking deeply into the matter of historic time, a great concern of critics is mitigated by time and development factors. The fact that time has gone by to a point that it is hard to rely on past information passed by the word of mouth over different generations contributes substantially to the criticisms.

Some philosophers believe that information that could be extracted through interviews and has been passed over four generations over a long period has a greater chance of being incorrect. Consequently, modernisation has also contributed to the development of bad attitudes among the current generations in relying on such outdated methods of collecting information.

Hence, it could be very hard for modern historians to validate historical works that were based on evidence corrected through such traditional methods.3 In addition, development of the means of communication in the world has contributed to the arising of the criticisms over such historical works.

In the past, there were no developed means of communication like in the contemporary times; hence, old forms of communication were generally acceptable. In the modern world, people can question the quality of historical works based on the method of communication used in the historic times in question.

Hence, modern historians are forced to do more research than their predecessors did in searching for the historiographical data with regard to the real-time that such information existed.

In addition, the majority of people were illiterate, unlike today, where a considerable proportion of world’s population is literate. In the past, it was easier for the few educated persons to mislead the majority by giving false information that could have been based on their personal opinions and motives.

However, the contemporary case is now different, as literate people would question the validity of information coupled with demanding reliable pieces of evidence. Hence, the increased literacy level in the world is making it hard for historians to take advantage of people’s ignorance through giving false past information.

The three historians

J. G. A. Pocock

Pocock opens his introduction with an attractive statement. It reads

It is the eighteenth century in western Europe whose thought we charge, under the name of ‘Enlightenment’, with the invention of ‘modernity’ denoting, I shall suppose, that post-religious, heavily historical (even when post-historical) culture in which we live with no resources beyond those of the human present, knowing that we have no alternative to it but wondering how far we like it4

Pocock argues that historic works that do not use numbers, as the factual elements, are common even in the titles of modernity. He further admits to have been using periodic brackets that fail to use the exact factual dates and periods. Furthermore, he admits the issue of historic time to be challenging and a self-defeat to him because he has generalised historic time in his works in the past, but he vows to change the trend in the future.

He starts his argument by a proposition that neither of the terms ‘The Enlightenment’ nor ‘The Modernity’ was in much use in any specific century in which they could be identified. However, metaphor of light from the word ‘enlightenment’ was used in various ways, which include both suggestive and expressive whereas the adjective ‘modern’ was used as a historiographical term that implied a periodization of historical events.

According to Pocock, there was a very close relationship between enlightenment and modernity in the Eighteenth Century, whereby enlightened historians perceived themselves as philosophers of history.

However, history philosophers did not hold to the deep theories and principles of philosophies, thus implying that they could have had pride for their enlightenment; hence, they could not have tolerated criticisms of their works unlike is the case today5.

Those enlightened historians used the term ‘modern’ more often in their works, but they did not have its central meaning, rather they always clarified what they meant by it whenever it was used in their works.

This aspect indicates that Pocock felt some degree of abuse of historic time facts by the historians of the eighteenth century whereby the term ‘modern’, which is an adjective for time, was used for other definitions in the name of enlightenment.

The Platonic historians of the eighteenth century described ‘modern’ as their own vocabulary to illustrate their present life, hence ignoring the future. Pocock argues that such historians did not understand that the modern historian, according to the Christians, Gentiles, Israelites, and theologians was Jesus Christ who had come to fulfill the covenant of Israel and bring new order to the world.

Hence, according to Pocock, there should be no modern historians in the word as the future too shall have its own, and referring to the historians of today as modern would illustrate that they are up to changing the way of life from what is already known.

Helge Jordheim

Reinhart Koselleck is a renowned German history theorist and is well known for his idea of the plurality of historical times by historians, which according to Jordheim, is conventionally the theory of periodization. Furthermore, he argues that Koselleck theory was more after replacing the old order of periodization with a more complex theory of multiple temporalities.

This shift comes out clear in his work through the application of three dichotomies of time. In Koselleck’ theory, modernity of historical changes is a slow modernity process of history from the past through the present to the future times, which according to Jordheim is a natural process. This aspect implies that Koselleck’ theory of historic time on modernity is too obvious to be referred to as a theory.

History is real and it takes place at all times and according to Jordheim, there should be no theory to define its development to modernity as it does not develop into something new that is different from its original version. Jordheim implies that history tells of something that happened, which is a constant variable and to make it sensible in the present, it can only be related to something that is happening in the present.

The first dichotomy is entitled “natural and historic time” whereby Koselleck’s theory of historic time seems to have ignored the natural time, which should form the basis for timing in the historical discipline. Koselleck seems to move away from the natural time, which has been the basis on which theory of periodization hinges, to a pluralised form of temporality.

He argued that historical events could not be measured by using clock, as is the case of other events. Looking into this argument, there seems to be a huge gap created for criticisms based on the validity of historical works, which implies that periodic brackets could be used as the basis for timing the historical events regardless of whether exact dates are known to the historian.6

However, Koselleck gave an exemption to some historic events such as events involving political and religious decisions. This aspect explains why political decisions that took place in early periods, such as the eighteenth century have been studied with regard to their exact timings. This assertion implies that according to Koselleck, political and religious decisions are much more important for exact timing other than other historical subjects.

However, critics argue that such differing treatment to time should not happen with modern historians for every historical subject is relevant to both the current and the future generations, and hence exact dates should always be used.

The second dichotomy is between extra-linguistic and intra-linguistic time, which is based on language development as it relates to the historical development and it is closely related to the third dichotomy of synchronic and diachronic time.

Jordheim argues that historical concepts use language that has different meanings in other concepts and hence historical time becomes different from natural time after looking into its concept. This assertion implies that according to Koselleck, the theory of historical temporality has its own meaning, as explained by the combination of the three dichotomies.

The third and last dichotomy is the synchronic and diachronic time, whereby synchronic refers to the nature and structure of a language at a particular time, whereas diachronic is the historic development of language. Koselleck used the linguistic theories in his historic time theory development and illustration.

He used the concept of language development to illustrate the reason behind the misunderstanding of the theory of historic time in the past. He argued that poor development of language greatly contributed to most misunderstandings. However, critics argued that his decision to use linguistic facts in explaining his theory was a big mistake as it indicates a big deal of discourse.

Historically, language has been developing and the two are linearly correlated; hence, historic time theory could not be explained based on language developments. However, Jordheim finds the Koselleck’s theory as a viable alternative to the periodization as it is capable of organising historical information in multiple layered periods unlike in the periodization, which bases information under a common periodic bracket.7

Herman Paul

According to Paul, self-distanciation refers to putting one’s ideas and thoughts in a field where people see the world differently from others. This assertion implies that distanciation refers to feeling yourself different from other people due to having special knowledge or skills and rather not temporal distance.

He argues that intellectuals and historians tried to distance themselves away from the laymen due to their high intellectual capacities. In other words, they saw themselves more superior than other people due to pride, and thus they did not want to be associated with other ordinary people for they believed themselves unique and more superior.

The self-distanciation of intellectuals and historians around 1900 was, according to Paul, different from historic distance. Historic distance refers to the passage of both historic time and events, whereas self-distanciation is a strenuous and character-mitigated effort.

Paul argues that historians of around 1900 saw themselves as more modernised and superior to those who existed before them as they were about to enter into a new century, viz. the twentieth century.8

Historic time has close relationship with modernisation in real-life events. Paul begins his theory by a practical illustration of an old-fashioned historian who gets into stage and despite his old-fashioned outfits and psychic, he is happy to have a moment of lecturing to the modern youths of the contemporary world. The young fellows are gravelled by his looks, and thus they leave the hall in bitterness.

This illustration indicates the inadequate intellectual prowess in the modern historical profession in academic institutions, which could have resulted in the self-distanciation of historians in the twentieth century and resulted in the contemporary world reacting towards the modern historians.

In addition, Paul’s illustration relates the depreciation of historic profession to the modern developments that do not acknowledge the contributions of historians. In addition, historians, by seeing themselves as more superior to ordinary people due to obsession and pride, made themselves inferior characters in the general society as nobody wanted to be associated with them.

Hence, historic time theory could have played a huge role of misleading historians whereby they failed to improve their characters as time progressed due to their enlightenment. However, this scenario ought not to have played out in the historical profession and such an illustration advocates for attitudinal change of historical characters from the images of the ninetieth century.

According to Paul, historical professional is for studying the past events, and thus it should not be used as the basis for historical distancing. Historical distancing is mental and it involves the change of behaviours from what is normal to the general society to what a scholar believes is normal because it was done in the past.

Historical time theory is based on the timeframe of past events and the modern historical scholars should not practise it in real-life situations. Paul argues that it is good for historic scholars to practice mental self-distanciation, which enhances their understanding of the historic events under their study.

However, self-distanciation should not be practised in real life situations because they would alter human behaviours to match the historic behaviours and contract the historic distance and time theories.

Historic distance, according to Paul enables a scholar to see the unbroken connection for the past, present, and future events. Historic time refers to the period at each point of a historic distance. Hence, according to Paul, historic time is more specific than the historic periodization.9


Paul concludes his essay by indicating that the practical illustration did not imply that historical philosophers of around 1900 were of naïve character. The illustration was based on historical distance and historical time, whereby historical distance is a state of mind and should in no way lead to self-distanciation in the historic profession based on the advancement in the historic time.

Historians should relent from associating themselves with beliefs and historical methods of the past, which implies that the three authors referred in this paper use historical time to advocate modernised forms of historical works different from the old methods of acquiring historiographical data10.

Hence, historic time is truly a matter of contention for modern historical scholars and historians should modernise their historical works using real historical times and considering historical distance as a crucial factor.


Jordheim, Helge. “Against Periodization: Koselleck’s Theory of Multiple Temporalities.” History and Theory 51, no.9 (2012): 151-171.

Kossellek, Reinhart. The Practice of Conceptual History: Timing History, Spacing Concepts. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002.

Paul, Herman. “Distance and Self-Distanciation: Intellectual Virtue and Historical Method Around 1900.” History and Theory 50, no.8 (2011): 104-116.

Paul, Herman. “Performing History: How Historical Scholarship is shaped by epistemic Virtues.” History and Theory 50, no.7 (2011): 1-19.

Pocock, John. “Perceptions of Modernity in Early Modern Historical Thinking.” Intellectual History Review 17, no. 1 (2007): 55–63.

Taylor, Barbara. “Introduction: How far, how near: Distance and Proximity in the Historical Imagination.” History Workshop Journal 57, no.5 (2004): 110-118.


1John Pocock, “Perceptions of Modernity in Early Modern Historical Thinking,” Intellectual History Review 17, no.1 (2007): 56.

2Helge Jordheim, “Against periodization: Koselleck’s theory of multiple temporalities,” History and Theory 51, no.9 (2012): 151.

3 Ibid, 152.

4Reinhart Kossellek, The Practice of Conceptual History: Timing History, Spacing Concepts (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), 111.

5Ibid, 93.

6Herman Paul, “Performing History: How Historical Scholarship is Shaped by epistemic Virtues,” History and Theory 50, no.7 (2011): 13.

7Ibid, 16.

8Herman Paul, “Distance and Self-Distanciation: Intellectual Virtue and Historical Method Around 1900,” History and Theory 50, no.8 (2011): 106.

9Barbara Taylor, “Introduction: How far, How Near: Distance and Proximity in the Historical Imagination,” History Workshop Journal 57, no.5 (2004): 111.

10Ibid, 115.

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