Time and Temporality in Historical Thinking

By Simran Rakkar - History Student @ Trinity College, Cambridge

For historians, historiography – that is, the methodology of historical practice, or the ‘history of history’ – is equally as important as discovering the past itself. Fundamental to understanding any period is understanding how other historians have researched, processed information, dealt with key concepts and reached conclusions. Conceptualising time, and tracing its meanings throughout history, is thus an important lens to view history through. As Fernand Braudel highlights, “the historian can never get away from the question of time in history: time sticks to his thinking like soil to a gardener’s spade”. It is true that history and time are inextricably linked: the building blocks of history, change and continuity, are both temporal concepts and rely on the ordering of past and present.


The most influential historical theory of time is Futures Past by Reinhart Koselleck that develops the idea of the plurality and layers of times. Today can be viewed in terms of historical time, the years from the birth of Jesus or as the anniversary of a past event, and in terms of natural time, a 24-hour-day in a year based on the orbit of the Earth around the sun. He argues that the tension between these two concepts of time is a product of modernity.


In fact, Koselleck identifies a threshold of modernity that he coins the Sattelzeit, from 1750 to 1850, in which people’s perception of the boundary between past, present and future changed. In the pre-modern era, time was understood in cycles (agrarian seasons, the rhythm of Saint’s Day calendars, the rise and fall of civilisations) that would never bring anything fundamentally new. A painting, the Alexanderschlacht, commissioned by Duke Wilhelm IV of Bavaria in 1529, when the Ottoman Empire was claiming Vienna. It depicts the Battle of Issus of 333BC when Alexander the Great defeated the Persian army. However, a number of anachronisms (something belonging to a period other than that in which it exists), such as the 16th century Ottoman uniforms of the Persian soldiers, reveals a common temporal plain between past and present. The battle is depicted as timeless struggle of West vs East, Christians vs Muslims and good vs evil.



Albrecht Altdorfer, Alexanderschlacht, (The Battle of Alexander [Issus]), 1529


Yet by the late 19th century, this cyclical conception of a homogenous, unchanging time is replaced by linear timeline, an unstoppable, infinite process to which everything is subjected. Koselleck explains this by a number of phenomena. Firstly, Church-dominated visions of past and future (the beginning and end of the world) broke down during the European Reformations. The wars of religion did not mean the end of the world and discoveries in astrology pushed that end further into the future, as well as the beginning further into the past, both points beyond humanity in the natural history of the cosmos.


The French Revolution also proved that shaping the future was a human task. History was no longer beyond men, in the form of divine power, fate, will and prophecy. Revolution was no longer a natural and temporary cycle but a brutal rupture of past to an unknown future that would be controlled by human agency. Suddenly, a culture of planning, in the form of life insurance policies and economic forecasts, arose and orientated feelings of temporality toward the future. Furthermore, the Enlightenment saw the rise of teleology, ideas of societies climbing the ladder of civilisation and progress, accelerating with the help of human reason and technology to conquer nature and man’s own destiny. It was this ‘temporalisation of history’, the imposition of strict boundary between past and present, that allowed for the academic discipline of history itself.


Koselleck’s theory has been criticised for its Eurocentrism, focus on modernity and reductive periodisation (ie. the Salletzeit). His representations of pre-modern conceptions of time do not do justice to the previous awareness of alternate time systems. For example, in Medieval Spanish cities, Christians, Jews and Muslims all followed distinct religious calendars with their own holidays and division of the day, such as prayer, so time synchronisation was an everyday practice. Nevertheless, Koselleck founded a fruitful school of thought dissecting historical time, some such historians I have listed below. Since time is so fundamental to history, an understanding of its changing meanings can enlighten histories, as well as being a topic of study within itself.


Further reading:

  1. Lucian Hölscher, Time gardens: historical concepts in modern historiography (History & Theory 53.4, 2014), pp.577-91 – Builds on Koselleck’s theory.

  2. Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative (University of Chicago, 1983) – Alternate theory.

  3. Vanessa Ogle, Whose time is it? The pluralization of time and the global condition, 1870s-1940s, (AHR, Dec. 2013), pp.1376-1402 – How time can be gendered.

  4. Christopher Clark, Time and power: Visions of history in German Politics, from the Thirty Years’ War to the Third Reich (Princeton, 2018) – The relationship between time and power.