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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.