Theoretical Framework for Discussions on Time (pt.1)

The following is a very rough reflection on some of the ideas which I am working with in a greater Master’s Thesis project. I welcome constructive feedback and thoughts, so please leave a comment if you have something interesting to say or have any good questions.


As an historian, time is something that I often hear used as a measurement of distance, like space. It is not uncommon to hear of historical distance as a means of conceptualizing the understanding gap between history and historian. My interest within this project is not in discerning the nature of historical distance as a relationship of authority between historian and subject, but rather as a noted measurement. In my experience, where historical distance is noted, it is often done so with the implied understanding of time as something that can be utilized like space – it can be quantified in years as physical distance is in meters – yet it is often done so with the additional implication that time is not traversable. Time, in this instance of discussion, is a measurement of our reality and is treated as a physical measurement of that reality, albeit one that within which we have restricted mobility. The physical properties of reality function in such a way as to allow movement in three-dimensional space, however time is perceived as a much more limiting axis upon which we move. Because time is experienced by humans as solely a progression “forward” it is increasingly difficult to imagine traversing the axis of time in any other direction. It is this fundamental understanding of time which so intrigued me in my own studies, and it is this point with which I grapple in my own work. In order to unpack my own understandings of the nature of time and its relationship to us as historians, I will first examine some of the foundational texts upon which I have constructed my conceptions.

In his work, Future’s Past: on the Semantics of Historical Time, Reinhart Koselleck proposes his concept of “historical time”. Historical time is something that Koselleck wrestles with in much of his writing. For Koselleck, historical time is a term used to describe the manner in which humanity, in general, understood time – and perhaps more specifically – history. With an emphasis on straightforwardness over exacting precision, historical time can be summarized as the understanding of time as non-cyclical, with a future that is not a recycling of the past. To unpack this, we should also identify the other forms of time that Koselleck uses. Historical time, he argues, differentiates itself from the more commonly understood (and utilized) “natural time”. Natural time, Koselleck posits, is the comprehension and measurement of time via the identification and measurement of natural entities, be they the passage of celestial bodies, the changing of the seasons, or the lives of humans.

For Koselleck, the celestial basis for our understanding of time is inherently tied to the measure of time in chronology. Time measured by natural bodies falls victim of adopting the rhythmic and cyclical nature of those bodies. As time became a measure of the Earth’s rotation, then its revolution around the Sun, then perhaps the revolutions of the moon, the cycles of seasonal change, or the longevity of a human life, it is perceivable that these natural patterns – all of which occur in identifiable repeating instances – lend their own repetitive quality to the system used to measure them. Time under this system of selective repeating trends takes on the totalizing quality of repetition itself. Within this context, events of the past are, like the foundational understanding of naturally repeating phenomena that ground the entire construct of time, bound to repetition.

Historic time, then, is that understanding of time which breaks free from the bounds of repetition. Koselleck argues that this shift from a periodic to an historic time occurred in parallel with western society’s adoption of the concept of “progress”. With the conceptualization of progress came the need to contextualize the manner in which time passed, and more importantly, the relationship that the present had to the past and the future. The future was of particular importance to this shift in thinking. For Koselleck this new system offered a new future, and as John Zammito notes, “A future so radical in its openness and unpredictability [that it] annulled the present utility of past experience.” Koselleck uses Friedrich Perthes’ example of a familial living situation. A house has a child, parent, and grandchild all living under one roof. Before this shift in temporal thinking, all three people understood themselves to be living in the present, their lives occupying the same temporal location, now. The “now” in this situation is simply all of time, as the past and future are states of the present. After the shift to historic time, these three people can perceive themselves as belonging to separate generations – temporal classes – each of which occupy a different portion of time. The child is clearly younger than the parent, and so their experiences will reflect those of someone who is passing through time from a measurably different beginning. A similar thought can be applied to the relationship between the parent and grandparent. Understanding of temporal differences, then, suggest that the speed at which history is occurring is accelerating. This argument for acceleration fits nicely into the rhetoric of progress and the exponential growth of humanity.

Of key interest for me is Koselleck’s argument for the realization of the present as a temporal location. In a system which has an unpredictable future and a non-repeating past, the present ceases to retain its status as an all-encompassing location, and instead becomes the site of transition between the past and future. Koselleck states, “the divide between previous experience and coming expectation opened up, and the difference between past and present increased, so that lived time was experienced as a rupture, as a period of transition in which the new and the unexpected continually happened”


As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts, please leave a comment. I don’t think I will answer questions or respond to comments directly, but I will most definitely take things into consideration as I continue to work through this.

Thanks for reading,

– Alex