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Measuring Time, Making History

Lynn Hunt

Chapter 3. Post Times or the Future of the Past

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1Western notions of time have shaped temporal understandings around the world and to a considerable extent have been imposed on the rest of the world. Twenty-five nations sent delegates to the International Meridian Conference that met in Washington D.C. in October 1884 and adopted the observatory at Greenwich, England as the location for the prime meridian (0 longitude). Among them were all the major countries of Europe, many South American countries, the United States, of course, and Turkey and Japan, the sole representatives of their regions. The Europeans presumably stood in for their African colonies. Although all the nations represented did not agree to all of the resolutions passed at the meeting, the collective decisions made there established the time template that governs international commerce and travel in the entire world to this day.1

2At least world standard time emerged from a meeting of many, even if not all, nations. The history of the adoption of the Gregorian calendar after 1582 shows how Western hegemony could emerge from an even more complicated and seemingly unpredictable series of events. Named after the pope who ordered calendar reform, Gregory XIII, the Gregorian calendar replaced the Julian one, established in 46 bc by Julius Caesar. It was adopted first in Catholic countries and only in the eighteenth century in Protestant ones: Great Britain adopted it in 1752 and Sweden in 1753, for instance. It was embraced by Japan in 1873, Egypt in 1875, China in 1912, Russia after the revolution in 1918, Greece in 1923, and Turkey in 1926.

  • 2 Robert Poole, “‘Give Us Our Eleven Days!’: Calendar Reform in Eighteenth-Century England,” Past an (...)

3We would not now regard the Gregorian calendar as an instrument of Catholic religious hegemony, though Protestants did view it that way in 1582. In England, Elizabeth I’s government was about to accept the Gregorian calendar when her bishops denounced it as a form of communication with the Bishop of Rome, the Antichrist. Convenience did not prevail over religion in England for another 170 years. Proposals to reform the calendar in a more international spirit were made to the League of Nations in the 1930s and the United Nations in the 1950s, but these failed to garner support, in the case of the United Nations because of resistance from the United States government.2

4Not surprisingly, then, the adoption of the Gregorian calendar eventually came to be seen as yet another sign of Western cultural domination. In an article published in 1974, for example, the Kenyan intellectual Ali Mazrui complained of the basic factors that Africans cannot even begin to escape. These include the simple facts that each year is divided into twelve months called January, February, March, onwards to December with the number of days chosen by civilizations external to Africa. Each hour of the day is divided on the basis of calculated units of time derived from alien civilizations. The choice of Greenwich Mean Time as a reference point for determining time in Africa is itself also an outgrowth of alien civilizations.

  • 3 Ali A. Mazrui, “Africa, My Conscience and I,” Transition, No. 46. (1974), pp. 67–71, quote p. 69.

5Needless to say, for Mazrui the “alien influence in Africa” also included the adoption of the Gregorian calendar. Yet, Mazrui himself ended up embracing that alien civilization. He was educated in England, and in 1974 he left Africa to take up a professorship in the United States, where he became President of the African Studies Association, advisor to the World Bank, and the creator of a major television series about the African heritage.3

  • 4 Barbara Adam, Time and Social Theory (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 1990), quoting T. Hägerstrand, (...)

6Mazrui’s case goes to the heart of one of the critical dilemmas of modern time: even if certain forms of control over time are distinctively Western (and modern), can we—should we—hope to escape them? The focus here is not on control over the definition of time itself, though I would certainly support an international commission to refashion the calendar. My concern, rather, is with history as a form of temporal knowledge. We can never escape time as a dimension of life. All humans endeavor to organize the temporal conditions of their existence, and for some theorists, culture itself is the “system of major modifications of naturally embedded time in the material world.” But cultures change, and therefore it is possible that we could develop different ways of controlling time and of defining history, even without endorsing the notion that we can somehow supersede the modern, as in post-modernism or post-history.4


7Without reducing all of Western history writing in the last three hundred years to one of its constituent strands, it is possible to trace a strong association between modernity and history as a discipline. Modernity not only gave history new roles in explaining the past and in mobilizing the past as the basis for the new secular community of the nation, but also became, though not for everyone and not always, the telos of historical development. The stage theories of history helped enshrine the modern, civilized nations as the ultimate end of historical development. But this view of history did not completely gel during the Enlightenment, Turgot’s suggestive phrases notwithstanding. The pieces of the teleology of modernity only came together to form a whole in the nineteenth century.

  • 5 Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, The Philosophy of History, tr. J. Sibree (New York: Dover, 1956), q (...)

8By the time of Hegel’s lectures on the philosophy of history (delivered 1830–1831), the crucial step of incorporating all the cultures of the world into one universal and teleological history had been taken. For Hegel, “the History of the World is nothing but the development of the Idea of Freedom,” and he insisted 97 that progress culminated in his time and in the Protestant German states in particular. Moreover, he expressed the attitudes toward Asia and Africa that would become staples of the broader developmental and “Orientalist” vision of world history. “World history [Weltgeschichte] goes from East to West, for Europe is absolutely the end of history, Asia the beginning.” Like Voltaire, Hegel begins with China and India because they have the oldest histories, yet for the German philosopher “China and India lie, as it were, still outside of world history, as prerequisite moments whose closing down will finally enable them to come alive and progress.” Until now, both have “remained stationary and fixed.”5

  • 6 Hegel, ibid., pp. 91, 93. See also Enrique Dussel, “Eurocentrism and Modernity (Introduction to th (...)

9Africa fares less well still. China, India, Persia, Syria, and Egypt all figure in Hegel’s history, but sub- Saharan Africa, “Africa proper,” lies “beyond the day of self-conscious history…enveloped in the dark mantle of Night.” Negroes are “completely wild and untamed,” lacking any concept of justice or morality, and as a result Africa “is no historical part of the World; it has no movement or development to exhibit.” An evolutionary sense of time did not wait for Charles Darwin.6

  • 7 On Hegel and Scottish philosophy see by Norbert Waszek, The Scottish Enlightenment and Hegel’s Acc (...)

10Hegel did not invent the teleology of modernity, nor was he alone in picking freedom as its central constituent; the Scottish philosophers already pointed to the development of freedom, whether in politics or commerce, as the narrative plot line of history, and Hegel had read extensively in their works. But he did codify the teleology of modernity in ways that would be influential ever after. Many recent critics have tried to trace this evolutionary vision back to the Enlightenment, but these efforts have been more polemical than persuasive. Katherine George demonstrated many years ago (1958) that negative stereotypes about black Africans date back to ancient times. According to the first century bc Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, for example, “they are entirely savage and display the nature of a wild beast…and speaking as they do with a shrill voice and cultivating none of the practices of civilized life as these are found among the rest of mankind, they present a striking contrast when considered in the light of our own customs.”7

  • 8 Here I take issue with the analysis of T. Carlos Jacques, “From Savages and Barbarians to Primitiv (...)

11Only from 1800 onward did the chief elements of a deeply pejorative Orientalist vision come together, as the contrast between Voltaire and Hegel demonstrates. Katherine George maintains that eighteenth-century accounts of Africans are more numerous than those of previous eras, more concerned with accuracy, and more sympathetic to those called primitive. William Smith, for instance, wrote in 1744 that “we Christians have as many idle ridiculous Notions and Customs as the Natives of Guinea have, if not more.” An important step toward the Orientalist view was taken in 1799 when a group of French intellectuals that included Cuvier, Lamarck, Geoffrey Saint- Hilaire, Cabanis and Pinel founded the Société des Observateurs de l’Homme. They intended to undertake a comparative anthropology of the customs of peoples and a methodical classification of the races based on comparative anatomy. Although the Society had only a brief existence, its members went on to develop the methods of comparative ethnography and ultimately, in the case of Cuvier (1817), the invidious notion that some races were better suited to civilization than others. Joseph Marie de Gérando, one of the members of the Société, laid out the spatialization of time in his Considerations on the Methods to Follow in the Observation of Savage Peoples (1800): “The philosophical traveller, sailing to the ends of the earth, is in fact travelling in time; he is exploring the past; every step he makes is the passage of an age.”8

  • 9 Fabian, Time and the Other, pp. 17 and 29.

12This appearance of an evolutionary sense of time is often singled out as the true culprit in Eurocentrism. According to Johannes Fabian, for example, “civilization, evolution, development, acculturation, modernization (and their cousins, industrialization, urbanization) are all terms whose conceptual content derives, in ways that can be specified, from evolutionary Time.” In Fabian’s view the entire enterprise of anthropology has been fundamentally distorted by evolutionary time and the “temporal distancing it involves,” which is “needed to show that natural laws or law-like regularities operate in the development of human society and culture.” Anthropologists must write as if “primitive” peoples did not share the same moment in time, even if fieldwork as an activity depends on just such coevalness.9

  • 10 Dipesh Chakrabarty, “Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History: Who Speaks for ‘Indian’ Pasts?,” (...)

13The fault of historians is not quite the same, though it shares many of the same sources, according to critics. Dipesh Chakrabarty’s influential indictment of 1992 bears repeating: “insofar as the academic discourse of history—that is, ‘history’ as a discourse produced at the institutional site of the university—is concerned, ‘Europe’ remains the sovereign, theoretical subject of all histories, including the ones we call ‘Indian,’ ‘Chinese,’ ‘Kenyan,’ and so on. There is a peculiar way in which all these other histories tend to become variations on a master narrative that could be called ‘the history of Europe.’” In short, there appears to be no history outside the Western paradigm of modernity. All other histories are simply variations upon it.10

  • 11 Ashis Nandy, “History’s Forgotten Doubles,” History and Theory, Vol. 34, No. 2, Theme Issue 34: Wo (...)

14Although it has now become clear that Chakrabarty himself intends to continue practicing history, some question whether history can be other than “totalizing,” “a cultural and political liability,” as Ashis Nandy concludes. Nandy complains that Chakrabarty and others like him have not gone far enough because they only want to change historical practice, rather than abandon it. “They [papers by Chakrabarty and Gyan Prakash] are powerful pleas for alternative histories, not for alternatives to history.” Nandy continues, “In a civilization where there are many pasts, encompassing many bitter memories and animosities, to absolutize them with the help of the European concept of history is to attack the organizing principles of the civilization.” History and historical consciousness have to be resisted, according to Nandy. Myth should be preferred to history and a certain version of tradition to modernity. In this Nandy purports to follow the lead of Rabindranath Tagore, the influential Bengali intellectual, who just before his death in 1941 bitterly denounced history writing as exclusively concerned with empires, rulers, and political affairs. “Off with your history,” Tagore urged.11

  • 12 Lutz Niethammer, Posthistoire: Has History Come to an End?, tr. Patrick Camiller (London: Verso, 1 (...)

15The rejection of historical consciousness and the historical discipline does not just emanate from non- Western critics of Western hegemony, such as Nandy. Historicism and anti-historicism have been paired in Western thought about history since the nineteenth century. Thus Nietzsche could pronounce that “the time will come when one will prudently refrain from all constructions of the world-process or even of the history of man.” “Das Posthistoire” as Lutz Niethammer slyly calls it, combining German and French, attracted both a postmodernist left and a posthistorical right (Carl Schmitt, Bertrand de Jouvenel, Ernst Jünger): “Bourgeois prophets of the Right as well as the Left declare history to be finished.” Yet, in the end, Niethammer argues, posthistory “measures itself against the grand directionality of the classical philosophy of history, and seeks to effect a voluntarist turn which, by drawing on the resources of power, will attain the meaning and purpose that is no longer to be found in historical reality.” Proponents of posthistory seek to escape from Hegelianism but even Hegel posited an end to history, famously commented upon by Alexandre Kojève (who associated the end of history first with Stalin and then with the “American way of life”). The Hegelian/Kojèvian formulation was later taken up again in 1992 by Francis Fukuyama in The End of History and the Last Man. Projections of the end of history will apparently recur as long as we have history.12

  • 13 John D. Kelly, “Alternative Modernities or an Alternative to ‘Modernity’: Getting out of the Moder (...)

16Not surprisingly, given the connection between history as a discipline and modernity, some critics also want to dispense altogether with modernity as a concept. Frederick Cooper has drawn attention to several important defects in the use of modernity as a concept. It tends to flatten time and therefore discourage analysis of the conflicts within presumably modern societies in the last two hundred years, while simultaneously ignoring much of what went on before, in Europe and elsewhere in the world. It also confuses certain processes of undeniable significance (urbanization, say, or even secularization) with a particular time period, not to mention a particular place, the West. Modernity also tends to proliferate even among its critics with alternative modernities, colonial modernity, Japanese modernity, Indian modernity, etc. Cooper sums up the result: “The concept of modernity, multiplied, therefore runs the gamut, from a singular narrative of capitalism, the nation-state, and individualism—with multiple effects and responses—to a word for everything that has happened in the last five hundred years.”13

17At the conclusion of his long and incisive review of use of the concept, Cooper comes to a sensible, if somewhat frustrating, conclusion:

My purpose has not been to purge the word mo-dernity and certainly not to cast aside the issues that concern those who use the word. It is to advocate a historical practice sensitive to the different ways people frame the relationship of past, present, and future, an understanding of the situations and conjunctures that enable and disable particular representations, and a focus on process and causation in the past and on choice, political organization, responsibility, and accountability in the future.

  • 14 Cooper, p. 149.

18This formulation is frustrating because Cooper’s use of past (“focus on process and causation in the past”) and future (“choice, political organization, responsibility, and accountability in the future”) seems to derive from the modern time schema itself. We study the past in order to be able to control the future. At the very least, however, it is certainly clear that Cooper has no intention of abandoning history, even if he is unlikely to feature modernity in his accounts.14

  • 15 Cooper, p. 123.

19Cooper does not look to postmodernism for a solution to these dilemmas because postmodernism relies on the same kind of pre-packaged notion of modernism or modernity that he finds problematic; it simply reverses the sign from positive to negative. Despite its explicit suspicion of grand or meta-narratives, such as Hegel’s emancipation through reason, and its hostility to overarching social explanations or ideologies, such as liberalism or communism, postmodernism remains caught up in the coils of modernity by its very definition. It can only aim to displace the modern by going beyond it; therefore the modern and modernity must be alive and kicking if postmodernism is to have a raison d’être. Postmodernism generates its own heroic narrative of refusing modernity even while giving modernity a new lease on life.15


20The modern time schema, world standard time, the Gregorian calendar, the teleology of modernity and the university discipline of history are all Western in origin, but that does not make them inherently or essentially Western. They are all the products of historical contingencies and therefore subject to change in the future. Moreover, they can all be appropriated in ways that might differ fundamentally from what their early proponents envisioned. That is precisely one of the most important effects of time: things, including our perception of time itself, change.

21The most problematic of these temporal inventions is the teleology of modernity, the notion that history as a process has a direction and that its goal is modernity. Some elements of this teleological view will prove difficult to dislodge, but it is nevertheless worth the effort. I believe that the modern time schema with its interrelated notions of universal, homogeneous, secular, natural, and deep time, and the Western breakthroughs in historical dating (bc/ad), calendar reform (the Gregorian calendar), and world standard time can all be redeployed in a non-teleological history. Indeed, what is needed is the development of the modern time schema to its logical conclusions.

22If we take the modern time schema seriously, we should push our histories much further back in time (“deep” time reaching much further back than Biblical time), and if we pursue a non-teleological version we might also move away from the ancient/medieval/ modern categorization toward a more open-ended sense of the future and therefore a less constraining one of the past as well. I am suggesting that we recapture some of the virtues of Voltaire’s histoire générale when thinking about world history and global history in the present. Voltaire may have rejected deep history and propagated a caricatural view of the Middle Ages, but he also decentered the Christian narrative, putting it in the wider context of world history. His lack of interest in a developmental narrative now seems more than quaint or obsolete; his “general history” may take us part of the way toward history without a defined goal such as modernity, for though Voltaire aimed to include everyone in his general history, he did not fit everyone into just one plot line. New narratives of universal, secular time may require us to go backwards, looking at past histories and past historians, recovering the bits and pieces that have been long ignored but now may prove useful to our purposes.

  • 16 On Darwin’s view, see the account in Derek Freeman, “The Evolutionary Theories of Charles Darwin a (...)

23A non-teleological version of history would be Darwinian in the way that the current modern time schema is not. The evolutionary, progressive, or developmental view of history not only took shape before Darwin (between the Scottish philosophers and Hegel); it never did become Darwinian, though in the later nineteenth century historians did sometimes veer into the vulgarization known as Social Darwinism. The evolutionary view of history (or what Fabian calls evolutionary time) could not be Darwinian because it remained caught up in the telos of the modern. Historical evolution, in this view, had to be advancing toward a goal and that goal was modernity, whether in Hegel, Marx, Comte, or the many social theories of modernization (Weber, Durkheim, Parsons, etc.). Each one defined modernity differently, of course, but modernity still operated as a kind of final purpose animating the progression. In contrast, Darwinism is nothing if it is not non-teleological. Natural selection favors “adaptive structures,” but these are incredibly various and virtually unpredictable, if not imperceptible except over very long periods of time.16

24While some might argue that scholars no longer regard modernity as the telos of history (and surely all do not, perhaps especially those who study “ancient” and “medieval” history), a few recent titles are suggestive of the strong pull of the modernity concept: African Modernities; Anglicanism: The Answer to Modernity; L’Aube de la modernité; Asian Traditions and Modernization: The Perspective from Singapore; Andere Wege in die Moderne; Anthropologies of Modernity; Antinomies of Modernity… and these are just titles that begin with “A” in the UCLA library catalog for the last five years. Avoiding social science theories of modernization does not prevent scholars from continuing to reiterate the telos of the modern. It is quite possible to refuse a strict divide between tradition and modernity and still hold to modernity as a meaningful category. Consider just two examples in my own field: Carla Hesse’s important book titled, The Other Enlightenment: How French Women Became Modern, or my own edited volume, The Invention of Pornography, 1500–1800: Obscenity and the Origins of Modernity. At the very least, the modern and modernity allow us to sell books because of their connotation of being up-to-date. But something more fundamental is surely at issue than just commercial advantage; modernity still provides focus for our vision of history.

  • 17 Arif Dirlik, “Is There History After Eurocentrism?: Globalism, Postcolonialism, and the Disavowal (...)

25Even when progress disappears from the vocabulary of historians, and Eurocentrism becomes problematic, the evolutionary view often remains. In an excellent recent article, the historian of China Arif Dirlik claims that “a radical critique of Eurocentrism must rest on a radical critique of the whole project of modernity.” But he does not question modernity itself, only its definition: “Modernity in our day is not just EuroAmerican, but is dispersed globally, if not equally or uniformly, in transnational structures of various kinds, in ideologies of development, and the practices of everyday life.” To be fair, though, Dirlik is seeking an alternative to “developmentalism,” whereas many critics have simply re-evaluated the goal that structures the teleology. The final culmination of development may no longer seem so desirable— Foucault’s carceral society, for example, or Koselleck’s constant acceleration of time—but it still informs an evolutionary telos.17

  • 18 Poole, “Give Us Our Eleven Days!”, see especially pp. 137–139.

26The slow, inadvertently universalizing and homogenizing development of the bc/ad dating system is more fruitfully viewed as an adaptive structure than as an instrument pure and simple of Western hegemony. Invented for religious reasons and pivoting on the life of the central figure of Christianity, bc/ad made it possible to date history infinitely backward as well as forward and thus accommodated and even facilitated the universal, secular, and deep history that Christian scholars found virtually unimaginable before the eighteenth century, even when they were using bc/ad. The Gregorian calendar, though less influential in this regard, had some of the same effects. Introduced for religious reasons, but also as a way of incorporating the new findings of astronomers, it gradually enabled Europeans and then the rest of the world to integrate their secular time schemas. In the case of England, as Robert Poole has shown, the adoption of the Gregorian calendar hastened the disappearance of the traditional popular festive calendar, tied as it was to the Old Style calendar. Thus, ironically, the Gregorian calendar, initially invented for religious reasons, ended up fostering secularization.18

27Although the modern time schema linked universal, homogeneous, secular, natural, and deep time to the modern, to the embrace of modernity, to being up-to-date, in fact these changes in the understanding of time took place in fitful steps and not all at once at the cusp of modernity. The adoption of ad extended over many centuries, the use of bc cannot yet be very precisely dated, and the spread of the Gregorian calendar reached from 1582 to the twentieth century. There is no one date at which a culture, a nation, a government, or even a person became modern. Modernity may depend on the universalization of calendars and the standardization of time, but it lacks a precise chronology.

  • 19 Dan Smail, “In the Grip of Sacred History,” The American Historical Review, vol. 110.5 (2005): 49 (...)

28So caught up have we been in the telos of the modern, in which everything leads to the present, that we have largely ignored the history of the very far distant past. Daniel Smail complains that historians have remained “In the Grip of Sacred History.” Although historians (and Smail means American historians, and he thinks that historians in other countries might differ in significant ways), like other educated people, came to believe in deep history, i.e., that the origins of humans go back much further than the 4000 bc established by Biblical chronologies, they nonetheless continued to date the beginning of the history they teach and study as if nothing much had changed. As Smail explains, “the sacred was deftly translated into a secular key, as Sumeria and the invention of writing replaced the Garden of Eden as the point of origin for Western Civilization. Prehistory came to be an essential part of the story, but the era was cantilevered outside the narratival buttresses that sustain the edifice of Western Civilization. It was there only to illustrate what we are no longer.” Smail wants to eliminate the prehistory/history divide in favor of an explicitly Darwinian evolutionary view that emphasizes the haphazardness of most cultural achievements and their origins in universal brain structures and body chemicals. His book On Deep History and the Brain is bound to be controversial, especially because of his advocacy of the “new neurohistory,” but whether one agrees with his scientific perspective or not, he does point the way to a much greater openness on both ends of the historical process.19

  • 20 Adam, Time and Social Theory, p. 96. On Whorf’s methods and current views, see the review by Leann (...)

29I am not arguing that we all need to convert ourselves into historians of Paleolithic peoples and cultures (which would be ludicrous coming from someone who has spent her entire life focusing on the eighteenth century), but Smail forcefully reminds us that historians have not embraced the implications of the modern time schema as rigorously or consistently as they imagine themselves to have done. Smail’s efforts to develop a new meta-narrative based on “neurohistory” resonate in interesting ways with Barbara Adam’s proposed agenda for social theory. She criticizes studies of time in other cultures—Evans-Pritchard’s study of the Nuer or Whorf’s investigation of the Hopi, for instance—for using a clock time standard for comparison. Thus Whorf concluded that the Hopi lacked a word for time and had no tenses in their language. He did not look for views of time embedded in descriptions of nature or work perhaps because he made only one short visit to Hopi country and learned most of the language from a native speaker in New York City.20

30Adam’s main interest lies in collapsing the dichotomy between natural time and social time that is built into such accounts. She does not deny the importance of social time; indeed, she endorses George Herbert Mead’s position that all time is socially constructed. Still, she draws a distinction between Mead’s view and those of other social theorists such as Durkheim who argued for the social construction of time; Mead argued that time is socially constructed because the capacity for social life grows out of nature itself. The social and the natural cannot be seen as dichotomous therefore; they are continuous.

31Evolution, according to Adam, means that humans encapsulate the times of nature, much like plants and animals, which also live by biological rhythms, both in terms of their relationship to the present and future, through circadian rhythms, and their relationship to the evolutionary past. Plants and animals have time and know time too, though they do not have a system of reckoning or a means of conceptualizing it. Time, moreover, is essential to sociality, which is for Mead nothing other than the process of adjusting to being in different perspectives and times simultaneously. Symbolizing, conceptualizing, and reckoning time are all evolutionary innovations.

  • 21 Adam, Time and Social Theory, quote p. 166.

32The resonance between Smail and Adam grows out of their common desire to overcome dichotomies between the natural and the social, nature and culture, nature and history. Like Smail, Adam urges social scientists to enlarge the time-span of the social sciences to an evolutionary scale, not in order to stress “determinist mechanisms of change” but rather to draw attention to “those silent, sedimented aspects of our socio-biological being that have come to be taken for granted.” “To accept the importance of our evolutionary past for the present,” Adam concludes, “is no different in principle from accepting that our history forms an ineradicable part of our social being.”21

  • 22 David Christian, Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History (Berkeley: University of California (...)

33If history—or the social patterns that required explanation—were viewed in this much longer perspective, the ancient/medieval/modern categorization would lose much of its salience because the ancient period would swell to truly enormous size compared to the other two. Yet references to modernity, as we have seen, are not about to disappear, whether out of convenience or conviction. Even David Christian, author of the ambitious universal history Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History, ends his account, which begins at the origin of the universe, with a section on “The Modern Era.” He does not employ the terms “ancient” or “medieval,” which is telling, yet his “early human history” and “the Holocene”—the titles of part III and part IV of his book—still march toward “the modern era” (part V) with its familiar chapter titles: “approaching modernity”; “globalization, commercialization, and innovation”; “birth of the modern world” and even finally “the great acceleration of the twentieth century.” “Ancient” and “medieval” might be disposable if history is viewed in the perspective of deep time, but “modern” turns out to be extremely tenacious.22

  • 23 The first use recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary of century to mean “each of the successive (...)

34The tripartite division of ancient/medieval/modern has been questioned even by those who continue to sow the well-worn fields of the more traditional time frame, 4–5,000 bc—present. Some medievalists try to avoid any mention of the Middle Ages or the “medieval,” but this has proved difficult to sustain. It might be a better solution to use “centuries”; rather than referring to the early modern period, for example, we could refer specifically to the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, if that is what we mean. In fact, using centuries would actually force us to be clearer about what we mean. For some, the eighteenth century, for example, is the end of the early modern, for others the beginning of the modern. Yet the idea that a century has some kind of internal coherence is just as artificial and itself a product of modernity. The use of centuries as time designations only became common in the seventeenth century, at least in English and French. It is part of a more general cultural trend of Western self-consciousness about historical progression.23

35“Ancient,” “medieval” and even “modern” and “modernity” would be less troublesome if they were used non-teleologically, as handy temporal pointers that have the advantage, which they do have, of not privileging any particular mode of history—technology, politics, or culture. Modernity would cease to be the ultimate goal of history, then, and would instead function as a provisional endpoint for some, but perhaps not all, societies. It would signal where some societies are rather than include claims about where everyone else in the world is necessarily headed. There is no need to argue that history lacks all sense of direction any more than one need claim that evolution is directionless. Both have been characterized by the development of greater complexity, whether in social organization or in the progression from bacteria to the human brain. Greater complexity in evolution may have established the conditions for the emergence of human reason, but greater complexity in social organization does not guarantee either the emancipation or triumph of reason. If the parallel with evolution works, then historians must grant that our current sense of where we are is not a sign of the telos of history—and that serious reversals are entirely possible in the future. Natural selection favors adaptation, but it also leads on occasion into dead ends.


36Even though certain ways of homogenizing and universalizing the measurement of time had their origins in Western countries (and not always the same western countries, it should be noted), history writing has always been global, not Western. In an important article and related book, Sanjay Subrahmanyam disputes “the new orthodoxy” that “Europe alone possessed recognizable forms of history” and with European expansion and colonization imported “history as a form of knowledge” to the non-West. He advocates more attention to the past practice of writing world history. Rather than endorsing a “global history” that simply traces the origins of present-day globalization or “world history” as it was written by Hegel or is sometimes practiced today with an excessively materialist emphasis, he wants to recover the writings of world historians in the past.

  • 24 Sanjay Subrahmanyam, “On World Historians in the Sixteenth Century,” Representations, 91 (Summer 2 (...)

37Subrahmanyam makes two critically vital points: 1) “history, and even history-writing, can be found in many societies of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries”; and 2) “history is not a single genre but can be written in many genres,” and moreover, “there are many modes of perceiving the past in any society, and not all of them are historical.” “It is therefore deeply simplistic and ultimately false,” he concludes, “to divide societies (or cultures) into those that are historical and those that are not; rather, … there were those who viewed the past historically and others who did not, both groups living side by side within the same cultural complex and producing different texts and narratives.” Subrahmanyam does not dispute the existence of modernity or the significance of certain time periods for establishing it. In the essay quoted here, he emphasizes the “major and significant transformation in general historiographical practice in the course of the sixteenth century,” but he insists that this transformation took place globally, not just in Europe. There is no need to “provincialize Europe,” as Chakrabarty urges, if Europe was always just a part of the world, rather than some kind of synecdoche for it.24

  • 25 Subrahmanyam, p. 36.

38Subrahmanyam makes a distinction between universal history, as it was practiced before the sixteenth century, and the new world history of the sixteenth century in which scholars write their histories on a global scale. “Where universal histories are symmetrical and well ordered, world histories are accumulative in character, often disordered, and certainly not symmetrical in nature. Its authors are always tempted to add on yet another chapter, and still another one, substituting conjunctions for arguments, and rarely articulating a clear notion of what the skeletal structure of their text is.” (Voltaire, by this standard, would be a world history.) Subrahmanyam clearly has great sympathy for this “imperfect” history motivated by an aspiration to enlarge the scope and coverage of history, and so should we.25

  • 26 Natalie Zemon David, Trickster Travels: A Sixteenth-Century Muslim Between Worlds (New York: Hill (...)

39Subrahmanyam rightly insists that history writing takes many forms and that a sense of history does not even depend on writing or on a precise definition of history as the content of a work. Daniel Smail also severs the link between history and writing though for somewhat different purposes; he wants Paleolithic peoples to be considered historical and not prehistorical. In her fascinating account of the sixteenth-century Moroccan scholar and traveler al-Hasan al-Wazzan, who was known in the West as Leo Africanus, Natalie Zemon Davis similarly pushes out the boundaries of history writing. Al-Wazzan enthusiastically recorded epitaphs he found on tombs of sultans and their wives, deciphered Latin inscriptions on ruins, read chronicles of African history, and insatiably sought out details of past events that had left their traces in the places he visited; and he did all this before he was captured by Christian pirates and sent to the pope as a gift. It could hardly be said that he lacked a sense of history, even before he wrote anything that resembled a history in the Western sense.26

40History becomes less teleological when “historicality” (the definition of what constitutes the historical) is expanded in this way to make history the patrimony of all peoples and all times, rather than identifying it with the discipline taught in Western universities from the nineteenth century onward or the form of writing pioneered by Herodotus in the fifth century bc. This refocusing of the lens is not a “new history,” but rather the rediscovery of one already long in existence, as both Subrahmanyam and Natalie Davis have shown. Here, in this discovery of world history before world history, this rediscovery of an “imperfect,” relentlessly accumulating world history rather than the neatly packaged new style world history that leads inexorably to globalization, the endless pursuit of newer and newer histories itself comes full circle, showing that historical development is not always linear and teleological but sometimes cyclical and ultimately non-teleological. By extending our notions of historicality, then, we can retrace paths long effaced by the great superhighways of intellectual endeavor (Hegelianism, say, or modernization theory), thereby recovering alternative routes to the present and future.

  • 27 In this final passage, Guha in fact cites Henri Lefebvre’s discussion of Marc Bloch. Guha likes wh (...)

41I am hardly the first to advocate an expansion of the field of historicality. Ranajit Guha, one of the founders of the Subaltern Studies group, has written directly in response to Tagore’s exhortation, cited earlier: “off with your history.” While agreeing with Tagore about “the poverty of historiography” and “the failure of the genre,” Guha urges historians to engage creatively with the past “as a story of man’s being in the everyday world. It is, in short, a call for historicality to be rescued from its containment in World-history” of the Hegelian type. Historicality, for Guha, is associated with “what is humble and habitual” and is more easily accessed through literature or poetry than the usual documents of history that emphasize elite politics and state concerns. The ordinary men and women of the Indian countryside, he insists, were “never annexed fully to the statist World-history narratives introduced in South Asia by the West.” He concludes by invoking Marc Bloch’s work on French agrarian history. Bloch had the insight needed to “grasp the historicality of what lies within the range of everyday perception.” By comparing Bloch and Tagore, Guha shows that the problem is universal, not just one of the West vs. the non-West.27

  • 28 On Guha’s use of Heidegger, see History at the Limit of World History, p. 93. Leonhard von Renthe- (...)

42Historicality, as Guha uses the term, seems to be derived from Martin Heidegger, though Guha does not make this explicit; he cites Heidegger in connection with everydayness which Guha links to but does not equate with historicality. “Historicality” or “historicity,” both rather awkward in English, come from the German term Geschichtlichkeit, which appeared prominently in the writings of Wilhelm Dilthey and then the phenomenological philosophers. It is therefore not a new term, but rather one, at least in Guha’s hands, which seeks to challenge unexamined assumptions about what is properly historical. Wherever time and time’s relationship to history come into question, phenomenological philosophy tends to pop up, whether in the writings of Dilthey, Heidegger, Husserl, or more recently, Ricoeur. Phenomenological philosophers paid much more attention to time as a category of understanding than any of the other major trends in twentieth-century philosophy. Thus it becomes apparent that the category of the properly historical can be questioned even from within Western philosophical and historical frameworks. In perhaps the ultimate irony, “historicality” as used in the phenomenological tradition—and by critics such as Guha—can be traced back to Hegel himself.28

43Although Voltaire can be associated with some of the unpleasant qualities of presentism, his histoire générale pointed toward this broader sense of historicality. In his search for an alternative to universal history as Bossuet practiced it, Voltaire urged Europeans to recognize their connections to the east, to recognize that their history was not as separate as they thought:

Nourished by the produce of their lands, dressed in their cloth, amused by the games that they invented, even instructed by their old moral tales, why would we overlook learning about the spirit of those nations to which the merchants of our Europe voyaged as soon as they could find a route to them? Educating yourself as a philosopher about what concerns this globe, you first turn your gaze toward the east, cradle of all the arts, and which gave everything to the west.

  • 29 Voltaire, Essay, p. 3.

44For all his defects, and perhaps even thanks to his defects, Voltaire recalls us to a more curious, and yes, even more humble, form of history writing, even if humble is not the first adjective that usually comes to mind in reference to Voltaire. He recognized the West’s debt to the East, and he never seems to have imagined that he might detect history’s telos, except that he knows his readers must be curious about a much wider world than Europe alone.29

45As we renew, as we must, our discussions about the meaning of history and its current directions, we might also take a moment to revisit the approaches of our ancestors among the history writers and try to recapture their sense of historicality. We often celebrate the extension of historicality outwards to other cultures, to the “people without history” in our own cultures (peasants, workers, immigrants, women, children, the homeless, illegals), and to other forms of historical knowledge (films, museums, television, even theme parks). Yet we rarely look at our own professional past and our professional predecessors. This systematic neglect is built into the modern time schema that emerged out of the work of the eighteenth-century historians. They—the eighteenth-century historians— paid for their audacity with the condescension of posterity. It is perhaps now time to shake off the dust that has accumulated around their work and rediscover some of their enthusiasms as our own.


1 Information about the 1884 conference can be found at

2 Robert Poole, “‘Give Us Our Eleven Days!’: Calendar Reform in Eighteenth-Century England,” Past and Present, No. 149. (Nov., 1995), pp. 95–139. For U.S. resistance at the United Nations, see

3 Ali A. Mazrui, “Africa, My Conscience and I,” Transition, No. 46. (1974), pp. 67–71, quote p. 69.

4 Barbara Adam, Time and Social Theory (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 1990), quoting T. Hägerstrand, p. 110, see also p. 115 on the modern concern with controlling and commodifying time.

5 Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, The Philosophy of History, tr. J. Sibree (New York: Dover, 1956), quotes pp. 456, 103, 116, 139. I have replaced the Sibree translation in two places with my own from Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Vorlesungen über die Philosophie der Geschichte (Stuttgart, Philipp Reclam, 1961), pp. 168 and 183.

6 Hegel, ibid., pp. 91, 93. See also Enrique Dussel, “Eurocentrism and Modernity (Introduction to the Frankfurt Lectures),” boundary 2, Vol. 20, No. 3, The Postmodernism Debate in Latin America (Autumn, 1993), pp. 65–76.

7 On Hegel and Scottish philosophy see by Norbert Waszek, The Scottish Enlightenment and Hegel’s Account of “Civil Society” (Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1988). H. M. Hopfl, “From Savage to Scotsman: Conjectural History in the Scottish Enlightenment,” The Journal of British Studies, Vol. 17, No. 2. (Spring, 1978): 19–40. Katherine George, “The Civilized West Looks at Primitive Africa: 1400–1800. A Study in Ethnocentrism,” Isis, 49, no. 1 (March, 1958): 62–72, quote p. 63.

8 Here I take issue with the analysis of T. Carlos Jacques, “From Savages and Barbarians to Primitives: Africa, Social Typologies, and History in Eighteenth-Century French Philosophy,” History and Theory, 36 (May, 1997):190–215. His evidence does not support his conclusions about the role of eighteenth-century French philosophy. Quote from Smith in George, p. 71. De Gérando is quoted in Johannes Fabian, Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object (New-York: Columbia University Press, 1983), p. 7. On the role of De Gérando and Cuvier, and the difference between them, see George W. Stocking, Jr., “French Anthropology in 1800,” Isis, 55, no. 2 (June, 1964): 134–150. Said gives great prominence to the Description de l’Egypte, which was published between 1809 and 1828. Edward W. Said, Orientalism (New-York: Penguin, 1978), p. 84.

9 Fabian, Time and the Other, pp. 17 and 29.

10 Dipesh Chakrabarty, “Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History: Who Speaks for ‘Indian’ Pasts?,” Representations, No. 37, Special Issue: Imperial Fantasies and Postcolonial Histories. (Winter, 1992), pp. 1–26, quote p. 1.

11 Ashis Nandy, “History’s Forgotten Doubles,” History and Theory, Vol. 34, No. 2, Theme Issue 34: World Historians and Their Critics. (May, 1995), pp. 44–66. quotes pp. 45 and 53. See Chakrabarty’s critique in “Modernity and the Past: A Critical Tribute to Ashis Nandy,” in Dipesh Chakrabarty, Habitations of Modernity: Essays in the Wake of Subaltern Studies (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), pp. 38–47. Tagore is quoted with “sadness” in Ranajit Guha, History at the Limit of World-History (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), p. 72.

12 Lutz Niethammer, Posthistoire: Has History Come to an End?, tr. Patrick Camiller (London: Verso, 1992), quotes pp. 24, 58, 138, 67. Fukuyama had not yet appeared when Niethammer published his book in German.

13 John D. Kelly, “Alternative Modernities or an Alternative to ‘Modernity’: Getting out of the Modernist Sublime,” in Bruce M. Knauft, ed., Critically Modern: Alternatives, Alterities, Anthropologies (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002), pp. 258–286. Frederick Cooper, Colonialism in Question: Theory, Knowledge, History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), p. 127.

14 Cooper, p. 149.

15 Cooper, p. 123.

16 On Darwin’s view, see the account in Derek Freeman, “The Evolutionary Theories of Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer,” Current Anthropology, Vol. 15, No. 3. (Sep., 1974): 211–237. Especially useful is Ernst Mayr, “The Idea of Teleology,” Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 53, No. 1. (Jan. – Mar., 1992): 117–135.

17 Arif Dirlik, “Is There History After Eurocentrism?: Globalism, Postcolonialism, and the Disavowal of History,” Cultural Critique, no. 42 (Spring 1999): 1–34, quote p. 2, see also p. 29.

18 Poole, “Give Us Our Eleven Days!”, see especially pp. 137–139.

19 Dan Smail, “In the Grip of Sacred History,” The American Historical Review, vol. 110.5 (2005): 49 pars. 22 Oct. 2006, quote par. 4. Daniel Lord Smail, On Deep History and the Brain (Berkeley: University of California Press, forthcoming 2007).

20 Adam, Time and Social Theory, p. 96. On Whorf’s methods and current views, see the review by Leanne Hinton of Hopi Time, by Ekkehart Malotki, American Indian Quarterly, Vol. 12, No. 4. (Autumn, 1988): 361–364.

21 Adam, Time and Social Theory, quote p. 166.

22 David Christian, Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), table of contents.

23 The first use recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary of century to mean “each of the successive periods of 100 years” was 1638. It appears for the first time in French in the Dictionary of the Académie française of 1694.

24 Sanjay Subrahmanyam, “On World Historians in the Sixteenth Century,” Representations, 91 (Summer 2005): 26–57, quotes pp. 26–28.

25 Subrahmanyam, p. 36.

26 Natalie Zemon David, Trickster Travels: A Sixteenth-Century Muslim Between Worlds (New York: Hill and Wang, 2006), pp. 52–53. See also Natalie Zemon Davis, “What is Universal about History?” in Gunilla Bude, Sebastian Conrad, and Oliver Janz, eds., Transnationale Geschichte: Themen, Tendenzen und Theorien (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2006), pp. 15–20.

27 In this final passage, Guha in fact cites Henri Lefebvre’s discussion of Marc Bloch. Guha likes what Lefebvre claims to like in Bloch. Guha, History at the Limit of World History, quotes pp. 6 and 94. Guha’s reading of Tagore has been criticized in Rosinka Chaudhuri, “The Flute, Gerontion, and Subaltern Misreadings of Tagore,” Social Text, Volume 22, Number 1 (Spring 2004): 103–122.

28 On Guha’s use of Heidegger, see History at the Limit of World History, p. 93. Leonhard von Renthe-Fink, Geschichtlichkeit: Ihr terminologischer und begrifflicher Ursprung bei Hegel, Haym, Dilthey und Yorck (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 1968). Ricoeur provides a brief discussion of Heidegger’s use of the term, Time and Narrative, vol. 1, tr. Kathleen McLaughlin and David Pellauer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), esp. pp. 62–63. See also Harold N. Tuttle, The Dawn of Historical Reason: The Historicality of Human Existence in the Thought of Dilthey, Heidegger, and Ortegy y Gasset (New York: Peter Lang, 1994) and Gerhard Bauer, “Geschichtlichkeit”—Wege und Irrwege eines Begriss (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter and Co., 1963).

29 Voltaire, Essay, p. 3.

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