Reading Koselleck: A Guide for Historians
As a student of history, you are often asked (or perhaps even ask yourself) the point of what you are doing. What you study is over – ‘done and dusted’. The protagonists are often dead; the situation unchangeable. What can you achieve?
Historians are notoriously bad at predicting the future; and if studying history teaches you anything, it is that history does not repeat itself and that those who draw on it, usually do so for the wrong reasons.
If you are facing such a crisis, read German historian Reinhart Koselleck (1923-2006). Reading Koselleck will reinforce your faith in the use and even necessity of history for the present. His work also provides a guide for historians. What follows is meant as a short introduction to his main contributions.
Begriffsgeschichte (Conceptual history)
This is the approach Koselleck is most famous for and perhaps the easiest to borrow and apply. It literally translates as ‘the history of terms’. It was inspired by the linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure and others who drew attention to political semantics. It transforms intellectual history into a wider history of discourse.
Although this may, at first glance, seem somewhat removed from empirical research, it produces the most compelling insights and opens up new ways of looking at themes and sources. Koselleck illustrates it particularly well with the notion of ‘revolution’. While we all know what this is (not least thanks to historical examples such as ‘the French Revolution’), it is also clearly a concept retrospectively imposed on political developments.
This raises the question: when is something a revolution? When it happens or when it is described as such? In other words, calling something revolution may be a self-fulfilling prophecy: “This is a revolution!”
Looking back, one can trace the word’s emergence, changing meaning, frequency of use in different contexts, by different actors. Begriffsgeschichte deconstructs our social world by looking at its creation and modification through language – including the historian’s own role in this process. It obviously resonates with calls for scholarly reflexivity following the ‘linguistic turn’ but also, in exciting ways, with the opportunities now offered by the digital humanities and big data analysis.
Zeitschichten (Theories of historical time)
Zeitschichten literally translates as ‘layers of time’. Drawing attention to the relativity of our conception of time is one of Koselleck’s main contributions to historiographical thought.
He was particularly concerned with the emergence of history as a way of thinking about the world (in the tradition of German historicism in particular). The fact that one takes the importance of history for granted has something to say about the society at hand.
Inspired by the conception of longue durée (such as the geological time of the landscape or the weather) by the Annales School, Koselleck highlights the fact that history imposes a rhythm and a chronology on past reality which does not do justice to the multiplicity of historical times as experienced and existing.
Koselleck therefore proposes a more differentiated periodisation which at the very least needs to acknowledge that we impose temporality retrospectively. In particular, he differentiates between ‘event’ and ‘structure’. One cannot be made sense of without the other: what would be the significance of 9/11 without a conception of the geopolitical world order at the end of the 20th or beginning of the 21st century? Yet one cannot understand the geopolitical world order without events through which its structures become visible, such as a terrorist attack.
Ultimately the layers are also those of experience: what is forgotten, remembered, recorded, brought out? Selectivity is unavoidable. But it is essential to be aware that this it is determined by ideology and language, which we often take for granted. The historian’s mission is to point this out.
Erfahrungsraum und Erwartungshorizont (Space of Experience and Horizon of Expectation)
This is in my view the most important contribution of Koselleck’s work. These two concepts are related to those above. Yet while the former, a method and an approach, were about epistemology (how can I find out?), while the latter are about ontology (what is out there to be discovered, if anything at all? What is history even about?)
This pair of concepts can therefore be said to constitute the highest level of Koselleck’s thought. They also have the broadest implications. Indeed, for Koselleck, the interaction of these two levels is where history is born: history is the result of actions informed by what one experienced in the past (the space of experience) and what one expects from the future (the horizon of expectations).
An account of the past that would only present one and not the other is incomplete; there is no necessary link between experience and its interpretation. This link is what the historian uncovers.
Both dimensions therefore need to be accounted for when looking at what people do. In this way, we are forced to focus on human agency and not simply things that happened. This is how and why the future (or a vision of it) – ‘futures past’ – is inherent in any historical account.
It is also the reason the interpretation of past events is both subjective and endless: historical time is over but it contains the prospect of unlimited alternative futures that were imagined and acted upon. There is no end to what historians can and should do.
Reinhart Koselleck, Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time. Series: Studies in Contemporary German Social Thought. Translated and with an introduction by Keith Tribe. New York, Columbia University Press; 2004.