Measuring Time, Making History by Lynn Hunt
Time is the crucial ingredient in history, and yet historians rarely talk about time as such. These essays offer new insight into the development of modern conceptions of time, from the Christian dating system (BC/AD or BCE/CE) to the idea of “modernity” as a new epoch in human history.

Living Up to Modernity

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  • Paperback: 147 pages
  • Publisher: Central European University (CEU) Press (January 10, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9639776149
  • ISBN-13: 978-9639776142
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Modernity has two related definitions, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It is “the quality or condition of being modern; modernness of character or style,” and “an intellectual tendency or social perspective characterized by departure from or repudiation of traditional ideas, doctrines, and cultural values in favor of contemporary or radical values and beliefs (chiefly those of scientific rationalism and liberalism).” The second definition with its emphasis on breaking from tradition has its roots in the European Enlightenment and French Revolution, though Enlightenment writers themselves did not use the specific term modernity. The Oxford English Dictionary cites only one use of the term in English before the middle of the eighteenth century and none by Enlightenment writers. It only appeared in French for the first time in the nineteenth century (first in Chateaubriand) and in Spanish in 1905.

Although there is some question as to whether modernity, as Aristotle said of time more generally, belongs to the class of things that exist or to that of things that do not exist, it does function as a category of our thinking, to judge only by the number of times the word appears in book and article titles. My goal is to explain how it came to shape thinking about history. When did “the modern” emerge as a concept and how did it shape historical writing? Of particular interest is the way the modern came to be seen as a distinct, and eventually superior, category of time.

Defining The Modern

The meaning of modernity obviously depends on the term modern, which itself expanded in significance over time. The English word is based on the fourteenth- century Middle French moderne, which like the other Romance languages, derives its meaning from the Latin for “just now,” “at the present time.” The word appears in Italian in the fourteenth century, in Spanish in the fifteenth, in Portuguese in the sixteenth, in Dutch and Swedish in the seventeenth, and in German in the eighteenth century. In the sixteenth and especially the seventeenth centuries, “modern” was increasingly juxtaposed to “ancient,” as in the socalled quarrel between the ancients and moderns. In 1694 the Dictionary of the Académie française defined moderne as “new, recent, what is from the latest times. It is opposed to ancient.”

Measuring Time, Making HistoryThe concern with the modern grew steadily throughout the seventeenth century and reached a kind of paroxysm in the 1690s. Already in 1590 in English modern was used to signal what is “Characteristic of the present time, or the time of writing; not old-fashioned, antiquated, or obsolete; employing the most up-to-date ideas, techniques, or equipment.” This sense of the superiority of the modern did not take root all at once, however. According to the English Short Title Catalogue, only 46 books included modern in their title between 1598 and 1650, less than one a year. Between 1650 and 1700, in contrast, the number jumped up to 562 titles, a tenfold increase— at a time when the number of books published did not even double. Paul Hazard put it more elegantly: “At first, people were ‘modern’ timidly, halfheartedly. After a while, they came to look on it as a feather in their cap, and bragged about it, trailing their coats.” Hazard dates the change to the period 1680–1715.

Joan DeJean places greater emphasis on the particular decade of the 1690s, during which a kind of “culture war” pitted the defenders of the ancients against the proponents of the moderns. The ancients believed writers were best served by imitating classical models, whereas the moderns held that new knowledge, following the example of the new science, enabled contemporaries to surpass the ancients. More than literary conflicts were involved. The ancients wanted to reserve literary judgment to professionals; the moderns wanted to involve a wider public, including women as both authors and readers. The ancients feared that civilization would decline as a result of this extension of the public; the moderns praised the new forms of popular culture such as operas and especially novels that encouraged a new emphasis on sensibility and psychological interiority. As a result of the quarrel, the moderns developed a notion of progress, though they feared it might already be slowing down.

What matters most is that Europeans came to see a cleavage between the modern and what came before. A sense of rupture, despite the connotations of the word, probably did not develop all at once or just in one country, however influential. The prospect of a temporal break only gradually took hold during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and appeared perhaps even as early as the Renaissance with its invention of “the Middle Ages.” Are the “Middle Ages” not a labeling device for launching modernity? Europeans only needed a sense of middle once they began to develop the notion that historical time had a progressive direction. Medium aevum appeared in 1604, moyen âge in 1640, and Mittelalter in 1684; so, once again, the seventeenth century seems the moment at which something new begins to crystallize

Although Enlightenment authors sometimes found positive elements in the Middle Ages, especially when looking for the origins of modern political institutions, most subscribed to the summary view laid out in Voltaire’s article “History” in the Encyclopédie: “A new order of things began with the dismemberment of the Roman Empire in the West, which is called the history of the Middle Ages; barbarian history of barbarian peoples, who on becoming Christians did not become better for it.” At the end of the fifteenth century, Voltaire continued, the New World was discovered and European politics and arts took on new forms. The invention of printing and the renewal of the sciences created the conditions for the writing of true histories as well, which would replace the “ridiculous chronicles” of the Middle Ages. By the middle of the eighteenth century, then, the superiority of modern times was becoming an established truth and was beginning to shape the writing of history itself.

The Stages in History

From Voltaire onward, Enlightenment historians completed the process of secularizing and naturalizing history writing, and more fatefully still, they introduced the notion of the evolution over time of human societies. Bossuet, like most sixteenth and seventeenth century chronologists, had tried to reconcile sacred and profane histories. In contrast, the philosophical historians of the last half of the eighteenth- century focused entirely on the secular world, sought natural explanations for events, and found a pattern in history by which societies evolved from savagery to civilization. These elements did not crystallize all at once. The 1694 Dictionary of the Académie française, for example, had no entry at all for civilisation. The 1798 edition defined the word quite simply: “the action of civilizing or state in which one is civilized.” By 1832, however, telling examples had been added: “Retard the civilization of a country. The progress of civilization. The results of civilization. Advanced civilization.” Only over time did civilization come to be associated with an evolutionary view of history.

Voltaire led the way with his 1756 Essay on Universal History and on the Manners and Character of Nations, from Charlemagne to our Day [Essay sur l’histoire générale, et sur les moeurs et l’esprit des nations, depuis Charlemagne jusqu’a nos jours, often translated as Essay on Manners]. Like Newton, Voltaire did not challenge the chronological bounds of the Christian time framework; indeed, Voltaire rejected the new geology of the eighteenth century and so had no truck with “deep time.” His impact on history writing was nonetheless transformative. He simply pushed aside the efforts to reconcile Biblical and secular chronologies and stuck with the secular ones. As he said in his article “History” in the Encyclopédie, “The history of events is divided between the sacred and the profane… I will in no way touch upon this respectable subject [sacred history].” Voltaire clearly intended to contrast his efforts with those of “the illustrious Bossuet.” Bossuet had begun his Discourse on Universal History (1681) with Creation and Adam and Eve. Voltaire started his Essay with the history of China and India because they were civilized first.

In the opening pages of his Essay, Voltaire took Bossuet to task for ignoring the history of the East when writing a supposedly universal history: “This great writer, while saying a word about the Arabs who founded such a powerful empire and such a flourishing religion, only speaks of them as like a deluge of barbarians. He waxes on about the Egyptians but suppresses the Indians and the Chinese, who are at least as ancient as the peoples of Egypt and not less important.” Voltaire cut the Europeans down to size, remarking that “when one wants to know something about the Celts our ancestors, you must have recourse to the Greeks, to the Romans, nations very much posterior to the Asians.” So though Voltaire refused any notion of deep time, he nonetheless decentered the Christian narrative by weaving it into a world tapestry in which Christianity did not necessarily have priority.

Although Voltaire gave history an entirely secular cast, and refused to follow Bossuet in tracing the role of providence in human events, he remained a bit vague on the question of causation and development over time. He cited only natural (as opposed to supernatural) causes for events, but no overarching pattern emerged in his accounts. When commenting on the backwardness of the regions near Venice in the seventeenth century (Croatia, Dalmatia), for example, Voltaire threw up his hands and concluded, “with what slowness, what difficulty humankind civilizes itself and society perfects itself!” He believed that progress took place in specific domains (the arts, the sciences) and at certain moments in time, perhaps especially his own, but he never advanced a theory of historical development.

Voltaire’s 1765 work, The Philosophy of History, despite its title, offers little that differs in this regard from the earlier Essay. Distinguished unfortunately by repeated tirades against the Jews, the book, published under the pseudonym Abbé Bazin, most often traces bad outcomes to religious superstition, theological disputes, and the influence of monks. The concluding chapter captures the general tone: in it Voltaire rails against legislators of every epoch who have claimed that the Divinity dictated laws to them. These laws are “eternally arbitrary,” whether they established consuls, aristocracy, democracy or monarchy. Those who claimed divine inspiration acted only in their own interest, Voltaire insists, and should simply be considered blasphemers and traitors. His interest in combating ubiquitous religious fanaticism precluded any concern with patterns of historical evolution.

Unlike Voltaire, Montesquieu was not vague about causation. He cited the influence of climate, the quality of the soil, demography, and commerce when developing his ideal types of republic, monarchy, and despotism in The Spirit of Laws (1748). But Montesquieu did not link those types to a developmental schema; they did not constitute progressive stages of history. Still, his attention to historical causation provided grist to the mill of those seeking such a history, such as the French administrator and economist Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot and the Scottish philosophers of civility, in particular Adam Ferguson and John Millar. Although a developmental history can be found even earlier in the eighteenth century in the writings of Giambattista Vico, the Italian’s work had little influence before the end of the eighteenth century. In contrast, Turgot helped make the idea of progress in history a topic of international discussion and the Scottish philosophers identified specific stages in that progress, from hunting and gathering, to animal husbandry, to agriculture, to commerce.

The labels for the specific stages varied from author to author, but the idea of development through stages over time was fundamentally the same. Whether societies progressed from the “rude” or “savage” to the “polished” or “civilized” (Ferguson and Millar’s terms), the superiority of the latter was implied by the terms themselves. There are at least three steps in the emergence of this crucial notion of the development of societies through temporal stages. The Scottish philosophers first provided the notion of stages of development, but for them the stages were not always progressive. Turgot argued that advancement or progress was continuous, though his historical account was much sketchier than that of the Scottish philosophers and his immediate influence more limited. Nonetheless, by the end of the eighteenth century the notion of historical progress had won many important adherents, both in Great Britain and France. In a third step, the French Revolution then helped consolidate the belief that modern times were clearly and irreversibly superior. Along with the sense of superiority of modern times came the corollary that the future could be fashioned by an act of human will.

The full implications of the stages of history only became evident gradually. One of the earliest adumbrations of the stage model was offered by Adam Smith in his 1762 lectures on jurisprudence. He argued for four stages: the age of hunters, the age of shepherds, the age of agriculture, and the age of commerce. Yet Smith never tried to develop these stages in any systematic historical fashion. In An Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767) Ferguson did not employ Smith’s particular stages, but he did systematically trace the “slow and gradual progress” of “rude nations” and the influence of “the advancement of civil and commercial arts” in making them more “polished.” Still, Ferguson’s part five was titled “Of the Decline of Nations” and part six, the final part, “Of Corruption and Political Slavery,” so Ferguson thought that nations might decline as well as rise. While his view was not strictly speaking cyclical, like Smith he harbored many doubts about the effects of material progress: “The commercial and lucrative arts may continue to prosper, but they gain an ascendant at the expense of other pursuits. The desire of profit stifles the love of perfection. Interest cools the imagination, and hardens the heart.”

Millar took the stage model a step further, but even he only seized upon the full significance of his argument over time. In the first editions of Observations concerning the Distinction of Ranks in Society in 1771 and 1773 he referred in his preface to “the natural progress of human society” without any further comment. In the 1779 edition, however, he reworked the preface to make his point clearer: “There is thus, in human society, a natural progress from ignorance to knowledge, and from rude, to civilized manners, the several stages of which are usually accompanied with peculiar laws and customs. Various accidental causes, indeed, have contributed to accelerate, or to retard this advancement in different countries.” Millar followed David Hume’s History of England (1754–1762) in making the rise of freedom central to his account; the penultimate section 3 of Chapter VI of Millar’s book was titled “Causes of the freedom acquired by the labouring people in the modern nations of Europe.” This emphasis prompted him, unlike Hume, to denounce slavery; in the last section of the book, Chapter VI, section 4, titled “Political consequences of slavery,” Millar argued that slavery was incompatible with the future development of social progress. Many of the elements of Western assumptions of cultural superiority could be found in Millar but he seems to have considered all nations capable of making the same transition. “Retardation” or “advancement” depended on “various accidental causes,” not inherent racial or ethnic characteristics.

Turgot did not pursue systematic comparisons between types of societies in the manner of Montesquieu or the Scottish philosophers. In his “Discourse on the Successive Progress of the Human Spirit” of 1750, he showed little interest in specific stages of social development, though he did outline the movement from barbarism to settled agriculture and then to towns, commerce, and the proliferation of arts and crafts. Rather than focus on the mode of subsistence as determining, Turgot pointed to general cultural changes such as the invention of writing, the spread of towns, and the printing press. His outlook was distinctly more sanguine about the present and the future than that of Ferguson or Millar. Where Millar worried about the contradiction between the elimination of slavery in Europe and its continuation in the colonies, even in his own time, Turgot drew a sharp distinction between the profound “wound” opened by the barbarian takeover of the Roman Empire and the “resounding success of the last centuries.” “Kings without authority, unchecked nobles, enslaved peoples, countrysides covered with fortresses and repeatedly ravaged; war burning between one town and another, one village and another…no commerce, all communication interrupted…. The grossest ignorance spread through all nations and all the professions. A deplorable picture, all too true to life, of Europe during several centuries.” Turgot’s depiction of the Middle Ages had already anticipated Voltaire’s. Even at the darkest moments, however, the successes of the future arts and sciences were germinating. The towns survived and then regained vigor under the protection of princes. “Different series of events took place in the different countries of the world, and their many separate routes converged finally on the same goal of lifting up the human spirit from its ruins.” In this early paean to progress, Turgot rhapsodizes about the effects of time itself: “Les temps sont arrivés” [the times ripened]; or better yet, “Time, unfold your swift wings!” Turgot captured in these few pages the momentousness of the attention to historical development. In 1750 he may not have been entirely aware of its significance, but his own later actions indicate that he soon grasped it: those who could unlock the secrets of the passage of time would be able to influence, if not control, the future.

In another unpublished work of about the same time on universal history, Turgot further developed his notions about the progress of humankind. He put aside his fulminations about the Middle Ages and said more about the general stages of historical development from hunting, to herding, to agriculture, to urban and commercial ways of life. Progress, Turgot insisted, was “inevitable,” even if mixed in with periods of decline. Yet “progress has been very different among different peoples.” Here Turgot seemed to be taking the fateful step that led toward European and eventually a more general Western superiority, in which the developmental schema is, as it were, spatialized. Some nations in the present remain stuck in their historical backwardness while others show the effects of their historical advancement. “A glance over the earth puts before our eyes, even today, the whole history of the human race, showing us traces of all the steps and monuments of all the stages through which it has passed from the barbarism, still in existence, of the American peoples to the civilisation of the most enlightened nations of Europe.” Turgot explicitly rejected Montesquieu’s reliance on climate as an explanation for the differences between peoples but he was not entirely clear about what he wanted to propose instead. Density of population, commerce, the rise of scientific method, printing, and modes of communication all seem to enter into the equation. Most important, however, is that all these were factors produced from within human societies themselves and could be studied for their significance. A crucial link had been established, by Turgot and the Scottish philosophers, to the nineteenth-century view (present, for example, in Marx and Comte) that the study of the past could reveal the general laws of social development.

The influence of Turgot’s ideas of historical progress from the early 1750s is difficult to measure with precision. It seems to have been recognized more clearly in hindsight (in the 1790s and early decades of the nineteenth century) than at the time, since both the “Discourse” and “Universal History” remained unpublished until the first edition of his collected works in 1808–1811. Turgot was known to his contemporaries, such as Hume, as an exponent of the notion of human perfectibility and historical progress, but his later reputation as a prophet of perfectibility rested mainly on Jean-Antoine-Nicolas Caritat, marquis de Condorcet, his friend and disciple, who wrote his biography in 1786, and Pierre Samuel Dupont de Nemours, who published a memoir on his life and works in 1781–1782 and prepared the first edition of his collected works. For Condorcet, Turgot ranked with Richard Price and Joseph Priestley as one of the three apostles of the “new doctrine of limitless human perfectibility.” But Condorcet made this remark only in 1794 in his Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind. Still, the back and forth between French and British authors (Turgot corresponded with Hume and Price and knew English) and the parallel development on the two sides of the Channel of notions of social progress through stages of development led to deeper and deeper rooting of these notions over the course of the eighteenth century.

The French Revolution

The French revolutionaries were too busy making history to write much of it (Condorcet being a rare exception), but the event itself profoundly influenced the European understanding of modernity. It was no longer enough to build upon the breakthroughs in knowledge accomplished since the Renaissance, as Voltaire and Turgot advised; revolution required a conscious breach in time. In his inimitable fashion, Condorcet explained, on the eve of his own death in 1794, why the French Revolution took the form of a rupture. He was comparing the American and French Revolutions:

Not having at all to reform a vicious system of taxes; not having to destroy feudal tyrannies, hereditary distinctions, rich, powerful or privileged guilds, or a system of religious intolerance, [the Americans] could limit themselves to establishing new powers and substituting them for those that the British nation until then exercised over them. Nothing in these innovations reached the mass of the people; nothing changed in the relations formed between individuals. In France, by contrast, the revolution had to embrace the entire economy of the society, change all social relations, and reach to the last links in the political chain.

This sense of a fundamental break was so widely shared among the French revolutionaries that they reformulated the measures of time itself, dating modern time from the establishment of the new French republic and devising a calendar based on ten-day weeks, with new names for the months and days, and for a while trying to decimalize the clock.

Although many authors, such as Germaine de Staël and François Guizot, used moyen âge in a neutral or even positive manner after the French Revolution, the revolutionaries themselves often identified the Middle Ages more closely with “the feudal regime.” In August 1789, in response to peasant uprisings but also in the culmination of a long campaign by many Enlightenment writers, the National Assembly voted to “destroy entirely the feudal regime.” When Maximilien Robespierre denounced in 1793 the “absurd ideas of despotism and of feudal pride,” he was only taking a step further the language developed before him by Voltaire (“Nulle grande ville, point de commerce, point de beaux arts sous un gouvernement purement féodal”), Jean-Jacques Rousseau (“système absurde s’il en fuˆt jamais, contraire aux principes du droit naturel et à toute bonne politie”), or Gabriel Bonnot de Mably (“la monstrueuse anarchie du gouvernement féodal”). Robespierre now deliberately amalgamated monarchical despotism and feudal arrogance, whereas Voltaire, Mably, and even Rousseau clearly distinguished between them.

The endeavor to “destroy entirely the feudal regime” in August 1789 marked just the beginning of an effort to break with the past. The signposts of this odyssey are well known: the destruction of royal statues, monuments, and decorations after August 10, 1792; the executions of the king and queen and anonymous disposal of their bodies; the attempt to popularize new secular names for children in line with the new names of months and new festivals on the calendar; the appearance of new symbols, revolutionary catechisms, even the informal tu in French and the universal address of citoyen or citoyenne to replace vous and Monsieur/Madame. Indeed, innovation itself now took on a new, positive meaning.

A new relationship to time was the most significant change, and perhaps the defining development, of the French Revolution. Yet, this experience of temporality could not be decreed, as the devisers of the new revolutionary calendar discovered to their chagrin; it had to be lived and learned. Leaders could encourage their followers to rub out reminders of the past and adopt new symbols as their own, but they soon found that adherence was not automatic. The new calendar ultimately failed, though not for want of official effort, while the metric system succeeded. The revolutionary tricolor, les droits de l’homme, and Marianne, symbol of the Republic, all eventually triumphed. Even the much dreaded guillotine lasted. Special costumes for legislators, the Constitutional Church, and theophilanthropy all fell by the wayside. Still, some of the most polarizing of revolutionary inventions—the Festival of Reason, the Committee of Public Safety, the Terror itself—remained in the repositories of collective memory, suggesting that even when the institution of the new failed, the sheer scale of the endeavor itself signaled a rupture in secular time.

In the herculean effort to break with the past, the revolutionaries created a kind of “mythic present,” a sense that they were redrafting the social contract and recapturing a kind of primal moment of national community. With events falling one upon the other at high speed, the present seemed elongated. The newspaper Révolutions de Paris, for example, in its second issue referred to the third week in July 1789 as “a week that was for us six centuries.” On the evening of October 6, 1789 Jacques-Pierre Brissot breathlessly scribbled his first account of the “October Days” (October 5–6, 1789) for his newspaper Le Patriote français: “The events that have taken place right in front of us appear almost like a dream.” This was just one of many journées, days that felt endlessly long when lived through, days whose trance-like events effected major personal and political transformations, that is, rupture with the past.

At the same time, the revolutionaries were frantically constructing narratives about how effacing the past and intensifying the present could enable the French to consciously reshape their future. Deputy Henri Grégoire, one of the revolutionary leaders most in tune with the significance of unfolding events, laid out his interpretation at the height of the Year II: “The French people have gone beyond all other peoples; however, the detestable regime whose remnants we are shaking off keeps us still a great distance from nature; there is still an enormous gap between what we are and what we could be. Let us hurry to fill this gap; let us reconstitute human nature by giving it a new stamp.” The Terror sprouted from the effort to “fill this gap,” “to reconstitute human nature,” or in other words, to accelerate the effects of time.

The Revolution consequently opened the prospect of a new kind of voluntarism, that is, the notion that human will could consciously shape the future and thereby accelerate the effects of time. At the same time, it also cleared a path to a new kind of determinism. Bertrand Barère, leading member of the Committee of Public Safety, and thus one of the architects of the Terror, excused his actions as the product of his time:

I did not at all shape my epoch, time of revolution and political storms…; I only did what I had to do, obey it. It [l’époque] sovereignly commanded so many peoples and kings, so many geniuses, so many talents, wills and even events that this submission to the era and this obedience to the spirit of the century cannot be imputed to crime or fault.

Voluntarism—the idea that humans could shape their future—and determinism were two faces of the same coin, as would be shown repeatedly in the works of Hegel and Marx, for example. The Enlightenment historians had shown how humans could study their own past to get a sense of the direction of history. With this knowledge, humans could then decide to facilitate progress (accelerate time), as Turgot did himself as a government minister and as the revolutionaries tried to do on a massive scale. But they could also come to appreciate in a new way how as humans they were mired in time, how they “obeyed” their epoch, as Barère put it.

Even those who resisted the French Revolution— perhaps especially those who resisted it—felt the rift that it opened. As early as 1790, Edmund Burke would comment, “It appears to me as if I were in a great crisis, not of the affairs of France alone, but of all Europe, perhaps of more than Europe. All circumstances taken together, the French Revolution is the most astonishing that has hitherto happened in the world.” A decade later, in 1802, the conservative ideologue Louis de Bonald explained that previous political theorists could not accomplish their task because they had not yet seen “the most decisive of all the events, the French Revolution, reserved, it seems, for the final instruction of the universe.” Having witnessed the extremes brought on by the Revolution, he concluded, “all the accidents of society are known; the tour du monde social is completed; we have traveled to the two poles; there remains no territory to be discovered; and the moment has come to offer to man the map of the moral universe and the theory of society.” The French Revolution marked a, if not the, decisive break in human history for reactionaries and revolutionaries alike. Modernity, though the term itself was not yet well-established, was the byproduct of this conflict between proponents and opponents of the revolutionary rupture in time.

Modernity As A Temporal Experience

I have passed too quickly over the novel ways in which the revolutionaries stitched together past, present, and future, and as a result my account has offered mainly an intellectual history rather than a cultural, social, or political one. It is possible to approach this subject in a very different way, as does William Nelson, who shows how practices such as animal breeding and economic modeling helped generate a new disposition toward the future in the eighteenth century. Such fine-grained analysis in different registers is critical to deepening our understanding of the seventeenth and eighteenth century reorientation toward time.

In some ways, modernity takes shape as a temporal category only very gradually between the Renaissance, with the invention of the Middle Ages, and the French Revolution, with its aim to break with the past. In other ways, though, it moves by fits and starts, changing little in some respects over decades and then very quickly at precise moments. It is perhaps not very surprising that a specialist in the history of the French Revolution like myself would give a certain priority to that moment when time is profoundly politicized; control over time becomes a political issue in a very self-conscious fashion during the French Revolution. Some support for this focus on the French Revolution can be found in Peter Fritzsche’s argument that “something quite new develops around 1800, in the decades around the French Revolution: the perception of the restless iteration of the new so that the past no longer served as a faithful guide to the future, as it had in the exemplary rendering of events and characters since the Renaissance.” This disconnection from the past led to a kind of cultural melancholy—Fritzsche’s title is Stranded in the Present: Modern Time and the Melancholy of History—but it gave history writing a much larger role than ever before. The past turned “opaque,” as he puts it, requiring more serious scholarship. But it also appealed to more and more people; the French Revolution brought the people on to the stage of politics, and historians therefore had to pay attention to them in their writing. The genres of historical writing proliferated, with the historical novel being one of the striking examples. Modernity and history writing thus became complicit. By re-configuring the past, the very positing of modernity opened up a new role for history.

If modernity exists—and I still want to admit some doubts on this score—then it is at least in large measure a category having to do with the experience of time. Reinhart Koselleck’s formulation, though sometimes obscure, remains pertinent, and it certainly influenced Fritzsche’s as well as my own account. Over the course of the early modern period [frühen Neuzeit], Koselleck argues, history was “temporalized” as it became “singular” and superior to preceding times. It becomes singular in the sense that it ceased being a repository of repeatable exempla and became instead a nonreplicable progression. At the end of this process “there is the peculiar form of acceleration which characterizes modernity.” Koselleck traces the experience of acceleration to the French Revolution, for its leaders unconsciously secularized the eschatological expectations of Christians. Afterward, however, acceleration only quickened. Here Koselleck’s explanation becomes quite general, if not tautological: acceleration is caused by modernity itself. “But since the onset of such acceleration, the tempo of historical time has constantly been changing, and today, thanks to the population explosion, development of technological powers, and the consequent frequent changes of regime, acceleration belongs to everyday experience.”

Although Koselleck never says much about acceleration, he does insist that it “involves a category of historical cognition which is likely to supersede the idea of progress conceived simply in terms of an optimization (improvement, perfectionnement).” In this he appears to be right, since progress, while always contested, has seemed especially questionable after the horrors of the twentieth—and now twenty-first— centuries. Koselleck defines acceleration in elliptical terms as the “constant renewal” of the difference between the “space of experience” and the “horizon of expectation.” If I understand him correctly, he means that as the experience of the past and the expectations for the future grow ever more distant from each other, the sense of rushing to transit from one to the other only increases. Acceleration is neither a product of ideology nor based in “natural time”; rather it is, he maintains, “a genuine historical quality.” I interpret this to mean, because here Koselleck is especially opaque, that the lived experience of acceleration is real; time itself is not different but the experience of time is. Koselleck’s only clue to what he means by “genuine historical quality” is his emphasis on “technoindustrial progress” and “the acceleration of temporal rhythms and intervals in the environment,” as in the time saved by the increasing division of labor and by machines.

If modernity is the product of a certain historical development, then it may also have an end point. In his last paragraphs, Koselleck suggests that modernity as a category of understanding may now be exhausted: “experiences can only be accumulated because they are—as experiences—repeatable. There must then exist long-term formal structures in history which allow the repeated accumulation of experience. But for this, the difference between experience and expectation has to be bridged to such an extent that history might once again be regarded as exemplary. History is only able to recognize what continually changes, and what is new, if it has access to the conventions within which lasting structures are concealed.” Just what Koselleck means in this passage remains open to interpretation. Is he calling for a return to Cicero’s historia magistra vitae—history as the teacher of life through eternally valid principles? Does he regret the defeat of the ancients by the moderns? Does he wish for an orientation toward time that gives more attention to the past and perhaps also to the future and correspondingly less to the present?

Koselleck did not invent the notion of the acceleration of time, which can be found in much of recent social theory. As William Scheuerman sums up recent writings on the subject, “The reason Western consciousness has been preoccupied with the phenomenon of social speed is that Western modernity has probably been the main site and birthplace of social acceleration.” Social acceleration grew out of capitalism and individualism, Scheuerman argues, which together fostered a preference for incessant scientific and technical innovation. The resulting acceleration takes three forms, which interact to produce a selfpropelling feedback loop: technological acceleration, which is easy to measure; social change or transformation, which is harder to measure but still amenable to analysis (many people now change jobs several times rather than maintaining one for a lifetime, for example); and the heightened tempo of everyday life (the feeling of being rushed), which may or may not be an illusion. “Speed inevitably breeds the need for more speed.” It is hard, then, not to think of modernity as a top about to spin out of control.

If there is a question about whether time exists, and whether modernity exists, then certainly one might ask whether temporal acceleration exists. Much of the writing about social acceleration, including Koselleck’s, shares Martin Heidegger’s suspicion of technology and indeed of modernity itself. Even when the analysis is not Heideggerian, as, for example, in Scheuerman, it tends to be alarmist. The point of Scheuerman’s book is that social acceleration might undermine liberal democracy because “highspeed society tends to favor high-speed political institutions” and favors executive decision-making at the expense of parliamentary legality and the separation of powers. Somehow speed is not good.

This distrust of speed is especially apparent in the writings of the French theorist Paul Virilio, who claims that “speed is really ‘the accident of transfer,’ the premature aging of the constituted world. Swept along by its extreme violence, we are going nowhere; we content ourselves in abandoning the VITAL [VIF] in the interest of the VOID [VIDE] of speed.” The political consequences of this void are truly frightening in Virilio’s scenario. “Tomorrow, the control of the environment will contribute to the rise of a veritable chrono-politics, or as I would put it, a DROMO-POLITICS, where the nation will disappear solely to the benefit of a social deregulation and a transpolitical deconstruction: telecommand replacing progressively not only command, immediate command, but above all ethics.” The “new technologies of instantaneous interactivity” (Virilio published this in 1990 before the rise of the internet) will sap the utility of the distinctions between past, present, and future and ultimately leave us “detached” from ourselves, from our bodies, and even from “the full body of our being” itself. Void indeed.

Yet speed appears to be entirely relative, a truth that becomes apparent, for example, when you are waiting for a photograph to download on your laptop by telephone rather than high-speed connection. When first invented in the early nineteenth century, steam-driven locomotives seemed incredibly fast to contemporaries, though they barely managed to propel railway trains twenty miles an hour. Reacting to the opening of railway lines from Paris to Rouen and Orléans in 1843, Heinrich Heine already spoke of the “tremendous foreboding such as we always feel when there comes an enormous, an unheard-of event whose consequences are imponderable and incalculable… Even the elementary concepts of time and space have begun to vacillate… Just imagine what will happen when the lines to Belgium and Germany are completed and connected up with their railways! I feel as if the mountains and forests of all countries were advancing on Paris. Even now, I can smell the German linden trees; the North Sea’s breakers are rolling against my door.” The feeling that the world is becoming claustrophically compressed is not a product of the internet.

Scientific studies cannot entirely resolve this question. Experiments have shown that the perceived duration of an interval of time is determined by the complexity of the task assigned rather than the duration of the task itself. In addition, the perceived complexity of a task depends on its relative familiarity. Unfamiliar complexity accounts for the slowing down of time, as in for example the experiences of the French Revolution. Temporal compression—the sense of time accelerating—comes from the routinization of that complexity. In general, we might conclude that the increasing differentiation of modern society influences our perception of time by producing greater complexity of tasks, but that complexity cuts both ways, producing either compression or protracted duration. In the end, as Vyvyan Evans sums up the research, “temporality derives not from objective properties of events and the relations between them, but rather constitutes a subjective response to such events.”

Although I remain less than entirely convinced, therefore, about what Koselleck calls the “genuine historical quality” of acceleration, there is no doubt that a certain kind of “presentism,” derived from the modern time schema, poses distinct challenges to history as a discipline. The modern emphasis on moving quickly away from the past, and as Fritzsche puts it, restlessly iterating the new, leads to a kind of disciplinary reductio ad absurdum. This restlessness takes two disciplinary forms that worry me: decreasing attention to “pre-modern” history as increasing emphasis is laid on the direct and even immediate sources of the present, and excessive concern for innovation. In the nineteenth and even much of the twentieth century, most history students studied ancient and medieval history (and most European gymnasium students learned Greek and Latin). Now most undergraduates and even many graduate students—at least in the United States—prefer to study the twentieth century (and what they prefer as consumers determines at least in some measure what they are taught). In recent years, more than half of history doctoral students in the U.S. have specialized in American history and most of them have worked on the last 100 years. Is the historical discipline, one wonders, truly historical any more?

The concern for innovation can be found in the relentless progression of “new” histories (and I myself have certainly contributed to this trend). During the entire seventeenth century, only six books published in English had “new history” in their title. In the last five years alone, there have been more than forty ranging from “Art, a new history, to “new history of German literature,” “First Crusade, a new history,” and just plain “the new history,” whose introduction nonetheless has a rather familiar title, “What is History?” (the title of E.H. Carr’s book published nearly a half century ago). The pressure to innovate grew steadily within the historical discipline in the twentieth century. When James Harvey Robinson published his book The New History: Essays Illustrating the Modern Historical Outlook in 1912, it caused a stir in American historical circles and was immediately hailed or criticized as a manifesto for a new generation of historians. Articles critical of it were still being published in the 1970s. Will the same be said of the “new histories” of the last generation?

The reductio ad absurdum of innovation in history— that the time between the different formulations of the new risks becoming infinitesimally short— derives from an enduring tension within the discipline about its relationship to science, that key element in the breakthrough to modernity. Science proceeds by building upon previous discoveries, but as they advance scientists rarely feel the need to look back to work undertaken more than a short time before. Historians have tended to follow the scientific model, even though it is not entirely germane to historical investigation. So students are more likely to know the most recent historical writings and to be almost entirely ignorant of the work of historians before 1950 and especially before 1900. I am willing to wager right now that not one of my students has ever read a word written by James Harvey Robinson. His “new history” has nothing new to tell them.

Ignorance of past historical writing impoverishes our sense of the discipline and on occasion leads us to reinvent the proverbial wheel, as we discover information that was in fact already known to our predecessors. I have found to my chagrin that I sometimes only give a more up-to-date twist to arguments made long before me by Alphonse Aulard or Albert Mathiez. But repetition in the name of novelty is not the most serious problem. Presentism, at its worst, encourages a kind of moral complacency and self-congratulation. Interpreting the past in terms of present concerns (as it might be said I am doing right here and now) too often leads us to find ourselves morally superior; the Greeks had slavery, even David Hume was a racist, and European women endorsed imperial ventures. Our forbears constantly fail to measure up to our present-day standards. They are not up-todate. This is not to say that any of these findings are irrelevant or that we should endorse an entirely relativist point of view. Yet we should question the stance of temporal superiority that is implicit in the Western (and now probably worldwide) historical discipline.

From the moment of its foundation, then, history as a discipline already carried the seeds of its future problems. Modernity and history went hand in hand from the start. In the end, however, modernity is more than a time schema. The Oxford English Dictionary definition, with which I began, misrepresents the most crucial element in modernity, i.e., the reliance on reason as the sole standard of truth. Modernity is not just a “repudiation of traditional ideas…in favor of contemporary or radical values and beliefs.” It proposes a different standard for determining the validity of values and beliefs, a standard that is not necessarily tied to any particular value or belief. In this sense, I do very much believe that modernity exists, for the standard of reason allows us to question the modern time schema and even the workings of reason itself.

Editors Note: Above is an excerpt provided with special permission from CEU Press from Chapter 2. Modernity and History of Measuring Time, Making History by Lynn Hunt, Copyright Central European University Press.


1 The definition of “modernity” can be found in the OED, 2nd edition, online at For Chateaubriand, see E&CONJUNCT=PHRASE&DISTANCE=3&PROXY=or+fewer&OUTPUT=conc&SYSTEM_DIR=%2Fprojects% 2Fartflb%2Fdatabases%2Fartfl%2FTLF%2FIMAGE%2F

2 For “modern” in the OED, 2nd edition, online, see fn. 1. The definition from dictionary of the Académie française can be found through ARTFL at

3 The figures on book titles come from a search on EBBO, Early English Books Online available at Paul Hazard, The European Mind, 1680–1715, trans. J. Lewis May (Cleveland and New York: The World Publishing Co., 1963), p. 29.

4 Joan DeJean, Ancients Against Moderns: Culture Wars and the Making of a Fin de Siècle (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), 1997.

5 John Dagenais and Margaret R. Greer, “Decolonizing the Middle Ages: Introduction,” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, vol. 30, Number 3 (Fall 2000), pp. 431–448. On dates of words see

6 Encyclopédie ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, vol. 8 (Neufchastel: Samuel Faulche, 1765), p. 223.


8 Voltaire, “Histoire,” Encyclopédie ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, vol. 8, p. 221. The reference to the illustrious Bossuet can be found in Essay sur l’histoire générale, et sur les moeurs et l’esprit des nations, depuis Charlemagne jusqu’à nos jours (Genève, Cramer, 1756.), p. 3. On Voltaire and Bossuet, see J.H. Brumfitt, ed., Les Oeuvres completes de Voltaire: The Complete Works of Voltaire, 59 (Geneva: Institut et Musée Voltaire, Univ. of Toronto Press, 1969), esp. pp. 32–35.

9 Voltaire, Essay, pp. 3–4. On Voltaire’s rejection of eighteenth-century geology and its efforts to push back the dating of the earths origins, see Paolo Rossi, The Dark Abyss of Time: The History of the Earth and the History of Nations from Hooke to Vico, tr. Lydia G. Cochrane (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), esp. pp. 91–95.

10 Voltaire, Essay, p. 231. On Voltaire’s somewhat contradictory views of progress, see J.H. Brumfitt, Voltaire: Historian (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1958), pp. 121–128.

11 La Philosophie de l’histoire can be found in Brumfitt, ed., Les Oeuvres complètes de Voltaire, 59, see especially chapter 53, pp. 274–275.

12 Although incomplete, especially on the role of Scottish philosophers, still valuable is Ernst Cassirer, The Philosophy of the Enlightenment, tr. Fritz C.A. Koelln and James P. Pettegrove (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1951), pp. 197–233. On the contribution of Scottish philosophers to history, see Murray G.H. Pittock, “Historiography,” in Alexander Broadie, ed., The Cambridge Companion to the Scottish Enlightenment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), pp. 258–279.

13 On the spread of the notion see David Spadafora, The Idea of Progress in Eighteenth-Century Britain (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990).

14 On Smith’s stages, see Pittock, “Historiography,” p. 262. Adam Ferguson, An Essay on the History of Civil Society, 1767, ed. Duncan Forbes (Edinburgh: University Press, 1966), quotes pp. 74 and 217, and see the table of contents.

15 John Millar, The Origin of the Distinction of Ranks; or, an Inquiry into the Circumstances which give Rise to Influence Authority in the Different Members of Society, third edition, corrected and enlarged (London, sold by John Murray, 1779), p. 5.

16 Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot, Oeuvres de Turgot, 2 vols., ed. Dupont de Nemours (Osnabrück: O. Zeller, 1966), II : 597– 611.

17 Quotes from Turgot’s unfinished work “On Universal History,” in Ronald L. Meek, ed., Turgot on Progress, Sociology and Economics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973), pp. 88, 89.

18 Jean-Antoine-Nicolas de Caritat, marquis de Condorcet, Esquisse d’un tableau historique des progrès de l’esprit humain (Paris : Boivin et Cie, 1933.), p. 166.

19 Condorcet, Esquisse, p. 171.

20 Quotations from Robespierre, Voltaire, Rousseau, and Mably can be found on ARTFL. For the abolition of the feudal regime, see Archives parlementaires, vol. 8, p. 356.

21 Révolutions de Paris, Dédiées à la Nation, 2 (Du samedi 18 au 25 juillet 1789), p. 7. Le Patriote français [in order to avoid confusion I have modernized the spelling from françois to français], no. LXIII, du Mercredi 7 octobre 1789, p. 3. I have developed some of these ideas in “The World We Have Gained: The Future of the French Revolution,” American Historical Review, 108 (February): 1–19.

22 Rapport sur l’ouverture d’un concours pour les livres élémentaires de la première éducation, par Grégoire (Séance du 3 pluviôse an II). I have discussed the “mythic present” and narratives about the Revolution in Lynn Hunt, Politics, Culture, and Class in the French Revolution (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984, 2004).

23 As cited in Sergio Luzzatto, “Un Futur au passé. La Révolution dans les mémoires des Conventionnels,” Annales historiques de la Révolution française, 278 (1989): 455–475, quote p. 469. Hippolyte Carnot and David (D’Angers), eds., Mémoires de B. Barère, 4 vols. (Paris: Jules Labitte, 1842–1844), vol. 1: 12–13.

24 Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, paragraph 15,; Louis de Bonald, Législation primitive considérée dans les derniers temps par les seules lumières de la raison, suivie de plusieurs traités et discours politiques, 3 vols. (Paris: le Clere, An XI–1802), I: 94–95.

25 William Max Nelson, “The Weapon of Time: Constructing the Future in France, 1750 – Year I” (Ph D dissertation, UCLA: 2006).

26 Peter Fritzsche, Stranded in the Present: Modern Time and the Melancholy of History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), quote p. 5.

27 Reinhart Koselleck, Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time, tr. Keith Tribe (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1985), quotes pp. 5 and 47.

28 Ibid., pp. 281–284.

29 Ibid., p. 288.

30 William E. Scheuerman, Liberal Democracy and the Social Acceleration of Time (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004), quote pp. 24 and 22. Scheuerman takes his three categories of acceleration from Hartmut Rosa who calls them “dimensions.”

31 Scheuerman, Liberal Democracy, p. 26.

32 James Der Derian, ed., The Virilio Reader (Malden, MA and Oxford: Blackwell, 1998), quotes pp. 122 and 129.

33 As quoted in Wolfgang Schivelbusch, The Railway Journey: Trains and Travel in the 19th Century, tr. Anselm Hollo (New-York: Urizen Books, 1979), p. 44.

34 Vyvyan Evans, The Structure of Time: Language, Meaning and Temporal Cognition (Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 2005), p. 21.

35 For estimations of student preferences, see Robert B. Townsend in Perspectives, available at

36 I came by the figure of six books for the seventeenth century, using Early English Books On-line. Alun Munslow, The New History (Harlow New York: Longman, 2003). On Robinson, see David Gross, “The ‘New History’: A Note of Reappraisal,” History and Theory, Vol. 13, No. 1. (Feb., 1974), pp. 53–58.

37 I took up some of these issues in a preliminary way in Perspectives, the newsletter of the American Historical Association.

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