In this conversation, our guest contributor Alexandra Medzibrodszky talks with Zoltán Boldizsár Simon and Lars Deile, the co-editors of the recently published volume Historical Understanding: Past, Present, and Future (Bloomsbury Academic, 2022). The conversation focuses on the theory of history, reflecting on our changing perceptions of historical time; the relationship between the past, present, and future; the concept of the Anthropocene and its importance for historians; as well as on the legacy of Reinhart Koselleck and the extent to which he remains significant to contemporary debates on the theory of history.
Zoltán Boldizsár Simon is a historian and theorist of history at Bielefeld University, and the author of History in Times of Unprecedented Change: A Theory for the 21st Century (2019) and The Epochal Event: Transformations in the Entangled Human, Technological, and Natural Worlds (2020). In his research, he focuses on the intersections of theory and philosophy of history, history of knowledge, history of ideas, Anthropocene research, and science and technology studies.
Lars Deile is a Professor of Didactics and Theory of History at Bielefeld University. His main scholarly interests include intellectual and educational history, history didactics, history politics, and theory of history. And in particular, looking at these issues and questions in a theory of historical learning based on a phenomenological approach. He has recently published articles looking at history lessons as a laboratory for the future and possibilities and limits of history as a critique of racism.
Alexandra Medzibrodszky received her doctoral degree in comparative history from Central European University. She is currently a CEU Global Teaching Fellow at Corvinus University. Her main areas of interest are intellectual history, global political thought, and the history of Russia and the Soviet Union.
Alexandra Medzibrodszky: The primary aim of the volume appears to be to explore the many shapes of historical understanding today. It is highlighted that the volume is not a handbook-type introduction, nor a collection of recent views on philosophical theories of history, but an “inquiry into a new historical condition.” You argue that we are experiencing contradictory tendencies when it comes to historical understanding, characterized by an abundance of history as well as a crisis of historical understanding. Could you tell me more about this tension and how it has served as a motivation for this volume? How would you describe this new historical condition? What is specific about it and what events or developments triggered its emergence?
Zoltán Boldizsár Simon: Let me start from the aspect that you have highlighted. The simultaneous crisis and abundance of history is an observation that I came to, and that was elevated into a paradoxical point of departure in the volume’s introduction. On the one hand, we seem to witness an abundance of history, thematized both in the public sphere and in university departments: the surviving colonial legacies, the falling statues, the question of how humans have navigated themselves into the Anthropocene predicament, all the tech-narratives of steering human development (or even beyond the human condition), and so on. We have these “historical” endeavors all around, often conflicting with each other, and that is the abundance part. On the other hand, there is a drop in history enrollments in universities, constant complaints about the lack of the public relevance of history, the closed-down departments, there is the rise of memory cultures and trauma as alternative approaches to the past. And all of this somehow points to yet another crisis of historical understanding. So, this was the starting point.
The resolution of this paradox, in which you have an abundance of historical understanding and its crisis at the same time, is that there is no one monolith form or modality of historical understanding. There are multiple historicities at play on the societal level, underlying different societal practices, some of which are currently prominent, some fade out, some co-exist peacefully, some contradict one another, and so on.
This recognition of multiple historicities is the basis of the volume and this is the basis of the Historical Futures project, which I co-conduct with Marek Tamm and the journal History and Theory, and several of my solo projects, too, as well as the Historical Understanding volume that Lars and I are put together on this very similar basis. There has been plenty of talk lately about how historical time harbors multiple temporalities of diverging paces and tempos of social processes, everyday life agencies, structural transformations, and time experiences across communities all across the globe. But the reason why we have struggled to grasp all that’s been going on in the world lately is less because of these diverging temporalities, but because of the co-existence of many historicities in societal practices, which relate past, present, and future to one another very differently. So, it is not only about multiple times, but multiple configurations of change over time. And these part ways, intersect, and conflict in many different ways. For example, academic historians experience a crisis today because their typical ways to relate to the past, present, and future – which means condensing the past-present-future relation into narratives of developmental processes – no longer fits well with how these temporal registers are related to one another in different societal endeavors as diverse as climate emergency discussions, statue removals, or transhumanist aspirations.
In my book History in Times of Unprecedented Change: A Theory for the 21st Century (2019), I tried to conceptualize an emerging sense of historicity underlying the ecological and technological domain as “unprecedented change.” Since then, I am trying to explore how this relates not only to the processual-developmental historicity informing the discipline of history, but also to all other historicities in societal practices. And, indeed, I believe that the ongoing transformation of how we think about “history” and how we think about the relations of temporal registers in a plural landscape of historicities add up to a new historical condition, which we tried to map in the previously mentioned projects and in this volume with Lars and with the contributors of this volume.
Together with Lars, we spent quite some time to figure out what would be the best format and structure to explore these questions. Eventually, we settled with this kaleidoscope-like overview, which enables us to see how many different shapes of historical understandings are at play both in the world of societal practices and at universities (not only in history departments) in the shape of historical approaches.
We also thought that the short essay format enables us to include lots of contributions – we have twenty-four of them in the volume plus an introduction and a conclusion – and yet to keep the book nevertheless relatively compact. We thought it is best to structure these contributions along the question of whether they highlight the importance of the present, the future, or the past among the temporal registers that they relate.
Lars Deile: On the occasion of a workshop, Zoltan and me had organized at the Center for Theories in History at Bielefeld University we decided to develop the discussions further and among more people and more diverse people. The content of the present book is very different from the workshop, but the book grew out of it. We thought the topics were so interesting, so we wanted to continue, and the book is the result.
Zoltán Boldizsár Simon: The workshop had only eight participants, and it was organized when François Hartog was promoted to become the first Koselleck Professor, which was a new initiative at Bielefeld University.
Alexandra Medzibrodszky: Historical understanding, as highlighted in the volume, is a rather elusive concept. You define historical understanding in the introduction as a “broad framing category” that comprehends ourselves, the world, events, etc. as integrated into categories of past, present, and future. Could you please explain a bit more about your working definition of historical understanding and how it corresponds to the aims of the book? While relying on a broad definition can facilitate an inclusive approach, the book is structured along conventional temporal categories – past, present, future – although in an unconventional order: present, future, and the past. What was the motivation or logic behind this choice? Was this perhaps a practical compromise between normativity and inclusivity?
Zoltán Boldizsár Simon: Structuring the book, we started with the present, then the future, and then the past. Of course, there is a reason for this. To begin with, in our work prior to the volume, both Lars and I have been emphasizing the role of the future in historical understanding. So, that was a personal motivation for both of us not to start with the past. The second reason was that there are several other prominent streams in the theory of history, which emphasize the significance of the present.
The unconventional structure that we chose for the book conveys the message that
even though most academic forms of historical understanding are about the past, historical understanding as such is not simply knowledge about the past, but a variety of relational configurations of the past-present-future registers. The kind of historical knowledge you have is tied to the temporal configuration you work with.
So, this is the background for the book’s structure.
This is where the volume’s definition of historical understanding, which draws on Louis Mink’s ideas, comes into view. I guess I’m not alone in seeing Mink’s work as one of the most original and illuminating in the theory of philosophy of history of the second half of the last century. And I was very happy to use Mink in the introduction, who defined historical understanding in relation to other forms of understanding, which enabled him to play out what he thought was characteristic of a specifically “historical” form of understanding. What he did was to link historical understanding with a configurational mode of comprehension as distinct from theoretical and categoreal modes, which he associated, respectively, with natural science (mainly theoretical physics) and philosophy. These modes of comprehension structure experience into larger images, which, in Mink’s vocabulary, means grasping things together.
So, according to Mink, there are different ways to grasp things together: natural science grasps things together by seeing the general as the common to individual instances, philosophy does so by subsuming individual instances under larger categories, and historical understanding grasps things together by seeing experiences and individual instances in larger configurations.
This was what we elevated into the premise of the volume on historical understanding, but not exactly in the way that Mink explained. Mink worked in the heyday of narrativism, and to him these larger configurations were historical narratives. But today there is a strong post-narrativist stream in the theory of philosophy of history. True enough, it is perhaps better described as non-narrativist rather than post-narrativist in the sense that it simply pays attention mainly to things other than narrative. Much of that work is actually still reconcilable with the narrativist framework, but many of our previous arguments are less reconcilable with it. We thought that there is a point where the definition of historical understanding must be delinked from the narrativist approach, because one of the defining characteristics of newly emerging historicities and new forms of historical understanding is that they defy narrative plot structures of subject development. Some forms of historical understanding even lack a central subject whose past, present, and future could continuously be at stake. The long and short of it is that not all forms of historical understanding fit with the narrativist approach. This meant that instead of narrative configurations, in this volume we needed to work with another kind of configurations, which, unlike narrative, remains central to all forms of historical understanding. And this we thought were temporal configurations.
All in all, it seemed appropriate to recourse to Mink, but only in order to adapt his ideas concerning historical understanding as a configurational mode of comprehension to the preoccupations of the day, and to frame the volume as one that explores the current shape of historical understanding by mapping it as a variety of temporal configurations that relate the past, present, and future historically in various ways and modalities.
Lars Deile: I am also dealing with historical understanding as a problem of history didactic. I try to give students a chance to prepare themselves for life as a history teacher, and a basic thing is always to ask “what is history and what is historical thinking?” To be honest, teachers, students and many others have no idea what it might be. Or maybe a very vague one like “something with the past”. And it is true, it is very difficult to grasp all our implicit understanding of history and to open up a way of divergent thinking, of alternatives to the almost naturalized dominance of ideas like progress and linearity. Zoltán added a lot of ideas, but to figure this out is one of the main aims of the book – to get the impulse to reflect on what is historical understanding, what is history, and what might it be today and in the years to come. We are very sure that it will be different from what we are all familiar as the modern way of historical thinking. But we wanted to work on this actively.
Alexandra Medzibrodszky: I was wondering about the position of historical thinking in relation to other disciplines, and in the book you mention this tension as well writing about the pitfalls of not having the balance between the theory and empirical research. You mention that “[w]hereas theoretically unreflective practice is in danger of losing social and political relevance, isolated theory runs the risk of degenerating into an intellectual pastime of a closed circle.” Some of the influential theories in history as a discipline came from scholars who were not primarily active as historians (see Said’s Orientalism, Geertz’s thick description, White’s metahistory). What might be the advantages of such an interdisciplinary spirit and what advantages do practicing historians bring to the table? More generally, why do we need historical theory, and what kind of scholars might be in a position to develop it? How does theoretical reflection on historical practice make, or keep the discipline relevant?
Lars Deile: If you look at the practice of historians, there seems to be no doubt how this job has to be done: go to the archive, collect your sources, evaluate them, tell your story, discuss it with colleagues, write a book on it.
Epistemologically, this is a very confounded profession and there seems to be nothing in doubt. As a history didactic, I always ask: why should people be interested in these histories? Why do we do this in this or that way? Why such stories? Why should the past be relevant for today and tomorrow? These are the questions students in the class would ask me as a history teacher, and these are also the questions that students of history ask, but which the profession or the discipline very often answers with “learn how the job has to be done,” and full stop.
We think that this is not a fully profound approach, and not the right way to do this business. There has to be a high relevance in reflection on how this is done, why what we do is relevant, how it gains societal relevance, and so on. Zoltán is a historical theorist “by birth,” while I rather came on the sideway, by thinking about what is history and how could it be taught in school. That was my starting point in thinking about history theoretically and reflecting on it. And I think this is highly necessary, but rarely done. We see it also in our discussions in Bielefeld. Most colleagues are very interested in theoretical questions, but only up to a certain point: as long as they reflect on their work and what they are doing, and how their job can be done by implementing other theories from other disciplines. People are very open to do that. But when you start to ask general questions and reflect on a more abstract level, when historical theory comes into areas where it is a definite field within historiography, like didactics or numismatics or Medieval studies, then people start to say that it has no relevance for their work. And we think that this should be dealt with much more openly, and the relevance of theoretical reflection is much greater than just the epistemological question of how we practice history.
As you say, most of the highest impulse or innovation comes from the edges – from people who are somehow almost outlaws of the discipline, like Hayden White was for instance. When in his book Haunting History (2017) Ethan Kleinberg starts talking about ghosts, most historians say “I did not find them in the sources, so sorry for that, there are no ghosts.” But I think we should think more wildly about history, about what we are doing, about the relevance that brings people in motion. And from the other side, from the edges, like the post-colonial, from all these people who do not see themselves represented properly, they are demanding their place in academic history. That will definitely change the discipline.
What we need are scholars who are open to thinking differently. These were the scholars we tried to include in the volume. We were not searching so much for the big names or for people who are already famous old men, but we were trying to bring fresh ideas, and in many ways, I think, the volume can be very inspiring exactly because of this.
To add one more thing, we found out that in some ways the discipline is very Western-centric. We had a great publisher, who is very professional, but of course, they want to sell their books, and they sell them in the Western market. We tried to find authors from many parts of the world, and first of all it was not very easy because there is a language problem, but also it is a problem of being known and being connected to other parts of the field. When you start with the field of the theory of history itself, it is very English and it is very well-connected, but if you start to go to the edges, it gets difficult, and we had a problem of how to represent many different voices. We were successful in some way, but not as successful as we would have liked to be. Of course, it is still worth reading the book, I would say.
Zoltán Boldizsár Simon: To add to the question of historians and historical theorists, I think there is not a big difference in the sense that, on the one hand, every historical theory requires intellectual history. On the other hand, most kinds of history require theory at least to the methodological extent. Of course, there are so many different understandings of theory, and I think this is apparent in the volume as well. Again, we did not explicitly look for the theorists. We simply went for people who, we thought, could say relevant and interesting things about the current shapes of historical understanding. I think, most of the contributors would identify themselves as historians rather than as theorists (at least those who are either of these or both).
Alexandra Medzibrodszky: One of the larger issues that repeatedly comes up in the volume is related to the question of the periodization of history. For instance, the chapter by Cornelius Holtorf highlights that there is a lack of periodization of the future and historians might want to pay more attention to this issue. Also, there is a recurring, central concept in the volume – the Anthropocene. Could you explain this term and why do the authors consider it important? Do you think the term has lasting value? Why should contemporary historians pay more attention to this concept? How can it help us to better understand our past, present, and future? Does it have a lasting value?
Lars Deile: I would say: definitely yes. It seems to me that everybody is talking about the Anthropocene today, even though the concept is not so new. It was just a few years ago, Zoltán’s book was not published, a physicist told me that the Anthropocene is a big thing, and there will be a lot of discussions about it. And I replied that I had not even heard of it. This was not really long ago, even though discussions on it are not that new.
What is the Anthropocene? It is said to be a new era in Earth’s history: humans have started to shape the planet Earth so much that the traces of their activities can be found in geological formations.
That’s an important starting point. This concept changes a lot for us historians, even though it is not that frequent in the field of historical studies, I would say. Our impact has really changed the planet – that’s the idea behind this. It is not that we come and go, but there is something from us, our waste, which will last geologically. And this is a starting point to think on a different kind of scale. It raises questions about who we are, what will last, or what we leave on this planet, is our impact positive or negative, and it also means that we are not thinking in centuries or millennia but in much wider time frames. That’s really a big question of scale. With that comes a lot of questions on the value of our impact. To look at the future is very important because it raises questions about what we want to add to the planet Earth. To add something to the planet is not a problem in itself, but are we adding what we want to add, or should add? And thinking about the Anthropocene raises these ethical questions.
With the whole concept, there is the idea of decentering humanity, not putting human beings at the center of creation, and for whom this planet was made. These are the big questions that arise talking about the Anthropocene, and historical studies have just started to notice this, but very intensively. For instance, Zoltán’s book is fascinating, and part of its success is not that this is a fully new idea, but that it is also brilliantly written. But the whole concept needs some response by the history profession.
Zoltán Boldizsár Simon: It is important to note that when most of the human and social sciences, including history, debate the Anthropocene, they tend to overlook the systemic framework of its conception in Earth System science.
I think it would be an important point to emphasize that the Anthropocene, as it was conceived in the Earth System science, is not merely about the human impact on the planet, but about how human agency alters the conditions of the Earth as a system composed of interacting subsystems.
If you do not take the systemic aspect into account, then you risk no longer being in conversation with the Earth System science. And the more you overlook the sciences which came up with the notion of the Anthropocene, the more you simply hijack a word and give literally any meaning to it, whatever you just wish. To a large extent, this is what we see happening in segments of the human and social sciences, which now develop parallel discussions to the scientific discussion on the Anthropocene.
But, at the same time, there are also streams that try to bring these discussions together. All of these streams have their own value, but personally, I think that it is better to be in conversation with science about the Anthropocene, especially because it helps to maintain the value of the concept. We all know how human and social scientific scholarship lifts up and throws out concepts and categories, and how quickly it exhaustsmeaningful discussions. And this can happen to the Anthropocene as well. But the reason why I think this might not happen is exactly because the concept comes from Earth System science. So, the life-cycle of the concept is not derivative only of human and social scientific procedures and the logic of exhausting concepts, chewing them up, and jumping on new ones only in order to do the same.
To the question of whether historians should take it seriously, it is just as Lars said: yes, sure. And they are already doing it. Does it help to understand the past-present-future relationship better? I think it is more accurate to say that the notion entails new kinds of historicities and new configurations of the past-present-future relation, or new modalities of historical understanding, whether history departments pick up the notion or not. It is actually for the sake of historical studies that they might want to find ways to relate to the concept of the Anthropocene. As Lars said, for more than a decade, the discipline does actually relate to it quite prominently and tries to figure out how it reconfigures the kind of historical understanding that the discipline works with, how it differs from that, or what does it demand to join the discussion. All of this is extremely delicate, exactly because it needs a productive relation to scientific knowledge. And that relationship, of course, should not be uncritical, but it needs to be more productive, and it requires a meaningful exchange and genuine effort to understand one another, and to work together.
Alexandra Medzibrodszky: The point that Lars mentioned, the decentering of humanity, connects to another recurring topic in the volume – the expansion of historical agency as part of the new historical condition. To a certain extent, this continues earlier historiographical approaches and efforts which expanded the concept of historical agency to marginalized and silenced groups within societies. Some of the contributions in the volume take one step further and focus on non-human agency – for instance, Marek Tamm’s discussion of post-humanism and multispecies history or Erica Fudge’s focus on human-animal relationship in historical understanding. What triggered the inclusion of these new types of historical agency and how far could, or should this trend go? Should we start to think about the agency of robots in historical understanding? Furthermore, one might claim that historically, mankind has not reacted well when attempts were made to remove it from the center of attention, such as Darwin’s and Freud’s struggle to change our understanding of the human. Do you anticipate a backlash and resistance to such attempts to decenter humans in history?
Zoltán Boldizsár Simon: Of course, there is resistance to these attempts. And the attempts themselves derive from a very basic point that with the recognition of human-induced species extinction, the Anthropocene, and so on, to a large extent, human activity seems to be the malaise of the planet. Furthermore, there is by now a widespread view in the human and social sciences that such disastrous human activity follows from a worldview fueled by anthropocentrism. Hence the idea that there is a necessity to overcome anthropocentrism and to develop new modes of thinking.
But of course, there is resistance to it, and many contributors of the volume, Erica Fudge, Marek Tamm, or Jo Guldi, who wrote a chapter contemplating whether historians could be replaced by algorithms, could likely tell a lot of stories about the resistance. I also experienced it several times, and probably Lars has experienced it as well. Many discussions are circling around these sets of questions, so of course they had a prominent place in the volume, especially because they derive from the Anthropocene stream, which is also prominent in the volume, as Lars has already highlighted. Most often, the resistance stems from not taking the effort to go a bit more profoundly into the question, and this feeds a series of misunderstandings. Also, the resistance is often motivated by, I think, an unfounded fear that new knowledge, which will be created on this basis, would somehow render previous modes of knowledge production unimportant or would cast them aside. That is, there is a fear if we decenter the human, if we move towards more-than-human history, than from now on there is no research on human world issues, there is no politics, and so on. But of course, this is not the case, and
no one actually argues that opening up to studying the relations between humans and non-humans means abandoning everything else. It only means that studying such new objects is not possible by relying on the premises – the assumptions, the theories, the methods, the procedures – with which we study histories of nations, histories of revolutions, histories of emancipations, or gender histories. So we need to develop new concepts, new methods, and new approaches to study the non-human, either in itself or in relation to the human.
But, at the same time, those approaches that will be developed might just be of little help to understand some older concerns. They may throw new light on the older concerns as well, but they are designed to enable us to respond to new concerns. So, the new is not going to replace the old.
The human and social sciences do not simply jump from one overarching paradigm that would frame all research to another of such overarching paradigms. Mary Fulbrook wrote about it two decades ago, that in human and social sciences, there is a host of co-existing paradigms.
At any point in time, some may be more fashionable than others, but none of them make the others disappear when they come to dominance, like, according to Thomas Kuhn, it happens in the natural sciences. Political history did not disappear when social and cultural history came to dominate. Nor will more-than-human approaches make conventional histories (focusing on human societies) disappear. To go back to the volume’s frame of multiple historicities, you may think that decentering the human makes all other forms of history writing disappear only on the assumption that there is one unitary historical understanding that goes through changes, and of course when it changes the old ways disappear. But this image is exactly what the volume intends to dissipate by showcasing the varieties.
The question of how far decentering the human can go, whether non-anthropocentrism is possible at all, and what kind of anthropocentrisms and non-anthropocentrisms are feasible – all this is yet to be figured out, and all of this is a subject of discussion. What we intended to show in the book are these openings of new discussions and ongoing debates that problematize anthropocentrism. The volume has more questions than answers about this.
Lars Deile: If we talk about the human, we very often mean Western, white, male, middle-class, all these things that you can put together. In short, the ideal of a modern successful person. Where the center is, is not the central issue. All these concepts will change anyway,and either we are able to face this, or not. At least in the volume, we tried to face this departing from what we are. But we are not black, female, and so on. We tried to bring people together. That was at least the starting point.
Alexandra Medzibrodszky: As I am talking with two scholars based in Bielefeld, I have to mention the name of Reinhart Koselleck. One recurring reference point to many authors in this volume was his work. For instance, Helge Jordheim refers to him extensively in relation to his discussion of out-of-syncness, and Chris Lorenz evaluates his ideas when reflecting on the stratigraphic model, that is thinking about historical times in terms of layers of time. Koselleck was a productive and original thinker whose contributions to the theory of history shaped historical writing in Germany and beyond. Therefore, it would be worth reflecting on the relationship between his ideas and the ones you discuss in the book. What are the main theoretical innovations in the field since Koselleck’s death in 2006? In which ways Koselleck continues to shape the theory of history? In general, what is the relationship between this volume that you edited to Koselleck and his legacy?
Lars Deile: As you said, there is no reflection on history without talking about Koselleck, when you speak with two guys from Bielefeld. He might look like some of our pillar saints in Bielefeld, but actually, we did not have this in mind. Not at all. It would be interesting to ask the authors why so many of them refer to Koselleck. We really did not have this in mind, and we did not build the book around Koselleck.
I must look up how many times Koselleck appears in the book, because I do not know, but there is a trend of constantly referring to his work and to his ideas, and it is growing, I would say. There is still continuity between Koselleck and us in topics and approaches like conceptual history. There is this tendency in Koselleck to ask the very deep and broad questions: Who are we? How do we understand the world? What is our present? What is our idea of future? How does it refer to the past? Koselleck asked questions of higher scale. He was not so busy with questions on epistemological and methodological issues, but rather on general questions on what history is and why it is important, and what is the societal relevance of dealing with time in the ways of history, how did it change from what he called Sattelzeit, so from pre-modern to modern. Perhaps we are in a place where our time is shifting from modern to post-modern, whatever that might be. And that is why we have to ask the same questions as Koselleck did about how historical understanding with time. Maybe because of the relevance of these general questions, a lot of scholars refer to Koselleck.
Koselleck was not a master of the big volume. He did not write so many books. He was more of a master of one idea in an essay format. It could have been an example of a guiding idea for our volume because we also wanted impulse in a shorter form to develop one idea in order to enrich the kaleidoscope we intended to build. But in our vision there was no explicit reference to Koselleck, and his work was not a guiding idea to us.
We are still, I think, in such a situation that the world is increasingly changing, and this is really what Koselleck was focusing on – understanding this kind of accelerating transformation.
If we have lost the historical regime of modernity, and for instance, this is what François Hartog claims when he says that we are not in this way of future orientation and progress as guiding ideas, then we have to ask the question, like Latour did in the title of one of his last books, “Where am I?” Time is out of joint, as Hamlet says, and we must try to fix it for ourselves. I think these are the questions that Koselleck dealt with. So that could be a reason why people start referring to him, maybe even more than they did ten years ago.
Zoltán Boldizsár Simon: I completely agree. We can develop this into a theory of Koselleck scholarship. Why is there a big interest in Koselleck? I think the reason is exactly what Lars says. People sense that all these recent ecological and technological transformations reconfigured the way we think about history and historical time. So, it seems evident to turn to the most prominent scholar of the modern idea of history and modern historical time. Yet, this could also be counterproductive, and I think it is already to a certain extent counterproductive. Indeed,
Koselleck was the most brilliant scholar of modern historical time, but what he studied, the modern concept of history, is exactly what is being challenged right now. I think that his work is an excellent guide to understanding what is challenged but it is less useful in developing a response to the challenge and in theorizing the new historical condition.
There is another aspect that I think propels what Chris Lorenz in his contribution names the “Koselleck industry.” At Ivy League universities in the United States, there is a recent fascination with German thinkers, and Koselleck is no exception. So, he is simply lifted up for the moment, and we will see what comes out of it. As the previous remarks perhaps already indicate, I’m a bit skeptical about that. It can be counterproductive to pick up his thought at a time and in relation to challenges that did not constitute Koselleck’s experiential horizon. To me, the extent of this fascination with Koselleck is yet to be explained properly, because I wish that we paid more attention to contemporary intellectual work on contemporary issues rather than insisting on trying to make past intellectual work speak to our concerns. I think both are important and there should be a balance between the two, but I think there is an imbalance toward the latter – towards making dead authoritative thinkers speak to things they never actually dealt with. If you want to understand the Anthropocene, Earth System science is a better guide than Koselleck. But there is a way to bring the two together. You can turn to Koselleck as a source of inspiration to understand what is challenged. But if you end up using Koselleck as a response, then I think it is the wrong way. It is always questionable to leave the solution and the last word to ideas that we already know. And this is why I think that
Koselleck’s work is brilliant and is a great starting point, and from this starting point the goal would be to leave it behind and develop theories that account for today’s historical understanding. And I think that is the spirit in which the contributions to this volume make use of Koselleck.
And I think the volume’s message from its first contribution, which is François Hartog’s essay, is that historical understanding today is something other than what the Koselleckian framework could conceive of, and yet Koselleck is instrumental in understanding that which is being left behind.
The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
In collaboration with Vilius Kubekas and Karen Culver.