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Time and the Shape of History

Time and the Shape of History

Copyright Date: 2007
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 336
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  • Book Info
    Time and the Shape of History
    Book Description:

    This ambitious book explores the relationship between time and history and shows how an appreciation of long-term time helps to make sense of the past. The book is devoted to a wide-ranging analysis of the way different societies have conceived and interpreted time, and it develops a theory of the threefold roles of continuity, gradual change, and revolution which together form a "braided" history. Linking the interpretative chapters are intriguing brief expositions on time travel, time cycles, time lines, and time pieces, showing the different ways in which human history has been located in time.

    In its global approach the book is part of the new shift toward "big history," in which traditional period divisions are challenged in favor of looking at the entire past of the world from start to end. The approach is thematic. The result is a view of world history in which outcomes are shown to be explicable, once they happen, but not necessarily predictable before they do. This book will inform the work of historians of all periods and at all levels, and contributes to the current reconsideration of traditional period divisions (such as Modernity and Postmodernity), which the author finds outmoded.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-13794-1
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-v)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vi-viii)
  4. Preface
    (pp. ix-xi)
    Penelope J. Corfield
  5. Starting Points
    (pp. xii-xx)
  6. CHAPTER 1 History in Time
    (pp. 1-18)

    To situate history in the long term entails having a view upon time. Its dynamic force provides the unfolding framework within which things both continue from the past and also change. Time’s three perspectival states of past, present, and potential future remain fixed in their successive sequencing. Yet the eras to which they apply are always being updated. As that happens, more history is generated daily for humans to consider.

    This consistent temporal flux means too that interpretations are perennially liable to adaptation in the light of altered circumstances. The here-and now, poised at the fulcrum of retrospection and anticipation,...

  7. CHAPTERLINK 1–2: Shaping History – Time Travel
    (pp. 19-25)

    Shaping and reshaping history is a retrospective art, performed after the event. Communal and individual interpretations of the vast and complex past are, however, perennially open to debate – which has spawned the intriguing thought of sending not merely the mind travelling to other epochs but living people to do likewise. If such voyages were to become feasible, then the shape of history could be viewed from both far away and close at hand. And epoch jumpers could not only witness past events to provide a trans-time commentary but they might even, so it is speculated, be able to change things...

  8. CHAPTER 2 Deep Continuities
    (pp. 26-48)

    Persistence or continuity in history is an underrated and often overlooked factor. It lacks the high drama of mutability, and it is at variance with the everyday awareness of diurnal changes – from day to night, and on to day again. In the phraseology of Henri Bergson, the fertile French philosopher—psychologist who probed the human sense of temporal flux: ‘Being is always Becoming’ and ‘Becoming is infinitely varied.’¹ Yet to be able to measure change, whether at macro-or micro-level, there must be some constant factors to act as benchmarks.

    As a result, it is possible to formulate some propositions that...

  9. CHAPTERLINK 2 – 3: Shaping History – Time Cycles
    (pp. 49-56)

    The round wheel turning full circle embodies movement but allows for a return to the starting point, or at least to somewhere close to that. Thus the cycle is commonly invoked as a powerful symbol in all interpretations that stress regularity, recurrence and familiar patterning.

    Such shapings draw from the human awareness of routine cyclicalities in everyday experience, as in the rotation of the hours of the day, the seasons of the year, the phases of the moon, the menstrual cycles of fertile women, and the circadian biorhythms of wakefulness – sleep – and wakening again. Visually, the round O of the...

  10. CHAPTER 3 Micro-change
    (pp. 57-79)

    Restless ‘change’ accompanies and intrudes upon continuity, which it helps to define by offering a contrast. However, it is misleading to think solely in terms of a binary divide between two forces. While history is often said to contain a mixture of ‘continuity and change’, the formulation needs radical amendment to recognise significantly different sorts of ‘change’. Otherwise the breadth of just one concept of non-continuity is so great that it loses any real explanatory force.

    ‘Change’ embraces everything from the smallest adaptation to the very greatest upheavals.¹ In historical application, however, it is helpful to distinguish between, on the...

  11. CHAPTERLINK 3 – 4: Shaping History – Time Lines
    (pp. 80-88)

    Thinking of history as travelling along a line, rather than round in a completed circle, is an alternative way of interpreting the experience of time. The seasons go round; but each spring is a new one, not an old spring revived. Life is viewed as a journey from youth to old age, which is halted only at the ‘journey’s end’ by death. ‘An individual is a four-dimensional object of greatly elongated form. In ordinary language, we say that he [or she] has considerable extension in time and insignificant extension in space,’ explained physicist Arthur Eddington kindly. Not all, of course,...

  12. CHAPTER 4 Radical Discontinuity
    (pp. 89-112)

    Drama, novelty, friction, irregularity, upheaval, radical discontinuity, abrupt metamorphosis, revolutionary transformations – these also occur, in nature as well as in human affairs. For that reason, the old twofold distinction between ‘continuity’ and ‘change’ is inadequate to ‘shape’ the whole of history. Instead, the different forms of transformation need to be assessed separately. ‘Change’, which sounds unitary, is in reality highly diversified, as the previous chapter has argued. There are many forms of transformation, from the micro-changes that form ‘evolution’ to the macro-changes that form ‘revolution’.

    Radical discontinuity is the generic term for all forms of drastic upheaval that are both...

  13. CHAPTERLINK 4 – 5: Shaping History – Time Ends
    (pp. 113-121)

    Paramount among the cataclysmic surprises that history might spring is the possibility of the imminent end of the world. After all, stylistically, an abrupt, transformational finale to any story remains one of the leading alternatives to the slow, gradual fade-out.¹ So perhaps the world will conclude not with a whimper after all, but instead with a bang. Fears and hopes about cosmic endings lead some to intense experiences of ‘time anxiety’ – although for all who worry there are others who scoff at the prospect and others still who just decide to wait and see.

    Scientists who research the future of...

  14. CHAPTER 5 Mutable Modernity
    (pp. 122-149)

    As fast as time and history are rejected from the analysis, however, they immediately smuggle themselves back into the picture. Everything within the cosmos occurs within the temporal—spatial process that frames it. Thus, explicitly or implicitly, we seek ways of accommodating ourselves in time and of understanding the trajectory of history.

    From the multiple examples that have already been discussed, it is apparent that the challenge derives not so much from a lack of meanings but from almost too many possible interpretations. Everything that has happened, great and small, has potential significance. The result is a clear risk of...

  15. CHAPTERLINK 5 – 6: Shaping History – Time Names
    (pp. 150-157)

    Naming the age is one important way in which people respond to collective experience. On the debit side there are ‘hard times’, ‘times of trouble’, ‘ages of iron’; on the credit side, ‘good times’, ‘years of plenty’, ‘days of wine and roses’ and, retrospectively, ‘golden ages’. These enter into songs, sayings, mythologies. They send messages about the past, and prepare people for emotions to come: ‘Come listen a while, I’ll sing you a song / Concerning the times – it will not be long . . .’.

    Particularly in times of transition, contemporary verdicts become more specific and discussions more intense....

  16. CHAPTER 6 Variable Stages
    (pp. 158-184)

    Distinctive epochs in history do not automatically follow in known sequences. So when the novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, ever sensitive to the mood of his times, described the liberated postwar youth of 1920s America as living in a new ‘Jazz Age’,¹ he did not mean that it followed the ‘age of Classical Music’ and even less did he predict an ensuing ‘age of Rock ’n’ Roll’. It was enough for Fitzgerald to invoke a frenetic, jazzy alternative to what seemed to him, in retrospect, to be the staider, calmer world that existed before the First World War, even though those...

  17. CHAPTERLINK 6 – 7: Shaping History – Time Pieces
    (pp. 185-193)

    All societies have ways of locating themselves in time and history. That is far from saying that the popular recall of the past is perfect. On the contrary, many are the complaints that people today – led especially, it seems, by the young – are constituting a heedless ‘Now Generation’ that knows nothing of olden times. ‘Speak so much of memory because there is so little of it left,’ the French historian Pierre Nora exclaimed dramatically in 1989. And he is not alone in expressing such anxieties.

    Upon closer examination, however, it can be seen that such fears are not only wrong...

  18. CHAPTER 7 Multiple Dimensions
    (pp. 194-223)

    It is often said, rather sweepingly, that people do not learn from the ‘dead’ past, which anyway never repeats itself. But all the components of that remark are misleading. The past is not simply ‘dead’. Significant elements survive into the present. The past may thus provide instructive parallels between one period of time and another, even if no events are literally rerun. And we learn too from happenings that are rare and strange as well as from those that are habitual and routine. All this renders knowledge of both past and present into an invaluable resource. After all, we cannot...

  19. CHAPTERLINK 7 – 8: Shaping History – Time Power
    (pp. 224-232)

    Understanding the forces of temporality provides one of the great themes of human enquiry.¹ Much lore is enshrined, not only in learned study, but communally, in myths, literature and proverbs.² Clues are thus provided to the paradoxical properties of time as daily encountered. It not only ‘moves’ and takes specific forms – but it also, simply but inexorably, is . Human perceptions and responses are explored here, panoramically, to enjoy as well as to acknowledge time-power.

    Definitions and advice are often contradictory, as befits the mysterious nature as well as the apparent consequences of temporality. This all-embracing force can, after all,...

  20. CHAPTER 8 History Past and Future
    (pp. 233-248)

    Time’s outwardness and inwardness mean that we not only observe but simultaneously live the process. And, as a result, we share it too, since we all belong within this universal framework.

    A free verse by Aleksander Wat, translated into English from the Polish, expresses just such a visceral, wrenching sense of communal destiny, from a poet whose own life-history was ground between the rival forces of twentieth-century Europe’s competing ideologies:

    With my skin I measured uncountable dimensions of time-space, with it I fathomed the flights of youth and the downfalls of the age of defeats. / To be in the...

  21. CODA: Time Frames and History
    (pp. 249-252)

    Evidence for history’s dynamic combination of persistence, adaptation and transformation can be seen everywhere. The mixture is apparent within ourselves: both physically, as living amalgams of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and other trace elements, that precede and survive us in other forms; and psychologically, within our personalities and consciousness, which throughout a lifetime cope or strive to cope with existing in time and surviving/changing within it.

    The same combination is seen within the physical environment all around. Some elements appear to survive granite-like and unchanged from the past, while others are changing slowly from past to present, and yet other...

  22. Notes
    (pp. 253-289)
  23. Further Reading
    (pp. 290-296)
  24. Index
    (pp. 297-309)