Underlying Conceptions of History

The two abovementioned levels of analysis—historical narratives/performances of the past and mnemonic infrastructures—are constituted by conceptions of history and can in turn alter conceptions of history. Historical cultures always presume a certain, often implicit, conception of history—an idea of what history is (Adriaansen, 2015: 4). A conception of history is a specific interpreta?tion of the relationship between the three temporal dimensions past, present and future that determines on the one hand a degree of human agency and on the other the epistemological (im)possibilities to know the past. Francois Hartog, for example, discerns three regimes of historicity, which can be understood as articulations of conceptions of history (Hartog, 2015: 15-19).

First, there is a “passeist” regime of historicity in which the past determined the present and the future. Here, the past serves as a storehouse for moral lessons to guide future-oriented actions in the present. In this regime—which dated from Homer to Romanticism—the past functions as a guide for life, as captured in the Ciceronian dictum historia magistra vitae. Second, in a “futurist” regime of historicity the present is not defined by the past, but by the future. With Reinhart Koselleck (2004), Hartog states that in this conception of history, the past no longer serves as a model, but provides meaning in reference to expectations of the future. The experience of an acceleration of history during the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution resulted in the experience of a rupture between past and present. In the period 1750-1850, a new conception of history developed in the West, which was rooted in modern historical consciousness—the awareness that the past is essentially different from the present (Blaas, 1978; Gadamer, 1987).

To bridge the gap between past and present, historical narratives of progress and development were generated—narratives that tie the distant past and the unknown future together in a single explanatory framework. The future— imagined for example as liberal freedom, as the realization of a nation’s special mission or as a classless society—now defined history as a progressive chain linked through rational human action conceived as development. Third, Hartog defines a “presentist” regime of historicity. In Hartog’s understanding of pre- sentism, the present defines both past and future. Hartog explicitly links the rise of presentism to the bankruptcy of grand narratives in the postmodern condition, and the consequential loss of the sense of a larger meaning in the historical process. What man is left with is memory. It is no coincidence that Hartog sees the rising popularity of heritage and memory over the last decades as indicative for the rise of a presentist regime of historicity (Hartog, 2015: 195).

We can, however, identify two weaknesses of Hartog’s approach to conceptions of history, which need to be taken into account. Both somehow seem to hamper an inclusive study of historical cultures. A first weakness is that in all regimes Hartog discerns, historical narration is initiated by a narrator—be it the Homerian bard or the modern historian—who bases his narrative on expertise gained through personal experience and inquiry. Consequently, divergent narrative traditions dealing with the past can too easily be attributed to the domain of myth, rather than history. However, historian Ranajit Guha has, for example, shown in his analysis of the mnemonic practices in the Mahabharata that ancient Indian oral traditions did not start from the narrator’s experience in exploring the past but rather from the demands of the audience, to which orators kept retelling and rephrasing the story to the extent that the story may seem to have lost any reference to historical ‘reality’ (Guha, 2003: 56). Therefore these nar?ratives relied neither on the immediacy of experience, nor on western notions of ‘truth’. Yet they do comprise an important part of Indian historical culture.

Second, in many conceptions of history, there is more to time than the three temporal dimensions of past, present and future that Hartog focuses on. A category like the “eternal” that makes little sense to contemporary scholars was and is a fundamental part of reality for many cultures and religions. One example is found in eschatological conceptions of history. The Roman Catholic church father Saint Augustine, for example, did not link time to the measurement of celestial bodies, as the philosopher Aristotle (1936) had done, but related time to Creation. For him, time could only exist as long as there were souls, that is, time was created with the world and time itself was apt to end with salvation (Lowith, 1949: 162). In this perspective, time does not flow perpetually; rather, time is closed off by something that is beyond time: eternity. For Augustine, time is a void in timeless eternity, the eternal being of God. The link between the expectation of the end of time and the end of Creation constituted the core of Augustine’s eschatology. Trying to comprehend the ways in which Late Ancient Christianity related to the past without understanding the peculiarities of the conceptions of history underlying this relationship could result in naively presupposing one’s own conception of history to be universal. It is therefore of utmost importance to take the possible boundaries of the three dimensions of time into account when studying conceptions of history, because they open up both the possibilities and the impossibilities of thinking beyond “modernity”, and of trying to surpass the epistemic boundaries of one’s own culture (Adriaansen, 2015: 4).

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