The Shifts in our Conceptions of Time

An Essay on Reinhart Koselleck’s “Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time”

Essay, 2008

7 Pages, Grade: 1,0


The Shifts in our Conceptions of Time - An Essay on Reinhart Koselleck’s “Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time”

On the following pages I would like to outline the main points that Reinhart Koselleck makes in his book “ Futures Past ” 1 about the semantics of historical time as well as some of the basic assumptions that underlie them. To begin with however, I will take a look at the motifs that have driven Koselleck’s thinking about historical theory and indeed his career as one of Germany’s most renowned historians. Born in 1923 in the small town of Görlitz in Germany, Reinhart Koselleck was nine years old when Adolf Hitler was invested as the new “ Reichskanzler ” on 30 January 1933. Being raised and socialized during the Third Reich, he volunteered for service in the German army, the “ Wehrmacht ”, after passing school at eighteen years of age. His experience of the war and the unsettling impact of Germany’s downfall were to mark his life and lead him to question the idea of progress that was implied in contemporary notions of history, enlightenment and Modernity.

He wanted to understand the “ pathogenesis of the bourgeois world ”, as expressed in the subtitle of his 1954 dissertation “ Kritik und Krise ”.2 Thus he started with a critique of Modernity and utopia, and this general thrust was to stay with him throughout his career, as to be seen for instance in his postdoctoral thesis “Preu ß en zwischen Reform und Revolution ” and also in Futures Past.3

The latter is as much a book on Modernity as on conceptions of time and temporalization. Keeping in mind Koselleck’s main focus on the changes of the period from roughly the middle of the eighteenth to the middle of the nineteenth century, this becomes all the more evident.4 Although his research interests were by no means limited to this single period, it is here that Koselleck detects the most far- reaching structural shifts in the meaning of concepts, which “ no longer serve merely to define given states of affairs, but reach into the future. Concepts of the future became increasingly new minted. ” 5 Originally therefore, also the focus of his life-time project “ Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe ” was to be on the Sattelzeit.6

Applying the methodology of “ Begriffsgeschichte ” (the history of concepts) then, the essays assembled in Futures Past explore the shifts in meaning that occurred to concepts related to historical time, such as revolution, chance, fate, progress and most of all history itself. The author employs and juxtaposes texts, paintings, proverbs, etc. from various periods, in order to show how the emergence of Modernity effected a change regarding the relative position to each other of future and past. Hence it is Koselleck’s fundamental hypothesis that in the very relation between future and past at a given moment, “ something like historical time ” can be determined.7

What is more though, Koselleck not only emphasises the impact of Modernity on our conceptions of time, but following Immanuel Kant and Martin Heidegger he holds the view “ that our conception of time is at the root of all our other concepts ” and that “ the great conceptual shifts of the modern period are finally traceable to a shift in the conception of historical time. ” 8 The opening essay in Futures Past illustrates this shift by way of juxtaposing the eschatological world view of the Renaissance with the expectation of continuing progress that seems to characterize Modernity. Whereas the constant anticipation of the end of the world did not allow for progress in former times, Modernity has brought the prospect for human individuals to realize their own freedom by making use of reason.9

Koselleck begins with a description of the painting “ Die Alexanderschlacht ” by Albrecht Altdorfer from the museum Alte Pinakothek in Munich. It is a Renaissance painting and dates back to the year 1529. With neat detail, Altdorfer depicted the armies that fought the Battle of Issus in 333 B.C. He indeed painted thousands of individual warriors, each of them complete with their horses, swords or spears. In order to inform the viewer about the outcome of this battle, the precise numbers of the warriors, the prisoners and the dead are written on the banners of the respective armies. Despite all of the striking details and information that Altdorfer has included in this work, he leaves out one figure that would nowadays appear to be essential to us: He does not mention the year of the battle. This fact is decisive as it represents the timeless quality that Altdorfer not only intended for his painting, but that appeared absolutely natural to him.

“ From their feet to their turbans, most of the Persians resemble the Turks who, in the same year the picture was painted (1529), unsuccessfully laid siege to Vienna. In other words, the event that Altdorfer captured was for him at once historical and contemporary. Alexander and Maximilian, for whom Altdorfer had prepared drawings, merge in an exemplary manner; [ … ] Temporal difference was not more or less arbitrarily eliminated; it was not, as such, at all apparent. ” 10

What Altdorfer’s painting encapsulates therefore, is the specific relation of Renaissance to historical time. The battle against the Turks at Vienna in 1529 is interpreted here as a reoccurrence of the Battle of Issus in 333 B.C. This is based on the eschatological view of the world in constant expectation of its end followed by the coming of Christ. According to this Christian world view, the Final Judgement was to come after a succession of world empires with the Roman Empire as the fourth and last one. The Roman emperor therefore was seen as the “ katechon of the Antichrist ” and as long as the empire did not fall, the expected Apocalypse was being deferred.11 Jumping forward to the French Revolution, Koselleck presents us with a completely different conception of progress. He quotes Robespierre who demanded:

“ The time has come to call upon each to realize his own destiny. The progress of human Reason laid the basis for this great Revolution, and you shall now assume the particular duty of hastening its pace. ” 12


1 Koselleck, Reinhart. 1985. Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time. Cambridge: The MIT Press.

2 ---. 1973. Kritik und Krise: Eine Studie zur Pathogenese der Bürgerlichen Welt. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.

3 ---. 1967. Preußen zwischen Reform und Revolution: Allgemeines Landrecht, Verwaltung und Soziale Bewegung von 1791 - 1848. Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta; Cf. Meier, Christian. 2006. “Geschichte als Leib Gewordene Erfahrung: Zum Tode des Bielefelder Historikers Reinhart Koselleck.“ Die Zeit, No. 7.

4 Koselleck himself minted the term “ Sattelzeit ” (saddle time) for this period that he clearly saw as a watershed. Sattelzeit is a common term in German historiography. Cf. Koselleck, Reinhart. 1979. Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe. Historisches Lexikon zur politisch-sozialen Sprache in Deutschland, Bd. 1, Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, p. XV; (Last viewed on September 7, 2008, 07:34 am)

5 Futures Past, p. 80.

6 Ibid, p. xiv - xv.

7 Futures Past, p. 3 - 4.

8 Carr, David. 1987. “Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time by Reinhart Koselleck”, in: History and Theory, Vol. 26, No. 2. Blackwell Publishing.

9 Hegel’s Introduction to the Philosophy of History is an elaborate example of this modern notion of history as the progress towards a full consciousness of freedom.

10 Futures Past, p. 10.

11 Ibid., p. 12.

12 Ibid.

Excerpt out of 7 pages


The Shifts in our Conceptions of Time
An Essay on Reinhart Koselleck’s “Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time”
University of Cape Town  (Department of Historical Studies)
History & Politics in Africa
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ISBN (eBook)
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shifts, conceptions, time, essay, reinhart, koselleck’s, futures, past, semantics, historical, time”
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Arndt Schmidt (Author), 2008, The Shifts in our Conceptions of Time, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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