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Distance and Historical Representation

by Mark Salber Phillips

The questions I want to raise here first presented themselves to me in a

pointed way during an undergraduate class on historiography. I had
recently published a social and intellectual biography of a little-known mid
fifteenth-century Florentine merchant and memorialist named Marco
Parenti, whose anonymous history of a failed revolt against the Medici I
had discovered in the Florentine archives.1 The collapse of the anti-
Medicean faction must have made it expedient to hide the narrative, and
over time both the unfinished history and the would-be historian had faded
into nearly total obscurity – a condition that seemed to make Parenti an
ideal subject for microhistory, that favourite form of late twentieth-century
historical writing. My students had perhaps not taken away from the book
as much as I would have wanted about the forms and traditions of Renais-
sance historical writing. Still, they appeared to have enjoyed the more
concrete elements of this narrative of ideas, especially the mix of political
intrigue, intimate social detail, and strong personality preserved in the
family correspondence that was my chief biographical resource. But along-
side these narrative pleasures, there was also some nervousness about how
much to trust this Rosencrantz and Guildenstern vision of a period they
were accustomed to thinking of in grander terms. One student in particu-
lar stays in my memory because he was prepared to put his doubts quite
bluntly, as well as to extend them to other, more notable representatives of
the genre – the lousy Cathar peasants, massacred cats, deluded millers, and
returned ‘husbands’ he had encountered in more than one of his under-
graduate history courses. My protestations that these microhistorians had
found a new way to represent ordinary lives and everyday experience were
simply waved away: ‘Aren’t you really saying that your generation came too
late to get the really important stuff – the lives of people like Cosimo de’
Medici or Lorenzo the Magnificent – so really there was not much left over
for you to write about except this bunch of odd balls and small potatoes?’
Since my first defence had met only limited success, I improvised a new
direction that in retrospect has come to seem more fruitful because more
historical. I asked them to consider a choice between two quite different
accounts of the battle of Stalingrad. The first book presents this crucial
battle in a form that is traditional to military histories: that is, it provides a
tactical narrative of the conflict and analyzes the success of the Soviet
command in outmanoeuvring the German army, so that the invaders found
themselves encircled and cut off from all supplies, surrender finally being
their only option. Alternately they might want to read a rather different
sort of narrative, one that, deliberately ignoring the larger strategic

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considerations, uses the letters written by the trapped German soldiers to

recreate the increasingly desperate condition of these ordinary men as they
found themselves facing starvation and grim defeat in the depths of a
Russian winter. This time there was no doubt where their sympathies lay:
most of us, they readily agreed, were simply more interested in the plight
of the common soldier than in the tactics of the general staff. There was
some recognition, however, that readers who had been closer to the actu-
alities of these decisive events – especially those who retained a sense that
the war could have gone another way – might have been less interested in
the common humanity of enemy soldiers and more intent on understand-
ing just how this extraordinary reversal of military fortunes had come to be.
This was not, of course, the first time that I had recognized that historical
sensibilities change over time, or applied what I knew of historical writing
in other ages to the outlook of my own generation. But it was, I think, the
first time that I consciously applied the idea of ‘distance’ to this problem
and that I did so in the enlarged sense that now informs my work. For both
the historian and the reader, I have come to realize, distance, is not only a
given, but also a construction – and one with many dimensions. There is no
doubt, for example, that the chronological interval that separates the
present-day historian from the momentous events of 1942–3 has a powerful
role in determining his or her potential understandings of the battle. As
time goes on, therefore, we can certainly expect to find new vantage points
on this history and the result may in some sense be a clearer or a better
picture. But as the choice of readings I offered the class seemed to illus-
trate, chronological distance is just the beginning, since the effective
distance can be diminished or augmented in ways that can fundamentally
change our sense of what that history represents. Consequently, what we
sometimes call the ‘perspective of history’ is surely a much more variable
and complex construction than we sometimes like to pretend, and one that
would be worth thinking about in a more serous, more systematic, and
(above all) more historical fashion.

* * *
Some degree of temporal distance is always present in historical writing,
and in practice an enormous amount of patient effort goes into coping with
the problems of research that ensue. In the abstract, however, this interval
has not seemed especially problematic since it is evidently a necessary
condition of historical research and in many respects a very productive one.
Historians accept that increased temporal distance can mean the loss of
valuable information, but we also point to the fact that posterity is often
able to have access to documents not generally available to contemporaries.
More fundamentally, we share a wide commitment to the idea that the
losses that come with the passage of time must be balanced against compen-
satory gains in clarity and perspective. In any case, isn’t this interval
between the historical moment and its eventual representation one of the
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crucial things that sets history as a discipline apart from more presentist
studies like journalism or sociology?
If temporal distance is a defining condition of all forms of historical
representation, an analysis of the ways in which histories of different types
have confronted the problem of distance in all its modifications would seem
to be an important focus for historiographical study. The very ubiquity of
distance, however, has tended to render it invisible, and over time certain
canonized ideas about the proper forms of distance have become so much
a feature of our historiographical tradition that we are hardly aware of their
influence. In this respect, what is sometimes called historical perspective
bears a strong resemblance to its visual counterpart, where a particular
form of spatial construction has come to seem a natural way of seeing the
world, rather than the outcome of specific traditions of representation. For
historians, in fact, it has become difficult to distinguish between the concept
of historical distance and the idea of history itself.
If we want to defamiliarize our common-sense idea of historical distance,
it will be useful to begin with the recognition that historical accounts not
only function at a received distance from events; they also reconstruct and
reshape that distance in a variety of ways that bear upon every aspect of
our view of the past. Every history, after all, has to establish relationships
of engagement and detachment, insight and overview, which connect it with
the past it describes, and every subsequent reading of a history (or, to
change the scene, every visit to a historical monument or a museum) effec-
tively requires a return to these same issues. Nor is distance in this enlarged
sense confined to the poetics or rhetoric of historical representation. Style,
structure, and affect are, of course, involved, but so are the moral, political,
and methodological commitments of the work. In the last analysis, what we
think we can know about past societies and what we think it important to
explain are just as much at stake as the means by which the story is told or
its power over the reader’s emotions and allegiances.
Historians have no need for abstract theorizing to be reminded that style,
rhetoric, politics, and method all have a part to play in shaping the impact
of historical narratives. Typically, however, we have addressed each of the
different dimensions of historical writing in its own terms, without thinking
too strenuously about what they have in common, or, indeed, what benefit
there might be in being able to keep them all clearly in view. Each element
of historical representation has tended to acquire its own vocabulary,
leaving us without an obvious way of aligning the different dimensions of
historiography. Like traditional systems of measurement, which counted
every commodity by its own standard (grain by bushels, oil by barrels, wine
by hogsheads, herring by cran) our working vocabulary for historical criti-
cism has supplied us with a useful lexicon for every part of the mixed cargo
of historical navigation, but no common measure by which to weigh the full
contents of the hold.
In reference to expository style, for example, a history might be
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considered as either ‘detailed’ or ‘sweeping’, a ‘narrative’ or an ‘essay’.

Thinking about the same text’s emotional tone, however, we change our
terms and call it ‘warm’ and ‘evocative’, or perhaps ‘cool’ and ‘austere’.
Ideological engagement might be ‘detached and objective’, or, on the
contrary, ‘committed’, ‘forceful’, or even ‘polemical’. Method, for its part,
can be seen as ‘micro’ or ‘macro’, as ‘thick descriptive’ or ‘long durational’,
as a matter for ‘case studies’ or for ‘statistical’ approaches, as ‘hermeneu-
tic’ or ‘positivist’.
Uncertainties are also generated by the fact that the terms we adopt to
describe one dimension of historical accounts often migrate to another,
crossing easily from style to emotion, or from emotion to politics. In itself
this is no bad thing and it reinforces the important point that we never
encounter any single element in isolation. Often, indeed, we look for an
overarching term that will tie everything together, bundling formal issues
with affective ones, moral stance with cognitive style. A fussy critic might
object, but in practice no one is really confused if we speak of the emotional
tone of a history as ‘scientific’ or of its method as ‘novelistic’. These shifting
vocabularies simply represent a practical recognition of the fact that every
level of historical representation has important implications for the others.
No-one can hope to legislate this sort of profusion into a simple order,
but since issues of distance arise on every level of historical narrative,
distance may provide us with a central axis for analysis. This means, of
course, widening the meaning of ‘historical distance’ well beyond its usual
temporal sense, but I want to defend the idea that this is only an enlarge-
ment, not a distortion of the original terms. If we accept that temporal
distance is a defining characteristic of historical work, but that in practice
historical distance is always a much mediated construction, then the
elementary dimensions of historical representation I have outlined – form,
affect, ideology, and cognition – can be understood as crucial mediations of
that initial distance. They stand, we might say, as a series of distances (or
even distance-effects) that modify and reconstruct the temporality of
historical accounts, thereby shaping every part of our engagement with the
Another, less radical, sort of enlargement is also required, since in
ordinary speech we use ‘distance’ to refer to detachment or separation.
Distance, in other words, is generally defined in simple opposition to prox-
imity – as a single location, rather than a range of experience. This usage,
however, is too inflexible for present purposes. In this study, therefore,
‘distance’ will refer to the entire continuum from proximity to detachment,
while ‘distantiation’ – awkward term though it is – will be used to refer to
whatever has the effect of ‘putting things at a distance’. Both the bungalow
and the skyscraper have height; equally, we can say that every represen-
tation of the past organizes distance, however foreshortened or extended.
It remains to say something very preliminary about the kinds of ques-
tions a discussion of distance may help to address. As I have indicated, the
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point of thinking about historiography in terms of a balance of multiple

distances is to create a more systematic framework for exploring the
connections between the various dimensions of historical representation.
The aim, in other words, is to shed light on the relationship between the
formal properties of historical accounts and their affective, ideological, and
cognitive commitments. In saying this, however, I am aware of a strong
possibility of seeming to promise something that I do not actually wish to
deliver. In particular, readers might well assume that – in the manner of
Hayden White’s Metahistory – the goal is to arrive at a theoretical prescrip-
tion that would match formal modes to particular ideological or cognitive
stances. This sort of structuralist project, however, is very far from what is
intended, and my own approach to these matters will be historical, rather
than predictive, diachronic rather than structural.
White concentrates his attention on a handful of ‘masterworks’, and,
following on Northrop Frye, he treats these in the manner of a universal
anatomy, not a history. His analytic focus rests on decoding the structure of
these great texts, and insofar as he deals with historical change, it is to posit
a closed cycle of historical emplotments that begins and ends the nineteenth
century in the mode of irony. My own interest, on the other hand, moves
in a different direction, having less to do with isolated texts (however great)
than with studying the evolution of larger formations – the schools and
genres of historical writing, whose periodic reconfiguration, I would like to
suggest, constitutes the essential material of the history of historiography.
For the sake of economy, let me state the direction of my argument in
the form of three very brief hypotheses about the history of historical
thought. First, I want to suggest that schools of historical thought are
marked by broadly characteristic forms of engagement with the past, and
that these engagements can be understood as a commitment to particular
stances in relation to the categories of distance I have outlined. Second, it
follows that in the history of historical thought significant changes are
associated with reconfigurations of some or all of these characteristic
distances. To put this another way, the history of historical representation
is punctuated by periodic distance-shifts. Third, I want to suggest – though
with due caution – that the types of distance I have put forward to this point
as though they were of equivalent weight in fact represent an ascending
scale of significance. As we move closer to the cognitive end of the scale,
the stakes get deeper, with the result that reworkings of these forms of
distance can be expected to have larger, more disruptive consequences for
the history of historiography.


I have already suggested that an analysis of distance needs to encompass
form, affect, ideology, and cognition – a mix, in other words, of narrative
form or genre, emotional impact, political or moral commitment, and
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analytic method. Though there is necessarily a degree of arbitrariness in

separating a set of categories that in practice always occur in combination,
an analytic grid of this kind can help to bring quite disparate elements of
historical representation under a single framework and provide some
consistency of approach. It is important to be clear, however, that the inten-
tion is purely descriptive and historical. The payoff of the analysis does not
come from being able to establish fixed patterns of relationship between
different sorts of distance. Rather the point is to appreciate the combina-
tory possibilities that give individual works – or perhaps whole schools and
genres – some of their characteristic features.
Historians are most likely to think of distance in terms of emotional
identification and detachment – and, by extension, of the political or social
loyalties that engage both historians and readers with their stories. These
affective and ideological dimensions of the subject are certainly important,
and in many historical accounts – or for many historical audiences – they
are utterly central. But something significant will be missed if we confine
distance to its most obvious affective and ideological meanings and fail to
see its purchase on a wider range of issues. For this reason, I want to expand
a little on the idea that, alongside of its formal, affective, and ideological
dimensions, distance has a cognitive function as well.
Among recent historiographical movements, microhistory provides a
striking example of the emergence of a new historical genre defined in part
by distance – a shift in perspective made particularly dramatic when viewed
against the ‘longue durée’ of the Annales school. Microhistory’s preference
for close focus is, on one level, a matter of narrative technique, but it is
obvious that purely formal considerations alone would not take us very far
towards describing Montaillou or The Midwife’s Tale, or relating them to a
wider contemporary sensibility.2 Rather, to analyze the attraction of such
works we would need to explore the ways that, in the political climate of
the late twentieth century and especially the politics of gender, micro-
narrative allowed historians to pursue closer emotional and ideological
identification with the experiences of women, peasants, religious noncon-
formists and others whose lives seemed to have been erased from larger-
scale narratives.3 For historians and their readers alike, the thick
contextualization and biographical detail made possible by microhistory
seemed to humanize historical writing, drawing a new and wider audience
to the work of social and cultural historians – and even, occasionally, to the
history of ideas.
If a number of leading microhistorians were attracted by the affective
and ideological proximities of the new genre, comparatively few advanced
distinctive cognitive claims for the method of small-scale observation. One
outstanding exception, however, is Carlo Ginzburg, who allied his work to
a fundamental approach to human knowledge that he called ‘clue-hunting’,
claiming for it both deep roots in human experience and a methodological
status equivalent to the generalizing methods of natural science. Thus,
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although Ginzburg shared many of the ideological motives that were

common to contemporary microhistory, the cognitive claim he made for
what he called the ‘evidential paradigm’ gave coherence of a different kind
to his scholarship and led to a stiff battle against the anti-positivism that is
so widespread in contemporary scholarship.4
Ginzburg aside, the most remarkable examples of microhistory as a shift
in cognitive distance come from recent studies in the history of science,
where – post Thomas Kuhn and Michael Polanyi – historians have turned
away from grand narratives of scientific reason to emphasize the localness
and tacitness of scientific traditions.5 All histories, of course, incorporate
affective and ideological dimensions, but in the first instance at least we are
not invited to a closer acquaintance with Robert Boyle and Thomas
Hobbes, for example, because the former belonged to an oppressed class
or because we wish for a closer sentimental bond with the latter, but rather
because it can be argued that there are aspects of scientific practice that can
only be observed on this particular scale.6
Rather than continue with recent historiography, however, let me illus-
trate the point with a less familiar example drawn from the unlikely context
of early nineteenth-century theological controversy. The work I have in
mind is Richard Whately’s Historic Doubts Relative to Napoleon Bonaparte
(1819), a satirical pamphlet published anonymously only four years after
Waterloo purporting to cast doubt on the genuine existence of the exiled
Emperor. Using a deft parody of Hume’s genially sceptical style, Whately
explored a range of reasons why a man of common sense and independent
mind might want to question the evidence that so extraordinary a figure as
Napoleon had ever really existed. He pointed to inconsistencies of alleged
fact about Napoleon’s military exploits, the contradictory assessments of his
character, the self-interestedness and partiality of the newspapers which
were the main sources of information, the convenient fiction that this epic
hero was now imprisoned on a far-off island where no credible authority
could speak to him (followed later by the even more convenient report of
his death in this far-off exile), and, of course, to the sheer unlikelihood of
such unprecedented events, evidently belonging to the realm of romance
rather than of fact:

All the events are great, and splendid, and marvellous; great armies,
great victories, great frosts, great reverses, ‘hair-breadth ‘scapes’ . . . –
everything happening in defiance of political calculation and in opposi-
tion to the experience of past times. . . . Every event, too, has that round-
ness and completeness which is so characteristic of fiction; nothing is
done by halves; we have complete victories, total overthrows, entire
subversion of empires, perfect re-establishments of them, crowded upon
us in rapid succession.7

So improbable was all this, Whately concluded, that anybody ‘not ignorant
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of history and human nature’ would surely have to wonder ‘how far they
are conformable to Experience, our best and only sure guide’.
Whately’s satire cleverly estranges the recent past in order to retrieve the
historical reality of an ancient one – the past of the Christian Gospels and
of the early Church. In this sense, Historic Doubts works in the opposite
direction from so much romantic historiography, whose first impulse – ‘to
make the distant near’ – might have been to overcome Humean scepticism
by evoking the age of Christian miracles in an emotionally direct and
palpable way. Whately does nothing to bring the age of faith in front of his
readers. Rather, he makes historical testimony itself the subject of historical
enquiry, and in the undeniable reality of the life of Napoleon, he finds a way
of questioning the ‘evidential paradigm’ (to adapt Ginzburg’s phrase) by
which modern sceptics put the Gospel narratives beyond history.
Whately succeeded brilliantly in his manipulation of cognitive distance,
but the success with which the Historic Doubts appropriated aspects of
Hume’s urbane and ironic style for its own ideological purpose also under-
lines a second important point, namely the need to distinguish between the
formal procedures that create effects of proximity/distantiation and the
affective, ideological, or cognitive ends they serve. Since very similar
devices can be put to very different social or political uses, the analysis of
distance should not be seen as an invitation to create elaborate taxonomies
of the sort that made White’s Metahistory seem initially inspiring but ulti-
mately unworkable.8
Close description, for example, has often been employed as a way of
engaging the reader’s sympathies, as Edward Thompson explicitly does in
‘seeking to rescue the poor stockinger, the luddite cropper, the “obsolete”
hand-loom weaver . . . from the enormous condescension of posterity’.9 Yet
detailed narration is not always a strategy for creating sympathy, nor is
immediacy always paired with ideological identification. Thus Michel
Foucault’s grisly description of the dismemberment of Damien the regicide
in the opening scene of Discipline and Punish (1977) is not calculated to
spur us to sympathy with efforts of penal reform; on the contrary, this
horrific close-up of judicial retribution is intended to shock us into aban-
doning our comfort with other, much more familiar regimes of punishment.
Though historians do not use this sort of language, the death-spectacle
could be called an ‘alienation effect’, a device that forces on us the neces-
sary detachment to recognize what is at stake in other forms of punishment,
specifically (as Foucault saw it) in the new, apparently more humane regime
of surveillance instituted by the reforms of the Enlightenment.

Both Thompson’s gesture of humane inclusion and Foucault’s repudiation
of any such resort to historical pathos presuppose the norms of historical
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description from which they dissent. Each of these works, in fact, has the
effect it does in part because of its willingness to revise these norms, and
the most successful repositionings of this kind have helped to set the terms
of new historical schools or genres. Thompson’s own historiographical
politics, for example, is divided in this way from the work of earlier, more
economistic work in the marxist tradition, just as LeRoy Ladurie’s Montail-
lou (1976) or Ginzburg’s Cheese and the Worms (1980) clearly belong to a
new generation of historical studies that radically transformed the long-
durational procedures that had dominated the work of the Annales since
Bloch and Braudel.
Shifting norms of distance played an important role in the historio-
graphical changes that took place around the beginning of the nineteenth
century – a moment that is often regarded as constitutive for the emergence
of a modern historical outlook. When we look more closely at the multi-
plicity of distances at stake, however, the conventional contrast between
Enlightenment and Romantic sensibilities becomes more complex and
rewarding. The philosophical historians of the Scottish Enlightenment
modelled their aspiration to create a science of human society on the induc-
tive generalizations of the natural sciences. This cognitive stance, however,
only gives us one part of the picture, since these historians also subscribed
to a moral psychology that stressed the importance of the passions and
employed ideas of distance to speculate on the dynamics of sympathy and
reason. The result was an effort to join together two compatible but differ-
ently centred commitments. On the one side, historians held a theory of
knowledge that demanded a fairly high degree of abstraction: only then
would history be properly ‘philosophical’. On the other hand, they also
maintained a view of narrative which assumed that the moral effectiveness
of historical writing would depend upon its power to evoke the reader’s
sympathy.10 The combination of representational immediacy and explana-
tory abstraction helped to set the rhythms of the most ambitious narratives
of the day: David Hume’s History of England (1754–62), for example, or
William Robertson’s Charles V (1769). On a still larger scale, it also
expressed itself in the way various historical genres staked out their claims:
a process that pitted ambitiously-titled conjectural histories like Hume’s
The Natural History of Religion or Kames’s Sketches of the History of Man
against the counter-claims of literary biographers that, in fact, the truest
sense of an earlier age was to be found by cultivating an acquaintance with
the thoughts and feelings of its poets.11
Enlightenment historiography drew a good deal of confidence from the
elevated station from which it viewed the history of humanity, a vantage
that made the political narratives of earlier generations seem parochial and
bitty. To a new generation of historians, however, this pretension to a higher
perspective seemed pompous and empty, and the Enlightenment’s deep
interest in the passions was lost in a general critique of its ‘philosophical’
method. Nineteenth-century writers created a new historical outlook by
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setting themselves against what they understood as Enlightenment norms

of historical knowledge and representation. Working under the influence of
Romantic ideas of the imagination and of liberal or nationalist ideologies,
historians not only deepened history’s emotional and ideological engage-
ments, but they also cultivated a view of historical understanding that
stressed the need for empathetic absorption in the materials of the past. The
result was a historical vocabulary that was soaked in metaphors of presence
or proximity. Carlyle famously called history the ‘essence of innumerable
biographies’ and he mocked the philosophical historians as owls hooting
from a rooftop. Even more extravagantly, Michelet identified himself so
closely with the France that he made his own body and mind the register
of its travails. (No wonder that he chose to call his own distinctive contri-
bution to history ‘resurrection’.)12 Macaulay, in turn, poured out a stream
of images to argue that history’s most important task would be to recapture
its power to make the past seem present and actual:

To make the past present, to bring the distant near, to place us in the
society of a great man on an eminence which overlooks the field of a
mighty battle, to invest with the reality of human flesh and blood beings
whom we are too much inclined to consider as personified qualities in an
allegory, to call up our ancestors before us with all their peculiarities of
language, manners, and garb, to show us over their houses, to seat us at
their tables, to rummage their old-fashioned wardrobes, to explain the
uses of their ponderous furniture, these parts of the duty which properly
belongs to the historian have been appropriated by the historical

Macaulay’s invocation of the novel as a rival to history suggests another

facet of the problem. Distance assumptions are not only important to shifts
in historical style, but they also play a considerable role in defining the
various genres of historical representation. Memoir and biography, to take
two obvious examples, characteristically offer a sense of accessibility that is
attractive to a popular audience, though these same readerships may also
be drawn to epic narratives that reject academic niceties and sweep through
entire centuries or even millennia. Much of microhistory’s attraction rests
on a sense of closer identification with the past, just as similar opportunities
for intimacy probably accounted for the popularity of literary history and
literary biography in the latter part of the eighteenth century and the begin-
ning of the nineteenth.14 Parallel considerations also apply to non-textual
forms of historical representation: the waxworks and painted panoramas of
the early nineteenth century, or (to return to the present) the immersive
techniques of current museum displays and the spectacle of film.
These examples give a brief hint of some useful directions for exploring
the texture of particular works or schools and they also point to the import-
ance of distance-shifts as a factor in the evolution of historical practice. But
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on another level, the subject of distance-shifts also raises issues that have
less to do with any specific work or period than with the need to reflect on
this pattern of variability itself. It is evident that Western historiography (to
say nothing of other traditions or other modes of representation) has incor-
porated strikingly diverse approaches to the central problems of historical
thought and writing – the ‘natural history’ of Hume, as well as the ‘resur-
rection’ of Michelet, the ‘longue durée’ of Braudel, as well as the clue-
hunting of Ginzburg. This diversity might seem to argue for approaching
the history of historiography in a spirit capable of appreciating so wide a
variety of practice. In fact, the opposite has been the case. The history of
historical thought has largely been written as a handmaiden to one particu-
lar philosophical position, with the result that its views on historical distance
have become the standard by which other traditions are judged.


The great discussions of historical method that underlie so much of modern
historical thought have come from a number of different quarters, most
obviously historicism, positivism, and marxism. Of these, however, only
historicism has had reasons to take a deep interest in the history of
historical consciousness, with the consequence that historicism more than
any other tradition has shaped our sense of the disciplinary past. Histori-
cism, however, is too broad a term, and it would be more accurate to speak
of a genealogy of European thought whose understanding of history is
shaped by idealist views of culture and hermeneutic views of method. This
tradition, which looks back to Vico and Herder in the eighteenth century,
found its most systematic presentation in Dilthey and its historian in
Meinecke. For historians in the English speaking world, however, the
crucial figure was undoubtedly Collingwood, whose Idea of History long
served as a key text in the education of professional historians.15
Commentary on the Idea of History has generally focused on its
epistemological discussions to the exclusion of its account of the develop-
ment of historical thought. For the present discussion, however, Colling-
wood’s narrative of the history of historiography is fundamental, because it
shows the close connection between historicist doctrines about the proper
forms of historical understanding and received truths about the character
of historical writing in various periods and schools. And central to this
doctrine about historical understanding, I want to argue, stands a commit-
ment to one strongly-held version of cognitive distance – a commitment so
strong, in fact, that failure to meet its criteria becomes grounds not simply
for criticizing earlier historians but of excluding them altogether from the
canon of proper historical practice.
The core of the historicist idea lies in the assumption, codified by Dilthey,
that there is a fundamental difference between the phenomena of nature
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and those of history. ‘Nature’, as one expositor sums it up, ‘. . . is the scene
of the eternally recurring, of phenomena themselves devoid of conscious
purpose; history comprises unique and unduplicable human acts, filled with
volition and intent. . . . History thus becomes the only guide to an under-
standing of things human’.16 As a shorthand we can say that historicism
assumes a view of society as expressive and developmental, while it
proposes an idea of historical method whose distinctive quality is its
empathy and reflexivity. These two propositions are complementary. Every
society, it is argued, expresses its own individuality in the specifics of its
cultural forms and institutional structures; reciprocally the part/whole
relationship that links outward signs to inwardly-experienced meanings
allows us to interpret the world of human actions. In this effort, the classi-
ficatory methods of the natural sciences are of no use because they remain
on the outside of events. Rather, the historian’s first reference is to the
general fund of human experience, the same resource, in fact, that allows
all of us in our daily interactions with other people to make sense of their
actions. In scholarship, this everyday insight is reinforced by various
scientific tools, prominent among them the techniques of textual criticism
developed by philology. At bottom, however, historical understanding
retains the character of a specialized form of human insight.
These views lead to a concept of distance which resists both the abstrac-
tion of natural science and the simple immediacy of lived experience.
Regarding the former as excessively abstract and the latter as naively unre-
flective, historicism attempts to combine elements of both in a hermeneu-
tic process that leads from an initial recognition of difference to an ultimate
position of identification. Both difference and identity are essential to the
movement of understanding, but identification occupies the privileged
position; its victories set the norm by which the quality of historical under-
standing is measured.
Collingwood summarizes the essential point when he says that the
historian’s work ‘may begin by discovering the outside of an event, but it
can never end there; he must always remember that the event was an action,
and that his main task is to think himself into this action, to discern the
thought of its agent’.17 For Dilthey, similarly, the progressive development
of this hermeneutic marks the path of historical knowledge towards scien-
tific standing. As the human sciences mature, he writes, there is a tendency
to demote the physical side of events to the status of conditions and ‘means
of comprehension’. Dilthey calls this ‘the turn towards reflection, the
movement of understanding from the external to the internal’.18 Its essence
is the tendency to make use of every outward expression to understand the
mental state from which it arises. When we read about war or economic
activity, our minds are filled with images, ‘but what moves us, above all, in
these accounts is what is inaccessible to the senses and can only be experi-
enced inwardly . . . For all that is valuable in life is contained in what can
be experienced and the whole outer clamor of history revolves around it’.19
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The movement of understanding from outer to inner is important to the

way Dilthey makes his well-known distinction between the sciences of
nature and the sciences of culture. In the natural sciences, he writes, man
effaces himself ‘so that, from his impressions, he can map out this great
object, nature, as a structure governed by laws’. In history, however, as in
ordinary life, we return to experience, which Dilthey calls the only source of
value and purpose in human life. ‘Here understanding penetrates the
observable facts of human history to reach what is not accessible to the
senses and yet affects external facts and expresses itself through them.’20
This contrast between the self-effacing knowledge demanded by the natural
sciences and the interior understanding that defines the human sciences
produces the problem of knowledge that is resolved by the stress given to
the role of empathy. The basis of the human studies, he writes, ‘is not
conceptualization, but total awareness of a mental state and its reconstruc-
tion based on empathy’.21 There is also a close parallel between the cogni-
tive distances adopted by the two great branches of knowledge and their
degree of engagement and disengagement with the social world. The natural
sciences, he argues, had made themselves ‘remote’ from ordinary contact
with the world, while in the social sciences there is an evident continuity
between those acts of interpretation that make up so much of practical life
and the disciplined analysis of the specialist. Indeed, no mere scholar could
surpass Bismarck ‘in the art of reading intentions behind expressions’.22
‘The past’, says Collingwood, ‘is never a given fact’ which the historian
‘can apprehend empirically, by perception’. Rather, our knowledge of
history is always ‘mediate or inferential or indirect, never empirical’.23 In
fact, Collingwood is so insistent on the inferential character of historical
knowledge that he is prepared to say that if somehow we could revisit the
past in a time machine – a fantasy which for most historians would repre-
sent the most secure confirmation – the result would not be historical know-
ledge at all.24 The reason is that for the historian to have knowledge of the
past, he must re-enact it in his own mind. Narratives that are not the
product of this kind of rethinking may take the form of history, but in truth
they are something else. They may be what Croce had called ‘mere chron-
icles’ or what Collingwood himself derides as ‘scissors and paste’ – a narra-
tive assembled from various authorities without the essential element of
re-enactment.25 In short, a description of the past that is not a product of
reflection is not genuinely history at all.
As we will see, the absoluteness of this judgement about what truly is or
is not historical has far-reaching consequences for Collingwood’s narrative
of the history of historical thought.


In keeping with historicism’s commitment to read every type of human
activity as belonging to its own expressive context, Collingwood insists on
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the necessity of historicizing even the greatest monuments of the Western

intellectual tradition. Plato’s Republic, he writes, should not be read as an
unchanging ideal of political life, nor is Aristotle’s Ethics an eternal
morality. However remarkable in their own terms, these famous works of
political thought simply reflect the ideas of their own times. Similarly,
Hobbes’s Leviathan should be seen as an expression of seventeenth-century
absolutism, just as Kant’s ethical theory expresses the moral convictions of
German pietism. Limitations of this sort are not to be thought of as defects,
as though Plato could somehow have removed himself from the atmosphere
of Greek politics, or Aristotle could have anticipated modernity. Rather,
we need to accept their writings as nothing more than ‘inventories of the
wealth achieved by the human mind at a certain stage in its history’.26
In contrast to this tolerant inclusivity with respect to traditions of
political thought, Collingwood’s extensive examination of the history of
historiography is rife with harsh judgements on individuals and schools.
Collingwood is warmly appreciative of Herodotus, but he regards Thucy-
dides as having ‘smothered’ Herodotus’s invention beneath ‘anti-historical
motives’. Herodotus has a keen interest in the events themselves, but
Thucydides is really only interested in formulating the laws according to
which they happen – something which Collingwood regards as a regression
to the anti-historical thrust of most Greek thought, which considered only
eternal and unchanging forms as genuinely knowable. Commenting on the
famous harshness of the Thucydidean style, Collingwood writes: ‘In reading
Thucydides, I ask myself, What is the matter with the man, that he writes
like that? I answer: he has a bad conscience. He is trying to justify himself
for writing history at all by turning it into something that is not history’.27
When Collingwood turns to the Roman historians, much the same
pattern is repeated. Livy wins (mild) approbation, but in regard to Tacitus
he confesses to being not quite sure whether he should be considered a
historian at all. The charge against Tacitus, much like that against Thucy-
dides, is that he is insufficiently engaged with the concrete and particular.
Instead, Tacitus distorts history by making it a clash of good and bad char-
acters, without due appreciation of their individuality or development. The
historian must be able to re-enact his characters’ experience in his own
mind, Collingwood writes; ‘Tacitus never tried to do this: his characters are
seen not from inside, with understanding and sympathy, but from outside,
as mere spectacles of virtue or vice’.28
Collingwood’s overview of the course of classical historiography
provides a useful summary of his characteristic approach to the history of
historiography. In Herodotus, he writes, ‘we have an attempt at a really
historical point of view’. For him ‘events are important in themselves and
knowable by themselves’. But already in Thucydides ‘the historical point of
view’ is dimmed by what Collingwood calls ‘substantialism’, that is a theory
of knowledge according to which only what is unchanging is knowable’. The
result is that the stream of historical thought which flowed so freely in
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Herodotus is beginning to freeze up, a process that continues and intensi-

fies in Roman historiography, and ‘by the time of Livy history is frozen
Similar dogmatism is evident in Collingwood’s review of the Enlighten-
ment, another era in which a genuinely historical approach was made
impossible by a ‘substantialistic’ view of human nature. Equally damaging
was the anti-religious character of the Enlightenment, which prevented its
leading historians, Hume and Voltaire, from entering into a sympathetic
understanding of earlier, more religious eras.30 ‘A truly historical view of
human history’, Collingwood writes in condemnation of this blindness, ‘sees
everything in that history as having its own raison d’être and coming into
existence in order to serve the needs of the men whose minds have corpo-
rately created it.’ If, on the contrary, the historian sees an age as wholly
irrational (as the Enlightenment allegedly saw the Middle Ages) then he is
no longer a historian, but a polemicist. ‘Thus’, Collingwood concludes, ‘the
historical outlook of the Enlightenment was not genuinely historical; in its
main motive it was polemical and anti-historical.’31
Collingwood’s crisp dismissal of whole eras of historical thought should
not be mistaken for personal eccentricity. In fact, his criticism of earlier
schools is simply an application to the history of historical writing of his
equally strongly-stated views on historical knowledge, and similar judge-
ments, if not quite the same tone, can be found in the work of Dilthey,
Meinecke and others.32 Given the historicist concept of historical thought
as requiring a ‘movement of understanding from the external to the
internal’, it would be difficult for anyone committed to this school to muster
sympathy for periods of historical thought that operate from other, more
externalized and distantiated concepts of historical knowledge – a wide
category that includes not only classical historiography and the Enlighten-
ment, but also nineteenth and twentieth-century positivism.
Collingwood is certainly entitled to a frank preference for one group of
historians over another. A genuine difficulty arises, however, when the
historical critique takes the form of a judgement that whatever Thucydides,
Tacitus, or Hume might have been writing, it was not really history at all.
And yet it is hard to see how else the story could have turned out once the
philosopher-historian became committed to the idea that there is something
we can call a ‘really historical point of view’.
If the subject had been any aspect of the history of thought other than
historiography itself, Collingwood would have pressed himself to make the
imaginative effort his own historicism requires – the effort, that is, to
imagine a body of ideas as ‘coming into existence in order to serve the needs
of the men whose minds have corporately created it’. But the subject here
is not Aristotle’s ethics or Hobbes’s politics; it is historical knowledge, and
on this score Collingwood has a prior commitment to a particular position
that renders him incapable of extending his sympathies to those who
construct a relationship to the past in other terms. At best, we might say,
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Collingwood writes philosophy when he claims to be writing history. But

since the philosophy he writes from is also one that enjoins an openness to
the history of thought, it is hard to see how he can escape confronting the
challenge posed by his own commitment to historicize. Evidently, with
respect to historiography, the tradition of thought most resistant to
historical understanding would not be religion, as so many in the nineteenth
century either hoped or feared; rather it would be history itself.33


Nietzsche’s famous polemic against German historicism, On the Advantages
and Disadvantages of History for Life (1874), seems an appropriate place
to end this preliminary look at the problem of distance. Nietzsche attacked
what he called ‘the mighty historical orientation of our age’,34 but his aim
was not so much to deny the value of history, as to destroy the complacency
with which his countrymen regarded their much admired ‘historical
education’. The Germans, he charged, look into the past only to seek
comforting images of themselves – images which flatter power, disarm
action, and inhibit critical judgement. Against self-congratulation in all
these forms, he offered his famous analysis of alternative uses of history,
including the use of forgetting – a strategy that makes it clear that our
relation to the past is potentially multiform and that it stands open to delib-
erate remaking. The result is a sense of the constructedness of historical
engagements which would be hard to match in any other thinker.
Nietzsche’s animus against the German view of history has a variety of
sources and expressions. In part he repeats Machiavelli’s desire for a history
that leads to effective imitation, not inaction; in part, he gives new terms to
the Romantic myth concerning the harmony of the Greek spirit and the
self-division of modernity; in part he protests against the slavishness
induced by Hegelianism’s religion of historical power. (‘If every success
contains within itself a rational necessity, if every event is a victory of the
logical or of the idea, then quickly down on your knees . . .’)35 For our
purposes, however, the crucial point remains that in protesting at the
smugness of German ‘education’, Nietzsche attacks the assumption that
only one stance can be considered properly historical, namely the all-
comprehending relationship to the past figured by historicism.
This is the context for Nietzsche’s famous division of history into three
kinds: the monumental, the antiquarian, and the critical. The monumental
answers the need for action by providing images of greatness. The anti-
quarian responds to the need to preserve and admire the past. The critical,
which is destructive and emancipatory, brings the past to the bar of judge-
ment. ‘It is an attempt, as it were, . . . to give oneself a past from which one
would like to be descended.’36 Clearly each of these three types of history
constructs its own chosen distance, with the unsettling consequences to
received ideas of ‘education’ that have already been mentioned. But
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Nietzsche carries his protest against the pretensions of historicism still

further, insisting that ‘men must know how to forget at the right time as
well as how to remember at the right time’.37 Thus the choice becomes more
radical: in its full range, it incorporates a choice for and against history, as
well as a choice amongst histories – four positions, not three.
Nietzsche’s inclusion of the ‘unhistorical’ and the ‘superhistorical’ –
sometimes seen as the key concepts of his polemic – reflect his commitment
to measuring ‘historical education’ against another, allegedly higher,
standard (‘life’). But though his primary interest lies in setting bounds to
historical thought, not in extending its terrain, Nietzsche also raises a
different kind of critique that challenges historicism with its own weapons,
and asks it to consider its own origins and history. For the ‘origin of
historical education’, he writes, ‘ – and its inner quite radical contradiction
with the spirit of a “new age”, a “modern consciousness” – this origin must
itself in turn be historically understood, history must itself dissolve the
problem of history, knowledge must turn its sting against itself.’38
In other hands, the Nietzschean message that history permits various
forms of engagement might not be so pointed or unsettling. Much the same
lesson, for instance, lies behind today’s often complacent discussion of
memory and history, or the ever-growing literature on heritage, museums,
and monuments. In Nietzsche, however, the recognition that history is open
to a variety of uses never threatens to become a way of reinscribing
professional hierarchies of knowledge. Amidst the many accusations he
throws out against the ‘historical education’ of his own day, Nietzsche
always retains the sense that behind its apparent catholicity, historicism
concealed a dogmatic relationship to historical practice which prevented
historians from subjecting their own discipline to historical scrutiny. This
seems a promising place from which to begin to re-examine (albeit in terms
far less heroic than Nietzsche’s) some basic structures of the Western his-
toriographical tradition.


I am most grateful to Barbara Taylor for her generous invitation, as well as to Adam Phillips
for his comments and subsequent conversations. Earlier versions of this essay were presented
to seminars at Indiana University, the University of Chicago, the Department of History and
Philosophy of Science, Cambridge University, and at King’s College, Cambridge. I want to
thank Dror Wahrman, Steve Pincus, Simon Schaffer, Simon Goldhill and Stefan Hoesel-Uhlig
for these opportunities. Among the many who responded so helpfully to the various seminars,
I particularly want to acknowledge the comments of Stefan Collini, John Dunn, Stefan Hoesel-
Uhlig, Mary Catherine Moran, Steve Pincus, and Simon Schaffer. It is a special pleasure to
thank Edward Hundert and John Burrow, two probing and generous readers.

1 Mark Phillips, The Memoir of Marco Parenti; a Life in Medici Florence, Princeton, 1987.
2 Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Montaillou: the Promised Land of Error (1976), transl.
Barbara Bray, London, 1978; Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, The Midwife’s Tale: the Life of Martha
Ballard, based on her Diary 1785–1812, New York, 1990.
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3 I have discussed the disparate forms of microhistory and the ways in which the multiple
distances I am outlining here can help to clarify their different commitments in ‘Histories,
Micro- and Literary: Problems of Genre and Distance’, New Literary History 34, 2003.
4 Ginzburg’s fullest exposition of this idea is in Clues, Myths, and the Historical Method,
transl. John and Anne Tedeschi, Baltimore, 1989. His recent study, Wooden Eyes: Nine Reflec-
tions on Distance, transl. Martin Ryle and Kate Soper, New York, 2001, offers a series of stimu-
lating essays concerned with distance, but in a rather different sense from that pursued here.
5 For a helpful overview of this shift in recent history of science, see Jan Golinski, Making
Natural Knowledge: Constructivism and the History of Science, Cambridge, 1998.
6 Steve Shapin and Simon Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air Pump, Princeton, 1985.
7 Richard Whately, Historic Doubts Relative to Napoleon Buonaparte, ed. Ralph S.
Pomero, California, 1985, pp. 24–5.
8 Hayden V. White, Metahistory: the Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-century Europe,
Baltimore and London, 1974. See Bernard Williams’s remark: ‘it must be said that the fantas-
tical elaboration of the scheme and its ability to process almost any possibility without much
resistance do sometimes make it seem less like a machine than a picture of a machine’. Truth
and Truthfulness: an Essay in Genealogy, Princeton, 2002, p. 243.
9 E. P. Thompson. The Making of the English Working Class, London (1963), Harmonds-
worth, 1968, p. 13.
10 For a larger treatment of this tension, see my essay ‘Relocating Inwardness: Historical
Distance and the Transition from Enlightenment to Romantic Historiography’, Proceedings of
the Modern Languages Association 118, 2003: pp. 436–9.
11 David Hume, The Natural History of Religion, 1757; Henry Lord Kames, Sketches of
the History of Man, London, 1779.
12 Jules Michelet, Le Peuple, 1846, introduction: ‘Let it be my part in the future not to have
attained, but marked, the aim of history, to have called it by a name that nobody had given it.
Thierry called it narration, and M. Guizot analysis. I have named it resurrection and this name
will remain.’ See Fritz Stern, Varieties of History, New York, 1973, p. 117.
13 Miscellaneous Essays vol. 1, p. 310. The essay, a review of Hallam, was first published
in Edinburgh Review in September 1828.
14 At a time when readers were increasingly drawn to the evocative side of historical
writing, literary history in its various forms offered perhaps the most promising vehicle for
exploring the sentiments and experiences of ordinary people in the past. See my: ‘Literary
History and Literary Historicism in the Historical Thought of the Long Eighteenth Century’,
in New Directions in Eighteenth-Century Literature, ed. C. Wall, Oxford, forthcoming.
15 This influence was especially pronounced in North America, where the idealist
approach was strongly reinforced by Fritz Stern’s Varieties of History.
16 Georg Iggers, The German Conception of History: the National Tradition of Historical
Thought from Herder to the Present, Middletown, CT, revised edn, 1983, pp. 4–5.
17 Robin George Collingwood, The Idea of History (1946), revised edn, ed. Jan van der
Dussen, Oxford, 1994, p. 213.
18 Dilthey, Selected Writings, ed. H. P. Rickman, Cambridge, 1976, p. 172.
19 Dilthey, Selected Writings, p. 172.
20 Dilthey, Selected Writings, p. 172.
21 Dilthey, Selected Writings, pp. 181–2.
22 Dilthey, Selected Writings, p. 182.
23 Collingwood, Idea, p. 282.
24 Collingwood, Idea, p. 252.
25 Collingwood, Idea, pp. 257–8.
26 Collingwood, Idea, pp. 229–30.
27 Collingwood, Idea, pp. 29–30.
28 Collingwood, Idea, pp. 38–9.
29 Collingwood, Idea, pp. 42–3.
30 ‘The real cause of this restriction of interest to the modern period was that with their
narrow conception of reason they had no sympathy for, and therefore no insight into, what
from their point of view were non-rational periods of human history; they only began to be
interested in history at the point where it began to be the history of a modern spirit akin to
their own’. Idea, p. 78.
31 Collingwood, Idea, pp. 76–7.
32 Compare Dilthey’s judgement on the Enlightenment: ‘No real blood flows in the veins
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of the knowing subject constructed by Locke, Hume, and Kant; it is only the diluted juice of
reason, a mere process of thought’: Selected Works, p. 162.
33 Collingwood himself eloquently describes the kind of failure of sympathy that, in my
own view, he himself commits. Whenever a historian finds certain historical matters unintelli-
gible, he writes, he has come up against a limitation in his own mind. ‘Certain historians,
sometimes whole generations of historians, find in certain periods of history nothing intelligi-
ble, and call them dark ages; but such phrases tell us nothing about those ages themselves,
though they tell us a great deal about the persons who use them namely that they are unable
to re-think the thoughts which were fundamental to their life’. pp. 218–19.
34 Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Advantages and Disadvantages of History for Life (1874),
transl. Peter Preuss, Indianapolis, 1980, p. 8.
35 Nietzsche, Advantage, p. 47.
36 Nietzsche, Advantage, p. 14.
37 Nietzsche, Advantage, p. 10.
38 Nietzsche, Advantage, p. 45.