Do We still need History? And if so: Why?

Reinhart Koselleck, Vom Sinn und Unsinn der Geschichte, Berlin 2010

A short cut and a remark for the Digital Humanities

The historical sciences since quite a long time have been in crisis, Reinhart Koselleck, the famous German historian, writes in his essay “Wozu noch Geschichte?”. He asks about the theoretical possibilities of history – questions that can be used also for the Digital Humanities.

Historical science is not tied to a particular object, it exists only in its method: history itself is its area of research. It began in the modern era, when an event and its story grew together. History became a category of awareness, a “knowledge of itself” (Droysen). History as a plural form of individual stories referred to the modern experience of accelerated change, to the open future. Since the French Revolution, history is a meta historical concept, a melting pot of numerous ideologies, ultimately: an empty formula.

The historical analysis of the term “history” shows what historical science could accomplish still today:  (1) The work on the individual case, the historical method, provides the test, whether a general set of questions can be kept; (2) The work on temporal depth leads us beyond our own horizon of experience, giving a distortion, which contributes to knowledge; (3) The work on the social and temporal condition of statements leads to a critique of ideology, but not, (4) to instructions for action: History does not repeat itself.

Its antinomy presents special challenges to the dealing with history. We need a theory about the past, its present and its future, a theory about the game of possibilities, a theory of historical time and its structure. Temporal structures divide the historical space of experience as its own research area. Terms such as “acceleration”, “progress” or precisely “history” can be analyzed in it and can so giving back meaning to the historical sciences.

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Reading Koselleck, his essay of 1971, we meet again the dissolution of history in favor of stories, the end of the telos. But he does not give up history. He counts on a theory of temporal structures and on ideas from the social sciences. Koselleck thinks a history, through which we discover new stories, absolutely necessary. Work on the individual case and to the temporal depth gives us a space in which historical knowledge is possible. Koselleck would encourage us to operate Digital History. For him, it would be an accurate form of confrontation with the essence of “acceleration”. But he would urge us to do this in a critical way, not to succumb to the myths of technology. The distance, the alienation as a prerequisite for the analysis of Digital History must first be created. The discipline is still too young to be self-reflexive. First, it must become sure of itself.

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If you still wonder why it should be useful to read a text from the seventies for the Digital Humanities, I kindly ask you to check the two following post: The question of presence in the Digital Humanities about Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht. In his critical cultural approach he used the concept of time developped by Reinhart Koselleck. And if you are interested in the concepts of history, please check my post about Niklas Luhmann and his system analytic concept of time.


Guido Koller

Senior Historian, Swiss Federal Archives, CH-3003 Berne, Switzerland

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