The Transmission of our Understanding of Historical Time

This paper explains a philosophically pragmatic approach to the understanding of historical time, and some implications of that for the transmission of such understanding. The philosophical route from Hume’s empiricism to American pragmatism and recent developments in the application of that approach to historiography are summarised. Such pragmatism is a historicising philosophy. Quine’s “web of belief” is developed as (1) diachronic and not synchronic; (2) (following Collingwood) idealist and not realist in metaphysics, so history is that which we conceptually count or organise as such; (3) involving narrative structures of time, rather than atomistic beliefs in mathematical point-presents. The ongoing reality of history is then expressed by a rolling web of narrative temporal structures. History itself and the practice of the discipline are both understood in these terms. Analysing our understanding of the “present” with reference to the infant mind, some roles of tenses and voices in the organisation of time are illustrated using brief literary examples, and choices are stressed as foundational, constrained only by practice. The paper concludes with the application of Collingwood’s notion of “absolute presuppositions” to our understanding of the distinctions between present, past and historical past, and to the notions of historical distance and hindsight.