Contemporary History and the Art of Self-Distancing

The metaphor of historical distance often appears in discussions about the study of contemporary history. It suggests that we cannot see the past in perspective if we are too near to it. According to founding fathers like Ranke and Humboldt, temporal distance is required to discern historical "ideas" or forms. The argument may have some plausibility, but the presupposition is plainly false, since we cannot see the past at all. This leaves us with the question of what to make of the so-called historical forms. This article discusses three different views. The first, historicist, view is objectivist and localizes historical forms in the past. The second, narrativist, view is subjectivist and localizes historical forms in the realm of imagination and representation. The third view goes beyond the other two in that it considers both sides. It does not use a one-sided but a two-sided concept of form, which hinges on the idea of a distinction. This means that historical forms occupy both sides of the subject-object distinction or the present-past distinction. Because the subject-object terminology is confusing, the essay employs an alternative distinction between first-and second-order observation. With the help of this distinction, it is possible to redescribe the distance metaphor in such a way that the theoretical status of contemporary history becomes less enigmatic.