Back in the Sattel(zeit) again

by John Raimo

Where does the historian Reinhart Koselleck (1923-2006) stand in intellectual history today? Among his readers, Koselleck remains a preeminent theorist of historical time and historiography, an innovative figure in ‘conceptual history’ (Begriffsgeschichte), and an accomplished historian in practice, not least in his editorial oversight of the great political lexicon of the Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe (1972-1996). The historian’s status in his native Germany seems assured with continuing posthumous publications, scholarly attention devoted to his work, and the opening of his archives to researchers. Koselleck also remains a lively reference point among such thinkers and historians as Aleida Assmann, François Hartog, and Jacques Revel, not least following Paul Ricœur’s sustained engagement with his German contemporary. Translations of his writing (perhaps most prominently in Portuguese) and the practice of conceptual history further contribute to what has become a global reputation.

Speakers at an AHA panel this last weekend discussed the limits of this influence.* Helge Jordheim addressed the continuing feasibility of larger tropes found throughout Koselleck’s writing, most prominently the notion of a Sattelzeit (‘saddle-time) or a transitionary period into political (even secular) modernity roughly spanning 1750 and 1850. The notion of a Sattelzeit itself hearkens back to his earliest work. In his dissertation (published as Kritik und Krise or Critique and Crisis in 1959), Koselleck famously argues that the 17th century absolutist state inadvertently created the first effective, oppositional public sphere in the Enlightenment. This laid the foundations not only of the French Revolution, but also of the liberal subject (as understood today) and of the modern political order which followed. This latter period furnishes the span of Koselleck’s studies in conceptual history, namely programmatic studies of semantic change in key political concepts. Kathleen Davis questioned the consequences for historiography in this broader division, however, and not least in terms of reconceiving the Middle Ages as such. (The triad of antiquity, mediaeval, and modernity also preoccupied Jacques Le Goff to the end of his career, incidentally.)

Koselleck is not a systematic thinker, and he constantly revised his theories. While conceding a theoretical blurriness, the AHA panelists make a strong case that Koselleck’s legacy should be contested and both geographically and chronologically expanded. How far can this be done?

Two notions spring to mind. The first applies to the Sattelzeit thesis and the professional turn to global history imagined by Michael Geyer and Charles Bright among others. Following such historians as Adam Tooze, we might take the 1870s as the starting point for a worldwide convergence of (and converging opposition to) political and economic vocabularies. This is not to advance a theory of modernity, necessarily, nor indeed to dismiss the alternative national histories floating about before, during, or after the period in question. (Here Koselleck’s notion of a modern ‘collective singular’ arising in historical thought also bears upon any reconstructed ideas of progress.) As per Koselleck’s account of conceptual history, both semantic change and the circulation of ideas would prove jagged and asymmetrical in any historical telling. Yet the larger Sattelzeit thesis—when extended beyond Germany—could be tested against any history of globalization or a perceived global condition.

Conceptual history also expands beyond political concepts in Germany. Indeed, the same historiographical approach applies just as easily to larger transnational exchanges. These also prove more expansive in terms of content, finding traction not only in political but also in politicized vocabularies. Carol Gluck and Anne Lowenhaupt-Tsing’s volume Words in Motion: Toward a Global Lexicon (2009) furnishes a wonderful model for global history written in this key.

Another suggestion bears upon a possible conceptual history of human rights. The subject has recently become one of the most formidable and exciting fields in history: formidable, in light of the exacting debates swirling around its origins and character; exciting, in the sheer volume of its historiography today. But where will histories of ideas, of governmental policy, and NGOs now lead historians?

Koselleck’s insistence that circulation refines and changes concepts may afford a broader historiographical frame. Ideas trickle down and bubble back up. Drawn against a global stage, the receptions (plural) of human rights ideas and policies would vary between regions, states, areas, political identifications, and people before returning to political science departments and the occasional history blog. How deep do the archives extend on this score? What sorts of translation occurred within and across languages, which mediums carried the ideas, and how far did global aspects of human rights travel? Is there a social history, a cultural history, a media history, and so on for human rights?

The research program of Koselleck’s great lexicon, the Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe, establishes an initial framework for these questions. The introduction sketches out levels of reception while implicitly tracing an arc of scholarship. Historians begin with ‘classic’ (Klassiker) texts in political theory, philosophy, jurisprudence, theology, and so on—call it the ‘Great Man’ approach to intellectual history—before advancing to ‘widely circulating’ (Streuweite) texts including literature, journalism, pamphlets, bureaucratic records, and scholarship as much as private letters and diaries. This constitutes the great work of archives then contrasted against the third-level of ‘dictionaries’ (Wörterbücher), namely the reference works progressively fixing (or attempting to fix) concepts for each period.

This schema may first appear overly-determined. Yet in practice, the historiography blurs and leads ever outwards. One example for human rights historians in this register can be found in the career of Robert L. Bernstein, founder of the Human Rights Watch as well as the long-term head of Random House.** The publication of dissidents under Bernstein’s aegis might conceivably furnish a history of the book or a literary history for human rights, say, and an account of popular intellectual history of American readers of Soviet dissidents. If Koselleck’s theories and conceptual history indeed open up such new perspectives and even archives for consideration, what other anchors for a global history of human rights can be found elsewhere?

*Please note that the panel was incomplete.
**The author thanks Timothy Nunan for this reference.


  1. It is interesting to notice that Koselleck’s influence can be seen in other academic departments, as there are several scholars in literature and philosophy (for instance) who have wrestled with the notion of sattlezeit or have used shifts in the experience of time as a way to tackle specific political and metaphysical debates. Two examples come to mind. The first is professor Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht (Comparative Literature – Stanford). On a strictly theoretical level, professor Gumbrecht has attempted to instrumentalize the notion of “chronotope” as a descriptive of the way we experience time on any given context. He is also known for his work on the notion of “latency” as a way to describe the temporal sensibility of the western world after 1945, where positive expectations regarding the future (and humanity’s potential for productive change) has given way to an enlarged and plastic present (in this sense, his work is not unlike professor François Hartog’s ideas on the notion of “presentisme”). The second example is professor Bertrand Binoche (Philosophy – Paris I, Panthéon-Sorbonne). Unlike Gumbrecht, his work is more closely tied to the transition between eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe. On the other hand, professor Binoche is very much inspired by the conceptual and philological aspect of Koselleck’s theories, specifically those relating to the genealogy and diffusion of political terms. For those interested in French intellectual history, his work (especially his writings on Montesquieu) does pair really well with Kritik und Krise.

    Regardless, this was a great article, John.


  2. Nice overview! Your focus is on the legacy of Koselleck’s work within conceptual history, so if you don’t mind I’d like to supplement your post with a few words about where, I think, the current theoretical interest in Koselleck lies. As far as I’m concerned, it is the context of an urge to revise our notion of temporality that underlies our concept of history in which Koselleck quite often features nowadays. At least this is the case with Helge Jordheim – whose AHA talk you mention – who takes up Koselleck’s theory of multiple temporalities. But generally speaking there is quite a huge theoretical interest in the issue of historical time recently. You can witness a large variety of efforts to come to terms with the issue from Chris Lorenz to Aleida Assmann, or think of the emergence of the notion of ‘presence’ in theoretical discussions, or, on a more practical level, think of The History Manifesto that also touches upon the issue in its own way. Koselleck certainly has a lot to offer in this respect, both to those who wish to draw upon his work and to those who wish to confront or supersede it.


  3. Thanks for both of your notes! It’s always wonderful to find other readers of Koselleck. Naturally I have some brief thoughts to share in response to your contributions, so here goes.

    That’s an excellent reference to Gumbrecht, Caio. Note that there’s both a professional and closer intellectual connection to Koselleck in his case. Gumbrecht wrote the article on “Modern, Modernität, Moderne” in the Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe under Koselleck’s editorial guidance. Later, Gumbrecht also wrote a thoroughgoing critique of the now-classical form of Begriffsgeschichte: see his Dimensionen und Grenzen der Begriffsgeschichte (W. Fink, 2006). Moreover, Gumbrecht’s earlier views of politics and modernity strike me as expressly indebted to Koselleck’s earlier theories of semantic change, political agency, and crisis in Kritik und Krise. See his Funktionen parlamentarischer Rhetorik in der Französischen Revolution. Vorstudien zur Entwicklung einer historischen Textpragmatik (W. Fink, 1978).

    Betrand Binoche is a new name for me, and I’m very thankful for your calling attention to his work!

    And thanks for your comments, Zoltan. Koselleck’s a hard figure to either summarize or comment on in a thousand words, so your compliment was greatly appreciated as well. (I’m also sorry that we didn’t get to chat at the AHA talk!) I both agree and slightly disagree with what you wrote. For some time now, I think, the main theoretical interest has indeed been on the issue of multiple temporalities in Koselleck’s thinking. As I tried to hint above, Ricœur initiated this emphasis in reading Koselleck and François Hartog has brilliantly carried it forward. The link to Aleida Assmann’s new book is her main contribution to the discussion, though it seemed to me that she was reading Koselleck more through Hartog than the former directly. (I don’t have my copy at hand to check the index, but I seem to recall almost a parallel number of references.)

    Naturally, this is hardly to say that the issue has run its course. Christophe Bouton is one of the smartest younger French scholars working on this register: cf. his Le temps d’urgence (Éditions Le Bord de l’eau, 2013) and Faire l’Histoire: De la Révolution française au Printemps arabe (Cerf, 2013). Chris Lorenz is another new name on me: it looks like I need to read his edited volume Breaking up Time: Negotiating the Borders between Present, Past and Future (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2013). I’m not surprised to see both Assmann and Hartog among the contributors! Where else should I start with his work?

    I think that focusing more-or-less exclusively on the topic of historical time in Koselleck’s writing muddies the water in reading him, though. There’s a general take on Koselleck, or so it seems to me, that views the philological work and the thinking on historical time as two wholly separate spheres. That is, it’s easy to view Koselleck as a schizophrenic sort of historian by night and theorist by day (or vice-versa). Both Jordheim and Davis very rightly pushed against this, I think. I tried to hint at what it might mean to bring both sides of his work together beyond the context of his own work—though that’s evidently a tall order in whatever given word-count! If we’re going to take anything from Koselleck today and better understand his thinking on historical time, though, I think that historians still need to try to do so.


  4. John, thanks for your detailed reply and sorry for being a bit slow on my part! I don’t really know where to begin, but I guess it would be OK to start with answering your question about Lorenz. First of all, you are right, it is not surprising to meet the names of Assmann and Hartog in the volume ‘Breaking up Time.’ However, their interest is rather different from the interest of Lorenz, which, as far as I’m concerned, is motivated chiefly by the notion of ‘presence’ and debates in journals like History and Theory. In the middle of the last decade, the notion featured in Eelco Runia’s timely essay in History and Theory (2006) just as well as in Hans Ulrich Gumbrect’s book (The Production of Presence, 2004), and since then it has a sort of a spectacular career. This, actually, is the part I’m more familiar with, and beside the ones i mentioned, you might be interested in Lorenz’s essay ‘Unstuck in Time’ (in the volume ‘Performing the Past, 2010), or Berber Bevernage’s book (History, Memory and State-Sponsored Violence, 2012) which, in search of an alternative chronosophy, explicitly discusses Koselleck.

    But debates around the notion of ‘presence,’ Assmann’s and Hartog’s investigations, Helge Jordheim’s interest in multiple temporalities, and a lot of other efforts seem to come togehter in a wider discussion of concepts of time and temporality in (or as) history. What I wanted to say is only that this diverse set of sometimes joint sometimes lonelier efforts to conceptualize the time or temporality of history is the wider context in which Koselleck’s ideas feature more and more often.

    I don’t know if a focus on such questions necessarily entails to view Koselleck in that schizophrenic way you refute. You might be right again that it is not that fruitful to separate them. This would be the way faithful to Koselleck’s own views, I guess. But on the other hand, I also see no necessary intertwinement here, and therefore no harm in referring to him more affirmatively regarding what might be called his historical findings and less affirmatively regarding his theoretical edifice built on anthropological constants (which, in a sense, is anything but historical). At least this is what I tend to do whenever I discuss Koselleck:) (Btw, indeed, it would have been great to chat about these questions in person, but I’m writing from Germany and I wasn’t there at the AHA event; I referred to Helge Jordheim’s AHA talk only because i know his articles on the issue.)


  5. All thanks to you, Zoltan! This is all appreciated, and you very kindly overlooked a comment which came out a bit sharper-sounding than I intended. The reading suggestions are hugely helpful. Indeed, I’m already a big fan of Eelco Runia’s and had the pleasure of hearing him give a lecture this fall in NYC. (We discussed Koselleck’s temporalities vis-à-vis crises in the discussion afterwards.) I aim to discuss his wonderfully-provocative book “Moved by the Past: Discontinuity and Historical Mutation” (Columbia, 2014) here on the blog soon, too. Runia’s essay on presence is pretty excellent by any standard. I’ll read the Lorenz and Bevernage post-haste. So far as memory comes into the picture (another discussion!), I should also draw your attention to the forthcoming work on collective memory and temporalities from a former student and colleague of Koselleck’s (as well as Ricœur’s), Jeffrey Andrew Barash.

    I suppose that I would tend to err in the same direction as you in focusing on his ‘historical findings’ if we had to divide his work. One of the simultaneously frustrating and exciting things about reading the more theoretical work is how often more-anthropological formulas emerge and are just as quickly discarded or revised. But there are two binaries which nevertheless allow themselves to be too-easily aligned (in my mind) and so rob Koselleck’s work of a lot of its richness. There’s the theoretical / historical divide you mention, and then the temporalities / conceptual or semantic one (of admittedly less interest to most scholars now). You could draw up a four-by-four square with those constants to gain different approaches to Koselleck’s lasting concerns. In more practical terms, we can then borrow historiographical practices from him, or we can better understand Koselleck as a historical figure in his own right within intellectual history. As you said, there may not be any necessary entwinement in pursuing either of those ends, but I still think there’s something to be said in chasing both goals (and all four aspects) at the same time.


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