Historia Magistra Vitae: On Reinhart Koselleck’s Vision of History

By Joshua MilsteinJuly 10, 2019

Historia Magistra Vitae: On Reinhart Koselleck’s Vision of History

Sediments of Time by Reinhart Koselleck

IN REGIMES OF HISTORICITY (2003), François Hartog defines the experience of time in our relative present — post-1989 — as “presentism,” that is, as “the sense that only the present exists, a present characterized at once by the tyranny of the instant and by the treadmill of the unending now.” It is a condition, in other words, of an unprecedented rapidity of change. The past, in this model, is not particularly instructive as a guide for action.

Hartog’s book quickly became a classic. But the prime theoretical mover behind his ideas on time and history is Reinhart Koselleck, the greatest theorist of history in postwar Germany, whose reception in the Anglophone world has been sputtering and inconsistent. While certain parts of Koselleck’s work have found traction, the full range of his reflections on history — of what it is to write history, and to live it — has largely been ignored in the Anglophone world.


Reinhart Koselleck served in in an artillery company on the Eastern Front during World War II. His first stroke of wartime fortune came in the form of a crushed foot: a wagon ran over it. He was deemed unfit for duty with his unit and dispatched west, to join a radar battery, for which he was an equipment manager. At the end of the war, his unit was captured by the Russians. They were marched to Auschwitz, and eventually to a POW camp in Kazakhstan. There, a family friend and fellow prisoner who had trained in medicine under Koselleck’s grandfather declared him unfit for labor, and so Koselleck was sent home.

In 1947, Koselleck was admitted to the University of Heidelberg, one of Germany’s leading intellectual centers. He studied with a number of scholars whose ideas would prove decisive for his intellectual development, like the philosophers Hans-Georg Gadamer and Karl Löwith, and the historian Johannes Kühn.

Among Koselleck’s intellectual liaisons in those years, Carl Schmitt was by far the most important. Schmitt, the “crown jurist of the Third Reich,” was a legal scholar who wrote influential texts on law, politics, religion, and history, and whose writings were shot through with chauvinism and animated by nationalist grievance and reactionary anti-modernism. Koselleck’s first book, Kritik und Krise (Critique and Crisis), which was based on his dissertation, is a strong act of scholarly self-identification with Schmitt. Adopting its interpretive framework from Schmitt’s The Leviathan in the State Theory of Thomas Hobbes (1938), Kritik und Krise recounts the collapse of the absolutist state, the arrival of the age of revolutions, and the birth of the philosophy of history as a set of interrelated developments. The absolutist state, in this interpretation, was one within which public morality was a matter of sovereign decree. Paradoxically, through its quarantine to the sovereign’s remit, a space for individual freedom of conscience was guaranteed, provided that it didn’t manifest as agitation for political change. Koselleck traced the roots of the breaking of this covenant to the secretive and internally stratified world of Masonic societies, with their false tolerance and their dream of a public morality. The Masons, according to him, brought apocalyptic ideas charged with “morality” — at the expense of reason of state and the welfare of the sovereign’s subjects — into public life, and prepared the ground for revolution. In Koselleck’s view, these apocalyptic visions would go on to dominate European politics into the Cold War, in which Koselleck saw the Americans and the Soviets as dueling agents of moral utopianism.

In his accounting of progress as a false dawn, and in his youthful miserliness toward revolutionary visions of participatory politics, Koselleck reveals something of his debt to Schmitt. While Koselleck continued to admire Schmitt’s thinking, he would eventually drop his early tone of reaction and apocalyptic foreshadowing, and formulate a distinct combination of received and original ideas, which, outside of the Anglophone world, have been extremely influential.


Most of the essays in this welcome new volume, edited and translated by Sean Franzel and Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann, appear in English for the first time. By focusing their selection on Koselleck’s theory of history, and especially on essays that dwell on what Koselleck called “the conditions of possible histories,” and on the various building blocks of historical writing (but also implicitly of life itself), the editors introduce English readers to something truly new.

Koselleck is mostly known today for his pioneering role in the development of modern Begriffsgeschichte, or conceptual history. Begriffsgeschichte is a mode of historical inquiry founded on the study of concepts over time, and in particular over the course of the Sattelzeit (“Saddle Period”), a neologism designating the period between 1750 and 1850. The concepts which Koselleck and his colleagues at Heidelberg selected for study both testify to and embody new relationships to time as felt by people who lived through an age of transition from the medieval to the modern world.

Central to Koselleck’s programmatic reflections on conceptual history was a particular pairing: the “space of experience” and the “horizon of expectation.” According to Koselleck, the space of experience is the reserve of received knowledge about the world and how to navigate it, while the horizon of expectation refers to the future — what is foreseeable according to the familiar categories contained in the reserve of past experience, and what is not. Modernity (in German Neuzeit, lit. “new time”) is new to the extent that the experience of novelty is also a result of a felt inability to assimilate newly acquired information to what is familiar. He joined this observation to an explanation of the utopian extensiveness of demands for political transformation made in modernity. As he wrote in his essay “‘Space of Experience’ and ‘Horizon of Expectation’: Two Historical Categories,” “The lesser the experiential substance, the greater the expectations joined to it. The lesser the experience, the greater the expectation: this is a formula for the temporal structure of the modern.”

That essay, written in the mid-1970s, was the concluding essay in Koselleck’s 1979 collection Vergangene Zukunft (Futures Past), and marked a kind of transition. From this point on, Koselleck moved away from formulating methodologies for the historical study of concepts and devoted himself instead to developing a theory of history.

According to Koselleck, the practice of history before the 18th century, which he associates with the contemporary term die Historie [history], was a fairly neutral project: it referred to the historian’s method of gathering and interpreting source material relating to particular events and to communicating findings in a narrative style. By contrast, the modern concept of history elaborated by the leading thinkers of German Idealism during the Sattelzeit, which Koselleck identifies with the term die Geschichte, is a “collective singular,” a single notion of history within which the various histories pursued by die Historie are now included. The philosophy of history that animated die Geschichte imposed upon the practice of history a theoretical burden which became a methodological one: the conception of history as a singular, advancing force, embodying justice and existing as both the subject and object of its own scrutiny. When everything is history, we cannot compare anything in the past to anything else. This, in other words, is roughly what we mean by “history” today, whether as the entirety of things past, the most instructive, superlative, or worst episodes of human history, or our own prospectively memorable deeds (“making history”). In his work, Koselleck wants to wrestle the semantic meaning of history away from these visions of one rational, progressive, and self-organizing force, which inducts the past, but also the future into its all-knowing scheme.

Koselleck’s challenge to the modern concept of history came in the form of what he called his Historik. The genre of Historik is a German tradition, going back to the mid-19th century, of defining the aims and methods of history writing. Koselleck joined up explicitly with this tradition in his 1985 speech “Historik und Hermeneutik,” given on the occasion of Gadamer’s birthday. There he defines his own Historik as “the theory of the conditions of possible histories.” By “possible histories” Koselleck means events that may take place, but neither the content or meaning of which presuppose an overarching philosophy of history. In order to understand the “conditions” of such histories, Koselleck attempts to outline the most basic features of human existence in time.

In his essay “Linguistic Change and the History of Events,” he draws a distinction between “prelinguistic” and “linguistic” conditions of possible histories. Prelinguistic conditions include “anthropological” conditions, which he extended elsewhere to include distinctions such as those between friend and enemy, inside and outside, or the fact of death. These, being far out of sight and mind, are “more than what can be mastered by language.” Language, on the other hand — and this includes what is committed to paper, like history-writing — is a “storehouse of experiences.” These experiences include not only the experience of events as they took place, but also of possible futures that were never realized. Thucydides, in the Melian Dialogue, records the Melians’ consideration of alternative courses of action and their projected results, on the way to their fateful decision to reject the Athenians’ terms. When Emil Hácha in 1939, or Alexander Dubček in 1968, chose not to embark on a course of violent resistance to imminent German and Soviet takeovers, respectively, they repeated, or reinhabited, the deliberative circumstances of the Melians. Language, and its storehouse-like capacity to include memories of roads not taken, contains what Koselleck calls “structures of repetition” [Wiederholungsstrukturen], in which the broad patterning of events, circumstances, and deliberations may recur throughout history.

Koselleck advocates for a view of events (and of non-events) that affirms their repeatability. He explicitly opposes the idea that they are entirely unique and singular, which is a consequence of historical thought of the Sattelzeit, and a flagship principle of historicism since the 19th century. Such a way of looking at the past may also help us make sense of the present, or at least the different ways that it can be understood. As Koselleck writes in the essay “Constancy and Change of All Contemporary Histories: Conceptual-Historical Notes,” “Only when we know what can repeat itself at any time (though not always all at once) can we ascertain what is truly new in our time.”


Since the election of Donald Trump, some have concluded that history is repeating itself. In particular, the early history of the Trump administration was understood by some popular academics and media personalities via the rise of Hitler. Hitler’s seizure of power came to be seen as a kind of explanatory framework for how American democracy could collapse from within. A lexicon of Reichstag fires, von Hindenburgs, and vocabularies of dehumanization entered public discourse, sometimes complemented with attempts to adduce whether the United States of 2016 is the Germany of 1933, or whether the deep partisanship of political life reflects the Weimar Germany of the years before 1933. Various presidential depredations perpetrated upon the justice system, the truth, rivals, norms, and immigrants came to be inducted into the rhetorical constellations of this historical analogy. However vague, inaccurate, or fantastical these analogies have been, and however far from complete a reliable sentiment analysis of this one piece of resistance discourse is, it does point to a present preoccupation with the past with a kind of prognostic aim. The point of these analogies has been to understand the present, but also to give texture to darkling visions of the future.

Interestingly, this phenomenon is in a way unlike Hartog’s present. At least for some, the notion of historia magistra vitae — that history is the teacher of life — the loss of which Koselleck famously claimed to be characteristic of modernity, has been invigorated.

Koselleck’s vision of history — and especially his writings from the last three decades of his life, represented in Sediments of Time — is weirdly relevant to the spectacular treadmill of our own “unending now.” We should be grateful for the appearance of this uniquely fluent translation of some of his most challenging work. These essays reward repeated reading.


Joshua Milstein is a research associate at Harvard University’s Mahindra Humanities Center.

LARB Contributor

Joshua Milstein is a research associate at Harvard University’s Mahindra Humanities Center.


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