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According to Michel de Certeau, distance is the indispensable prerequisite for historical knowledge and the very characteristic of modern historiography. The historian speaks, in the present, about the absent, the dead, as Certeau labels the past, thus emphasizing the performative dimension of historical writing: “the function of language is to introduce through saying what can no longer be done.” As a consequence, the heterogeneity of two non-communicating temporalities becomes the challenge to be faced: the present of the historian, as a moment du savoir, is radically separated from the past, which exists only as an objet de savoir, the meaning of which can be restored by an operation of distantiation and contextualization. In Evidence de l’histoire: Ce que voient les historiens, François Hartog takes up the question of history writing and what is visible, or more precisely the modalities historians have employed to narrate the past, opening up the way to a reflection on the boundaries between the visible and the invisible: the mechanisms that have contributed to establish these boundaries over time, and the questions that have legitimized the survey of what has been seen or not seen. But, as Mark Phillips points out, it is the very ubiquity of the trope of distance in historical writings that has paradoxically rendered it almost invisible to historians, so that “it has become difficult to distinguish between the concept of historical distance and the idea of history itself.”

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1 Mill, James, The History of British India, vol. 1 (London, 1817), xv.

2 Humboldt, Wilhelm von, “On the Historian's Task” (1821), History and Theory, 6/1 (1967), 5771, 58.

3 Certeau, Michel de, The Writing of History, trans. Tom Conly (New York, 1988; first published 1974), 101.

4 Ibid., emphasis in the original.

5 As Antoine Lilti notes in relation to Lucien Febvre's historiography. See “Rabelais est-il notre contemporain? Histoire intellectuelle et herméneutique critique,” Revue d’histoire moderne et contemporaine, 59/4bis (2012), 65–84, 71. See also Ginzburg, Carlo, “Distance and Perspective: Two Metaphors,” in Ginzburg, Wooden Eyes: Nine Reflections on Distance, trans. Martin Ryle and Kate Soper (New York, 2001), 139–56.

6 Hartog, François, Évidence de l’histoire: Ce que voient les historiens (Paris, 2005); Hartog, , Régimes d’historicité: Présentisme et expériences du temps (Paris, 2002).

7 Phillips, Mark Salber, “Distance and Historical Representation,” History Workshop Journal, 57 (2004), 123–41, 125. See now Phillips, , On Historical Distance (New Haven, 2013).

8 Hartog, François, Le miroir d’Hérodote: Essai sur la représentation de l’autre (Paris, 1980).

9 Koselleck, Reinhart, Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time, trans. Tribe, Keith (New York, 2004; first published 1979).

10 Burke, Edmund to Robertson, William, 9 June 1777. See The Correspondence of Edmund Burke, vol. 3, ed. Guttridge, George H. (Cambridge, 1961), 351.

11 Closeness and Distance in the Age of Enlightenment, a Mellon Conference, The Temper of Evidence, 27–8 May 2011, California Institute of Technology. The overall Mellon-funded project, directed by John Brewer, Jed Buchwald and Mordechai Feingold, was The Temper of Evidence, from Antiquity through the Eighteenth Century. Other publications include Reason, Evidence and Erudition in Early Modern Europe, a special issue of the Huntington Library Quarterly, 74, 3 (2011), and Matter and Form in Early Modern Science and Philosophy, ed. Gideon Manning (Leiden and Boston, 2012).

12 See, from a large literature, the recent special issue on Historical Distance: Reflections on a Metaphor, History and Theory, 50/4 (2011), 1–149, where “historical distance” is analyzed as a metaphor which has ontological, epistemological, moral, aesthetic, and methodological connotations, and is used in a variety of intellectual contexts. See also the session dealing with distance and proximity in historical imagination in History Workshop Journal, 57 (2004), 117–49; Phillips, Mark Salber, “Histories, Micro- and Literary: Problems of Genre and Distance,” New Literary History, 34 (2003), 211–29; Brewer, John, “Microhistory and the Histories of Everyday Life,” Cultural and Social History, 7/1 (2010), 87109, which emphasizes issues of perspective, space, size and historical distance in shaping historical interpretation.

13 Phillips, On Historical Distance, 6 and 8.

14 Ginzburg, “To Kill a Chinese Mandarin: The Moral Implications of Distance,” chap. 8 of Ginzburg, Wooden Eyes.

15 Collingwood, Robin G., The Idea of History (Oxford and New York, 1994; first published 1946), 364.

16 For a recent examination and contextualization of this fresco see Spieth, Darius A., “Giandomenico Tiepolo's ‘Il Mondo Nuovo’: Peep Shows and the ‘Politics of Nostalgia,’” Art Bulletin, 92/3 (2010), 188–210.

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Modern Intellectual History
  • ISSN: 1479-2443
  • EISSN: 1479-2451
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