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Journal Article

WHY HISTORICAL DISTANCE IS NOT A PROBLEM

MARK BEVIR
History and Theory
Vol. 50, No. 4, THEME ISSUE 50: Historical Distance: Reflections on a Metaphor (December 2011), pp. 24-37
Published by: Wiley for Wesleyan University
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/41342619
Page Count: 14
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WHY HISTORICAL DISTANCE IS NOT A PROBLEM
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Abstract

This essay argues that concerns about historical distance arose along with modernist historicism, and they disappear with postfoundationahsm. The developmental historicism of the nineteenth century appealed to narrative principles to establish continuity between past and present and to guide selections among facts. In the twentieth century, modernist historicists rejected such principles, thereby raising the specter of historical distance: that is, the distorting effects of the present on accounts of the past, the chasm between facts and narrative. The modernist problem became: how can historians avoid anachronism and develop accurate representations of the past? Instead of using narrative principles to select facts, modernist historicists appealed to atomized facts to validate narratives. However, in the late twentieth century, postmodernists (Frank Ankersmit and Hayden White) argued that there was no way to close the distance between facts and narratives. The postmodern problem became: how should historians conceive of their writing given the ineluctable distance between facts and narratives? Today, postfoundationahsm dispels both modernist and postmodernist concerns with historical distance; it implies that all concepts (not just historical ones) fuse fact and theory, and it dissolves issues of conceptual relativism, textual meaning, and re-enactment.

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