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Journal Article

THE TRANSFIGURATION OF DISTANCE INTO FUNCTION

FRANK ANKERSMIT
History and Theory
Vol. 50, No. 4, THEME ISSUE 50: Historical Distance: Reflections on a Metaphor (December 2011), pp. 136-149
Published by: Wiley for Wesleyan University
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/41342626
Page Count: 14
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THE TRANSFIGURATION OF DISTANCE INTO FUNCTION
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Abstract

The point of departure of this essay is the intuition that the relationship between the past and the present (or between the past as the object of historical investigation and what is said about it by the historian) should be conceived of in terms of temporal distance. The spatial metaphor of distance at work in this intuition is thought to provide the basis for the epistemological model appropriate for understanding the nature of historical knowledge. This results in two claims: 1) epistemology is the philosophical instrument we must rely upon for understanding historical writing, and 2) the metaphor of distance is—whether one is aware of it or not—the model for most, if not all, epistemological thought. This essay discusses the pros and cons of these two claims. It argues that the two claims are indeed the best way to begin our analysis of the relationship between the past and the historical text or representation. However, we cannot afford to stop there; indeed, we must ask ourselves where the associations we have with the metaphor of temporal distance may, in the end, be misleading. This will enable us to recognize that the notion of distance will, finally, have to yield its prerogatives to that of the notion of function. Historical writing is functionalist in the sense that the historical text is a substitute for the past discussed in it. That is ' ûs function. Hence the essay's title.

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