Saturday, May 28, 2005

When Is A Century Not A Century?

When historians argue, of course. We historians are an interesting bunch. We look at something as seemingly clear-cut as the divisions between centuries and start asking questions that yield answers that seem, to the layperson, to make very little sense.

For example, from my field of expertise, the eighteenth century was not the period of time between 1700-1799. Most historians of the period, myself included, consider the real extent of the "long" eighteenth century to be 1688-1815 (the period between the Glorious Revolution in England and the final defeat and exile of Napoleon/Congress of Vienna). The nineteenth century, similarly, lasts from 1815-1914 (Congress of Vienna to the start of World War I). Lastly, the twentieth century, shorter than most, lasted from 1914-1992 (Start of WWI to the final fall and dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact).

Is this sort of counterintuitive periodization reasonable? I believe that it is, as the broad developments in politics, economics, society and culture do not merely follow the arbitrary strictures of an invented calendar and dating system. These causal chains of process cannot be confined to simple 100 year periods.

This does, however, raise other issues. Should historians be concerned with phases and developments in period at all? Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who differed with Marx's theory of history, claimed that in all ages there is thesis, antithesis and synthesis that are untimately leading to the perfection of history. While his conclusions are spurious, his understanding brings out a commonly held idea concerning history: the march of history in the spirit of progress to the betterment of man, taking negative developments as lessons for the future. It can clearly be seen that things are more complicated and issues more intertwined to come to such a simple conclusion. People and societies do not develop over a timeline.

This also raises the question of periods themselves. Do these new boundaries of historical centuries call into question the utilities of periodization and the use of dates to mark history? In a certain way, they do. They challenge the notion of progress in history and also the reducability of human experience to linear standards. These new centuries merely try to point out these facts.

Are these opinions definite? No, and it is unlikely that they will ever be. Historians debate forever the significance of developments on images and understandings of the past, trying to agree on fair portrayals of these developments. That is, I believe, a key role of the historian in society. We are not merely tellers of tales; we are facilitators of understanding about ourselves and the condition of our world through an understanding of the past.

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