On Historical Distance

Lectures in Intellectual History show

Summary: Ideas of historical distance have long been fundamental to Western conceptions of historical knowledge. In practice, however, distance seems to have dwindled into little more than a professional shibboleth - a way of defending the historian's labours against the simplifications of popular journalism or the shortcuts of the guided tour. In common usage, historical distance refers to a position of detached observation made possible by the passage of time, but the standard conception narrows the idea of distance and burdens it with a regulatory purpose. In this lecture, Professor Salber Philips argues that distance needs to be re-conceived in terms of the wider set of engagements that mediate our relations to the past, as well as the full spectrum of distance-positions from near to far. Re-imagined in these terms, distance sheds its prescriptiveness and becomes a valuable heuristic for examining the range and variability of historical representation.