The Transmission of our Understanding of Historical Time


  • Jonathan Lamb Gorman Emeritus, Queen's University Belfast and Royal Irish Academy




This paper explains a philosophically pragmatic approach to the understanding of historical time, and some implications of that for the transmission of such understanding. The philosophical route from Hume’s empiricism to American pragmatism and recent developments in the application of that approach to historiography are summarised. Such pragmatism is a historicising philosophy. Quine’s “web of belief” is developed as (1) diachronic and not synchronic; (2) (following Collingwood) idealist and not realist in metaphysics, so history is that which we conceptually count or organise as such; (3) involving narrative structures of time, rather than atomistic beliefs in mathematical point-presents. The ongoing reality of history is then expressed by a rolling web of narrative temporal structures. History itself and the practice of the discipline are both understood in these terms. Analysing our understanding of the “present” with reference to the infant mind, some roles of tenses and voices in the organisation of time are illustrated using brief literary examples, and choices are stressed as foundational, constrained only by practice. The paper concludes with the application of Collingwood’s notion of “absolute presuppositions” to our understanding of the distinctions between present, past and historical past, and to the notions of historical distance and hindsight.


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Author Biography

Jonathan Lamb Gorman, Emeritus, Queen's University Belfast and Royal Irish Academy

Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy, The Queen’s University of Belfast.  M.A. (Edinburgh), Ph.D. (Cambridge), Member of the Royal Irish Academy. Author of The Expression of Historical Knowledge (Edinburgh University Press, 1982), Understanding History (Ottawa University Press, 1992 and 2005), Rights and Reason (Acumen and McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2003), Historical Judgement (Acumen, 2007, and McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2008), and numerous articles and reviews in the theory of history and the theory of law.   He is on the editorial committees/boards of History and Theory, Rethinking History, The Journal of Philosophy of History, and Philosophical Inquiry.






How to Cite

Gorman, J. L. (2012). The Transmission of our Understanding of Historical Time. Social and Education History, 1(2), 129–152.