History is much more than only a subject of historical studies. It is an important cultural factor in everyone’s life, since our lives need an orientation in the course of time which has to be brought about by remembering the past. Historical studies are an orderly way of performing this function of orientation. In order to understand what historians do one should start with this fundamental and general function.
Human life has its very specific time order. Nietzche has described it as the beginning of his “Second Untimely Meditation”. The burdening chain of memory has become a primary condition of human life, because human beings have lost their guidance by natural instincts and are forced to put back instincts with a self-created cultural framework of orientation. The loss of instincts has opened up a new kingdom for experiencing time – it appears no longer in the pregiven order of a biological system but as a change in the world which has to be brought into a cultural order of importance and meaning. It appears as a challenge for understanding. As such it has the character of an unforeseen event: A permanent nuisance to be deliberately brought in an order of insight and understanding. An unforeseen event means that things happen in a way that forces people to move their own mind to come to terms with them. Compared with the grit of instincts this movement of the human mind can be called freedom, and time as unforeseen event can be understood as a shadow of freedom. Human beings have lost the natural guidance of animals in pursuing life, they are “thrown” into the freedom of culturally creating the guidance of their lives by themselves.
This freedom is a matter of hard work. Time has to be made comprehensible by reflecting its experience as a matter of understanding. By understanding time gets a sense and acquires an important feature: it becomes history.
What is history? In respect to the anthropologically universal function of orienting human life by culture the answer is simple: history is time which has gained sense and meaning. History is carrying great weight and sense-bearing time. It combines past, present and future in a way that human beings can live in the tense junction of remembering past and expected future. History is a process of reflecting the time order of human life, grounded in experiences and moved by outlooks on the future.
Across the huge variety in which the culture feature of time we call history has been realized, all its variations share common mental practice and form: narration. By narration time gains sense. Narratives transform the past into history; they combine experience and expectation – the two main time dimensions of human life. As a mixture of experience and expectation it includes a relationship to the human subject as well – its identity as a coherence of the self in the changes of time. The narratives create the field where history lives its cultural life in the minds of the people, telling them who they are and what the chronological change of themselves and their world is about.
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