(Roughly) Daily

“History is not the past but a map of the past, drawn from a particular point of view, to be useful to the modern traveler”*…

A New Chart of History. English: A color version of Joseph Priestly’s A New Chart of History. To Benjamin Franklin LLD. FRS. This Chart In Testimony of Esteem & Friendship. Inscribed By his most obliged Humble Serv. Joseph Priestley. . 1769.

Timelines are now a commonplace. But as Emily Thomas explains, Joseph Priestley’s “A New Chart of History” revolutionized how we view history…

… Priestley (1733-1804) is best known for his scientific work, especially the co-discovery of oxygen. Yet he was also a teacher and a philosopher. As a teacher, Priestley sought to better communicate history to his students. He was fascinated by chronologies, texts ordering events. Since ancient Greece and Rome, chronologers used ‘time tables’ or grids to depict the order of events in time. An obvious problem with these chronologies, though, is that only so many events can fit on each page.

The mid-18th century saw many experiments in representing history, including Thomas Jefferys’ 1753 A Chart of Universal History. Jefferys was a mapmaker and his chart depicts empires almost as though they are countries on a map, allowing you to scan them all at once. Impressed, Priestley determined to create a chart of his own that readers could scan ‘at one view’. He made several innovations but one proved key: lines, inspired by his philosophy of time.

For this, Priestley drew on a seemingly unconnected topic: John Locke’s 1690 account of abstract ideas. For Locke, abstract ideas include ‘redness’, ‘triangle’, or ‘animal’. They are general ideas, produced when our minds consider particular things. Take a pint of milk, a stick of chalk and a lump of snow. I can consider these things while leaving out their particular features, ‘abstracting’ what is common to them: their whiteness. Many philosophers accepted some version of Locke’s account of abstraction, but puzzled over how to mentally visualise them. Locke writes that our abstract idea of a triangle ‘must be neither Oblique, nor Rectangle, neither Equilateral, Equicrural, nor Scalenon; but all and none of these at once’. Clearly we cannot picture such a thing. Priestley makes an alternative suggestion: represent abstract ideas using a variable particular. A child, he writes, has an idea of ‘what a triangle in general is’, even though all the ideas of triangles he ‘contemplates’ are ‘particular’. In other words, our picture of the abstract idea of a triangle can change: from equilateral to, say, scalene. In the same essay, Priestley argued that time is an abstract idea. And this view feeds into his timeline…

How Joesph Priestley’s “A New Chart of History” used the ideas of John Locke to revolutionize our undertstanding of history: “The Invention of Time,” from @emilytwrites in @HistoryToday.

Pair with “Putting Time in Perspective,” from @waitbutwhy.

Henry Glassie


As we ponder the past, we might send evocative birthday greetings to Jules Michelet; he was born on this date in 1798. Considered one of the founders of modern historiography, he is best known for his multivolume work Histoire de France (History of France).

Influenced by Giambattista Vico, Michelet emphasized on the role of people and their customs in shaping history, a major departure from the then-current emphasis on political and military leaders.  He coined the term “Renaissance” (meaning “rebirth” in French) as a period in Europe’s cultural history that represented a break from the Middle Ages, creating a modern understanding of humanity and its place in the world. (The term “rebirth” and its association with the Renaissance can be traced to a work published in 1550 by the Italian art historian Giorgio Vasari. Vasari used the term to describe the advent of a new manner of painting that began with the work of Giotto, as the “rebirth (rinascita) of the arts.”)


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