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The Birth of the Past 1st Edition

3 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-1421402789
ISBN-10: 1421402785
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Editorial Reviews


Combining erudition with theoretical intelligence, Zachary Schiffman distills a theme, the discovery of 'the past,' that sheds new light on the history of western historical thinking from Herodotus to the eighteenth century. Some readers will disagree with some of Schiffman’s interpretations. All, however, will be stimulated and enlightened.

(Allan Megill, Professor of History, University of Virginia)

Anyone with an interest in the history of ideas, or the history of historiography for that matter, will find that this books repays close attention.

(Malin Dahlstrom Reviews in History)


(Steve Goddard History Wire - Where the Past Comes Alive)

Complex and erudite, confident and controversial... As Zachary Schiffman's brilliant argument suggests, anacharonism not only helps define the past but becomes its doppelgänger.

(David Lowenthal Times Literary Supplement)

Lively, brilliant, and erudite... His learned and engaging style, and his fresh, stimulating ideas provide a intellectual feast not only for students of Western civilization, but for those of us seeking to understand other traditions... Essential.


This ambitious, lucid book chronicles European methods of imagining and representing the past form the ancient Greeks to the French Enlightenment.... Schiffman provides a masterful account of the emergence of modern notions of historical causation that begins with Thucydides... and ends more than two thousand years later with Montesquieu and Herder.

(Jessica Wolfe Sixteenth Century Journal)

This is an important book, and deserves to be widely read.

(Clifford Cunningham The Sun News Network)

Schiffman has given us a 'historiographical essay' by his own admission, and an excellent one at that: not the whole truth, but, more valuably, a new foothold for serious engagement.

(Anthony Ossa-Richardson Intellectual History Review)

It is refreshing to read a book with a clear, even bold, thesis that forces readers to reexamine the authority and applicability of basic historical concepts... The strength of this engaging study is not simply that it historicizes and thus defamiliarizes what passes for common sense in the present but also that it reconstructs what had been regarded as common sense in previous epochs in the Western tradition, from antiquity to the Christian era, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment."

(Peter A. Fritzsche Journal of Modern History)

About the Author

Zachary Sayre Schiffman is a professor of history at Northeastern Illinois University, author of On the Threshold of Modernity: Relativism in the French Renaissance, and coauthor of Information Ages: Literacy, Numeracy, and the Computer Revolution, both published by Johns Hopkins, and editor of Humanism and the Renaissance.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press; 1 edition (September 29, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1421402785
  • ISBN-13: 978-1421402789
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,687,917 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

By Marc L on April 8, 2015
Format: Hardcover
This is by far the most fascinating book I've read in years. The theory of Schiffman sounds very simple: we see the past as preceding the present and fundamentally different from it. For us that seems a question of common sense, but it isn't, because in the past that was seen different. The ancient Greeks for instance did not discern this divide between past and present; they saw time as a continuum of occurences, without hierarchy and continuing into the present; the past was just another form of present, and vice versa.
Schiffman reconstructs how this temporal feeling has drastically changed since then. He painstakingly analyses the work of Thucydides, Augustine, Petrarca, Montaigne and finally Montesquieu. For Schiffman a crucial epistemological shift has occured during the late Renaissance, a shift corresponding with the introduction of "relational and contextual" analyzing reality, and the cartesian novelty of numerical relations. At that moment, somewhere in the 18th Century, the past was "born", hence the title of this work.
I know this all sounds very difficult and theoretical (and this is making the reading of this work very tough). I'm not going to elaborate on the details of Schiffmans argumentation. Let me suffice with stating that his analyis is very thorough and his focus often is quite Original (about Augustine and the Renaissance, for instance, I read things I never had heard of, though I already read quite some books on them). His theory is working in this sense that some questions I have been struggling with, reading the works of past historians (for instance why they have such another way of looking at things, or ordering their stories) have been more or less answered.
Still I remain cautious.
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4 of 6 people found the following review helpful By TM on February 28, 2012
Format: Hardcover
This work is excellent. I am not an historian, but find expositions on central cultural concepts, bound only by the dictates of logic, very interesting. The idea of different types of time frames, episodic and linear, and their role and that of anachronism in the emergence of a concept of `past' is fascinating.

Schiffman's style is eminently readable, and at least we non-historians thank him for that! He had the unenviable task of integrating an incredible amount of historical material while making subtle arguments for his thesis, and trying to do so in a way that would keep the reader engaged. He succeeded.

In terms of insights and the pleasure of reading, I would put this book on par with Auerbach's Mimesis. And to end on a light note (that I assume Schiffman might appreciate), he has given a whole new meaning to our generation's expression, `a blast from the (a?) past'!
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By Augustine Lovejoy on April 9, 2015
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
A good and stimulating read. Highly recommended.
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