As a former History Instructor, as well as one who earned a Graduate Degree in History-("many moons ago"), words, such as, Ancient, Medieval, Modern and Contemporary, were commonplace and simply part of the normal historical discourse. If I was teaching or taking a class in Roman History, it was usually called, Ancient Roman History. If I was teaching or taking a class in Islamic Spain it was called, Medieval Islamic Spain. And if I was teaching or taking a class in European History it was called, Modern European History. Each of these words positioned, disciplined and trained our minds to think chronologically and linearly-(And in retrospect, I believe that this type of traditional historical education was and is still, very necessary, when training future Historians and History Teachers).

But, has the word, Ancient-(and for that matter, words, such as Medieval, Modern and even Contemporary)..become Ancient? Are there other, more imaginative words that Historians and History Teachers can use IN ADDITION TO-(and NOT IN LIEU OF), when chronicling the near and distant past? Should we find a way to DIVERSIFY our historical and chronological language to include words that are less imposing, pedantic and repetitive?

Instead of saying, Ancient, what about using the word, Early? Rather than repeating the word, Medieval, why not use a word, such as, Middle-(without the "Ages")? And in the case of Modern or Contemporary, why not use words, such as, Late or Current?

If you agree with this question, I would be interested in seeing a newer and more imaginative vocabulary that can diversify and improve-(but NOT REPLACE), our historical and chronological language.

  • I don't know about your question, but "contemporary" history is apparently since ww2. I wonder what they called "contemporary" history in 1920, or what they will call it in 2120. Will historians in 2120 still say all history after 1945 is "contemporary" or will they have a new term "current" for history since 2045, or will they rename 1945-2045 something else and call 2045-2120 "contemporary"?
    – causative
    Jul 9 at 3:38
  • Thanks for the comment. Yes, I wonder as well what future Historians will say about earlier periods. Will they continue with the near cryogenic/unchanging names, such, as Ancient, Medieval, Modern and Contemporary? or will they find and create a more imaginative vocabulary that expands historical and chronological understanding...rather than restricting it? My suggestion, is to start early and explore the diverse possibilities.
    – Alex
    Jul 9 at 4:04
  • 1
    Asking users to invent their own new vocabularies is not really what this site is for. And what counts as imaginative, imposing, pedantic or repetitive is also too opinion based to be on-topic. I suppose there could be philosophical downsides to using "ancient" and "medieval", but they'd have to be more objective than aesthetic qualms for a question here. How exactly is relabeling supposed to enhance "historical and chronological understanding", especially with the resulting changeover confusion given the established body of literature?
    – Conifold
    Jul 9 at 4:09
  • Thanks for the comment. I admit that the question tends to be more "opinion based" and a bit unconventional; however, there is, I believe, a philosophical element to the question. The words, "Ancient", "Medieval", "Modern" and "Contemporary", are traditional modifiers when describing historical periods. These time honored modifiers, while successful in having trained Historians, History Teachers and (just everyday people), have remained largely unchanged. My question asks, if we should DIVERSIFY (or really UPDATE), our historical modifiers and allow from some intellectual flexibility...
    – Alex
    Jul 9 at 4:39
  • and inclusivity. Keep in mind that I am not saying that we should replace the traditional, time honored historical modifiers, but, to expand our historical and chronological language.
    – Alex
    Jul 9 at 4:41

Sanxingdui and Gobekli Tepe, and findings about coexisting hominids and pre-human hominids, are pushing back our understanding all the time. What era is Gobekli Tepe, 'Super Ancient'? Our picture of the deep past is based on such few fragments, that need luck to find. We can be sure our understanding will change.

People engaged in creative activity tend to resist getting lumped in with a group, an era, a school, a sound (with the exception of art movements begun with manifestos). I think of Foucault's resistance to being called a postmodernist, even though he is prototypical & foundational for what we call postmodernism.

Defining musical genres, or literary ones, is the work of commentators, critics, and is made much easier when looking backwards, the further the better, rather than having to deal with living exponents of a movement or style subverting expectations. Such fitting-into-boxes has it's uses, especially in telling simplified stories of a field/schools development. But it can also lead to lazy incurious oversimplifications. I think of the analytic-continental divide, and the rejection of the distinction by for instance Rorty.

Modern, modernism, modernist, the moderns, is a right mess, with wildly incongruous meanings in architecture, literature, philosophy and music ('mods' who fought rockers). The lack of coherence adds to the mess of defining postmodernism, in addition to it's unwillingness to be simple to define, disparate practicioners, & widespread unfamiliarity with actual texts only views about supposed postmodernism 'as a whole'. Then you have postpostmodernism, metamodernism. Which seem awkward. Whatever use of 'modern' is made implies the attainment of a kind of end-of history, which idea is surely one we should abandon.

It's interesting how the defining of generations gets pinned on specific decades, but evades that, or gets out of step. Events, especially traumatic ones, do more to define than imposed artificial eras.

It's not useless or impossible to find meaningful terms for eras, or groups. Perhaps we can only go with trying many things and 'see what sticks', it will be for history to settle on final terms, that are useful in telling the story.

I look on our times above all as The Anthropocene Extinction Event - meeting the geological partition criteria because of a global deposition layer, of plastics. We can expect far better materials science very soon, that will give us the benefits of plastics but with biodegradability, but the global layer already made will remain. Nothing else will so define our century, looking back from the deep future.

  • Dont you think there will be more to see than plastic in the future? Shouldnt they call it the plastic age, if that would be all they see in the geological layers? Maybe all plastic will be cleaned up and recycled. Maybe there is even a plastic layer already present somewhere deep down... Jul 10 at 17:03
  • @DescheleSchilder: Plastics are found in the Antarctic, in the Marianas Trench, on Everest. There's no way they will all be cleaned up, not least because of what has been deposited in silt. I draw attention to this because a global boundary layer is required to define transition between epochs. Innovations in materials from graphene to spider silk, offer better properties than plastics & will replace them, so the 'plastic age' will be like 'the steam age', a blip.
    – CriglCragl
    Sep 8 at 21:47

That's an interesting consideration. As this is the Philosophy Stack Exchange, forgive me for talking about how the terms are used in philosophy departments instead of in history departments, because I know they're used differently in different departments. In philosophy, "ancient" is Greco-Roman philosophy, "medieval" is post-Roman Empire (although Augustine of Hippo is categorized as "medieval philosophy" and he was writing right around the time of the fall of the Roman Empire), "modern" is generally said to start with Descartes in the 17th century (but Montaigne and a handful of other thinkers generally considered "modern" were writing in the 16th century), and "contemporary" starts with Frege in the 1890s (although Charles Sanders Pierce's works of the 1870s is considered "contemporary" and Nietzsche's works of the 1880s is considered "modern"). So they'll surely change over time, because "contemporary" can't mean "since 1890" forever, and we can't predict which contemporary thinkers will in the future be considered canonical indices of the paradigms that come to define the field in the future. But what would "early," "middle," "late," and "current" add to the current categories? There's no point in varying vocabulary just for the sake of novelty. The terminology of the discipline is for the sake of clarity of communication; hence the uniformity of terminology. A sub-categorization would add something, and they do do that (e.g. early modern, middle modern, late modern). And an alternative periodization would be an interesting proposal (e.g. "poetic philosophy" is the pre-Socratics; Plato to Leibniz is "theocentric/theocratic philosophy"; Kant to Russell is "critical philosophy"; and then the timeline splits in two in 1929 with the Carnap-Heidegger parting of ways and then we have "contemporary anglophone logic-chopping philosophy" and "contemporary franco-germanic obscurantist-idolizing philosophy)". But when I tried to think of an example of an alternative periodization there, I ended up coming fairly close to the currently standard periodization in my cut-off dates, because they group it that way because that's where the most significant paradigm-shifts occurred.

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