4 - Time as Spirit  pp. 117-167

Time as Spirit

By Kunal M. Parker

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The Spirit of the Age

In his massive study of British romantic historicism, the literary scholar James Chandler writes that the early nineteenth century was “the age of the spirit of the age – that is, the period when the normative status of the period becomes a central and self-conscious aspect of historical reflection.” The titles of numerous texts from this period testify to the accuracy of this observation for both Britain and America. These include not only famous texts such as William Hazlitt's The Spirit of the Age (1825), Thomas Carlyle's essay Signs of the Times (1829), and John Stuart Mill's essay The Spirit of the Age (1831), but also lesser-known periodicals such as the short-lived, Boston-based Spirit of the Age (1833–1834) and the equally short lived, New York–based Spirit of the Age (1849–1850). But what precisely did it mean to imagine the movement of history in terms of “the spirit of the age”? For heuristic purposes, I divide the discussion of the “spirit of the age” into a discussion, first, of the concept of the “age” and, second, of the concept of “spirit.”

The concept of the “age” was, of course, familiar from long before the early nineteenth century. However, in the early decades of the nineteenth century, owing in large measure to the sense of historical break generated by the late-eighteenth-century revolutions, it was experienced with renewed intensity and articulated with greater precision.

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