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Sebald and Herder on Interpreting History

By James Risk

From his seat on a flight between Amsterdam and Norwich, W. G. Sebald looks down towards the cities and towns spread out beneath him—an image of the complexity of humanity’s expansion invisible to those moving within it—and remarks that “if we view ourselves from a great height, it is frightening to realize how little we know about our species, our purpose and our end” (92). Much of The Rings of Saturn is oriented towards answering this recurring, though often only implied, question of how we might comprehend and locate ourselves within history, given that our cognitive capacities seem so limited relative to the scale of such an object. Two centuries prior to the publication of Sebald’s text, Johann Gottfried Herder, in Another Philosophy of History, attempted to answer the same question, and produced an account critical of the attempts of his 18th century contemporaries to evaluate the past with the terms of the present. 

Though they share some of the same concerns, Sebald’s approach is fundamentally distinct from Herder’s. Herder maintains that history, in some sense, is interpretable as an unchanging body of facts, universally available to any careful observer, whereas Sebald emphasizes the necessary priority of the individual interpreter’s position, subordinating history to the subject. In doing so, Sebald demonstrates the limits of Herder’s approach. Herder implies that history is subject-independent and stable, and that history can be understood as a linear progression, with real distance between epochs. Sebald contends that historical facts are not subject-independent, and that historical interpretation renders history circular and flat.

The Subject-Dependent Nature of Historical Facts

In attempting to provide an alternative to the ahistoricist interpretation of history—which assumes that historical epochs are directly comparable and are all different expressions of the same desires and inclinations—Herder argues that civilizations develop through responding to the exigencies of their geographical and historical conditions. Whatever novel productions emerge in one particular society are a consequence of abilities made necessary by the unique demands of said society’s environment and historical precedents. In judging the productions of any civilization, Herder argues that each civilization generates what is required to satisfy contingent needs: “it would be foolishness to tear a single Egyptian virtue away from the land, the time, and… to measure it by the standard of another time!” (14; his emphasis). Herder’s argument is inductive. He is reasoning directly from ostensibly historical facts about a time and people, and what he thinks are the objective characteristics of a civilization; “Egypt’s inclinations were no longer as delicate or child-like as those of the Orient: the sense of family weakened and became instead concern for the same, social rank, artistic talent that was handed down” (13; his emphasis). Though he presents a distinct interpretation of how historical facts are connected, he never doubts they can be trusted. Herder is attempting to extract a rational explanation from empirical evidence, an endeavor that requires treating history as an inert mass whose organization need only be uncovered.

In opposition to Herder, Sebald suggests that history is not inert, and is never fully separate from the interpreting subject. His method of approach is most distinct in his description of the Sailors’ Reading Room in Southwold, “a kind of maritime museum” which houses objects that have outlived the occupations that required them (92). After a brief description of the room, Sebald dedicates several paragraphs to a photographic history of the First World War, and specifically to two photographs from the Balkans. This passage’s form initially seems unusual; the text meanders and seems to settle on objects arbitrarily. While any object in the reading room might have yielded a history equally as rich as the one contained within the book of photographs that initiates Sebald’s abstraction away from his actual location, no others are examined; surely an accurate representation of an environment should not distribute its focus so unevenly. But in fact, this passage’s form corresponds perfectly to its content. Sebald is reporting his experience, and the unpredictable movement of the text is a faithful rendering of the uneven movements of his mind; it represents history to us as he cognizes its representation. 

To accompany his description of the scene, Sebald includes, instead of the photographs themselves, his photographs of the photographs. Everything that can be judged informative is contaminated by Sebald’s own interpretation. Whatever access we are given to historical reality is doubly mediated: first by the representation of the event in photos, and then by Sebald’s descriptions of these photos. Sebald presents an image of historical interpretation distinct from Herder’s, who assumes that the significance of historical facts remains constant across all interpreters. Sebald contends that interpretation is never subject-independent; whatever facts we are given are filtered through the eyes of the interpreter. Sebald is interested in history from the individual’s perspective, rather than as something objectively given, the same in every presentation.

The Circularity of Historical Interpretation

Sebald also presents us with a more complex idea: historical interpretation is always circular. By “circular,” I do not mean to suggest that history always repeats itself, and that when we talk about history, we are talking about how to organize objective, stable facts. When I say that Sebald indicates that interpretation is circular, I mean that interpretation returns to where it begins. Each digression is initiated by something found in experience, and only ever returns to further characterize experience.

Herder interprets history as being linear, progressing through time: “behold that growing tree! The human being striving upward! He has to pass through life’s different ages, all evidently in progression” (31; his emphasis). Though “different ages” might not be comparable in an evaluative sense, they are all subject to “the plans of an immeasurable Providence” (97). Herder states that our access to history is comparable to the understanding an actor has of a play: “all scenes together make a whole, a major presentation of which the individual, self centered actor cannot know or see anything, but which the spectator with the right perspective, in calm anticipation of the complete sequence, can indeed see” (72; his emphasis). In Herder’s view, the full comprehension of the reason behind historical development is out of reach for humanity, but it exists nonetheless, and though epochs cannot be evaluated on the same terms, they are distinct from each other.

Nothing is so cleanly divided for Sebald: history overlaps, scenes recur, and each time he abstracts from his immediate location, he eventually emerges at his point of departure. Reflections on the same landscape—the bridge across the river Blyth, on the route to Dunwich—send us into the Qing dynasty and Britain’s imperial ambitions, moving to Dunwich’s status in the Middle-ages, and finally to the life of Charles Swinburne, before returning to Dunwich at the beginning of the next chapter (154, 149, 155-9, 169). Rather than being anecdotal, included only for interest’s sake, these facts constitute Sebald’s environment. In further affirmation of history being something that exists in its interpretation, Sebald’s seemingly disparate reflections are connected by sentences like, “thoughts of this kind were in my head… as I walked on along the disused railway line a little way beyond the bridge across the Blyth” which remind us that we are dealing in thoughts and are ultimately confined to the mind of the interpreter (154).

Sebald gives us a more complex example of the circularity of historical interpretation with his description of his walk through the abandoned military installations of Orfordness: 

My sense of being on ground intended for purposes transcending the profane were heightened by a number of buildings that resembled temples or pagodas, which seemed quite out of place in these military installations. But the closer I came to these ruins, the more any notion of a mysterious isle of the dead receded, and the more I imagined myself amidst the remains of our own civilization after its extinction in some future catastrophe. To me too, as for some latter-day stranger ignorant of the nature of our society wandering about among heaps of scrap metal and defunct machinery, the beings who had once lived and worked here were an enigma. 


That his interpretation is circular, and eventually returns to where it began, is not immediately obvious. It becomes more clear when we see that what initially seem like individual descriptions are in fact disguised projections; we have Sebald’s “imagined” image of the future, and the contingent associations—obvious only to him—that he draws between crumbling cement buildings and “temples or pagodas” produced by some long dead civilization. He moves from an inaccessible past to an equally inaccessible future. We are not investigating how the past might have been or how the future may be; we are investigating Sebald’s relation to his environment, and his attempt to locate himself within it. Treatment of the environment is undertaken as an attempt to render the presuppositions we bring to our experience—latent in all of our reflections on the world—explicit. Thus, the interpretation of history moves from the subject to the world, but ultimately always returns to the subject. 

This type of circularity is only possible because of the distinct type of existence Sebald grants historical facts. History is not an object outside of its interpretation; we never have access to historical facts independent of our interpretation of them. Herder feels comfortable saying that we see history as it really is (even though we are usually too naïve in our interpretation of it), but Sebald contends that we are only ever acquainted with our representations of it—a type of representation that “requires a falsification of perspective” (Sebald, 125). The significance of any historical fact is determined by its proximity to the subject, and historical interpretation is circular in that every move from the subject to its environment, ultimately only describes the subject’s mind: two people reflecting on the same object will attribute to it different types of significance, but their attributions tell us more about the subjects than about their object. In interpretation, which begins when the subject turns from itself to consider an object in the world, we end by returning to our point of departure—the subject’s relation to reality, rather than reality itself—and no matter how far back we go in history, any fact can equally constitute an environment.

History is Flat

Both notions so far discussed—the priority of the interpreter and the corollary of the circularity of historical interpretation—have the additional consequence of rendering history flat: historical “depth,” the gulf between us and some moment in history that we assume moves farther from us steadily over time, is also interpretation-dependent. Sebald’s presentation of this idea is most evident in the appearance and reappearance throughout Sebald’s text of the domestic silk worm, Bombyx mori. Humanity’s experience can be characterized by the same mix of consumption, production, contingency and calamity that define the silkworm’s life. Just as silkworms consume leaves so that they can “give their lives for the fine thread they [spin]” but cannot use, humanity’s “spread over the earth was fuelled by reducing the higher species of vegetation to charcoal” through endlessly destructive colonial and environmental extraction, all to produce “networks of complexity that [go] far beyond the power of any one individual to imagine” (151, 170, 91). We are involved in a process whose product, to us, is neither comprehensible nor useful. In one sense, Herder would agree with this understanding of history: we are contributing to something we will never be able to understand.

But if this were all it was meant to communicate, the idea the symbol stands for could be communicated if the symbol itself were omitted. Herder has no use for recurring symbols, and thus if Sebald has really diverged from Herder and introduced some element that Herder has overlooked, the above explication of the silk worm’s significance must be missing something. Our answer lies in the fact that Sebald encounters the silkworm again and again, literally and metaphorically, in locations that are both temporally and geographically distant: the gardens of the Dowager Empress, the personality of Charles Swinburne, the strings of “white-bagged flower-stalks” covering the ceiling of Mrs Ashbury’s library, and Thomas Browne’s Bibliotheca Abscondita (151, 165, 211, 271). What affirms the silk worm’s significance is not that, as a metaphor, it describes historical development so neatly; rather, its significance is given by its being repeatedly presented to the subject as an object of experience. Historical facts exist only insofar as they are apprehended by an interpreter. The silkworm is a motif that ties together geographically and temporally distant cultures; thus, all are equally significant to the subject. History is flat, and what Herder understands as depth, distance between places and times, is equally constructed by the interpreter. Sebald finds significance in each reappearance of the silk worm, but provides nothing else to connect the temporal and geographical locations in which we find it. The significance of a historical fact for Sebald is not determined by whether it has some causal relation with his environment (contra Herder, who is concerned with the causal relations in historical progression), all facts are equally potent; significance is given to whatever Sebald chooses. When we subordinate historical reality to the subject’s interpretation of it, the subject determines whether any epoch is really ever distant or isolated.

The ahistoricist assumes unmediated access to historical facts; they feel that they know how things are, they know how things have been, and they can safely assume that every historical population has essentially been invested in the same type of project. Comparing past and present is thus unproblematic, and can be done without adjusting one’s evaluative notions. Herder amends this approach, and suggests that access to historical facts is always mediated by the position of the interpreter. Given that each society aims to realize a different set of ends, comparative evaluation of historical epochs is impossible. Nonetheless, Herder still believes that historical facts are real, and that there is still some sort of progression independent of interpretation, even if humans cannot discern history’s ultimate end. Sebald dissolves the distinction between history and its interpreters. Historical facts are never as concrete as Herder assumes them to be, but are instead constituted by the subject’s interpretation. History is no longer linear; it is fractured, pulled from the environment such that it becomes visible for the subject, who selects whatever disparate fragments are encountered. History is drawn towards and orbits the subject, just as ice crystals and meteorite particles, shattered pieces of its “former moon,” are drawn into Saturn’s rings (Sebald, epigraph iv). 

Works Cited

Evrigenis, Ioannis D, and Daniel Pellerin. Johann Gottfried Herder. Another Philosophy of History and Selected Political Writings. Hackett Pub, 2004.

Sebald, W. G, and Michael Hulse. The Rings of Saturn. New Directions, 1998.

About the Author: James Risk is a U3 Honours Philosophy student minoring in cultural studies. He is interested in the philosophy of history, the philosophy of language, and pragmatism. In his free time, James likes reading books in which very little happens, though he usually gets overwhelmed and gives up part way through. James is from Ottawa, Ontario.