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Diagrams of the past: How timelines can aid the growth of historical knowledge

Marc Champagne
From the journal Cognitive Semiotics

Abstract

Historians occasionally use timelines, but many seem to regard such signs merely as ways of visually summarizing results that are presumably better expressed in prose. Challenging this language-centered view, I suggest that timelines might assist the generation of novel historical insights. To show this, I begin by looking at studies confirming the cognitive benefits of diagrams like timelines. I then try to survey the remarkable diversity of timelines by analyzing actual examples. Finally, having conveyed this (mostly untapped) potential, I argue that neglecting timelines might mean neglecting significant aspects of reality that are revealed only by those signs. My overall message is that once we accept that relations are as important for the mind as what they relate, we have to pay closer attention to any semiotic device that enables or facilitates the discernment of new relations.

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Published Online: 2016-5-7
Published in Print: 2016-5-1

©2016 by De Gruyter Mouton

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