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Research Foundation of State University of New York

Braudel on the Longue Durée: Problems of Conceptual Translation

Author(s): Immanuel Wallerstein
Source: Review (Fernand Braudel Center), Vol. 32, No. 2, COMMEMORATING THE LONGUE
DURÉE (2009), pp. 155-170
Published by: Research Foundation of State University of New York for and on behalf of
the Fernand Braudel Center
Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/40647703
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Braudel on the Longue Durée
Problems of Conceptual Translation

Immanuel Wallerstein

Braudel made one major attempt to argue his general

epistemological position. He published in 1958 a long article in
the journal of which he was then the editor, Annales E.S.C., entitled
"Histoire et sciences sociales: La longue durée."1 On its fiftieth an-
niversary, I have made a new translation of this article. I do this
for three reasons. All classic works require fresh translations as
the years go by. I have devoted much energy to reading and un-
derstanding Braudel's works. And I have long been interested in
the problems of conceptual translation in the social sciences. The
combination of these three elements seemed to me to justify a new

In the course of doing the translation, I have come up against

many difficult problems. It seems to me useful to share with you
the nature of these problems and the solutions I have tried to find
for them. There are three previous English translations. One was
done quite early by Sian Reynolds, who was not yet married, and
therefore it was published under her name as Sian France. It was
published in Information, which is an obscure journal of the Maison
des Science de l'Homme and probably read by relatively few peo-
ple. Some years later Peter Burke was putting together a general
volume about the sixteenth century, in which he included many al-
ready published articles. But he also wanted to include this article
by Braudel, so he made a translation of it. And Braudel himself put
together a little book called Sur l'histoire that brought together a
number of his writings. That entire volume was then translated by

1 The intellectual and organizational background to Braudel's writing this article

is analyzed in Maurice Aymard (2009), "La longue durée aujourd'hui: Bilan d'un demi-
siècle (1958-2008)," in D. R. Curto et al, eds., From Florence to the Mediterranean and
Beyond: Essays in Honour of Anthony Molho, Firenze: Leo S. Olschki, 559-79.

review, xxxii, 2, 2009, 155-70 155

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156 Immanuel Wallerstein

Sarah Matthews and p

under the title On Hi
third translation of this article.

There are some particular problems in translating Fernand

Braudel. Aside from the complexity of his thought, he had a very
poetic literary style. It's a lovely style. It's beautiful to read in French
But, as anyone who may have ever thought about translating poetry
knows, translating poetry is exceptionally difficult. Furthermore
Braudel 's training is as an historian in the French literary trad
tion of historians, so he's not always worried about being perfectl
exact in what he's saying. And you have to swing with it if you want
to understand the points that he's making.
I must recount my own experience with the article. I first read
the article in the 1960's in French. At the time, I didn't even know
of the English translation which then existed. Subsequently I hav
read all three translations. I taught the article for many years, an
consequently I would reread it from time to time again, probabl
primarily in its English versions. Over the years, in discussing th
article with students, I pointed to some of the problems with trans-
lating Braudel 's concepts into English. But my recent rereading o
the original French is perhaps the first time that I looked careful
at every phrase, since that is required if one wishes to do a transl

Let me tell you the process by which I translated this work,

which may illuminate some of the problems. I translated it para-
graph by paragraph. I would read the French and I would type into
my computer my rough translation. After doing each paragraph, I
then read the same paragraph in the other three translations. It's a
very revealing thing to do, I must say. Even when the text is simple
and straightforward, the translation often comes out rather differ-
ently. Occasionally one of the four of us thought the text said the
opposite of what the other three of us thought it said. That didn't
happen too often, but it's a bit disconcerting that it ever happened,
since all four translators had a good command of French.
In any case, even when we all agreed more or less on the mean-
ing, the actual words used were quite different. This was especially
true when Braudel got a little complicated or a little involuted, and
then the translations were usually very different. I have to admit
that from time to time another translator found a better noun or

a better verb than I had thought of and I changed my text acc

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ingly. Still, I always did my ow

what the others had done, an
Normally, one reads an arti
ning to end. One seldom hon
way, I uncovered an incredi
The text was occasionally bl
sometimes almost deliberatel
forcing the reader to try to f

In addition, I also discovered a text that was deeply rooted in

its time and place. The article was published in 1958; I suppo
he wrote it in the preceding year. Therefore, it's a product of t
1950's. It's a product of France in the 1950's. It's a product of hist
riography in France in the 1950's. And it's a product of the Annales
which had its own particular tradition. I don't think you can rea
understand the article without putting it all into these multip
contexts. Of course, that's a difficult thing to do; you have to know
the context already, because it isn't given in the article. Braudel
sumes you know this context.
Let us start with the title, which is History and the Social Science
If you then read the opening paragraphs and the closing one
Braudel is very clear about his objectives. He says:
I shall dwell on history, on the temporalities of history. I do
this less for the readers of Annales, who know these works,
than for those in neighboring disciplines- economists, eth-
nographers, ethnologists (or anthropologists), sociologists,
psychologists, linguists, demographers, geographers, even
social mathematicians or statisticians. They are all neigh-
bors whose experiments and research we have followed for
many years because it seemed to us (still seems to us) that,
in their wake or by contact with them, history gets a new vi-
sion. Perhaps we have something to offer them in return.
And in the end he comes back to that theme, saying:
In practice- for this article has a practical objective- I would
hope that the social sciences would for the time being stop
arguing so much about their reciprocal borders, what is or
is not social science, what is or is not a structure. Let us
rather try to find the common lines of our research, if such
there be, which might orient a collective research program,

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158 Immanuel Wallerstein

around themes that


So the article is an attempt by an historian to talk to social sci-

entists. Now, however, we have a problem of what we mean by the
social sciences. In French there are two terms rather than one: sci-

ences sociales and sciences humaines. They're not quite the same.
man sciences, for example, normally includes history, and it
ally includes geography. It doesn't usually include political scien
In French, the term, social sciences, has a more nomothetic inflec-
tion, and therefore usually does not include history. Still, these are
not hard and fast rules; usage is fluctuating in French.
Furthermore, the institution he created in France a few years
after this article was written, uses neither term. It is called the Mai-
son des Sciences de l'Homme, the house of the sciences of man.
This name was given, of course, before the days of insistence on
gender-neutral language.
The name was perhaps a way of papering over the two distinc-
tive usages. For the self-assigned task of the Maison has been to
bring together philosophers, historians, anthropologists, sociolo-
gists, and economists.
The political scientists weren't included because of the existence
of Sciences-Po, a powerful Parisian institution that lays exclusive
claim to that terrain. In addition, political science in France has
been more closely linked to law than it is in some other countries.
For example, the Bibliothèque nationale de France, constructed
much later, has a fourfold spatial division for researchers: sciences
and technology; literature and arts; history, philosophy, and the
sciences of man (ethnology, sociology, geography); and law, eco-
nomics, and political science.
Clarifying what Braudel meant by the "social sciences" is per-
haps less important than understanding the context in which he
wrote- France in the 1950's. What was going on intellectually at
that time? We should start with the journal, Annales E.S.C. By
this time, it had become very widely read by historians not only in
France but in Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Turkey, Poland, and
Hungary, as well as in a number of Latin American countries. But
it was not yet very much read in the United States, Germany, Scan-
dinavia, or Great Britain. It was a kind of "Latin world" journal.
It was still fighting very strongly against the entrenched pow-
er of those French historians who were very idiographic and very

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humanistic. They didn't appr

therefore didn't like "social sc
ator of academic institutions,
tempted to get the Sorbonne
but he failed utterly. After 196
the entire French university
find their place within it, but
old-school French historians were still more or less the Establish-
ment, and they still controlled the university system.
The 1950's was also the period when a movement called struc-
turalism flourished. Structuralism as a movement was strong in an-
thropology, linguistics, psychoanalysis, and in a number of other
fields. The dominant intellectual figure was Claude Lévi-Strauss.
In the 1930's, Braudel and Lévi-Strauss, both young scholars, had
been sent by the French government to Brazil to help found his-
tory and the social sciences at the University of São Paulo. The two
spent three years together. They knew each other very well; they
were friends.
The 1950's was also the time when the major figure in French
sociology was Georges Gurvitch. Today he is little read, but not
then. Gurvitch was considered very sympathetic to the idea of put-
ting history into sociology. He and Braudel were friends.
In addition, the 1950's was the big era of Jean-Paul Sartre, who
was writing in Les Temps Modernes, a very influential journal he ed-
ited. Sartre was engaged in complicated fights with the Marxists,
that is, with the French Communist Party. And of course Marxism
was still an extremely important domain in French intellectual life
in the 1950's.
All this constituted the intellectual context within which this
article appeared, and which explains what Braudel was doing i
it. If you read the article carefully, you notice that it sort of jumps
around, going from one thing to another and another. It may eve
seem incpherent. What is happening is that Braudel is dealing with
all these other movements and figures successively. He is fighting
on many fronts. At the end of the article, he notes that it was no ac
cident that the article appears in the section of Annales which wa
called Débats et Combats. I remind you that his mentor Lucien Febvre
had collected his articles under the title Combats de Vhistoire. This
is a combative article. Everything he talks about is aimed against
some person or group. The tone is not unfriendly or nasty, but

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160 Immanuel Wallerstein

Braudel was determin

trends in France. The
that time, but Braud
One has to mention
Latin languages- Ita
also read German quit
at the many footnote
to French-language a
article by Sigmund D
author who wrote on
to German articles ab
to a French source.


Let's start with the title. The title is Histoire et sciences sociales:

La longue durée, The initial problem for a translator is what to d

with that title. I decided to leave in French the longue durée in t
title, and indeed, throughout the article. I have always used the
French term, nor am I the only one; it's a widespread practice i
English. The other three translators made different choices. On
used "long term." A second used "long-term" with a hyphen. That
a nuance, but an interesting nuance. And the third translator als
chose to leave longue durée in French.
The problem is what durée means. That's not easy to say, espe
cially when Braudel uses it in the plural. When he used longue dur
I kept it as longue durée. I had no problem with that. But when
spoke of the durée or used the plural durées, how do you transla
that? I did not find it easy. In practice, I decided that I couldn'
be consistent, because in different contexts, durée seemed to me
to mean different things. I thought sometimes it meant duration; I
thought sometimes it meant continuities; and I thought sometimes
it meant temporalities. I was happy with using temporalities as the
most frequent translation. However, toward the very end of the
essay, there is a sentence that reads, when speaking of Gurvitch:
"Or, même chez lui, l'historien ne reconnaît ni ses durées ni ses
temporalités." And then I wasn't sure what to do, because Braudel
obviously knew the word temporalité but hadn't used it up until the

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very end. I finally decided th

tions rather than temporalities
Nor is this the last issue about durée. There are for Braudel
initially three applications of the word durée- short, medium,
long. The whole essay is built around this distinction. He says
the short durée that it's the most capricious, the most deceptive t
period. And in the case of this time period, we have a great d
ficulty of translation, deriving not from meaning but from synt
The short durée is the time of the event for Braudel. The French for

event is événement. If he uses the noun form, there is no problem of


But what about the adjectival form? There's no way event in

English can be made into an adjective. Eventish? evential? English
doesn't have such a word. But in French there exists an adjectiva
form, événementiel. So a short durée is temps événementiel. How doe
one translate that? What some people do is to translate it as "the
time of the event," but I don't think that makes any sense whatso
ever. It isn't the time of the event. It's a time that is "event-ish." I
found a solution which no one else uses; I decided the only way to
translate this into English that made any kind of sense is to call it
episodic history. An episode is like an event and episodic does exist
in the English language.
There is a further problem of syntax. In both French and Eng-
lish, one can change an adjective into a noun- the good, the true.
Braudel at one point does just that by talking of tout un événemen-
tiel. That's very tricky to get into English and to get at what he is
saying. I decided to translate it as "a whole episodic explanation."
It is of interest to see what the other three translators did. One said
"a mere catalogue of events"; the second "a whole world of events";
and the third "a whole web of events."
My own preference was to try to maintain a sort of continu-
ity of argument. If one starts using different kinds of words all
over the place in English, the English reader who hasn't read the
French may think that these words are referring to different kinds
of things. I believe it is important in translating constantly to bring
people back to the core concepts by repeating the wording.
If événement and événementiel are hard to translate, it is even
harder to deal with the medium time length, which Braudel called
a conjoncture. The cognate of conjoncture is to be found in all the
Latin languages- Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, etc., and it is also

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162 Immanuel Wallerstein

found in the German

languages, as well. An
the same thing- excep
is not a "conjoncture.
we say "conjuncture"
things, whereas in al
refers to an event. T
The question then becomes how best to translate conjoncture.
Sometimes people put conjuncture in quotation marks. That
doesn't seem very satisfactory to me, especially when Braudel ex-
plains that some conjonctures are ten years in length, some dozens
of years in length, and there is even one of fifty years. It's quite
clear that we're not dealing with an English conjuncture. Actually,
he's referring to phases in a cycle. All conjonctures have an A-phase
and a B-phase; they rise and they fall. That's a very important us-
age and Braudel spends some time illustrating it with examples
from Labrousse and other people. He argues that in the analysis
of something, it makes a difference whether it's in a rising phase or
a falling phase of some curve, like, for example, prices or popula-

So what do you do with that in English? I decided the way to

handle that in English is to call a conjoncture a cyclical phase. This
catches the meaning when it is used as a noun, but you run into
problems again when it is used as an adjective. The adjectival use
has, in my opinion, to be solved case by case.
The third term, the long term, Braudel calls a structure. The
problem is again different. The English cognate is this time the
correct translation. The problem is that while structure is a widely-
used term both in English and in French (and in most other lan-
guages), in all these languages it is used to refer to multiple dif-
ferent kinds of things. Braudel means structures that exist in the
longue durée which, as he says at one point, are both pillars of and
obstacles to reality. He talks of structures as being that "trouble-
some, complicated, often surprising figure {personnage)."
That's another of Braudel's tricks. He takes these things and
sometimes personifies them. It's poetic license. You have to re-
member he doesn't literally mean that the longue durée is a figure
{personnage), but he wants to think of it for the moment as some-
thing you have to deal with. It's troublesome, it's complicated, it's

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often surprising. And that w

you will, of the article.
Finally, I come to perhaps th
calls the très longue durée. It's
insistent that the très longue
ferent things, even quite diff
indication of some sort of con
a concept of total immobility
tween something that never
very slowly, between someth
has a beginning and an end.
talking of the très longue du
the time of the sages." This
centerpiece of his argument.
When you read the article,
his disagreements with the
dominant in French and wor
then he says, a bit apologetica
about this argument, but th
scientists may learn about th
of emphasizing that the world
Establishment, not yet the
this the quarrel about the sh
Then he proceeds to discus
ics. Social mathematics is not
lish-language literature. I don
in the French-language litera
floating around in France in
jor term. Social mathematics
This latter term is more fam
how widely it is still used tod
theory or theorizing.
Braudel asks us to look at h
models. He discusses primarily
him, partly because he is such
time, and partly because Br
discusses the kinds of binary
such books as The Raw and t
that to use this kind of abstra
a really small group, a face-t

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164 Immanuel Wallerstein

a very large group o

any kind of homog
have to use statistica
ematics as opposed t
Braudel's descriptio
is that they both cr
are very precise. If
choice could be zero
through four or som
cal scientists and soc
For example, they m
do this, they look at
may decide that if a
it will be called very
dium violent. And so
assigning some num
Of course, the min
the social context of
with these figures,
The figures can run
some conclusions. B
very far from social
analysis, because he w

Furthermore, Braudel insists, models are only valid for the so-
cial reality that they describe. They are only as good as the initial
observations are valid. And, says Braudel, the analyst has to look
at them at more than one point in time. The analyst needs to see
how they relate to the same phenomena 10 years earlier, 50 years
earlier, 100 years earlier, 500 years earlier. If one puts the longue
durée into the analysis, one comes out with quite different models.
Braudel insists he is not against the idea of creating models but,
unless one involves the longue durée, they are meaningless.
Then suddenly Braudel throws a curve ball. After the continu-
ous discussions of temps "time" and durée "duration" scattered
throughout the article, he unexpectedly and suddenly notes that
social scientists are never tempted to talk about temps perdu "lost
time." He uses the phrase temps perdu only once. French readers
know immediately that this can only be a reference to Marcel

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Proust's book, À la recherche du

it, they had heard of the book
The book of course has bee
more than once. And there h
to translate the title into Eng
sion of the book is the most
literally means "in search of l
translation- and changed it in
of course is very poetic, but i
same as "in search of." And "
time." Later there were two oth
more literal and translated the
Each of us is free to decide
things past or lost time. The
by using the phrase. I don't t
throws in that phrase there.
something of the social conte
time" because the phrase is u
"unconscious history," which
debates in France in the 1950'
appeared from our discourse t
What can it mean to speak of
something that happened in t
of things past" suggests. It imp
lost from our memory. It is o
don't seem to remember it; it h
surface. I think Braudel want
we've lost.

He says at another point that the important things are not only
those that are loudly shouted. He is referring to events. Events
always involve recordings of loudly shouting people. An event is
somebody saying or doing something out loud. But, asks Braudel,
what about the people who are quiet? How about the people who
don't say anything? It is what Conan Doyle called the dog that
didn't bark. Braudel is calling upon us to be detectives. In order to
figure out why the dog didn't bark, we have to know the frequency
of dogs barking and why they bark. Then we may notice that a cer-
tain dog in a comparable situation didn't bark, from which we can
deduce x, y, and/or z.

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166 Immanuel Wallerstein

This is for Braudel

consider the longue d
barking today althou
something we reme
search out.

Braudel speaks of Marx twice in the essay. In the first instance,

he quotes Marx. In English, the quote is usually rendered as: "Men
make their own history but they do not make it as they wish." It'
a well-known quote. Braudel quoted Marx by means of a citation
from Lévi-Strauss. So the reference is not to a book by Marx, but
rather as cited by Lévi-Strauss in Anthropologie structurale. Lévi-
Strauss calls it a "famous formula." It reads in French as Lévi-

Strauss cites it (without a reference): "Les hommes font leu

histoire, mais ils ne savent pas qu'ils la font." In English, th
be, "Men make their own history, but they are not aware
Lévi-Strauss's version of Marx is rather different from the stan-

dard English version. Actually the English-language version make

Braudel 's point about "unconscious history" at that moment bette
than Lévi-Strauss's version. I decided to do research on what the

standard French translation is. I did this by checking what

turn up in Google if I asked for French-language versions o
quote only. It turns out there may be no standard French ve
The first thirty items on the Google search yielded five dif
versions. They all started with "Men make their own history
the next part varied. One version was the one used by Lévi-S
If one then goes to the German original, one finds that the
ond part of the quote reads "aber sie machen sie nicht aus f
Stücken." A literal translation would be: "but they do not m
out of free pieces (or free bits)."
The standard English version and four of the five French
sions seem to be reasonable translations of the German. The
one which seems to distort the German is the one cited by
Strauss. This poses a problem for the translator of Braudel.
the three other authors did was to translate the Lévi-Strauss ver-

sion (of a French translation from the German) into English.

I decided to do was to use the standard English citation. Perh
I should have inserted a long footnote explaining what I did
why. It seemed to me that this would burden the reader o
Braudel essay with a not too relevant and rather long excu

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especially since the standard

point Braudel was making.
The second reference to Marx is more substantial and more
interesting. It comes as part of his discussion of Sartre. He says
approvingly that Marx is "a whole population of models." Braud
notes that Sartre accuses Marxists of the 1950's of being too rigi
in their use of Marx's ideas. Sartre was complaining about contro
by the Stalinists of Marxism at that point and is asking for a mo
flexible interpretation. Braudel says he agrees with the basic poin
Sartre is making, but argues that what Sartre himself does is als
all wrong. Braudel insists that you have to go into the context
understand and use Marx's models.
But the context as Sartre defines it, Braudel says, goes all th
way back. Sartre seems to imply that if you know an event you ca
trace it 5,000 years back and 5,000 years forward. All of history
is to be found in the event. Braudel says that's crazy; that throw
the baby out with the bath. What's interesting to Braudel about
Marx is that he was the first person ever seriously to give model
of the longue durée. What Marx says is correct and interesting, bu
his longue durée isn't the only longue durée. There are many others,
and we have to put them all together and then work out the be

At that point, Braudel says there's a subject he has to brin

up because people have missed it- geography. What about geogra
phy? Well there's another tricky little business of translation. At
very early point in the essay he uses the adjective vidalien. If yo
know French literature, you know that it's a reference to a turn
of-the-century geographer named Paul Vidal de la Blache. One o
the previous translators said "in the tradition of Paul Vidal de l
Blache." But another said "in the vidalian tradition." I don't be-
lieve that most English-language readers will have any idea what
the vidalian tradition is. For Braudel, Vidal de la Blache is a grea
social scientist. He complains that present-day geographers (that
is, of the 1950's) have forgotten all about him. What is important
about Vidal de la Blache for Braudel is that he insisted that geogra
phy was an integral part of social science and that one always had
to put the geographic context into any analysis. So here Braudel
takes on French geographers.
Finally, he comes to his mentor, reminding us of a famous quote
from Febvre: "L'histoire- science du passé, science du présent

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168 Immanuel Wallerstein

("history- science of t
he is the faithful disci
of what he, Braudel, i
which had been the s
history. History is abo
the longue durée is be
ent. The present is the
So it's a final battle t
practical conclusion. F
peal to all social scient
is sociology, what is e
turf. Let's see instead
What do history, anth
science have in commo
mon three things: ma
longue durée. That's a
What does mathema
much quantitative data
new math. That is to s
from which we then

The second item is, in French, réduction à l'espace. This is an

unusual phrase and is another one that is tricky to translate. Réduc-
tion à l'espace means literally "reduction to space"- not a very clear
idea in English, and Braudel doesn't elaborate it. If however you
put this in the context of his discussion of geography and Vidal de
la Blache, I think he is talking of the idea that where something has
happened is a vital element in analyzing it. So I decided to trans-
late it as locational specificity.
So we have both to mathematize and to place things in a spe-
cific locational context. And then comes the third category, the
longue durée, so we have to put things in a temporal context as

How then do the three go together? Braudel says, of course we

want models; that is, of course we want to theorize. But theories
are like ships on the ocean. You launch them and then you see if
they float. Still more important, you have to look at the shipwrecks.
Where and when does the shipwreck occur with your ship? To an-
swer this, you have to look at the data. Then you may find that
this theory works for two or three centuries, but then suddenly it

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doesn't work; something has

ginning to find the boundarie
into the water. Then when y
amend your theory. You fiddle
that's more consonant with th
back and forth.

That's sort of the game. That's why we're in this business of

whatever you want to call it. Braudel uses a few expressions. At one
point he cites Lévi-Strauss, who says we all have the same aventure
d'esprit. Esprit is always a difficult term to translate. It's adventure
of the mind or adventure of the spirit. But I'm not worried about
how to translate esprit; I'm focused on the word "adventure."
For Braudel, what he's doing is an adventure. He's in search of
something- à la recherche du temps perdu. Braudel is in search of lost
time and its boundaries. Its boundaries are very hard to discern.
We don't know how far back and how far forward things go. We
don't know how wide in space things go. Nothing is timeless. The
très longue durée is the time of the sages; it's not for us. The event
is capricious. Conjonctures are important, but not as important as
the longue durée. The longue durée is the main point. After all, it's
the title of the essay. Once we have seized and analyzed the longue
durée, we can say something sensible about today.
At the very end of his life, in the last year or two, Braudel start-
ed writing articles for an Italian newspaper, which were commen-
taries on the current situation. He died in 1985; so we're dealing
with a period when the world-system was in a Kondratieff B-phase,
as far as Braudel is concerned (and as far as I'm concerned). And
he's talking about prospects in the present in the light of what we
know about the longue durée and the conjonctures.
This is perhaps not an activity he felt entirely comfortable con-
ducting, because after all he was primarily an historian of the four-
teenth to eighteenth centuries. He was most used to spending his
time going to archives. That's what he did for a living. That's what
he did all his life, and continued doing up to ten days before he

But Braudel is nothing if not consequential in his views. He

always lived by Febvre's slogan, "l'histoire- science du passé, science
du présent." History for Braudel was a science. He was not afraid of
the term science, provided you understand how science really has
to be done, which is in relation to the real data. You must go from

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170 Immanuel Wallerstein

your theorizing to th
continue to go back a
plausible in the end.
Understanding his
standing Braudel. Tra
into French, then fro
reading Braudel intell

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