What Could It Mean for Historians to Maintain a Dialogue With the Past?

in Journal of the Philosophy of History
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When historians claim to maintain a “dialogue with the past,” this metaphor is usually interpreted in epistemological terms. Although this is not necessarily wrong, the present article presents a broader reading of the metaphor by arguing that the imperative to engage in “dialogue with the past” can be understood as an ethical claim to scholarly integrity. This argument proceeds from the assumption that historians are usually engaged in multiple “relations with the past” as well as in multiple relations with present-day instances, varying from colleagues and readers to publishers and university administrators. These different relations, in turn, can be seen at least in part as corresponding to a range of different I-positions, some of which tend more towards the monologic than towards the dialogic. Maintaining a dialogue with the past, then, means that the I-position of what this article calls an “inquisitive listener,” characterized by dialogic virtues such as curiosity, imagination, openness, attentiveness, and humility, is cultivated and, if necessary, protected against other, more dominant I-positions, such as the “ground-breaking scholar” and the “best-selling author.” In sum, this article reinterprets the metaphor of a dialogue with the past to such effect that historians are encouraged to critical self-reflection: how dominant or recessive are their respective I-positions and to what extent should they, for integrity’s sake, be challenged or supported?

What Could It Mean for Historians to Maintain a Dialogue With the Past?

in Journal of the Philosophy of History




Edward Hallett CarrWhat is History? The George Macaulay Trevelyan Lectures Delivered in the University of Cambridge January–March 1961 (London: Macmillan & Co.; New York: St Martin’s Press1961) p. 24.


Ibid. p. 5.


Jonathan HaslamThe Vices of Integrity: E.H. Carr 1892–1982 (London; New York: Verso1999) p. 204.


G.R. EltonThe Practice of History (Sydney: Sydney University Press; London: Methuen & Co.1967) p. 93.


Isaiah Berlin (1961) as quoted in Haslam Vices of Integrity (see above n. 3) p. 200.


The allusion is to Wilhelm SchnappIn Geschichten verstrickt: zum Sein von Mensch und Ding (Hamburg: Richard Meiner Verlag1953).


W.H. WalshAn Introduction to Philosophy of History (London: Hutchinson1951) pp. 94–117; William H. Dray Philosophy of History (Englewood Cliffs nj: Prentice-Hall 1964) pp. 21–40. While in The Nature of Historical Explanation (Oxford: Oxford University Press; London: Geoffrey Cumberlege 1952) Patrick Gardiner ignored almost all non-epistemic dimensions of history W.B. Gallie by contrast devoted some pages to moral lessons to be learned from the past. See his Philosophy and the Historical Understanding (London: Chatto & Windus 1964) pp. 132–139.


As I argue in Herman PaulHayden White: The Historical Imagination (Cambridge; Oxford: Polity Press2011).


Jörn RüsenHistory: Narration Interpretation Orientation (New York; Oxford: Berghahn2005) p. 132.


Ibid. p. 135. See also more recently Jörn Rüsen Historik: Theorie der Geschichtswissenschaft (Cologne; Weimar; Vienna: Böhlau Verlag 2013) pp. 66–85.


Mark Day“Our Relations with the Past,” Philosophia36 (2008) 418.


Ibid.419420 421 422.


Leslie HowsamPast Into Print: The Publishing of History in Britain 1850–1950 (London: British Library; Toronto: University of Toronto Press2009); Olaf Blaschke Verleger machen Geschichte: Buchhandel und Historiker seit 1945 im deutschen-britischen Vergleich (Göttingen: Wallstein 2010).


Henry Adams“Count Edward de Crillon,” The American Historical Review1 (1895) 52.


Ibid. p. 6.


David TracyPlurality and Ambiguity: Hermeneutics Religion Hope (San Francisco: Harper & Row1987) p. 18.


Stuart Hall“The Question of Cultural Identity,” in Modernity: An Introduction to Modern Societiesed. Stuart Hall David Held Don Hubert and Kenneth Thompson (Malden ma: Blackwell 1996) p. 598.


Hubert J.M. Hermans and Thorsten Gieser“Introductory Chapter: History, Main Tenets and Core Concepts of Dialogical Self Theory,” in Handbook of Dialogical Self Theoryed. Hubert J.M. Hermans and Thorsten Gieser (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2012) p. 17.

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