Are historians ontological realists? An exchange

This is an exchange between Herman Paul and Ethan Kleinberg on Kleinberg’s book, Haunting History. The exchange revolves around the question: Are historians ‘ontological realists’? That is, do historians generally take the past to be a fixed and immutable object – ‘definitive, knowable, and stable’? Paul argues that historians do not necessarily hold consistent ontological beliefs. When facing the specter of Derridean deconstructivism, they may well invoke the image of a fixed, immutable past. But this does not imply that historians are ontological realists on all occasions: it is well possible that they respond quite differently to old-fashioned positivists than to Foucault- or Derrida-inspired theorists of history. In his rejoinder to Paul, Kleinberg argues that the ontological realist position historians hold is more stable than their context-specific commitments might suggest. This can be seen in response to the perceived threat of French theory in general and deconstruction in particular but also in the published works of most academic history. He contends that if Swidler’s concept of ‘cultural vocabularies’ is apt in regard to these specific commitments, as Paul suggests, it demonstrates the inadequacy of the ontological realist approach to the past and precisely why historians should look to a deconstructive one.