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

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?