Past and "presence": Revisiting historical ontology

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38 Citations (Scopus)


The last thirty years have brought about a fundamental revision of historical epistemology. So intense a concentration on the nature of history as a form of inquiry has diminished attention given to the thing that history inquires into: the nature of the past itself. Too readily, that entire domain has turned into a place for dreams, as Hayden White put it: a lost world only available now through the imagination of the author and subject to aesthetic whim. The next thirty years will, I propose, be the period in which ontology returns to the center of historical theory. And nothing short of the reconceptualization of the past-indeed of time itself-must be its objective. It must achieve that objective, moreover, in establishing arguments that are congruent with what revisions of epistemology have taught us about the limits of historical knowledge and the inevitability of textual representation.

This paper enters this field by discussing some of the issues involved in rethinking the place of time in historical constructions since Bergson. It demonstrates the confusions inherent in spatial reductions of temporality, which historians have done so much to entrench rather than eradicate, and argues that historians have yet to accommodate the fundamental conceptual shifts inaugurated by Heidegger. It then moves to propose a methodological doctrine to which I have given the name "chronism" and seeks to sketch the utility of such a doctrine for bringing one form of presence-that of authenticity-back into the domain of historical study. Doing so invites a number of conceptual and practical difficulties that the paper will address in its conclusions; these may disturb those who have closed their minds to anything beyond the present. Taking ontology seriously interferes both with structuralist assumptions about the nothingness of time and with some of the styles of historical representation that have become fashionable in the postmodern climate. There may be painful lessons to be learned if we are to rescue the past from its current status as a nonentity.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)349-361
Number of pages13
JournalHistory and Theory
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2006


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