My concern is to understand how it is that contemplation of the past— better, of this or that preferred past—evokes in some people an impression which is distinctively weird. It is unmistakable; and anyone who has felt it will soon know what I am talking about. What is the impression, and whence the impressionability?
To help identify my concern (and make it seem less eccentric) I shall let it emerge from some highly selective remarks about an issue in philosophy of history which is, by contrast, familiar and respectable: the debate between constructionists and realists. We cannot conceivably have direct acquaintance with, direct access to, the past; by their very nature, past events are over and done with and so unavailable for inspection. This much both camps agree on. However, they differ massively over what follows from this truth. For the constructionist concludes that what he calls the ‘real past’, what actually happened, can play no part whatsoever in historical thought. It is necessarily hidden, and we can have no inkling of it. What, and all, the historian can sensibly claim to know is the ‘historical past’, something which is constituted by and exists only in relation to his thought. Against this, the realist maintains that of course historians do not, necessarily or even typically, constitute the past; rather, they construct accounts of it which will be true if they conform to it as it actually was and false if they do not. And he charges his opponent with a number of fundamental confusions: mistaking accounts of historical events for the events themselves, confusing epistemological matters with ontological, and worst of all equating knowledge with direct perceptual awareness. Now, the realist is, in basics at least, fairly obviously right. And his criticisms are reinforced when we note that constructionists tend to combine with their vision of the impenetrability of the ‘real’ past the thesis that we undoubtedly know that there is a real past, with real people and real events. However, this piece of knowledge must for him, like that of an intelligible world for Kant, ever remain contentless, ‘factually vacuous’.