Scientific Essay, 2005
9 Pages, Grade: very good
In this essay I will argue that the concept of history as narrative defended by the American philosopher of history Hayden White represents a constructive approach to historiography. My arguments are based on White’s key texts: Metahistory  : the historical imagination in nineteenth-century Europe (1973), Tropics of discourse: essays in cultural criticism (1978) and The content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation (1987) on the one hand, and on monographs which interpret White’s concept of history as narrative on the other hand. My essay offers a very limited approach in view of the hundreds of texts which are available (but mostly difficult to obtain), but with my sources I could grasp the theme. I consider four parts: 1) the origins and the content of White’s theory, 2) how White criticizes historians, 3) how historians criticize White, and 4) why White’s theory represents a constructive approach to historiography. In conclusion, I will look at the concept in a larger context.
Hayden White’s concept of history as narrative, which he developed in his Metahistory, states that historical works in general take the form of a narrative, in the sense of a “coherent and ordered representation of events or developments in sequential time”. He says that all historical explanations are rhetorical and poetic by nature.
The concept of history as narrative has wide implications; it led among other aspects to the postmodernist debate about historiography. Postmodernism is skeptical towards any claims of certainty in sciences; in historiography postmodernism is identified with the linguistic turn, which refers to the priority given to language.
White developed his own argument through the cases of four historians (Michelet, Ranke, Tocqueville, and Burckhardt) and four philosophers of history (Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, and Croce). He identified four rhetorical styles through which the authors presented their interpretations: metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony, and four different literary genres by which the historians figured historical processes in their work as stories of a particular kind: Romance, Tragedy, Comedy, and Satire.
White’s view of historical texts as literary artifacts erases the distinction between history and story. The authors he analyzed had other messages that they wanted to convey, so that the historical past was the medium but not the message of the historical work. As he says, comparable to good narratives, historical works carry the reader smoothly but directly to the conclusion the author has in mind.
White’s text contains a radical critique of historical methodology and the consciousness of historians. His concept of history as narrative, as a literary genre, calls into question the claims of truth and objectivity in historical work. According to White, historical narratives are verbal fictions, their contents are as much invented as found and their forms have more in common with their counterparts in literature than they have with those in the sciences. As he says, while historical narratives proceed from empirically validated facts or events, they necessarily require imaginative steps to place them in a coherent story; they also represent only a selection of historical events. Thus, truth is limited.
White says that history fails if its intention is the objective reconstruction of the past because “the process involved is the literary one of interpretative narrative, rather than objective empiricism [or] social theorizing”. Thus, we have to take into account the rhetorical, metaphorical and ideological strategies of explanation employed by historians.” Narratives explain why events happened, but are “overlaid by the assumptions held by the historian about the forces influencing the nature of causality. These might well include individual or combined elements like race, gender, class, culture, weather, coincidence, geography, region, blundering politicians, and so on and so forth. So, while individual statements may be true [or] false, narrative as a collection of them is more than their sum.”
Historians supply a) formal critics and b) critics in content of the concept of history as narrative.
a) White’s argumentation is seen as too formalist, “downplaying the significance of the content of the historian’s work” Critics say that, given the nature of time, narration is the only realistic representation of the past. The fact that historic reality is not accessible otherwise than by the intermediary of language should not permit to affirm that we just have to study language.
Further is criticized that White based his arguments only on the historical work of the 19th century, and does not include the contemporary one which can be seen as renewed, as more “enlightened”. The identification of only four literary genres, all from the Western literary tradition, and four basic rhetorical styles is also controversial: his arguments seem to be constructed too arbitrarily.
b) Critics in content say that White’s concept of history as narrative has nothing to offer historians, that it just undermines the traditional historiography.
Thompson remarks that the concept of history as narrative has a status of a “theology with no foundation” beyond the indisputable “gospels” of White and other “prophets”, and that White’s reasoning emerged and had its success during the “nausea of the 1968 hangover”. Thompson’s remark shows the irritation of historians.
White’s critics defend the value of historical work: it depends on hard archival research, looks out carefully for forgery and falsification and thus operates with a notion of truth. Historians don’t invent anything; they are operating within pre-existing, collectively developed frameworks of assumptions, knowledge and questions. Their work assembles evidence comprehensively and attempts to establish a convincing interpretation. And it ‘brings to life’ the times, the conditions and the mentalities under consideration. As historicists say, individual creativity and imagination enters inevitably in the historical work, because historians are human beings.
A hard critic holds White responsible for eliminating the research for truth as the main task of the historian (as Ginzburg, one of White’s main opponents says: the debate about truth is the most important intellectual issue). White’s relativism would be so dangerous that it could be even responsible for revisionism, a nasty phenomenon in historiography. For example, in White’s view, relationships among historical events exist ‘only’ in the mind of the historian. If we really believed this in its full sense we would have to say that there are no real connections between different things which happened in the past. In his strong sense, White’s theory says that there was not any ‘real’ connection, actually ‘given’ in the past and ‘found’ by the historian, between the appointment of Hitler as German Chancellor in 1933, and the Holocaust of 1941-5 – a perverse conclusion.
White’s concept of history as narrative still represents a constructive approach to historiography since I identified in my readings that the two opponent views are based on two different intellectual levels: historians are worried about their profession whereas we could say about White, that he intends, on a more global level, to pull the historical science from a crisis in order to lead it to a positive renewal. His objective was, as he says, to “rescue” history; in the interest of appearing scientific and objective, history had “repressed and denied to itself its greatest source of strength and renewal”. In fact, White stimulated positively the debate between empiricists, which defend the claims of truth in historical work, and postmodernists about the nature of historical knowledge. A result of the debate between postmodernists and empiricists, as Gilderhus concludes, is that, to maintain the integrity of their discipline, historians would have to instruct historical fundamentalists who insist upon “sacred” versions of an unchanging past and to persuade unbelieving skeptics who deny its “knowability”.
By denying universal truths, White’s concept criticizes Western scientific and rationalistic – ethnocentric - worldviews, perceived as justifications for the use and abuse of power and authority. History “devoted exclusively to the activities of white male elites of European extraction is no longer the standard.” It is also not proved that White’s theory had an influence on revisionism. White criticized “naïve empiricism”; he named key theoretical questions about truth and objectivity, which all historians face.
Hayden White’s concept of history as narrative caused quite a stir and nourished the debate between empiricists and postmodernists about the nature of historical knowledge, about the most important question in history: truth and untruth. It is not useful for historiography to look at White only as a provocation, as the conservative critics I observed make; humanity will probably forget the works of White, but we should concede that there is innovation by scrutinizing. As the world has changed, history and historical writing also changes: in a globalized world, with a multiplication of points of view to history, scrutinizing one’s own view is inevitable.
Developing historiography means developing historians’ conscience and practice. Therefore, White’s concept of history as narrative represents a constructive approach to historiography. As history is an ambiguous and difficult matter (as which White regarded it), it looks like a Kantian concept: ‘the thing itself is unreachable, but its phenomenon can be apprehended through the structures of thought’.
WHITE Hayden, Figural Realism, John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore 1999.
WHITE Hayden, Metahistory: the historical imagination in nineteenth-century Europe, John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore 1973.
WHITE Hayden, The content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation, John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore 1987.
WHITE Hayden, Tropics of discourse: essays in cultural criticism, John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore 1978.
BENTLEY Michael, Companion to Historiography, Routledge, London 1997.
CARBONELL Charles-Olivier, L’historiographie, Que sais-je? PUF, Paris 2002.
CARR David, Time, Narrative, and History, Indiana University Press, Bloomington/Indianapolis 1986.
CARRARD Philippe, Poétique de la Nouvelle Histoire: le discours historique en France de Braudel à Chartier, Editions Payot, Lausanne 1998.
DE CERTEAU Michel, Les chemins d’histoire, Editions Complexe, Bruxelles 2002.
FULBROOK Mary, Historical Theory, Routledge, London 2002.
GILDERHUS Mark T., History and historians: a historiographical introduction, Prentice-Hall, Upper Saddle River NJ USA 2000.
GINZBURG Carlo, A distance: neuf essais sur le point de vue en histoire, Gallimard 2001.
GINZBURG Carlo, “History, Rhetoric and Proof”, University Press of New England, Hanover NH USA 1999.
IGGERS Georg G., Historiography in the Twentieth Century: from scientific objectivity to the postmodern challenge, University Press of New England, Hanover NH USA 1997.
MANNING Patrick, “Navigating world history: historians create a global past”, Palgrave Macmillan, New York 2003.
MUNSLOW Alun, Deconstructing history, Routledge, London 1997.
NOIRIEL Gérard, Qu’est-ce que l’histoire contemporaine?, Hachette, Paris 1998.
SOUTHGATE Beverly, Postmodernism in history: fear or freedom?, Routledge, London 2003.
THOMPSON Willie, Postmodernism and History, Palgrave Macmillan, New York 2004.
WILSON Norman J., History in crisis?: recent directions in historiography, Prentice-Hall, Upper Saddle River NJ USA 1999.
MEYER Martin, Aufsätze des Historikers Carlo Ginzburg, http://www.nzz.ch/2001/06/07/fe/page-article7FSST.html, page consulted 12-9-2004.
WALKER Joshua S., Hayden White’s Metahistory, http://www.stanford.edu/~skij/white.html, page consulted 12-9-2004.
Hayden White’s narrative theory of discovery, http://www.d.umn.edu/~cstroupe/ideas/narrative_discovery.html, page consulted 12-9-2004.
Hayden White Curriculum Vitae: http://www.eastasia.ntu.edu.tw/doc/White.pdf, page consulted 12-9-2004.
 Hayden White is professor emeritus of the history of consciousness at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
 MUNSLOW Alun, Deconstructing history, Routledge, London 1997, p.195.
 Metahistory suggests something “beyond history”. WILSON Norman J., History in crisis?: recent directions in historiography, Prentice-Hall, Upper Saddle River NJ USA 1999, p.114.
 THOMPSON Willie, Postmodernism and History, Palgrave Macmillan, New York 2004, p.132.
 WHITE Hayden, Metahistory: the historical imagination in nineteenth-century Europe, John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore 1973, p.ix.
 Some statements showing the wide implications: Nietzsche “dismissed history as a form of knowledge on grounds that no objectively verifiable accounts could exist independently of the partialities and inclinations of the historian”; Lévi Strauss “called into question claims that Western scientific rationality possessed any intrinsic superiority over mythical forms of thinking”. Saussure held that “language shapes images of reality but does not refer to it”. In subsequent elaborations by Foucault, Derrida, de Man, Barthes, and Hayden White, a “conception of language emerged as a self-contained system of signs and symbols, referring to themselves but to nothing outside”. Iggers explains, “the historian is always the prisoner of the world within which he thinks, and his thoughts and perceptions are conditioned by the categories of the language in which he operates.” GILDERHUS Mark T., History and historians: a historiographical introduction, Prentice-Hall, Upper Saddle River NJ USA 2000, p.134-135.
 WILSON Norman J., op.cit., p.111.
 WHITE Hayden, op.cit., p.x.
 White calls them tropes: they are originally grammatical terms, but employed by White “to refer to the alleged poetic strategies historians use to construct their texts. The supposed tropes are metaphor, metonymy, and synecdoche and irony.” THOMPSON Willie, op.cit., p.135.
 A metaphor is a “representational figure of speech characterizing phenomena in terms of their similarities”. A metonymy is a “reductive figure of speech in which the name of a part of a thing is substituted for the name of the whole while keeping the two conceptually separate”. A synecdoche is an “integrative figure of speech using the part to symbolize an aspect of totality”. And an irony is a “negational figure of speech denying on one level what is affirmed on another”. MANNING Patrick, Navigating world history: historians create a global past, Palgrave Macmillan, New York 2003, p.310.
 White calls them e mplotment, following the theory of fictions of Northrop Frye. THOMPSON Willie, op.cit., p.130.
 WHITE Hayden, op.cit., p.426.
 WILSON Norman J., op.cit., p.114, supposes that the distinction between history and story has “more to do with the English language than with an accurate description of ultimate differences between history and story. The dichotomy does not exist in most other European languages, as Geschichte equals Geschichte, storia equals storia, and histoire equals histoire.”
 MANNING Patrick, op.cit., p.310.
 Idem, p.309.
 White calls nondisconfirmability the fact that all historical narratives are equally plausible, or equally untrue. FULBROOK Mary, Historical Theory, Routledge, London 2002, p.29.
 WILSON Norman J., op.cit., p.111.
 WHITE Hayden, Tropics of discourse: essays in cultural criticism, John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore 1978, p.82; misquotation - as in IGGERS Georg G., Historiography in the Twentieth Century: from scientific objectivity to the postmodern challenge, University Press of New England, Hanover NH USA 1997p.10: “more invented than found” – is grave.
 IGGERS Georg G., op.cit., p.2.
 GILDERHUS Mark T., History and historians: a historiographical introduction, Prentice-Hall, Upper Saddle River NJ USA 2000, p.130.
 MUNSLOW Alun, op.cit., p.9.
 Idem, p.10.
 THOMPSON Willie, op.cit., p.130.
 CARR David, Time, Narrative, and History, Indiana University Press, Bloomington/Indianapolis 1986, p.94-95.
 BENTLEY Michael, Companion to Historiography, Routledge, London 1997, p.855.
 NOIRIEL Gérard, Qu’est-ce que l’histoire contemporaine?, Hachette, Paris 1998, p.124-125.
 CARRARD Philippe, Poétique de la Nouvelle Histoire: le discours historique en France de Braudel à Chartier, Editions Payot, Lausanne 1998, p.5. Carrard reproachs White for ignoring the Annales.
 THOMPSON Willie, op.cit., p.59.
 Idem, p.26.
 Idem, p.22-23.
 IGGERS Georg G., op.cit., p.140.
 FULBROOK Mary, op.cit., p.67.
 THOMPSON Willie, op.cit., p.62.
 FULBROOK Mary, op.cit., p.73.
 GINZBURG Carlo, History, Rhetoric and Proof, University Press of New England, Hanover NH USA 1999, p.49.
 FULBROOK Mary, op.cit., p.66.
 SOUTHGATE Beverly, Postmodernism in history: fear or freedom?, Routledge, London 2003, p.17.
 FULBROOK citing White, p.55.
 THOMPSON Willie, op.cit., p.131-133.
 GILDERHUS Mark T., op.cit., p.129-130.
 Idem, p.134.
 Idem, p.136.
 FULBROOK Mary, op.cit., p.i.
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