Knowledge is a product of wrestling not only with the ‘facts’ but with ourselves. Where alternative visions of reality are not entertained as genuine possibilities, the product of thought tends toward blandness and unearned self-confidence. –Hayden White
Hayden White (1928– ) is an American literary theorist and historiographer whose work is strongly associated with the “linguistic turn” (postmodernism) in history. In Metahistory (1973) he argued that historical writing should be read as a genre of literature, and that a structural analysis of its products showed this. The scientific pretense of the nineteenth-century historians to study the past as a science has long since been deflated, but the “theoretical torpor” and ironic posturing created by this failed legacy continues to inhibit the work of genuine (literary) historical writing today. Modern historians should recognize that what they are doing is not science but literature. Thus it is not physicists and mathematicians, but artists, authors, and critics, who can provide historians with the models appropriate to their work.
In order to make his case, White examined eight nineteenth-century historians/philosophers of history: Ranke, Tocqueville, Michelet, Burkhardt, Marx, Hegel, Nietzsche, and Croce. He concluded that they could be organized along four axes, which correspond to the irreducible categories of all historical writing.
The first is the mode of emplotment, or the overall meaning of the story, borrowed from Northrop Frye. These are comedy, tragedy, romance, and satire. The second is the ideological implication, analyzed using categories borrowed from Karl Mannheim. These are anarchist, radical, conservative, and liberal. The third is the mode of argument, analyzed using categories borrowed from Stephen Pepper. These are formist, mechanistic, organicist, or contextualist. The choices that an author made along these axes determined their choice of language, which could be metaphor, metonymy, synechtode, or irony.
According to White, the intellectual bankruptcy of historians’ self-understanding is demonstrated by an attitude of ironic detachment from their own work: an attitude of skepticism, self-doubt, and paradox, in which historians acknowledge the futility of their work while at the same time insisting on its necessity. Literary theory, by contrast, offers a philosophically coherent explanation of historical writing, which affirms both the possibility and the necessity of historical writing.
The resistance of historians to the seeming demotion, from the lofty rank of scientists to the ghetto of literary criticism, is in fact, White argued, a kind of prejudice left over from the nineteenth century. Why is science an intrinsically more dignified activity than literature? On what basis does the distinction between the past “as it really was,” and the past “as we imagine it” exist? Is there an objective past for the historian to study? Do not history and literature share the basic elements of narrative, language, metaphor, subject, and theme? Did it not first emerge as literature, and has it not been written as such, consciously or unconsciously, ever since? The answers to these questions, White argued, strongly suggest that history properly belongs to literature rather than to science. Where the pretense of the nineteenth century has been dropped in so many other areas, it retains a powerful grip on historical writing. Literature no less than science deals with the world as it really is—the medium is fiction, to be certain, but the substance is the human condition, and that is as real as any quark or neutrino. To dismiss literature as unreal or beneath the notice of a serious intellectual is simply prejudiced nonsense.
Such a posture is also necessary in order to counteract what Nietzsche derided as the despair-inducing effects of history—that is to say, the sense that the past hangs like a cloud over everything, that it defines and limits us, that we cannot escape it. By abolishing the fatuous notion of a one true history, White argued (following Nietzsche), historians can recapture their relevance and equip now-living people for heroic, daring exertions.
Daniel Halverson is a graduate student studying the History of Science and Technology of nineteenth-century Germany. He is also a regular contributor to the PEL Facebook page.