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JOHN H. ZAMMITO
Ankersmit’s articulation of a postmodern theory of history takes seriously both the strengths of traditional historicism and the right of historians to decide what makes sense for disciplinary practice. That makes him an exemplary interlocutor. Ankersmit proposes a theory of historical “representation” which radicalizes the narrative approach to historiography along the lines of poststructuralist textualism. Against this postmodernism but invoking some of his own arguments, I defend the traditional historicist position. I formulate criticisms of the theory of reference entailed in his notion of “narrative substance,” of his master analogy of historiography with modern painting, and ﬁnally of his characterization of historical hermeneutics. In each case I ﬁnd him guilty of the hyperbole which he himself cautions against. While it is true that historical narratives cannot be taken to be transparent, in taking them to be opaque Ankersmit puts himself in an untenable position. Finally, Ankersmit seeks to buttress his theoretical case by an interpretation of the new cultural historical texts of authors like Davis and Ginzburg. While this is a concreteness heartily to be welcomed in philosophers of history, I cannot ﬁnd his construction of this new school’s work plausible.
In History and Tropology, a collection of his most important essays over the last decade, Frank Ankersmit presents a very coherent and ambitious argument for the emergence not only of a new historiographical theory but of a concomitant practice which signals the rise of postmodernism within the discipline.1 Accordingly, an engagement with Ankersmit may be the most economical vehicle for establishing what is at stake in the current clash of “paradigms.” Ankersmit is a worthy interlocutor for two reasons. First, he recognizes as his point of departure that historians should decide upon historical practice.2 For
1. F. R. Ankersmit, History and Tropology: The Rise and Fall of Metaphor (Berkeley, 1994). Henceforth all references to this text will be in the form HT. Ankersmit’s book documents an evolution in his own thought, along with that of the intellectual discourse in which it has partaken, and we will have to be attentive to this trajectory of argument and its culmination, so as not to misread interim positions for ultimate ones in his essays. In particular, Ankersmit moves from a discourse of “narrativism” in his earlier essays towards a discourse of “representation” in the ﬁnal chapters in which only certain features of the original construction of narrativism remain important. 2. HT, 238. “[T]here is no point outside historiography itself from which rules for the historian’s method can be drawn up: if historians consider something to be meaningful, then it is meaningful and that is all there is to it.” (“Historiography and Postmodernism,” HT, 164 [originally published in History and Theory 28 (1989), 137-154]). “[C]ritical philosophy of history has the task of reﬂecting on the results rather than on the presuppositions of contemporary historical writing.” (“The Reality Effect in the Writing of History,” in HT, 135).
Aram Veeser (New York and London. He certainly insists that the philosophical point of a “critical philoso3.” English Literary Renaissance 16 (1986). I propose to defend a position which he articulates only in passing: “Twenty years ago philosophy of history was scientistic. “Historism and Postmodernism. 194. “[N]o historical theory has guaranteed historical writing greater and better-deserved triumphs than histori[ci]sm. 7. 9. is described or represented on the basis of empirical data.” HT. contexts. and their apparently circular relationships outrun its possible utility as either a clariﬁcation of.”8 Jean Howard. 34.”11 Yet this acknowledgment is tougher for Ankersmit to be faithful to than he would like to believe. 10. “Are We Being Theoretical Yet? The New Historicism. muses at one point: “if one accepts certain tendencies in poststructuralist thought. Ankersmit. for my argument about the hyperbolic moment in postmodernism. against Ankersmit. the test of theory is ultimately in practice.” in The New Historicism. 8.”3 But second. that postmodernism—historicism taken to the limit—is precisely the hyperbolic move he cautions against. Jean Howard.”4 This is not to say that Ankersmit is uncritical.” HT. is the possibility of an historical criticism even conceivable?”9 John Toews raises the same question: “one begins to wonder if it is possible to avoid the pitfalls of a referential or representational theory at all without ceasing to ‘do’ history and restricting oneself to thinking about it. John Toews.” HT. reﬂecting on the tension between poststructuralism and the historical effort of the New Historicism.ANKERSMIT’S POSTMODERNIST HISTORIOGRAPHY 331 him. 1989). ed. 5. Ibid.5 In response. 4. 11. or guide for. 19. “Introduction. historiographical practice?”10 The issue is ineluctably about referentiality and empiricism. B. “The New Historicism and Other Old Fashioned Notions. See my earlier essay. and ‘Practicing Historians. H. Histori[ci]sm is the juste milieu between the two: Histori[ci]sm retains what is right in both the scientistic and the literary approaches to history and avoids what is hyperbolic in both. and the verdict is still out: “it still has to be seen whether postmodernism is more successful than histori[ci]sm in its support of historiographical practice. Ankersmit acknowledges: “It is true that neither histori[ci]sm nor even postmodernism will or can deny that history is an empirical discipline in which historical reality. 783-814. Ankersmit. he proposes that historicism has halted “halfway” and that postmodernism represents a historicism carried to its radical conclusion. Thomas. “Historism and Postmodernism. one ought to avoid the opposite extreme of seeing historiography as a form of literature. . 200. the New Philosophy of History. however conceived. Ankersmit strives seriously to acknowledge the importance of historicism in historical practice. 222-223. 886. and even more important. “Intellectual History after the Linguistic Turn: The Autonomy of Meaning and the Irreducibility of Experience.’” Journal of Modern History 65 (1993). Ankersmit. Has the theory of linguistic density and complexity of texts. Indeed. 194. there is a “tendency for poststructuralists to fall prey to the very totalization which they claim to abhor. 6.7 As Brook Thomas points out. 238.” American Historical Review 92 (1987).”6 I would argue. HT. “The New Historicism in Renaissance Studies.
. namely the search for “narrative arguments. Ibid. Louch. D. 192. 18. 1986). Olafson (F. This is the kernel of truth in AngloSaxon hermeneutics. 1978]. ‘Narrativism’ should rather be associated with (historical) interpretation. 54-70. .”14 He will have to go to some extreme lengths to circumvent this dilemma.” History and Theory 25 (1986). . Beiheft 25 (1986). where McCullagh notes that Ankersmit’s title is deceptive. “The Dilemma of Contemporary Anglo-Saxon Philosophy of History. 1985). The phrase “Anglo-Saxon” or “analytical hermeneutics” derives from F. Carr. Ankersmit identiﬁes himself and other postmodernist theorists of history as “narrativists.’“ History and Theory. The Dialectic of Action (Chicago. an example of this mode is A.” The key ﬁgures here were Morton White and Arthur Danto. 3 vols. 13.” in HT.” (“Six Theses on Narrativist Philosophy of History. 1984–1988).”15 Ankersmit himself traces the evolution of this latter (superseded) “narrativist” idea about history through three phases. and Olafson argued that narrative interpretation emulated and was grounded necessarily in the structure of lived experience. Olafson.18 Ankersmit identiﬁes his own sense of “narrativism. Danto. Time and Narrative. 43). Ankersmit writes: “all association with story-telling to which the term ‘narrativism’ might give rise should .” in HT. 1979). (Chicago. 45 [originally published in History and Theory. 16.. See McCullagh’s review of Ankersmit’s Narrative Logic (The Hague. with Hayden 12.16 The second phase of narrativism is closest to a methodological or even epistemological idea. too facile an injunction to abandon the concept of representation for the writing of history altogether. Beiheft 25 . 15.” HT. . But Ankersmit also acknowledges some connection.” History and Theory 8 (1969). 17. and Time. Olafson used it to dis- .”13 Ankersmit recognizes the tight bind such terms for the debate place on the postmodernist theorist: “the postmodernist notion of the simulacrum and of the historiographical hyperreality seems to leave no room whatsoever for the autonomy of historical reality and for an authentic historical experience of that reality.” the idea that narrative represents a form of explanation— “genetic explanations.332 JOHN H.” rather. Narrative and History (Bloomington. for example. narrative interpretation—the narrative interpretation that is presupposed by all other historical interpretations. See. A. “Narrative and the Real World: An Argument for Continuity.. and F. 117-131. First. with such ﬁgures as Gallie and Louch. 14. Ricoeur. Carr. “History as Narrative. only in the inverse direction: “The notion of the self is a historical. It is altogether to be distinguished from “story-telling. ZAMMITO phy of history” is to face the “challenge to clarify the nature of historical representation rather than . it signiﬁed a concern with rhetorical contrivance in the narrow sense of strategies for occasioning the reader to suspend disbelief. Ibid. 1-27]). be avoided. Narration and History (New York. Ankersmit cites Hayden White’s rebuttal: “no one and nothing lives a story” (White. Tropics of Discourse [Baltimore. 1983) in History and Theory 23 (1984). 28-42). as we shall see.” (“The Dilemma of Contemporary Anglo-Saxon Philosophy of History. 111). Ankersmit. 62.”12 I agree with this and with his ampliﬁcation of this commitment: “the real dispute between the histori[ci]st and the postmodernist concerns the nature of historical experience and the place of historical reality in the historian’s interpretation of the past. . Olafson. “Hermeneutics: ‘Analytical’ and ‘Dialectical. P. 194. Ibid. 394ff.17 Yet a third phase of this (rejected) sense of narrativism is that in which phenomenologists like Ricoeur.” but he does not mean at all by narrativism what one would suppose.
In other words. it adopted the ideal that a work of history should be transparent with relation to the underlying historical reality it depicted. in fact. according to Ankersmit. it recognized a distinctiveness in the object of inquiry. That. . 20. 1987). 1973). 71). which he associates with the “epistemological” approach to history (from Hempel to Von Wright and Dray). it is this focus on agency or intentional action that most sharply distinguished analytical hermeneutics from its continental counterpart. (“The Dilemma of Contemporary Anglo-Saxon Philosophy of History. and therefore insisted upon an interpretive (hence. as Ankersmit correctly notes. was the operative assumption of conventional historiography..) 19. the historian’s language is not a transparent. Ankersmit writes. First. is not a fulﬁllment of the Gadamerian requirement of the historicization of the historical subject but is. wie es eigentlich gewesen ist. “The Dilemma of Contemporary Anglo-Saxon Philosophy of History. In short. Second. 221) . . Ankersmit adverts to White especially in the Introduction to History and Tropology (7-19). contrary to appearances. and in high tension with the ﬁrst. namely intentional human action. [W]e do not look at the past through the historian’s language. a double refusal to do so. Ankersmit acknowledges—as do all postmodern theorists of history—the seminal inﬂuence of Hayden White. following Hayden White: “[T]he historical narrative is a complex linguistic structure specially built for the purpose of showing part of the past. “hermeneutical”) strategy to achieve that explanation (“philosophy of action” over against the strict “covering-law” approach). to an even more encompassing theory of historical representation.20 For Ankersmit the decisive development in the theory of history in the last several decades has been the movement from description and explanation.22 The work was held at one and the same time to be in unproblematic epistemological relation both to its object and its subject. was overwhelmingly grounded in textual interpretation. it worked strictly with the tools of analytic philosophy of language and it sought epistemologically adequate explanation.” First. He deﬁnes his idea of narrativism as “a philosophy of language analyzing the historical text as a whole” (“Introduction.” (“Historism and Postmodernism. through the hermeneutic and narrativist theory of interpretation. in the classic phrase. the historian’s language is not a medium wanting to erase itself” (ibid. 22. from Collingwood to Dray to Von Wright) in the analytic tradition from continental hermeneutics.”21 Ankersmit argues that the hermeneuticist or interpretive approach to historical practice has been caught up in paralogisms of “transparency. Ankersmit’s central claim about the nature of historical representation is that “We do not look through language at (past) reality. 50. it held that one could similarly discern transparently through the work the intentions of the historian who wrote it. For White see not only Metahistory (Baltimore. 65. but the more radical developments in Tropics of Discourse and The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation (Baltimore. its referent and its author. 21. This may be why he insists that traditional historiography—even more than traditional hermeneutics—failed to live up to Gadamer’s critique: “Historiography [in its traditional form].” HT. for the latter. But second. but from the vantage point suggested by it. 6). this school of thought remained quite analytic: that is.” HT.” HT. that is. But in neither tinguish his project (in company with others.” HT. Ankersmit notes two decisive features here.ANKERSMIT’S POSTMODERNIST HISTORIOGRAPHY 333 White’s linguistic approach to historical writing. that one could read the world without distortion through the work. passive medium through which we can see the past as we do perceive what is written in a letter through the glass paperweight lying on top of it . Indeed. but White’s inﬂuence is decisive and acknowledged throughout.19 Indeed.
“historians do not ‘ﬁnd’ the truths of past events: they create events from a seamless ﬂow and invent meanings that produce patterns within that ﬂow. to a distortion of the past and to the illegitimate interposition of the historian himself between the past and the reader of his text. second. In the new historiography this new postulate of the nontransparency of the historical text leads to a concentration on the conﬂicts.” HT.” Renaissance and Modern Studies 27 .”28 But. . and yet such a notion of transparency by-passes the necessary stage of mental representation . 1989].” HT. This has been the upshot of the debates about hermeneutics since Dilthey. “getting the story crooked. Ankersmit.24 Generally. on what Paul de Man has styled the undecidabilities of the historical text. 23.” That is.” (Kellner. ” (“Analysing the Discourse of History.”23 The Rankean ambition that “the historian must completely disappear from the text” Ankersmit labels the decisive naivete of traditional historiography. “The omnipresent. Language and Historical Representation: Getting the Story Crooked [Madison.” HT. sources derived. This “postmodern depthlessness” is a ubiquitous trait which we have already seen in literary new historicism.. 27. the historian’s own involvement in the construction becomes highlighted by this occlusion. By abandoning even historical hermeneutics for “representation” Ankersmit is subscribing to a textualist approach in the strong poststructuralist sense: For the new historiography. Kellner does not believe “that there are ‘stories’ out there. the text occludes the reality it depicts. 26..” And. 24.) . the thrust of postmodernist theory of history is to demonstrate that we are “unable to distinguish between difference in historical reality (or historical forms or ideas) and mere difference in interpretation. “in the fashioning. nature of our knowledge of the past.”27 There are two dimensions to the aporia which this suggests. 24. 128.” HT. 28. “Historism and Postmodernism. but from the language that purportedly represents the evidence. 54. rhetorical. Neither the “naive” realism of the ﬁrst notion of transparency nor the equally “naive” access to authorial intention have withstood critical investigation. 81. “Historism and Postmodernism.” New Left Review 146 . Ibid. “Postmodernism.” Instead. the text must be central—it is no longer a layer through which one looks (either at past reality or at the historian’s authorial intentions). 25. he urges us to “foreground the contructed. 190. ZAMMITO case could this be true.”25 There is an “undecidability” (to stay with de Man’s terms) between what is made and what is found in historical representation.” That is..) Hans Kellner has called this. tacit assumption always is that the historian’s own experience of the past will unavoidably lead to subjectivity. Ankersmit’s essential criticism of traditional hermeneutics has to do with its penchant toward the self-effacement of the historian. It is “the text’s obscurities which constitute this opacity. hesitations. 20. and which Fredric Jameson has used to identify postmodernism generally: the distinction between reality and representation “becomes blurred” (F. not from the evidence. Wisc. the ambition towards authorial transparency as the token of objectivity.26 In Ankersmit’s terms: “[W]e cannot be so conﬁdent about the possibility of telling historiography apart from history itself. 187. . vii. 129. Jameson. 219. 58). other sources take over. 7. ambiguities—in short. Ibid.334 JOHN H. First. “Introduction. Stephen Bann makes the same point: “the historical text purports to be transparent to the action which it describes. “The Reality Effect in the Writing of History. but something which the historiographer must look at. in which the nontransparency of the text reveals itself. borrowing a phrase from Bann.
”33 “[T]he historicization of the historian and historical knowledge effects a coalescence of the level of the writing of history and that of historiography (the history of historical writing) .” HT. Bambach. 1992). radical philosophical historicism: C. Ankersmit claims. especially as a conception of Gadamer’s project. 1995). “Gadamer is interested in the historicity of experience (die Geschichtlichkeit des Verstehens) and not in the experience of historicity (die Erfahrung der Geschichtlichkeit)” (“Introduction. “Gadamer wishes to draw our attention to the fact that how we experience the text and its meaning cannot be dissociated from the question of what the text means to us in our present situation. 3-45. Dilthey. 2nd rev. according to Ankersmit. Ankersmit uses this phrase several times. especially Jauss’s pivotal manifesto. Truth and Method. (“Introduction.ANKERSMIT’S POSTMODERNIST HISTORIOGRAPHY 335 The decisive breakthrough to postmodernism. “Historism and Postmodernism. comes with the “historicization of the historical subject. This is what Gadamer meant by philosophical hermeneutics.” HT. . Heidegger. . Page. is the authority not of the author’s intention. 23). traces [the past has left us] (that is why the term ‘constructivism’ is used . Ankersmit sees himself speciﬁcally taking off from Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics which he acknowledges to be perfectly adequate for such pursuits as intellectual history or history of philosophy but which is shown to be incomplete by the emergence of history of mentalities. . 219. and others have discerned as the new. that is. 84-85. J.30 Yet Ankersmit really wants to radicalize even Gadamer. .”32 The new area of maximal critical investigation is no longer “the interaction between text and its historical context” but rather the “interaction between the text and the historian. 222. Gadamer. and what Page.36 “Historical representations are not so much contradicted by historical reality 29. Even the word ‘reconstructivism’ would be out of place. 219. “Literary History as a Challenge to Literary Theory.” HT. R. “The Identity of the Poetic Text in the Changing Horizon of Understanding. Jauss.”35 If I may coopt terms. . “Historism and Postmodernism. Jauss. beneath readers’ constructions of it. Theorizing the difference and drift from Wirkungsgeschichte to Rezeptionsgeschichte would naturally begin with Wolfgang Iser and Hans-Robert Jauss and their theories of reception. H. 220-222. R. but of the very text itself. Bambach. 1985). G. See H. Towards an Aesthetics of Reception (Minneapolis. ”34 Given that the only access to the past is through the various representations (interpretations) that have been constructed already. 35. It is not at all clear what Ankersmit intends with this chiasmus.” in Identity of the Literary Text. usually invoking Gadamer: HT. Philosophical Historicism and the Betrayal of First Philosophy (University Park. 34. . 23. . (New York. ) .”29 Philosophical hermeneutics showed us we are always already in what Hans-Georg Gadamer called Wirkungsgeschichte. . “Historism and Postmodernism.) 31. M. 23). 32. Miller (Toronto. witnesses the displacement of Wirkungsgeschichte by Rezeptionsgeschichte. 1995). it becomes increasingly problematic to dissociate the original past from its reconstructions. Pa.” HT. . Valdés and O.” HT. as Ankersmit would have it more generally. “The Reality Effect in the Writing of History.” HT. 33. ed. 1982). The essential point I would make is simply that what fades.” HT. ed. C. 36. “[A]ll we have are constructions produced by historians on the basis of .” HT.31 “Wirkungsgeschichte dissolves itself into an endless proliferation of historical self-reﬂections within an ever-expanding historiographical present.” in H. “The Use of Language in the Writing of History. as Ankersmit invites us to understand it. and the Crisis of Historicism (Ithaca. 127n. 30.. how the text applies to us and to our own world” (“Introduction. 300ff. the contemporary situation. 128.
394ff. 45. It is only in juxtaposition. “Reply to Professor Zagorin.”37 “All we have is the ‘intertextual’ interplay between the historical narratives we happen to have on some topic.2. . 38.” HT. . HT. 26. 283.” HT. and most saliently in his rejection of any idea of truth or knowledge which has integrative function. Barthes. and not altogether unjustly. 78). 140. .2 and 4.” 4. elaborating upon Saussure in the direction of poststructuralism. The essential point is to recognize that Ankersmit wishes to insist upon 37. “The Reality Effect in the Writing of History.” arguing that the risk garners “insights” which mere chronicling of ‘facts’ could never achieve. Ankersmit vests his ideas about truth and knowledge all too narrowly in discrete statements. “The Discourse of History” and above all. however. “Historical Representation. . fallible knowledge—what he calls “insight. Ankersmit. 205-228). HT.40 Ankersmit sees this as theoretically homologous to the (post)Saussurian argument about the lability of signiﬁers. Here the decisive inﬂuence. Review of Narrative Logic. in mutual contestation..” HT. is R. It is—and of the most precious kind. . Behan McCullagh.336 JOHN H. therefore no narratio has a permanent. As ever new narratios are added. 44. ”39 What makes each one unique is the differences that remain.1. 4.45 Ankersmit gets very murky trying to establish the ontological and epistemological status of his notion of “narrative substance. They do not analyze a previously given historical reality but deﬁne it ﬁrst.” HT. 40. C. 127-148).3. “The Reality Effect in the Writing of History. 1989]. Ankersmit. 38.” that is.”38 Historical reality is simply what is common to the available “narratios” of a given matter: “Their overlap determines what historical reality actually is like for this set of texts. 42.”42 Intertexuality is all.46 Some clarity can be achieved. ZAMMITO itself but by other historical representations. Interpretation is “more interesting but also less certain . . 145. 46. .” C. Ibid. 41. Hence Ankersmit’s title. “[N]arrative unity and coherence always come ‘from the outside.”41 As Ankersmit elaborates this idea: “these rules and codes . ” Yet here the fatal error of equating knowledge with certainty (a crippling legacy of Cartesian foundationalism). “The Reality Effect” (now reprinted in Barthes. 37. any contour that is meaningful.”44 What is false about this is the denial that the organization of knowledge is knowledge.” HT. History and Theory 23 (1984). Behan McCullagh is very hard on him for this in his review of Narrative Logic. He assigns this to a presumably non-cognitive category he calls “insight. . Ankersmit. unconsciously and unintentionally construct the historical object and the reality of the past.” Thus he terms interpretation a “movement against truth. which seems inconsistent with postpositivist theory of science. 39. 7. Ankersmit writes: “Narrative interpretations are Gestalts. dismisses precisely what is essential: empirical.” History and Theory 29 (1990). “proposals (to see the past from a certain point of view). “The reality of the past is an effect caused by the tension in and between historical texts. 116 (originally published in History and Theory 27 . essential identity. that they take on any determinacy. “Six Theses on Narrativist Philosophy of History. this uniqueness or “identity” can and must change. 43.” See “Introduction.’ as it were: they do not have their source so much in the narratio itself—at least not exclusively so—as in what happens in the controversy concerning several narratios on the same topic” (“The Use of Language in the Writing of History. The Rustle of Language [Berkeley.” HT. This is reﬂected in his idea of natural science.”43 This leads him (falsely) to infer: “Narrative interpretations are not knowledge but organisations of knowledge. which Ankersmit has not transcended but only inverted into hyperbolic skepticism. Historical reality is not a datum but a convention created by the reality effect. “Dilemma of Contemporary Anglo-Saxon Philosophy of History.
he wishes to underscore that it is a representation. “Six Theses on Narrativist Philosophy of History. 53. Ibid. 50. This is what Ankersmit means by insisting. that is. 49. History can contribute what W. . 1973). according to Ankersmit: “to deﬁne or individuate a speciﬁc narrative interpretation . or narrative substance: hence Gestalt. . ed. 51. Ankersmit means his “nominalism” to be taken seriously at the level of interpretive constructs—“narrative substances” are heuristic constructs coded in language (that is. HT. 5. P. texts)—but he has no doubt about the epistemological veriﬁcation of singular statements.50 But they serve another purpose within narrative substances.1. “Six Theses on Narrativist Philosophy of History. however. 41.. H. 5-7. “Narrative logic is strictly nominalist. Ibid. however. These do “describe the past” and they can be established true or false. Yet here Ankersmit believes he comes to the nub of the problem: “Our speaking about the past is covered by a thick crust not related to the past itself but to historical interpretation and the debate about rival historical interpretations. HT. H. we come upon a ﬂat contradiction in Ankersmit’s text. HT. not an ontic substance in the past. HT.7. W. they can “apply” it to the (real) past and dispute its determinate features (though Ankersmit would hold that this dispute is always only between narrative constructs and not in relation to the past itself).ANKERSMIT’S POSTMODERNIST HISTORIOGRAPHY 337 the holism of an interpretation.53 And yet in another essay in History and 47. 38.48 But even were this not the case.5. these heuristic devices would remain viable tokens for ongoing historical discourse. Thus ordinary language users know what they mean by the phrase “First World War.”49 The issue for Ankersmit is to differentiate the ontic status of the narrative construction as a medium from the past reality it claims to represent. it is separate from yet refers to reality (if we may be allowed.” 4. 40. 39.”52 This (somewhat clumsy) locution is Ankersmit’s version of Hayden White’s seminal discrimination of true history from mere annal or chronicle.”47 His examples make his intention perfectly clear: a term like “Cold War” or “Renaissance” is a heuristic device for historians. Here. conventional “reality” will be vested in it by the entire culture. 5.” in The Philosophy of History. 48. it is simply the set of its singular statements. the use of these terms).” 4. In the “Six Theses” he writes: “A historical narrative is a historical narrative only insofar as the (metaphorical) meaning of the historical narrative in its totality transcends the (literal) meaning of the sum of its individual statements. 52. Ankersmit goes so far as to argue that when not only historians but ordinary language users adopt such usage. ”51 What he means is that the selection of a set of such statements constructs an interpretation. On the other hand. once historians stipulate a reference for this phrase.2. for the moment.1. . and dispute. Gardiner (Oxford. Walsh.1. matter for thought. On White’s distinction of real history from mere annals or chronicle see Metahistory.” and are prepared to understand by that signiﬁer an event in the real past. At the same time. “Colligatory Concepts in History. inquiry.. Ibid. 127-145. Walsh has called “colligatory concepts” to the lexical pool of ordinary language.
pn represent individual statements. ZAMMITO Tropology Ankersmit writes: “the narrative substance does not add anything to what the individual statements of the historical narrative express about the past. and only then is collective historical enquiry and historical debate possible. 145. social structure. As Ankersmit correctly observes. Ibid. and P means “contains pi . Of course even then we would still remain ﬁgurative with (quasimathematical) language (and. “historians generally consider the history of historical debate about a certain historical issue as not merely propaedeutic to new historical insight but as a crucial part of it. He endeavors. For the range of theoretical issues on the creativity and intelligibility of metaphor.”59 Yet Ankersmit accuses historicism of “positivism” in this endeavor: “[H]istorism sought to reify each of these historical periods . Eng. pn. “Historism and Postmodernism. . “The Reality Effect in the Writing of History.” HT. “Reply to Professor Zagorin. pn. . Ankersmit. These notions have proved to be useful tools for the historian and it is unthinkable that they should be discarded. to present them as objects of historical experience . go back to Hayden White’s crucial insistence on the indispensably interpretive character of historical writing—which is all Ankersmit needs anyway. So. . (Cambridge. . . Here we might have had a nonmystiﬁed sense of that crucial increment that the whole achieves beyond the sum of its parts.” 279-280.338 JOHN H. social class.”57 The following observation is sound as well: “Only through the rules and codes which discipline the historian and his work can a stabilization of the historical object be reached. intellectual movement.”55 Yet one wishes here to ask what the operation is that he has in mind: summation or integration? For the former entails discrete elements. 58. what are we to make of his contradiction? I say. “Historism and Postmodernism. “Historical Representation. . .. . Andrew Ortony.” HT. 1993). 158. 114.” or “N is pi . 55. 59. however unthinkable he just 54. after the most analytic fashion. metaphor can also defamiliarize the commonplace and create strangeness. to offer a formal logical deﬁnition of it: “N1 is P. in the form of notions like people. .” HT. . 60. 220.. 57. . 206. while the latter presumes continuity and thereby achieves a closure unavailable to the mere sum (except at a limit approaching inﬁnity which Ankersmit speciﬁcally excludes). state. ed. see Metaphor and Thought. [showing] an intellectual mentality coming quite close to that of positivism. 56. which could come to embody the distance between past and present.”54 What occasions this serious slippage (beyond change in time of composition) is Ankersmit’s concern about the ontological status of his narrative substance.” where pi . 2nd ed.” HT. .”60 He later argues that what a postmodernist history must do is precisely to discard these ideas. . nation. . metaphors ought to offer new access to the strange [make it more familiar]56). Of course. as Ankersmit avers.”58 He elaborates at another point: “In the past two centuries historians created a series of more or less complicated intellectual constructions.
3. It seems rather extreme to charge that avoiding the past as some pure totality is craven.61 This. certainly. and he claims that indeed historians of mentalities are currently doing just that. 108). there seems scant warrant to repudiate the conceptual discrimination of interpretive concepts for segments of the past and a focus on their internal structure. Ankersmit has not really made the kind of clarifying deconstruction he thinks he has. tumbles him into hyperbole. without. they may well distort it “in itself. See Ankersmit’s harsh comments on Universalgeschichte. but in historiographical discussion it is never compared with narratios in toto in the way we can compare reality with singular statements in order to establish their truth or falsehood. in all cases we witness a revolt .” HT. however. 87. “The Use of Language in the Writing of History. and so on . . 102) “History should be subsumed under the concept of art since both represent the particular as such” (ibid. for example. To do so is to repudiate not just historicism but historical practice altogether.” HT.” or at most gesturing to such a totality under the rubric Universalgeschichte. “The suggestion is rather that the historian could meaningfully be compared to the painter representing a landscape. The guiding analogy. 61. “The actual past may provide us with arguments for preferring one narratio to another. 62. HT. 64.65 What Ankersmit wishes to achieve by this master metaphor of history as painting is to see historical writing. however they have encrusted the past “in itself” (to employ a Hegelianism). What entitles Ankersmit to think that historical interpretations. they certainly do endeavor to gain a grasp and dispute the grasp of other historians over more than mere singular statements. and that historicism has hidden from all the real issues in staying wide of “speculative philosophy of history. .63 Similarly.ANKERSMIT’S POSTMODERNIST HISTORIOGRAPHY 339 pronounced this. though they do apply to the past: “Narrative interpretations apply to the past.” HT. the marginal ever aspiring to take the place of the historist’s or the positivist’s categories of the important” (“Introduction..” Part of the problem here is what Ankersmit is after by the “past itself”—and how we could gain access to it. they must be understood to do so in at least an ambivalent sense: not merely distorting. 207. The other part of the problem is that if these interpretations mediate the past. or of deconstructivist intellectual and cultural history. 65.” (“Six Theses on Narrativist Philosophy of History. though Ankersmit rejects that verb. the Cold War or the Renaissance. that insofar as these historical interpretations mediate our experience of the past. “Historism and Postmodernism.”64 There is reason to question the cogency of this claim. ” (“Historical Representation. 36) 63. but also providing access. Practicing historians are less interested in “the past” and “History” than they are in concrete aspects of it—what they call. is the idea that historical writing is like representational painting. . Ankersmit wishes to deny that narrative constructs refer to the past. are “not related” to the past itself? They certainly refer to at least some part of it. . . And just in the measure that arguments to sustain such claims to grasp segments of the past invoke evidence and lay claim to truth. of Alltagsgeschichte. of the marginal against the important. 29). but do not correspond or refer to it (as [parts of] statements do). it seems to me.62 Yet we can agree.” HT. the master metaphor for Ankersmit. “Whether we think of the micro-storie. since even though historians certainly do not try to grasp the past as a whole in an interpretation. a person.” 3.
Ankersmit thinks that it is the discipline’s goal to replace historical reality with historical interpretation: “it must. 294). 71. the linguistic devices the historian had at his disposal allowed him to create an illusion of (past) reality. 69. the crucial question to be asked about substitutes is not whether they give a good likeness but whether they can ‘function’ as the original they replace. 171. . yet which achieves this effect by being merely literal itself. . “Reply to Professor Zagorin. function as the substitutes for the past they attempt to replace” (ibid.” HT. the historical narrative implicitly exhorted its reader to look through it and. in the literal sense of the word.” Representation. 72. Ibid. Still. .. 291.340 JOHN H. Obviously. “Historiography and Postmodernism. 67.”68 As he notes. neither its mention nor his use of it seems particularly a propos. “[I]n historical interpretation the narrative substance tends to take the place of the past as topic of discussion. [N]arrative substances tend to act as a ‘substitute’ or ‘replacement’ for (part of) the past itself.” HT.). 121. “Historical Representation. . It fails to take into account serious questions about the point of the over66.. . but displaces it. in the same way as the brush strokes of naturalist painting. Unity and coherence are not properties of the past but of the narratio .” HT. . the appeal to ‘function’ will most often prove to be destructive of the common ground that is conditional for rational debate about realist accuracy” (ibid. 70.”71 But with high modernism. why I would prefer to speak of historical representation rather than of historical interpretation.”72 There is some reason to question whether this characterization is as conclusive as Ankersmit believes.”69 “Historiography possesses the same opacity and intensional dimension as art. For the former term is more suggestive of the ambition of the historical text to function as a substitute and of the similarities of the work of art and historical writing than the latter. “Dilemma of Contemporary Anglo-Saxon Philosophy of History.” 292.” 290). “As in the case of naturalist painting. as Ankersmit understands it. with the crisis of conventional historiography in postmodernism analogized to the challenge of high modernism to representationalism in painting. be the disciplinary goal of historical writing to produce narrative substances that can. ZAMMITO just like the work of painting.” (“Reply to Professor Zagorin. “This is . . takes on a substitutive function: it not only stands apart from what is represented.” HT. 93.66 Substances—things—according to Ankersmit have “a certain unity and coherence” which he identiﬁes precisely as “opacity. 68.” But the historical past is no such thing: it is “[t]he historian [who] gives this unity and coherence to the past through his narrative proposal as to how the past should be looked at. “we no longer look through the representational medium of art but see only it. Accordingly. “The Use of Language in the Writing of History. the critical question changes: “As Gombrich has said. Art becomes like a metaphor for which no literal analogue can be found. 65. . therefore. Ankersmit means intensional in all the problematic rigor of that philosophical notion.”70 Ankersmit wants to contend that the history of conventional historiography can be compared to the development of representational painting in the West since the Renaissance. as a thing distinct from what it “represents. but it wishes to take on the same solidity and opacity as a thing. ”67 “The historian’s language does not strive to make itself invisible like the glass paperweight of the epistemological model. taking on opacity.
they also in many cases claimed that art possesses an expressive “truth” beyond materiality. in contrast to historians. On both counts.74 The essential issue here. “The Reality Effect in the Writing of History. Invoking Barthes’s idea of the notation—the seemingly inadvertent detail in a text through which it achieves its “reality effect”—Ankersmit moves to parallel the development of recent historical practice to the theory of the development of representational painting. Ibid. Conversely. For Ankersmit. or these developments would complicate his picture dramatically. 76.”76 This is what Ankersmit professes to discern in the practice of the new cultural history. How all this relates to historical narratives is far more problematic than the analogy Ankersmit seeks to cash out.73 Yet even as artists insisted upon the materiality of their media as the essential. 74. elemental meaning of their practice. representation. as he terms it. Ankersmit. The most decisive moment of this high-modernist breakthrough was Cubism. De Stijl. 152-153. is that painting could well dispense with any gesture of representation to focus on the “medium as the message. “These books 73. or the history of mentalities. Above all.” but the same is not quite the case with history.75 His idea is that landscape painting arose when artists shifted their attention from the foregrounded thematic to the background into which they had set it and. 156. High modernists in painting insisted that their craft was about paint on canvas. he elides crucial issues of reference in historical. as contrasted with painterly. similarly. This is above all the thrust of the major movements of high modernism in painting that followed upon and harvested the achievements of “analytic Cubism”—“synthetic Cubism. have taken up the neglected background and abandoned the thematic meaning foregrounded by their earlier concerns. 75. Ankersmit claims that representational artists. and it is somewhat disappointing that Ankersmit does not deal with the rigorous projects—practical and theoretical—of Cubism in his characterization of painting and the art object of high modernism.ANKERSMIT’S POSTMODERNIST HISTORIOGRAPHY 341 throw of representation in painting. and Surrealism. .” HT. in moving to social history and then to the new cultural history or history of mentalities. its self-referentiality via form. Ankersmit does not pursue his analogy seriously enough.. always have available the gesture to a referent “out there” beyond their signiﬁers both to justify their vision and to provoke the destabilization of their viewers’ conventional sight. postmodernism in historical practice arose when historical writing “reached a stage where the boundary between reconstruction (of the past) and invention (in the present) is overstepped and the contours of the historical object are dissolved. Striking about Ankersmit’s argument is that he wishes to supplement—if not ultimately ground—his case about postmodernist theory of history by demonstrating a transformation in historical practice. and that the imaginary “window” in the painting (whether via traditional perspectival realism or indeed any form of representation) should be slammed shut so that only the surface (of paint on canvas) signiﬁed.” Constructivism. the limitations of Ankersmit’s analogy seem more compelling than its strengths. The issue has to do with an expressive as opposed to mimetic theory of artistic truth. as Ankersmit recognizes. Suprematism. that historians.
”80 Ankersmit is adamant that such microstorie are “not representative of their time.”81 Rather. 233.” HT.. 79.’ these raw stories about apparently quite irrelevant historical occurrences that leave most contemporary historians just as bafﬂed [as viewers of Duchamp’s “ready mades”] . Hunt (Berkeley. Ibid. but about the boundary between the past and historical representation of it. ZAMMITO are not about the past. 123.” He argues: “We could not derive Menocchio’s opinions from the outillage mental of his time (if we could. 83. See The New Cultural History.85 What is essential is Ginzburg’s insistence on the referentiality 77. 1989). “Historism and Postmodernism.” Critical Inquiry 18 (1991). on the contrary.”79 Ironically.”77 Ankersmit sees this as a dispensation of diachronicity and explanation in favor of a “marginalizing of the historicity of the past. 82. 152. 81. 78. The point is precisely to demonstrate that our previous conception of outillage mental was unduly constrictive. HT. And see Natalie Zemon Davis’s careful and persuasive explication of her method in “On the Lame. Myths. nor do the microstorie help us to understand or to explain it. 122. ed. 80.” American Historical Review 93 (1988).. ”84 But Ankersmit’s interpretation is.” HT. See C. and Clues. Ibid. . . 79-98. 1989). L. and not dictating standards to it.. Yet I would hold out that the new cultural history remains a historical practice in precisely the way necessary to continue to distinguish it from both these relations. . . This is very similar to what literary new historicists are doing with anecdote and texts. I think. Here is where the new philosophy of history and literary new historicism converge upon the practice of the new cultural history. Ibid. for he does not harken to what Carlo Ginzburg and Natalie Zemon Davis say about their practice. 85.”83 He concludes: “past reality disintegrates into a myriad of self-sufﬁcient fragments. . to undo (histori[ci]st and positivist) objectiﬁcation.”78 “This journey past newer and newer categories of notations is a movement toward us. They form a curious mixture of theory and history.”82 “The uncanny independence of the objects discussed in the history of mentalities does not serve to objectify the past.. While they are not naive about the anxiety occasioned by the “historicization of the historical subject. “What remains are these ‘chunks of the past. “Historical Representation. Ibid.342 JOHN H. Ginzburg’s book would be anecdotal). they possess a self-referential capacity very similar to the means of expression used by the relevant modern painters. this carries undigestible fragments like bits of debris from the past forward into the present. Ibid. but. Postmodernism functions within the matrix of the detail. so that a proper outillage mental will incorporate such possibilities and in that measure be truer to the historical actuality. 193. 572-603. it suggests the mysterious existence of a realm lying between ourselves and the reiﬁed past of the histori[ci]st and the positivist.” they unequivocally insist upon the utility of microstorie in “help[ing] us to understand or to explain” the past in which these stories arise. Ginzburg’s defense of his historical procedure: “Checking the Evidence: The Judge and the Historian. 84. and the Historical Method (Baltimore. 157. unfaithful to his own precept of learning what is meaningful from historical practice. . “The effect of these microstorie is thus to make historiography representative only of itself. Ibid.
88. “Checking the Evidence. what does this betoken for his thesis about the new historical theory? I think here. it does not follow that it annihilates it. Lorenz.” HT. 89.. This extreme antipositivistic attitude. turns out to be a sort of inverted positivism. despite his best intentions. 90. so also is his characterization of hermeneutical history.”87 If Ankersmit is wrong in his assessment of the new historical practice.”90 In his discussion. .”88 While it is certainly the case that textuality always transmutes its referent. as exempliﬁed by hermeneutic theory. too. which by deﬁnition precludes any access to reality. “Checking the Evidence. C. contemporary skeptics regard it as a wall. . I think. Instead of dealing with the evidence as an open window. 309 and note. Not only is Ankersmit’s theory of postmodernist history problematic. 90. “Historical Knowledge and Historical Reality: A Plea for ‘Internal Realism. Ankersmit moves too fast and blurs some crucial distinctions in his treatment of hermeneutical historicism as “naive.” 84. It may well be that we might admire a map as a work of art. presents us with the amazing spectacle of a theory founding a purportedly scientiﬁc discipline while denying this science its experiential basis. but we would be woefully inept to think it primarily or exhaustively one.ANKERSMIT’S POSTMODERNIST HISTORIOGRAPHY 343 of empirical history: “no text can be understood without a reference to extratextual realities.”86 Writing of the aims of microstorie as exempliﬁed in the work of Natalie Davis. hyperbole has run away with him.” 83. Ginzburg.” He goes too far when he argues: “[H]istorical theory. the reconstruction of the relationship (about which we know so little) between individual lives and the contexts in which they unfold. Ankersmit imputes to historical hermeneutics all too 86. . but to the much more ‘realistic’ conclusion that reference and correspondence must be interpreted as relative and internal to speciﬁc conceptual frameworks—as Carlo Ginzburg hinted in his critique of postmodernism in history [as ‘inverted positivism’]. Ibid. Theoretical naiveté and theoretical sophistication share a common. “Introduction. C. The idea of “opacity” is hyperbolic. and invokes Carlo Ginzburg as his star witness: “The acknowledgment that the relationship between language and reality is not ‘transparent’ . Ginzburg states unequivocally: “The speciﬁc aim of this kind of historical research should be. Their autonomy is at best whimsical.89 There remains a referentiality about which historical practice seeks to be lucid. rather simplistic assumption: they both take for granted the relationship between evidence and reality. Chris Lorenz gets this exactly right. which considers all referential assumptions as a theoretical naiveté. While it is proper to dispute a notion of “transparency” and perhaps even the idea of a “lens” as opposed to a model or map. as I believe he is. neither models nor maps make sense without reference. Ankersmit. Ginzburg. 21. does not lead to the favorite conclusion of postmodernists that language is ‘opaque’ and not capable of corresponding to and referring to reality.’” History and Theory 33 (1994). 87.
the histori[ci]st historical experience is to have. The issue is: what is the experiential basis? An empirical-minded historian (and hermeneutics is empirical) will refer to texts.”96 The notion of “demonstrable counterpart” has all too much the ring of logical empiricism—the search for some discretely observable phenomenon— about it. to the presence of sources which the historian must construe as evidence of the past.. the historian may base his knowledge of the past on an experience of what the past has left us—such as documents.”91 And again: “First. Ibid. Ibid. as a reliving of the past. 1991). archaeological ﬁndings. 200.” HT. 92. the root meaning of Verstehen.” in Ontological Relativity and Other Essays (New York. 19. 13. Hermeneutics is quite straightforward about that and about its epistemological quandaries (the “hermeneutic circle”). . to archaeological remains. “Introduction.”93 But much of this is off-key. drawing heavily on Kant.. “Copying” as a historicist understands it is not reliving but understanding: that is. 96. Ankersmit.344 JOHN H.” HT. an immersion in the past. after all. “Introduction. 94. to artifacts. (This is not to deny imagination in the process.” however. ZAMMITO much of that “Romantic” mystique of Verstehen for which it has so long been chastised. the same experiences that do belong to the past itself. as Ankersmit notes.”92 Ankersmit emphasizes that “copying of experience rather than experience (of the past) itself was what hermeneuticists were mainly interested in. 93. Invoking an altogether literal sense of Collingwood’s “re-enactment” together with the earliest Romantic version of hermeneutics (Schleiermacher). and so on—but these are the sources of historical knowledge of the past. once again. Imagination and Interpretation in Kant’s Critique of Judgment (Chicago. 95. The second step is a philosophical analysis of how the historian may actually copy the historical agent’s experience of his past world. but it is to insist that this is imagination harnessed to interpretation. works of art. On the relation of interpretation to imagination. 20. There are grave problems with what he intends by “experience (of the past) itself. Yet Ankersmit imputes this to historicism: “Admittedly. To illustrate.94) As Ankersmit ampliﬁes his objection. for. “Historism and Postmodernism. 1969). it is therefore misguided to write of a “hidden” agenda that undermines its project. Ankersmit contends: “This histori[ci]st experience of the past aims at an identifying Verstehen. What the hermeneutical historicist is after is giving an account.” HT. not a mystical one. an account is given of how the historical agent experienced the historical Umwelt in which he lived. Makkreel. He writes: “history is often shown or interpreted in terms of what has no demonstrable counterpart in the actual past itself. 26-68. consider Willard Quine’s “behaviorist” hunt for “observation sentences. not unleashed to fantasy. and not the past itself. 97.” Just because historicist hermeneutics tries to reconstruct the experience of historical ﬁgures does not signify that the “experiential basis” of the historian is denied.” See “Ontological Relativity. We are talking of a cognitive undertaking here. see R. his own disposition toward mystiﬁcation becomes all too evident.97 A historian’s (colligative) concepts have “demonstrable” reference to 91.”95 He does not lend clarity to this idea of the “past itself.
.”100 Ankersmit suspects that what he describes is likely to possess for a conventional historian “an air of mystique and almost religious revelation. . the historicist project. pattern.”104 Louis 98. . . 100. 201. indeed. 104. of indicating where one object or entity ‘ends’ and another ‘begins. “Historism and Postmodernism. 202.ANKERSMIT’S POSTMODERNIST HISTORIOGRAPHY 345 the past insofar as they make sense of it. 210.” Find. 103. “It is the momentary dizzying experience of sudden obliteration of the rift between present and past. 99. to repeat a point.’ But this as it is is not the histor[ci]ist’s wie es eigentlich gewesen.” HT. ”99 This nostalgic episode “gives us the unity of the past and the present.’ Representation deals with the contrast between the foreground and the background. “Histori[ci]st historical writing is a science of demarcations and of the distinction between foreground (the important) and background (the unimportant). .”98 Ankersmit here invokes as “authentic” a notion of immediate “historical experience” which is quite problematic. between what is important and what is irrelevant. However. . Certainly Ankersmit has not cashed out what “the historian’s own experience of the past” is to mean in this argument.” HT. Organization. something. 102. Ibid. A historicist would insist that this only arises in and through an encounter with sources and their reconstructive ascription to events in the real past. .. Ankersmit has something else in mind. . The ‘reality’ experienced in nostalgia is difference itself. 209. .. What has been appropriated and mastered narratively is no longer accessible to historical experience. distinction and difference within the past itself.”101 He is not wrong. .” HT. 118. 207. “Historism and Postmodernism. 101. or was. quite distinct from the historicity that Gadamer invokes in his critique of traditional hermeneutics.. the experience of difference requires the simultaneous presence .. .”102 Crucial here is the phrase “ﬁnd a . we get closer to the métier d’historien.”103 That is. . We become more and more mystiﬁed as to what Ankersmit means by the past itself. wrote. And pattern—Gestalt—which implies some measure of coherence. an experience in which the past for a fractional moment reveals itself ‘as it is. . for. not make. but the past invested with difference . is knowledge. I wish to hold up against this strange misrepresentation of hermeneutical historicism one passage from Ankersmit which seems to offer a more accurate sense of what historians are actually doing: “The historian has to ﬁnd a hitherto unknown pattern in the medley of relatively familiar things human beings did. they are both present only in their difference. Here. at last. indeed. “Historical Representation. 117. Ibid. the “nostalgic” episode. Distinction and difference are for the histori[ci]st. “Narrative coherence may guarantee the easiest access to the past but it obscures the authenticity of our experience of it. above all. Ibid. or thought in the past. Ibid. Ankersmit notes in connection with this crucial passage: “Representation is above all a question of demarcating contours. of both past and present.
a model. Wisc. .. L. ed. a “conﬁgurational comprehension”—is a heuristic device. but no less serviceable as an empirical reconstruction of the past. H. or in Mink’s elaboration of W. Rice University 105.” in The Writing of History: Literary Form and Historical Understanding. H. Canary and H. 129149. R.346 JOHN H.105 This incorporates both the conventionalism or “constructivism” upon which Ankersmit rightly insists and the referentiality and claim to validity that he wishes to abandon. ZAMMITO Mink has argued effectively that what traditional historicism understood by “historical idea”—an individuated concept. Mink. Walsh’s language. “Narrative Form as a Cognitive Instrument. 1978). Kozicki (Madison.
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