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© Wesleyan University 2014 ISSN: 0018-2656 DOI: 10.1111/hith.10692
THE REFLEXIVE TEST OF HAYDEN WHITE’S METAHISTORY
This paper assesses Hayden White’s Metahistory through the test of reflexivity; that is, it asks whether the book’s “general theory of the structure of that mode of thought which is called ‘historical’” applies, as it should, to its own history of nineteenth-century “historical consciousness.” Most components of the theoretical apparatus—the various concepts invoked in the “theory of the historical work” and in the “theory of tropes”—fail the reflexivity test; further, it emerges that those same components are also seriously flawed on other grounds. The sole and partial exception is the concept of emplotment, which passes the reflexivity test, albeit with qualifications, but more particularly has the virtue of illuminating the traditional history of history against which Metahistory’s own story was pitched; and this result provides an ironic and unexpected vindication of Metahistory’s underlying vision. Thus the book’s fundamental insight—that the form of historical writing is epistemologically consequential—can be retained, even though its two theories should now be set aside. Keywords: emplotment, Hayden White, metahistory, reflexivity, rhetoric, tropology
Does the theoretical apparatus of Hayden White’s Metahistory apply to the book itself? Or to put this question the other way around, does the book’s substantive content (its history of nineteenth-century “historical consciousness”) exemplify its “theory of the historical work” and/or its “theory of tropes”? We should certainly expect so, given that Metahistory announces itself on its opening page both as a “history” and as offering a “general theory” of historical knowledge; and indeed White himself had just hinted that the two enterprises were connected, remarking as he did at the end of the preface that the book was “cast in an Ironic mode”2—a comment that alluded to his tropology. Yet no one has taken up that hint (Herman Paul is uniquely candid in saying that he “leaves aside the problem”3); the rela1. For advice, help and encouragement with this paper I wish to thank Mike Beaney, Mike Finn, Morris Jagodowicz, Keith Jenkins, Mark Jenner, Sarah Kattau, Gerald Lang, Greg Radick, Roger White, Julian Wilson, and participants in discussions of preliminary versions presented at the Universities of Leeds and York. I am particularly grateful to readers for History and Theory for penetrating comments on earlier versions. 2. Hayden White, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973), xii. 3. Herman Paul, “Hayden White and the Crisis of Historicism,” in Re-figuring Hayden White, ed. Frank Ankersmit, Ewa Domanska, and Hans Kellner (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009), 72, n. 33. Very few other scholars have referred to this remark at all, and those who have done so have been commenting not on its reflexive implications but rather on what White went on to claim, namely that “the Irony which informs [Metahistory] is a conscious one” whose purpose was “a rejec-
tionship between Metahistory’s theory (or theories) and its own story has seldom been discussed; and the little that has been said on the matter is inconsistent and unconvincing.4 Thus it remains unclear whether, or in what ways, Metahistory passes the test of reflexivity that its own project invites, a test that can be expressed as follows. If the theory is truly “general,” then its concepts must apply to Metahistory’s own narrative; conversely, any of those concepts that fail so to apply have thereby fallen short of what is required of them. It is to applying that test that this essay is devoted. It will first be necessary to summarize the rather complex array of concepts that White deploys, and in particular the structure of that array. I shall then survey the reflexive possibilities of those concepts; this preparatory exercise will be significant in itself, for clarifying the putative theoretical content will reveal conceptual weaknesses that run wider and deeper than has ever been suggested. Further, a consistent pattern will emerge: concepts that are inherently flawed fail the reflexivity test, and vice versa. So widespread are these difficulties that in the end, only one of the book’s candidate concepts survives this twofold scrutiny, namely emplotment. The key theme thus becomes Metahistory’s plot; I shall explore that plot, bringing out its two-layered structure and its complex relationship with the preceding standard account of history’s history. I conclude by suggesting that the troubles attending Metahistory’s two theories stem ultimately from a failure to grasp what is distinctive about the historical discipline, and yet that the book’s fundamental vision (as distinct from its specific conceptual apparatus) is paradoxically vindicated by what we have discovered along the way.
I. THE THEORETICAL APPARATUS
Metahistory’s theme, “the historical imagination in nineteenth-century Europe,” consists of the fusion of two genres of nineteenth-century writing, namely “proper history” (a tradition depicted as beginning with Michelet) and “speculative philosophy of history” (Hegel to Croce). The theoretical apparatus, laid out in the book’s Introduction, has the double task of elucidating those genres and of estabtion of Irony itself” (cf. note 44 below): see, for instance, Roger Chartier, On the Edge of the Cliff: History, Language and Practices, transl. Lydia G. Cochrane (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), 30-31. 4. Fredric Jameson sees the body of Metahistory as the “application” of White’s “methodological thesis,” whereas Frank Ankersmit conversely regards the introduction and conclusion as presenting a “codification” of the readings offered in the body of the book; neither offers any supporting evidence (and Jameson claims that “access to White’s methodological thesis is encumbered by the presence of his substantive application to his texts,” an assertion that Richard Vann has rightly contested). Paul argues that the linguistic preoccupations of the introduction and conclusion represent a later stage of White’s writing than does the body of the book; yet as we shall see, the (supposed) linguistic basis of prefiguration was actually more explicit in the body of Metahistory than in either the introduction or the conclusion. See Fredric Jameson, “Figural Realism or the Poetics of Historiography” (an essay review of Metahistory), Diacritics 6 (1976), 4; Frank Ankersmit, Sublime Historical Experience (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005), 107; Richard Vann, “Hayden White, Historian,” in Ankersmit et al. eds., Re-figuring Hayden White, 319; Herman Paul, Hayden White: The Historical Imagination (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2011), 58-59; Adrian Wilson, “Hayden White’s ‘Theory of the Historical Work’: A Re-Examination,” Journal of the Philosophy of History 7 (2013), 47-48; below, at n. 16.
historians and philosophers of history alike had focused on epistemological themes such as the nature of historical inference and the justification of historical knowledge-claims. present (the “unprocessed historical record. or future (“an audience”).” This is achieved through two theories: first the “theory of the historical work. Figure 1. comprising what White calls the three “modes of explanation”: explanation by emplotment. Pepper). only three need concern us. formal argument (Stephen C. and ideological implication (Karl Mannheim). to wit. all of which are marginalized both in the introductory exposition and in the body of the book. These have mutual “elective affinities” based on “structural homologies”—a given mode of . whether past (the “historical field. but White’s theory is all about literary form. by “formal argument” (that is.THE REFLEXIVE TEST OF HAYDEN WHITE’S METAHISTORY 3 lishing the grounds of their putative synthesis into “the historical imagination” or “historical consciousness. taking a new and indeed opposite direction. formal life in the introduction but wither away in the course of the book.” which is effectively limited to “proper history. whose mutual relationships are sketched in Figure 1. and pays only token attention to history’s epistemological basis. Thus of the nine concepts that make up the initial conceptual array.” At the opposite extreme are those concepts that refer to external reality. Hitherto.” and then the “theory of tropes. Between them the two theories bring into play some eleven distinct but interconnected concepts.” which jointly link the interior “modes of explanation” with the exterior points of reference: these have a brief. conceptions of the nature of the historical process). effectively ignoring the literary form of historical writing. Schematic view of Metahistory’s theoretical apparatus The “theory of the historical work” departs radically from previous commentary upon historiography. emplotment (whose categories are derived from Northrop Frye). and by “ideological implication.” which applies both to “proper history” and to “speculative philosophy of history” and marries these together.” “other historical accounts”).” White’s term for the past itself). An intermediate layer consists of “chronicle” and “story. Thus the active concepts of the theory are those that are exclusively concerned (either actually or notionally) with literary form.
synecdoche. 30.” Clio 11 . see David Konstan. 6. Metahistory. those affinities could be set out in the form of a 3x4 table. of which the first is a post-Kantian truism but the second and third are radically novel: (1) that historical knowledge is structured by prior conceptual frameworks. and irony—which act not as mere verbal forms but on the contrary as modes of thought. Prefiguration itself is introduced by way of what White calls the “problem of historiographical styles. 33).4 ADRIAN WILSON emplotment (say. complete with lexical. “in any field of study not yet reduced (or elevated) to the status of a genuine science.”8 or in other words. displays not only a specific plot. Elsewhere. however. Thus it would seem that all knowledge is tropologically constituted and is therefore constrained by the interpretive possibilities offered by the tropes. 29. White. The practical corollary of (2) and (3) is that the various elements of linguistic prefiguration can be taken to be mirrored in the historical work. . metonymy. First. See Wilson. and as each of the three notionally take four different forms. putatively enabling White to read directly the historian’s prefigurative act from such a work. as White had already asserted in the Preface. grammatical.” and ideology but also a grounding in one or another of the four principal rhetorical tropes—metaphor.” the tropes are said to provide the ground of interpretation by “prefiguring” its object of knowledge (to wit.” rather than fixed. thought remains the captive of the linguistic mode in which it seeks to grasp the outline of objects inhabiting its field of perception. Metahistory. (2) that those conceptual frameworks are specifically linguistic. “formal argument. that it is specifically the tropes that confer the overall shape and meaning of prefiguration.” which arises from the relationship among the three “modes of explanation” insofar as their mutual “affinities” are merely “elective.. and (3) that “this preconceptual protocol” is “characterizable in terms of the dominant tropological mode in which it is cast.”7 In the case of “historical consciousness. This picture combines three distinct claims. syntactical. Each historical work.. the trope of metonymy steers interpretation in the direction of causal relationships. this prefiguration embracing the kinds of relationships envisaged to hold between elements of the field: for example. the tropes are held to govern not just “proper history” but also “speculative philoso5. and semantic dimensions”. Comedy) tends to be associated with a specific mode of formal argument (Organicism) and ideology (Conservatism).5 The “theory of tropes”—introduced by means of the concept of “linguistic prefiguration”6—adds another conceptual layer. it now emerges. “The Function of Narrative in Hayden White’s Metahistory.9 Two final steps remain in the elaboration of the theoretical apparatus. the “historical field”). “Hayden White’s Theory. (For a counter-argument about science. since “the historian confronts the historical field in much the same way that the grammarian might confront a new language. Thus. 9. 29-31. White posits that from the seventeenth century onwards physics was conducted “always within the metonymical mode” (ibid.) 8.” 48-49. “deep structures” of consciousness that constrain and constitute what passes as knowledge in any prescientific discipline such as history.” entailing that prefiguration comprises “a linguistic protocol. See ibid. 74. 7. White.
” the book could be seen as Idealist in conception. 426-427. 426-427. Insofar as its topic is “consciousness” or the historical “imagination. passim. and between these and the tropes II. 12. but such a designation is so broad as to have little concrete force. and goes on to outline its plot: thus emplotment is clearly a reflexive aspect of the book.” (a) The Introduction makes it clear that Metahistory is offering a story.” Mode of Emplotment Mode of Argument Mode of Ideological Implication Trope Metaphor Satirical Comic Tragic Romantic Contextualist Organicist Mechanistic Formist Liberal Conservative Radical Anarchist Irony Synecdoche Metonymy Table 1. as the accepted academic modes whose dominance reflected merely “a bias on the part of the professional establishment. 67-68 (Enlightenment historiography). and the import of that comment is far from clear. World Hypotheses: A Study in Evidence (Berkeley: University of California Press. and ideological implication—and to “linguistic prefiguration. White alludes in Metahistory’s Preface to the book’s reflexive aspect by remarking that it would be “cast in an Ironic mode” (Irony of course being one of the tropes). 36. yet this is all that he has to say on the matter. 122 (Hegel). and ideological implication. This emerges piecemeal throughout the book.THE REFLEXIVE TEST OF HAYDEN WHITE’S METAHISTORY 5 phy of history”. Pepper. METAHISTORY’S REFLEXIVE POSSIBILITIES As we have seen.” since White depicts these. 3-6. Nor can White’s own categories of “formal argument”—derived from Pepper’s World Hypotheses11—be applied in any simple way to Metahistory itself. which adds a column for the tropes to the table that White had presented in the context of the “theory of the historical work. Stephen C. historical ontology) the book is positing. then. Metahistory. It seems very unlikely that the book was intended to exemplify either “formism” or “contextualism. Metahistory. (b) In contrast. the tropes are said to be linked. White. and chaps. for emplotment. of “organicism” and “mechanism”? The determinist bearings of “mechanism” bring to mind the often-observed point that White’s historiographical project in general. 38. reveals 10. See. for formal argument. formal argument. For the moment I shall bracket that cryptic reference to tropology.” Second. . as is indicated by the silence that has greeted it. 30. it is left to the reader to work out just what “mode of formal argument” (that is. 1957). with emplotment. 20. including Metahistory. White. and it is this shared ground that enables White to fuse the two into what he calls the nineteenth-century “historical imagination. in an additional relationship of elective affinity. 11. in order to appreciate its significance we need to examine the other reflexive possibilities that Metahistory presents. in a hostile tone. Elective affinities among modes of argument. formal argument.”12 What.10 The full array of these affinities is set out in Table 1. and for ideological implication 38. pertaining to the three “modes of explanation”—emplotment. 121-122.
of course. Metahistory.” it is not in fact described in Metahistory as performing any explanatory work. 13. Yet this would be strained. but it would be better developed by phenomenological analysis (asking what ontologies are deployed by specific historians or in particular works) than by the mechanical application of an external resource such as Pepper’s World Hypotheses. the historical ontology that the historian posits—is very probably fruitful and relevant. esp.” ideology is surely relevant to historical writing. This. And it also turns out that (as I have shown elsewhere) each of these categories is conceptually flawed.15 In the case of “formal argument. but reflects the structure and priorities of the theory as a whole. for “organicism” corresponds poorly if at all to freedom. (c) Nor does “ideological implication” have much in the way of concrete application to Metahistory. its actual function (as distinct from its official role in the theory) is to convey to an audience the implications of the historian’s explanations. namely Contextualism. As for “ideological implication. “Hayden White’s theory. 27. we might think of Metahistory as embodying both “mechanism” and “organicism. just as with “formal argument. 11. 55. Organicism). and in any case. Chartier.” History and Theory 19 (1980). 24-25.” 42-44. Rather. then. Wilson. and of the three progressive ideologies. Hayden White. 20-21. On the Edge of the Cliff. and in keeping with its very name.6 ADRIAN WILSON a tension between a structuralist portrayal of constraints and a voluntarist underlying impulse. 11 and passim.” The formal mis-classification of “ideological implication” as a “mode of explanation” is no mere accident. “A Bedrock of Order: Hayden White’s Linguistic Humanism. ideological implication itself. We can be certain that Conservatism is not in play. Paul. (In addition. and impossible to do so in the case of Formism. 14. “ideological implication” as it is actually deployed in the book confirms that the supposed 3x4 “elective affinities” are illusory. merely conveys a “tone or mood. White. which as we have seen privileges literary form over every aspect of the historical work’s real-world reference—the aspect relevant to ideology being audience. this is telling us more about White himself than about Metahistory. since its supposedly integrated structure has a gaping hole (Formism) and two weak points (Mechanism. Hans Kellner. In fact.) Again.13 perhaps. entails that White’s 3x4 table of “elective affinities” is nonsense. 27. whereas it is much less easy to apply Organicism and Mechanism historically. Thus both “formal argument” and “ideological implication” fail the test of reflexivity. what White calls “formal argument”—that is. in this case because a fifth ideology—Nietzsche’s nihilism—has to be added.14 yet as with formal argument. 15. 23.” representing constraint and freedom respectively. such a picture would be so broad-brush as to shed little light on the book. is specifically fitted to history. 13. because its “root metaphor” (Pepper’s key term-of-art) is the historical event. . and those explanations are constituted on the basis of emplotment and formal argument. 29-32. Radicalism surely comes closer to White’s own allegiances than do either Liberalism (with its loyalty to existing institutions) or Anarchism (with its kinship to romanticism). 4.” what we find is that one and one only of the four “modes” that White adapted from Pepper.” although this is notionally a “mode of explanation. and references there cited. far from being explanatory. passim.
See White. tropology potentially so. 17. 49. and inconsistent both with the supposed correspondences (lexical : chronicle. in the chapter that introduces the philosophy of history). “Hayden White’s Theory. the putative content of “linguistic prefiguration. but the framework of his own theory actually distorts its role and obscures its significance. the question lacks any identifiable meaning. lexis just once). without supporting evidence. 247-251 (Burckhardt).” remains undefined throughout the introduction. but the attempt to do so reveals no substance. each element of the fourfold linguistic grid is held to correspond to some aspect of the “theory of the historical work”—for instance. what is the “lexical” aspect of Metahistory’s (or White’s) prefigurative act. Metahistory. never observed. emplotment and formal argument are independent of each other. and application. and no notice is taken of the obvious objection that language is present and observable whereas the object of historical knowledge (the “historical field”) can only be inferred. merely a tissue of confusions at three levels. which of course the linguistic categories entirely lack. and peoples) are instead treated as part of “the ‘grammar’ of historical analysis”. attend “linguistic prefiguration. cf. Thus lexis in its one appearance (to wit. Third.) and with each other. prefiguration has no coherent content. and so on. in the discussion of Enlightenment historiography) corresponds not to chronicle but to the actors in the story.18 In sum. and indeed well into the book. and when that content is finally elaborated systematically (that is. 65-66 (Enlightenment historiography). formal argument) are characterized by a temporal aspect. if we were to ask. because it passes the reflexivity test.17 As to the individual correspondences. then. 169-173 (Ranke). the claim on which the concept was founded—that “the historian confronts the historical field in much the same way that the grammarian might confront a new language”—is simply asserted. grammatical to formal argument—but both the mapping as a whole and the individual correspondences are profoundly unsatisfactory. pertaining to basis. it proves to be vacuous. we are left with emplotment and tropology as the only concepts that command our attention as being possibly constitutive of the book’s own substantive content—emplotment certainly so. therefore. 18. whereas syntax is dependent upon grammar. In this case. Wilson. Metahistory. 297-317 (Marx). in the account of Marx. n. states.” 47-48. White. under Ranke those actors (comprising churches. Second. the respective conceptual arrays fail to match both numerically (five categories to four. At this stage. etc. but in more severe form. 208-211 (Tocqueville).16 Specifically. lexical to chronicle. emplotment. “the ‘syntax’ of historical process” embraces not only emplotment but also formal argument. grammatical. these are bedeviled by the problem that three of the pertinent components of the earlier theory (chronicle. usually incomplete (grammar is mentioned only seldom. (d) Similar difficulties. a disparity that is accommodated by quietly omitting “story” from the mapping) and structurally (in that the linguistic categories are ordered strictly hierarchically. 274-275. the concrete applications of the linguistic grid are haphazard (it is invoked in connection with Ranke. Tocqueville. in that we have yet to examine its content and appli16. the historiographical ones only partly so). syntactical and semantic dimensions. the reflexivity test cannot even be applied. As to the whole. and Burckhardt but not Michelet).” In order to assess this concept’s reflexive application. In the first place. content.” namely its “lexical. for instance. we first need to ascertain its content. . For instance.THE REFLEXIVE TEST OF HAYDEN WHITE’S METAHISTORY 7 and White deserves credit for seeking to mobilize it.
White explains. as the senior of these two partners. emplotment has a remarkably rich significance in the book. we need first to review the forms of emplotment and the characteristics of the tropes. 1996). Furthermore. On metaphor. A romance. Comedy. Ibid. 8-10. as the next section will explain. 10). Metonymy is “reductionist. . 2006). in which “hopes” are realized. comedy lays more emphasis on “the forces which oppose” such redemption. adapted from Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism.”20 Metonymy and synecdoche both involve the use of a part to name a whole. White explains. It might be expected that tropology would serve. which plays the master role. see Roger White. “Presence.8 ADRIAN WILSON cation. ed. 1-29 (White’s view is discussed on 28-29). The master tropes as deployed in Metahistory are both relational and linguistic in character.” University of Toronto Quarterly 73 (2004). which (to speak metaphorically) puts in the shade all previous discussions of the subject. while nevertheless revealing “truths”.. Historian. yet still reveals “possibilities”. tragedy dashes both hopes and possibilities. note 42 below). 82-83. metonymic reduction and synecdochic integration comprise the languages of extrinsicality and of intrinsicality respectively. yet as we shall see. irony is negational. 25. possibilities.24 and ironic negation “represents a stage of consciousness in which the problematic nature of language itself has become recognized.19 Of these. see Eelco Runia. 916933 (Reid takes issue with White at 925. a rose.21 But synecdoche is “integrative. 1955–73.” History and Theory 45. History and Theory 14. 20. 45-58. but in complementary ways. 23. 1 (2006).”23 Thus metaphoric representation is the language of identity. White.” Poetics Today 5 (1984).” apprehending the whole as a unified totality whose essence is the very quality designated by the naming part: “He is all heart. In order to appreciate this. Nelson. see Hugh Bredin. 36. “is essentially representational. 84-86 (cf. are Romance. and David Reid. For a helpful gloss. on the trope and its historiographical relevance. 22.” 321. For discussions of the multiple meanings of “irony” in Metahistory.” for here part and whole are distinguished from each other and are conceived to be related by some causal process or mechanism: “the thunder” (the cause) “roars” (the effect). essay review of Metahistory. tropology is harnessed as a subordinate resource to emplotment.” in Tropes for the Past: Hayden White and the History/ Literature Debate. Emplotment’s four possible modes.”22 Finally.” and thus regards “hopes. “Euro-scepticism: Thoughts on Metonymy. On metonymy. The Structure of Metaphor: The Way the Language of Metaphor Works (Oxford: Blackwell. and Herman Paul. see Vann. Ibid. 21. embracing two explicit aspects and two additional subplots at the edges of the argument. 37.”25 19. and truths” alike in an ironic light.. and satire treats all these visions as “ultimate[ly] inadequa[te]. 35-44. it is romance and satire that are in play in Metahistory itself. “Metonymy. no. no.” for it assigns particular qualities to the object that it designates: “my love. “Hayden White. and Satire. so to speak. n. is a story of progress and redemption. 1 (1975). representing as it does a deliberate mis-naming: “the expression ‘He is all heart’ becomes Ironic when uttered in a particular tone of voice or in a context in which the person designated manifestly does not possess the qualities attributed to him by the use of this Synecdoche. “An Ironic Battle against Irony: Epistemological and Ideological Irony in Hayden White’s Philosophy of History. Kuisma Korhonen (Amsterdam: Rodopi. Metaphor. 24. Tragedy. Metahistory. see John S.
” History and Theory 19. while nevertheless distinguishing between these as different variants of the “mythos of winter”. for it is the forms and fortunes of “the historical imagination” that are traced in the body of the book. Brief references to this theme (without mentioning White’s categories of emplotment) are made by David Carroll. Metahistory.”26 As he there summarizes it. which can be seen in White’s own terms (though he does not himself make this fully explicit) as comprising (i) a subordinate romance. 3 (1993). “Figural Realism. 223. no. it is. it is a story in which an individual hero struggles against a series of adversities—themselves the manifestations of an underlying embattled condition that besets not only the hero but humanity itself—and eventually triumphs over these difficulties. 61-62.” reserving “irony” for tropological purposes. but see Nelson. “On Tropology: The Forms of History. . Historian. 29.THE REFLEXIVE TEST OF HAYDEN WHITE’S METAHISTORY 9 III. 49. THE CENTRAL CHARACTER AND THE PLOT It will be recalled that White fuses “proper history” and “speculative philosophy of history” to create Metahistory’s object of study. a drama of diremption. “Typologies and Cycles in Intellectual History.. “Hayden White.. no.28 and for this very reason. White. “Hayden White’s Critique of the Writing of History. and Vann.” 8. finally attaining a state of redemption or transcendence. Maurice Mandelbaum. human consciousness and will are always inadequate to the task of overcoming definitively the dark force of death.29 26. 230 (this with particular reference to Burckhardt). it is specifically the tropes that place history and philosophy of history on the same footing—so too tropology supplies the basis of the plot. and by the recognition that. Philip Pomper. “A Bedrock of Order. which is man’s unremitting enemy. And just as tropology is the basis of that character—for as we have seen. Konstan. thus in Frye’s terms irony is a sub-species of a particular mythos (rather than a trope). 86. 9. Kellner. Jameson.” 319-326. a drama dominated by the apprehension that man is ultimately a captive of the world rather than its master.” 18.” 76.” Diacritics 6 (1976). commanding satire. The plot of Metahistory is seldom discussed. 84. cf. Beiheft 19 (1980). in the final analysis. Here White is (quite legitimately) substantially adapting Frye’s categories. it is no accident that “the historical imagination” appears in the subtitle. entitled “The Phases of Nineteenth-Century Historical Consciousness.” What we now need to observe is that this constructed entity plays the role of the central character in the book’s plot: that is.” History and Theory 32. White’s rendition subsumes Frye’s “irony and satire” under the single term “satire. “The Presuppositions of Metahistory. 1957). 1 (1980). Wulf Kansteiner. there is no progress but only an endless series of returns and recapitulations. 8-9. Ibid. White has already explained that a romance is a tale of progress. 31-32. in fact. “The Function of Narrative. to which White devotes the final section of his Introduction. Ibid. Frye had conjoined satire and irony. Northrop Frye. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays (Princeton: Princeton University Press. satire perfectly negates romance: The archetypal theme of Satire is the precise opposite of [the] Romantic drama of redemption. essay review of Metahistory. 277. 27. more particularly. enframed and negated by (ii) a larger.” History and Theory. 28.27 But in satire (White goes on to suggest). that plot has two distinct yet connected layers. the nineteenth-century “historical imagination” or “historical consciousness.
36-38. 28. a satire requires a romance as its foil. Thus it is not the case that “White’s theory of the succession of styles lacks a dynamic principle.1. That leaves emplotment as the only possibility. Hayden V. the language that questions language itself. Table 1). “proper history” began with metaphor (Michelet) and proceeded through synecdoche (Ranke) and metonymy (Tocqueville) to irony (Burckhardt)—though this picture is subsequently modified. cf. that is. also 378. White. but the content would not. Its hero was of course the nineteenth-century “historical imagination”. taken together with the affinities between tropes and “modes of explanation”—emplotment.. Had he done so. 34). Cf. which so far as I am aware has not been discussed either by White himself or by any commentator: should not emplotment et al.” nor that White introduces such a principle (in the form of the trope of irony) “surreptitiously” (Pomper.. History/Writing (Cambridge.35 This story is obedient in every particular to the romantic mode of emplotment. at least. 32. 40). a recognition attained by adopting an Ironic stance.30 Consequently. 72. the previous note): ibid. 35. 33. White. Ibid. this is indeed the very role that White’s own romance plays within the larger satirical plot that he now announces. 34.36 and the final redemption consisted in the recognition of that very condition. 31. but it is an ambiguous and problematical one. 1978). irony-and-satire) is not quite the same as that of the corresponding tropes in White’s schema (cf. on its way to irony (Croce). According to the original formulation (White. 32. This. At one point Frye hinted that his four mythoi were “episodes in a total quest-myth” (Anatomy of Criticism.32 Thus the tropes. argument. display a corresponding progress? Such progress seems difficult to sustain in the case of ideology. “Typologies and Cycles. cf. by Tocqueville (cf.10 ADRIAN WILSON Precisely for this reason.31 the “historical imagination” tends to progress (or. 37. Pepper did not suggest that his “world hypotheses” displayed any such development. 10. metonymic. are endowed with a principle of movement. White’s interpretation of Burckhardt is criticized by Albert Cook. 215). and passed through metonymy (Marx) and metaphor (Nietzsche). 80.33 and this supplies the romantic layer of White’s plot. White. the larger condition that these dangers manifested was “the problematical nature of language itself”. the structure of the result would have been satisfactory (see note 41 below). 220 and chaps. Metahistory. unlike any other element of Metahistory’s theoretical apparatus. to the sophistication of ironic mis-representation. on Nietzsche. 1988). the hero’s struggles had been with the seductions of metaphoric. 7. in a picture apparently adapted from Vico. Philosophy of history began in synecdoche (Hegel). 359-360. . one that was metonymically informed (201-203). tragedy. n. through the interpretive yet still-naive strategies of metonymic reduction and synecdochic integration. as White put it. 6. 30. for Tocqueville is also characterized as having deployed a form of irony. and as we shall now see. Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. Metahistory.” 32. romance. 36. for all that White does not himself remark upon the fact. because the sequence of Frye’s mythoi (comedy.” these are ordered hierarchically: from the naive simplicity of metaphoric representation. White. 243. 42. n. An era presaged. 42. Metahistory. Metahistory. to “evolve”) toward irony. For although “realist” historiography and speculative philosophy of history followed different paths in the nineteenth century—a point to which I shall return—they both arrived at this common telos:34 the ironic historiographical style that became established after mid-century (thanks partly to Tocqueville but especially to Burckhardt) eventually found its philosophical echo in Croce’s explorations from 1893 onwards. and though one could imagine it in principle with respect to formal argument. ideology—raises a puzzle. and synecdochal apprehensions of language or styles of thought. (i) As White describes the “master tropes. 34. UK: Cambridge University Press. but he did not develop this any further.
” White concludes. . Hume. Thus the reflexive force of tropology is exerted. “A Bedrock of Order.” This formulation creates difficulties of its own. White. not only because its corollary seems implausible (how can any form of irony be unconscious?) but also because it seems to indicate that Metahistory has somehow escaped from the framework deployed in the “theory of tropes. 42. represented another form of the same relapse into irony. White explains. Croce. for no further application of the theory of tropes to Metahistory itself is suggested. that the book would be “cast in an Ironic mode”—since White posits that satire corresponds to the trope of irony.. at one remove. which in fact he had not (cf. White immediately goes on to say that the book’s own irony is different from the irony of Burckhardt.) But this exhausts the reflexive content of tropology.. Ibid. too. but rather a fall.THE REFLEXIVE TEST OF HAYDEN WHITE’S METAHISTORY 11 (ii) But this romance is negated by embedding it within a larger narrative frame cast in the form of satire. who points out that the book invokes several different mechanisms for such relapse (84-85).43 (It is perhaps appropriate. 163-239).39 The ironic viewpoint attained in the late nineteenth century “differed from its late Enlightenment counterpart. 38. 42. or more accurately. Ibid. the supposed Vico-esque triumph of irony turned out to be no triumph at all. Indeed.”40 Thus the apparent romance of nineteenth-century tropological progress was merely a trick of fate. just as it depicts irony as taking four different forms and operating at five different levels (81.”37 Thus Burckhardt’s historiography is depicted as “the fall once more into that Ironic condition from which ‘realism’ itself was supposed to liberate the historical consciousness of the age”. an episode within what was in fact a “closed-cycle development”.” 20. Ibid. that is. 44. whereas its subordinate romance is presented without any such “metahistorical” comment. Metahistory. For in fact.” which would eliminate even the minimal reflexivity that the previous sentence had sketched. 38. Metahistory. since the seasons are of course cyclical. 39. this structure is compatible with Frye’s conception of his four mythoi as modeled on the seasons (Anatomy of Criticism. so to speak. that Metahistory’s dominant satirical mode of emplotment is thereby more or less explicitly avowed. and Kant had already “come to view history in essentially Ironic terms. 38. it would have been compatible with that conception if Frye had stressed its developmental aspect.38 and Croce’s philosophy of history. in itself the “theory of tropes” has no reflexive application at all. essay review of Metahistory. 43. xii. by way of the satiric plot-structure. since the “historical materials” are surely the same thing as the “historical record”). White. note 33 above). Ibid. This makes intelligible at last Metahistory’s hitherto puzzling prefatory hint. governed as it is by the theme of a recapitulative return.41 as White’s remark about Burckhardt exemplifies. follows precisely the form of satire as White describes that mode.42 And this larger plot-structure. 41. The tendency in Metahistory to depict the turn to irony as a fall or relapse is brought out well by Nelson. the ironic approach attained in the late nineteenth century was itself merely a return to an earlier condition: a century before the labors of Burckhardt and Croce.44 37. and their twentieth-century successors—different in being a “conscious one” that “represents a turning of the Ironic consciousness against Irony itself. 40. 40. 41-42. these five are properly four. Although White does not remark upon it. on Burckhardt. Enlightenment historians and philosophers such as Gibbon... “only in the sophistication with which it was expounded in philosophy of history and the breadth of learning which attended its elaboration in the historiography of the time. also 40. which I mentioned at the outset. it emerges. This assimilation of late-nineteenth-century Irony to lateeighteenth-century Irony is criticized on tropological grounds by Kellner.
G. 45-80). 46. this single. Plumb.46 chiefly by resort to the figure of Johann Gottfried Herder. Ibid. Ernst Breisach. An Autobiography (Oxford: Oxford University Press. the historical philosophizing of Herder and his fellow “pre-Romantics” represented a retreat from irony to metaphor-and-synecdoche. UK: Cambridge University Press. The Historian’s Craft. and Carlyle). Novalis. esp. 14-15. are pitched—albeit wholly implicitly—against another and quite different romance: namely the tale that twentieth-century historians had routinely been recounting about their own collective past. UK: Manchester University Press. The modern historical profession’s own standard origin-story is consistently emplotted as a romance. cf. which stretched from 1913 to the early 1970s. ed. Gooch. with Lectures 1926–1928  (Oxford: Clarendon Press.12 ADRIAN WILSON Now this double-layered plot-outline—which serves as the culmination of Metahistory’s Introduction—entails a twofold puzzle. The Nature of History  (London: Palgrave Macmillan. J. 39. G. J. (a) In view of the putative superiority of irony. Herbert Butterfield. P. UK: Penguin. Metahistory. Collingwood. 154-155. G. ed. this move is foreshadowed at 38 (cf. 161-162 (Herder vs. Historiography: Ancient. 1992). Kitson Clark. Marc Bloch. 1993). . R.49 and which could indeed be extended into the 1980s and ’90s. 69-79. including Herder (White. In the Introduction itself this conundrum remains largely implicit. Man on His Past (Cambridge. Elton. THE PLOT’S UNSTATED TARGET What gives point to Metahistory’s plot is that both of its layers. Collingwood. Marc Bloch. shared plot-structure governs the various accounts offered by G. The Critical Historian (London: Heinemann. Comte is also given a role in this process: ibid. Elton. Unlike the initial conundrum. 50.. 73-74. transl. H. R. 49. London: Collins /Fontana. IV. Herbert Butterfield. Hence the title of this chapter: “The Historical Imagination between Metaphor and Irony” (ibid. 1969). note 45 above).. See also 143-149 (Constant. As White there explains. and Arthur Marwick—a roll-call embracing a remarkable range of political positions.50 And although the emphases varied 45. but without reference to its emplotment or to its celebration of Quellenkritik. G. revised edition. G. T. who launched that entire process of quasi-development that would end. 1973). Plumb. a century later. and to the other troubles attending Metahistory’s tropology. Medieval.47 Thus it was Herder et al. 187 (Herder vs. 1959). Save for a few preliminary remarks about the pre-Romantics. The Idea of History. The Pursuit of History: Aims. Peter Putnam  (Manchester. P. G. the romance and the satire. associated with the story’s beginning and its end.. Jan van der Dussen. 47. 38). 269-270. R. Collingwood. The Death of the Past  (Harmondsworth. 56-57. Gooch. this contradiction is left unresolved. with an ironic return to irony itself. 1954). Michelet). 1939).45 but it is resolved in chapter 1. 1989). The chapter also argues that Leibniz had paved the way for this development.48 (b) A complementary difficulty arose at the story’s terminus: for late-nineteenth-century irony was depicted first as a triumph (in the romantic layer) and then as a fall (in the satiric layer). note 65 below). 48. History and Historians in the Nineteenth Century (London: Longmans Green. I shall return later on to this problem. Kitson Clark. a retreat that opened the way to “realist” history and “speculative” philosophy of history alike. The Practice of History (Sydney: Sydney University Press. 1913)—discussed in White. Arthur Marwick. the attentive reader might wonder how the ironic stance achieved by late-Enlightenment philosophers and historians had collapsed in the first place. Metahistory. John Tosh. M. H. 1967. Knox. Ranke. 1967). Methods and New Directions in the Study of History  (London: Longman.
therefore. J.” Collingwood endorsed the standard view. 237. that it secured its own practical and technical basis in the rigorous and routine application of the critical method. was the happy condition of those who were telling that story. In place of the historical proand Modern  (Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1988).” which had begun in the nineteenth century. The technique and attitude of Quellenkritik—forged gradually and through immense struggle by a long series of individuals.”52 Overcoming those obstacles entailed. 146-147. van der Dussen.51 The hero of this official. 229. 1994). 6-72. UK: Cambridge University Press. Even Collingwood. for instance. chap. Richard Evans.THE REFLEXIVE TEST OF HAYDEN WHITE’S METAHISTORY 13 from one historian to another. nevertheless adhered to the basic story even as he sought to modify it: for he continued to treat transactions-with-evidence as fundamental.” Collingwood Studies 8 (2001). 56. disregard for documentary sources. particularly 260. The historical origin of this professional self-image.53 Metahistory’s projected plot departs from this standard tale not only in dissolving romance into satire. from Mabillon in the seventeenth century. In 1936. this victory coincided with the profession’s own institutionalization: it was specifically as history became an academic subject in the nineteenth century. and The Idea of History. 1981). 200. 52. See Autobiography. . The happy ending of the story. Collingwood (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff. the critical method. the hero eventually triumphed in the pursuit of historical knowledge. 1 and passim. as antedating its own institutional embodiment. then. In Defence of History (London: Granta Books. and whose victory over “scissorsand-paste history” was now on the eve of completion. but also in deploying—at both these levels of emplotment—a very different suite of story-elements. The Pursuit of History. The Renaissance antiquary William Camden. when he put forward the concept of the “historical imagination. a development first embodied in the person of Ranke. all were agreed on the essentials of the story. namely a naive trust in those sources—the attitude that treated documents as “infallible testimony. That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession (Cambridge. and Adrian Wilson. who in 1938–39 came to dispute the value of Quellenkritik. For the chronology of Collingwood’s respective writings. van der Dussen’s introduction to the 1993 edition of The Idea of History.” Yet in justifying this novel claim he invoked a corresponding romance of his own: the rise of “scientific or Baconian history. 51. in the specific case of American historiography. and perhaps above all the symmetrical complement of such disregard. see W. in a highly paradoxical anachronism. namely modern professional historians. armed with that sword. The adversities that confronted the hero were all those obstacles that stood in the way of historical knowledge: obstacles such as anachronistic assumptions. 11. professional romance was of course the historical discipline itself—implicitly conceived. 1997). and to emplot the history of history in romantic mode. but also and especially that history developed the special skills that were required in order to exploit such archives: that is to say. celebrating the achievements of “historical criticism” (that is. not only that history detached itself from philosophical speculation and plunged into the archives. has been brought out well by Peter Novick. chap. 249-282. Collingwood in particular giving the tale a rather different twist. of the method that consists in the naive transcription of “statements” provided by “authorities. “Collingwood’s Forgotten Historiographic Revolution. History as a Science: The Philosophy of R. chap. Quellenkritik): see. quoted in Tosh. to Niebuhr and Ranke in the nineteenth—was the trusty sword in the hero’s hand. The Idea of History. 1. through the French érudits along with Schlözer and other members of the Göttingen school in the eighteenth. Appropriately enough.” that is. But by 1938–39 he was dismissing “historical criticism” or “critical history” as merely a variant of “scissors-and-paste history. G. 53. 194.
White. which pertained to the interpretation of documents. Metahistory’s marginalization of the various elements of the standard story is mentioned by Vann. Metahistory. 51. synecdoche rather than irony. . the fundamental instrument of historical knowledge was Quellenkritik.59 for these two contending histories of history do not even agree as to a “given set of phenomena” whose explanation might be at stake. The Pursuit of History.” they actually construe that object in different terms. 14.57 In short. which function in the interpretation not of documents (the “historical record”) but of events (the “historical field”). White. For a different appraisal (though once again incompatible with White’s).. 53-55.”56 And whereas the historians’ story depicted Ranke—the paradigmatic practitioner of Quellenkritik—as the supreme historian of his age. 58. White installs in this role “the historical imagination”—a figure that erases the very identity of “proper history” by fusing it with “speculative philosophy of history. namely the history of historical knowledge as embodied in the written “historical work. that instrument consists of the rhetorical tropes. although the two stories seem to share a common object. 56. they cast them in very different roles: thus Schlözer’s contemporary Edward Gibbon appears in the one tale as resting upon and respecting the sourcecritical labors of the érudits.55 in the other as a writer who had “effectively dissolved the distinction between history and fiction. 55. Ibid. Plumb. see Elton. The Practice of History. 103. “Hayden White. and it is the practice of Quellenkritik that is typically invoked to justify that claim. 40. 59. so White’s account of eighteenth-century historiography makes no mention of Schlözer and the Göttingen school. Metahistory. assigns an equivalent credit to the philosophical efforts of Herder. 59-60). The standard professional view of the historian’s task privileges the putative real reference of the historical work and its basis in documentary sources. And just as the conventional story always ignored or marginalized Herder. White’s “theory 54. However. 56. Essential to this picture is the claim that the historian’s transactions with those sources do actually yield knowledge of the past. 48 (quoted). In complementary fashion.” 319-320. in contrast. Metahistory.14 ADRIAN WILSON fession as hero.” According to history’s own official history. Metahistory. 42. White’s pre-announced story line introduces Ranke as just one nineteenth-century historian among others. The professional myth posited the critical and documentary labors of Schlözer and his ilk as the necessary preparative for nineteenth-century historiography. even where these two stories draw on the “same” characters.58 This divergence over history’s history is even wider than what White calls the “congenital disagreements” among historians “over what counts as a specifically historical explanation of any given set of phenomena”. Tosh. token references are made to Schlözer’s Italian and French counterparts (Muratori and la Curne de Saint-Palaye) and to the érudits. 64. Marwick. Hence the fact that the discipline’s picture of its own past is emplotted as the rise of Quellenkritik. White’s plot-structure is literally incommensurable with the official romance. differing as it does in both structure and content. 27-28.54 Indeed. Historian. That is to say. including Mabillon (White. 38. The Nature of History. and takes no account of the literary form of historical writing. Death of the Past. 13. 57. but in White’s counter-history. and indeed as inferior to Burckhardt in embracing comedy rather than satire.
This suppression of the significance of Quellenkritik continued in White’s later essays. “Ranke’s historical method” is tacitly stripped of its putative basis in Quellenkritik.” Revue de synthèse 4. namely history’s literary form. Here. ed. Arnaldo Momigliano. The contrast between Metahistory’s plot and that of the standard histories of history bears out the recent insights of Richard T. and second with respect to nineteenth-century historiography in general. 260-261. 62. 164-167.” and he had made a similar remark in an essay of 1982. the body of Metahistory adheres both to the plot-structure and to the repertoire of story-elements that have been set up in the Introduction and rounded off in the opening chapter. . 61. it subsequently emerges. H. Metahistory. Seen in this light. for the critical apparatus formed a constituent part of Ranke’s rhetoric. Cf. “The Rhetoric of History and the History of Rhetoric. “The Rhetoric of History and the History of Rhetoric: On Hayden White’s Tropes. Herman Paul. 1989) 295. n. This very different vision sees the historical work as constructed by various “modes of explanation. White.” and 148 (with reference to Carlyle). Cf. with the effect that Quellenkritik finds no place in either of the two layers of its plot as he foreshadows it. precisely because it quite literally inverts (Paul) the standard professional romance: for as we have seen. Hayden White: The Historical Imagination (New York: Wiley. This can conveniently be illustrated by two of the book’s depictions of historical method: first in the particular case of Ranke. to similar effect 146. as deploying a “criterion” not of truth but of relevance. 230. Aram Veeser (London: Routledge.”61 By a “disciplinary history” (a phrase of Stefan Collini’s). (a) White’s brief discussion of “the epistemological bases of Ranke’s historical method” portrays Ranke not as critically assessing the veracity of the evidence.63 So too the particular “criterion” ascribed to Ranke is consistent with the conceptual 60. thus a paper published in 1989 claimed that “there is no such thing as a distinctively historical method. and omits Quellenkritik altogether. where (with reference to historiography in general) “some critical standard” is described as enabling the historian “to distinguish between the insignificant and significant events in the record. of course. For the most part. “‘Discipline History’ and ‘Intellectual History’: Reflections on the Historiography of the Social Sciences in Britain and France.” 261. are governed by the prefigurative operation of the tropes. Historian. White announces that his story will be emplotted as the ebb and flow of the tropes. Accordingly.62 Paul is referring to what I have described—using White’s categories—as a professional romance. Momigliano. and brings to the fore what it had excluded. The history of history that Metahistory offers is indeed without precedent (Vann). “New Historicism: A Comment. 35.” 323. “Hayden White. quoted from 166. The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. 63. 387-299. 59. White marginalizes to the point of disappearance the epistemological motif of that romance. Vann. Vann and Herman Paul.” in The New Historicism. but in thus refiguring Ranke’s method.” Comparative Criticism 3 (1981). 1987). series 3-4 (1988). White is being entirely faithful to the priorities he has already laid down.” which. Cf. White.60 Thus each story perfectly matches the theoretical conception from which it springs. See Hayden White.THE REFLEXIVE TEST OF HAYDEN WHITE’S METAHISTORY 15 of the historical work” places its emphasis precisely upon that literary form. 2011). but rather as distinguishing “between significant and insignificant historical evidence among the data”—that is. Stefan Collini. an active suppression is at work (as Arnaldo Momigliano observed in an essay of 1981). that the book “is an unprecedented history of historiography” and that it offers “an inverted disciplinary history.
.” or imitative. 68 Nineteenth-century history’s “scientific element. as White himself has already remarked (ibid. as depicted in Metahistory.”64 And although Ranke’s tropological affinities thus prove to be more diverse than had originally been indicated. White indicates that Ranke “prefigured the historical field in the mode of Metaphor . 19-20). in looking back over nineteenth-century “realist” historiography at large. was his “Organicist doctrine” of historical explanation.” and its art was “mimetic. was merely “empirical” and “inductive. Metahistory. is Aristotle invoked here (268) at all? The answer emerges soon afterwards. rather than expressive or projective. whereas nineteenth-century historiography characteristically aimed to establish particular truths. cf. published before Ranke was born. Why. . that is. comic emplotment. 66.” then. In fact it turns out that Ranke’s achievements. 70. and metaphoric prefiguration. Ibid. and artistic elements. Metahistory. in a similar vein.70 and the 64. conceptions of what these consisted of. It would seem that this depiction of Ranke as both metaphoric and synecdochal is occasioned by White’s assigning to Ranke a putative layer of Formism in addition to his dominant Organicism. 141. philosophical. 65. on synecdoche. 69. since metaphor is held to correspond to Formism. This comparison is remarkably inept. Its science was “empirical” and “inductive. 177-178. the characterization of Herder is identical with that of Ranke in respect of synecdochic comprehension. (b) Subsequently. since Aristotle’s methods were directed toward establishing generalized truths. then..65 this addition of Metaphor—the most “naive” of the tropes—to Synecdoche serves to underline the relatively lowly role that White’s formal plot has already assigned to Ranke. White. 188).”69 In utter contrast with the traditional story of history’s history. 167..” As he goes on to explain: It would not be too much to say that. “This Organicist doctrine constituted Ranke’s principal contribution to the theory by which history was constituted as a separate discipline in the second quarter of the nineteenth century” (White. this is in tension both with the characterization of Ranke as Formist (see the previous and next notes) and with the claim that Organicism was seen by the historical profession as heterodox (19-20). this is in chapter 7. universals. and furthermore (although this is nowhere pointed out explicitly). Ranke’s main contribution to the development of the historical discipline. Ibid. Cf. 268. ibid. Curiously. 4 passim. Specifically..” “philosophical.. the only way that White manages to distinguish Ranke from Herder is by assigning a Formist dimension to Ranke’s “mode of formal argument.” its philosophy was “realistic.16 ADRIAN WILSON schema outlined in the Introduction.67 The effect of these moves is to diminish Ranke’s importance and to eliminate from view precisely what had traditionally been seen as his main achievement. Indeed. it remained locked in older. 67. and then suggested the Synecdochic comprehension of it. merely echoed those of Herder. pre-Newtonian and pre-Hegelian. . which portrayed nineteenth-century historiography as embodying the new and heroic advance of source-criticism. in the subsequent .” and “artistic”—and describes all of these as “commonsensical and conventionalist in nature. White suggests.” 68. for this criterion is depicted in tropological terms. namely the development of the critical method. Metahistory describes that historiography as having failed to advance beyond the inferential procedures of Aristotle. more specifically Aristotelian. insofar as history in the main line of nineteenth-century thought contained scientific. a transitional chapter between historiography proper (chapters 3-6) and the philosophy of history from Marx onwards (chapters 8-10). 69-79 and chap.66 yet chapter 1 of Metahistory has already credited that doctrine to Herder’s Ideen. White depicts it as comprising three “elements”—“scientific.
Metahistory. 175. and also 19-20. which adopt a largely uncritical discussion of Droysen’s Historik. and the effect of this exemption is to tilt the balance in the direction of an implicit valorization of the social sciences—a stance that becomes explicit in White’s subsequent theoretical essays.”71 Thus. and artistic elements” (270-273. White elsewhere suggests that what is true of history is also true of the social sciences. 277. White.73 Now as against this.74 and in fact Metahistory leaves the status of the social sciences unresolved. 271).” 74. 231-235. The Idea of History. 385. he constructs a story of nondevelopment that flatly contradicts both the structure of that romance (a story of progress) and its premises (the critical interpretation of documents as the site of that progress). and so on. See particularly Bloch. with the same structure as the selfserving professional mythology of historians against which Metahistory’s own plot is pitched. 73. The Historian’s Craft. Metahistory. Here White remarks that the Historik was modeled on Aristotle’s theorizations of dialectic. 386. White. 71. which took pains to point out that the critical method was heroic precisely because it transcended “common sense. Kitson Clark. 140. in discussing Croce’s pessimistic and aestheticist formulation of what historians could aspire to achieve. For instance. philosophical. 429. but the other with devastating implications. and it harmonizes with the book’s polemical purposes. Remarkably enough. although neither here nor elsewhere does White confront the conventional romance explicitly. The assumption that Croce’s writings had influenced the entire discipline of history in the early twentieth century seems surprising. but it predominates. V. 393-394. As we shall see in a moment. The reason for this indeterminacy is that tropology is not applied to such thinkers as Weber and Durkheim. which also accounts for the division into “scientific. esp. oratory. 72.THE REFLEXIVE TEST OF HAYDEN WHITE’S METAHISTORY 17 depiction of the “scientific element” of history as “commonsensical” is antithetical to the standard story. since its effect was to sever historiography from any participation in the effort—just beginning to make some headway as sociology at the time—to construct a general science of society”. 39.72 and this move implicitly supports his case against historiographical realism. but of course what is at issue in the passage under discussion is not one man’s mode of theorization but an entire discipline’s mode of practice. this picture of the history of the social sciences is not consistently deployed. . These concern respectively the rise of the social sciences and the professionalization of the history discipline. White writes that “it is difficult not to think of Croce’s ‘revolution’ in historical sensibility as a retrogression. by hinting that there was available an alternative and scientific approach against which the discipline of history had irrationally closed its collective mind. The Critical Historian. Metahistory at various points depicts the rise of the social sciences as precisely a professional romance. Metahistory also introduces two very different subplots—one of minor significance. THE PLOT UNDERMINED Yet meanwhile. but is perhaps intelligible given Metahistory’s fusion of history and philosophy of history into the figure of the “historical imagination. And this picture of permanent methodological stasis is entirely consistent with the satiric plot-structure announced in Metahistory’s Introduction. Collingwood.
the historical method was the Rankean method. White. “On Tropology. Metahistory. 76. and Burckhardt comprised “the acceptable forms of deviationism from the orthodox norms. 80. 78.. note 68 above). above). Ibid. Ibid. and I have indicated how it differs from the Irony that is implicitly present in every historian’s attempt to wrest the truth about the past from the documents. White subsequently underlines this pre-eminence of Ranke. The historian’s Irony is a function of the scepticism which requires him to submit the documents to critical scrutiny. indicating—though yet again in an aside—that “the official professional orthodoxy in historical thinking” was “represented by Ranke and his followers.”79 that is. See the citations in notes 34. at the beginning of the chapter on Croce’s philosophy of history—the results are even more troubling. . 35 above.75 We might sum up the significance of this marginal and minimally sketched subplot by saying that although it is surprisingly naïve. 175. must assume that the documents mean something other than what they say or that they are saying something other than what 75. Tocqueville. . 161). 77. 277-278. For he now suggests that the Rankean orthodoxy. it turns out. its role is intelligible as supporting Metahistory’s critique of nineteenthcentury history’s realist pretensions.76 the link between this institutional development and “the criticism of historical documents”. the other subplot is in every respect radically at odds with the main plot. this again in chapter 7 (cf. Ibid.77 the depiction of such “source criticism” as the characteristic “method” of Ranke. following as it does the form of a romance.. For in an intensely paradoxical counterpoint. Ranke’s special status as “the paradigm of academic historiography.. this as distinct from the methods of the social sciences (cf.78 and. See especially White.. Cf. and Burckhardt. Even Michelet’s historiography. it is left unclear just what these “Ironic implications” of Rankean historiography are. chap. Ibid.. the fact that by “the last three decades of the nineteenth century . And when this implicit puzzle is eventually supplied with an apparent resolution—that is to say. 82. The Content of the Form. . 81. but no such dimension has been hinted at for Ranke. Tocqueville.83 Not surprisingly. notice the tension between this and the formal plot). in sharp contrast with his view of history.”80 Indeed. precisely because of the practice of Quellenkritik itself: I have noted the Ironic component in the work of all philosophers of history. 140. 136. 167. correspondingly. In contrast. cf. had an Ironic element (ibid.”81 Still more unsettling is the tropological gloss that White here supplies. 83. Ibid.” 62 (who does not.. however. For White now asserts that Irony is built into the historian’s task. was attended with “Ironic implications”—contradicting Metahistory’s announced plot. 3.” whereas the work of Michelet. which depicts Ranke’s horizons as circumscribed by metaphor and synecdoche. 172.82 and irony as arising with Tocqueville and attaining full expression in the work of Burckhardt. He must treat the historical record Ironically at some point in his work. as distinct from the “deviationism” of Michelet. also 185. Carroll. 79.18 ADRIAN WILSON attitude toward these disciplines. there repeatedly surfaces in Metahistory—though always in the interstices of the argument—the central elements of the standard professional romance: the formation of the academic discipline.
on the contrary. explicitly characterizing them as entailing different forms of irony. if one wishes. above. at n. White hastens to reassure the reader that “the historian’s Irony may be only a tactical tool. as well as the historian. Correspondingly. . White unwittingly dismantles the figure of the “historical imagination” itself. that is to say in writing “his histories.” skeptical.” that “once he thinks he has extracted the truth from the documents. . White. a sceptical) attitude. 375. not only with respect to the historical record.THE REFLEXIVE TEST OF HAYDEN WHITE’S METAHISTORY 19 they mean. my emphasis). but he has now driven a wedge between these. For if the “critical scrutiny” of “the documents” is inherent in the historian’s task (as White is here suggesting). 86. but also once again interposes the “historical record.” and “inductive” methods ascribed to Aristotle.” To sum up. and if that method is specifically associated with Ranke and with “academic historiography” (as has already repeatedly emerged). And in similar fashion. White’s subsequent attempt to recuperate the former assimilation of history to philosophy of history only entangles his conception in further difficulties. Metahistory. this invocation of irony disturbs the motific premises of Metahistory’s official plot. For that figure of course represents the fusion of “proper history” and “speculative philosophy of history”. and informed by the most sophisticated of the tropes. 376. Naturally. and that he can distinguish between saying and meaning. “The philosopher of history assumes an Ironic (or.” “empirical. the image of post-Rankean history as anchored in the consensual use of Irony implicitly assigns to history precisely the “scientific” status that White is elsewhere concerned to deny (cf. namely irony. 87.86 But this move merely compounds the damage. after all.” and that thereafter. Ibid. their transactions with documents were “critical. . it now appears that nineteenth-century historians were not. .85 Further. or there would be no point in his writing a history. this subplot effectively demolishes the “historical imagination” by splitting apart its two components. 84 This little passage brings to a head Metahistory’s persistent undermining of its own formal plot. but with respect to the whole enterprise of the historian as well” (ibid.. chained to the “commonsensical.” this time as intruding between philosophy of history and the “historical field. it follows that the professionalization of history had achieved precisely what the standard romance was always claiming—namely. 375 (directly after the passage quoted above). confirming as it does that the “critical scrutiny” of “the documents” intervenes between the putative act of prefiguration and the writing of the historical work—an exigency that disrupts the original picture of correspondence between prefiguration and the content of such a work.” And last but not least.” whereas tropic prefiguration is supposed to engage directly with the “historical field. this move is repeated in the Conclusion (428). For he is now forced to posit that the philosopher of history.. works upon “the historical record”87—a claim that not only conflicts with everything that had been said about philosophy of history in the preceding chapters. 85. for the trope of irony is here depicted as engaging with “the documents. “proper history” and “speculative philosophy 84. the systematic application of the techniques proper to the very nature of the discipline. he may then abandon his Ironic posture. 7). Correspondingly.” the historian chooses freely among all four of the master-tropes.
. and in fact Metahistory’s tropological picture is dubious at every level. through Marx and Nietzsche. . The important point is that. Specifically. Here two contrasting features are in play. 48. but also that its formal basis. 89. 44. and that tropology’s posited late-nineteenth-century terminus of Irony entails an inherent contradiction. “Floating an Issue of Tropes.93 nor for 88.91 only the flimsiest grounds are offered for assigning those four tropes their “master” status. the lexical-grammatical-syntactic-semantic prefigurative grid) “will in turn be—by virtue of its essentially prefigurative nature—characterizable in terms of the dominant tropological mode in which it is cast” (White. first convention and then convenience are invoked: “Both traditional poetics and modern language theory identify four basic tropes for the analysis of poetic. despite their shared terminus in Irony. the evolution of the philosophy of history—from Hegel. Ibid. Metahistory. Wallace Martin. therefore. . taken as a whole. philosophy of history ends in the same Ironic condition that historiography had come to by the last third of the nineteenth century. Clearly the same considerations could with equal justification be used against that argument. We have seen not only that the theory fails the test of reflexivity. which I shall signal by italicization: As thus envisaged. between proper history and philosophy of history” is “little more than a precritically accepted cliché”89—the grand argument of Metahistory—bereft of support. syntax. grammar. the contrasting sequences do not. 91.. 427. “Retention of the fourfold analysis” has “advantages” and permits richer “combinatorial possibilities” than does Jacobson’s binary scheme of metaphor versus metonymy (ibid. The same basic modalities of conceptualization appear in both philosophy of history and historiography. White.90 It begins to appear.92 and none at all for their supposed cognitive associations (metaphor with representation. Metahistory. 77-78. 33-38. . his emphasis). Above. 31. being depicted both as a triumph and as a fall. to Croce—represents the same development as that which can be seen in the evolution of historiography from Michelet. through Ranke and Tocqueville. philosophy of history and historiography had followed different trajectories in the nineteenth century.88 Although the shared ironic terminus of the story fits the claim being made. Ibid. concepts that are found wanting by the reflexivity test are deficient on other grounds as well. that here just as elsewhere in the theoretical apparatus. 42.” is incoherent.. All that is offered is this sentence (from which I quoted at n. at nn. 90. 18. 30. This in turn means that Metahistory’s “theory of tropes” has not succeeded in its aim of unifying history and philosophy of history—a result that adds yet another element to the mounting pile of troubles attending that theory. or figurative. . though they appear in a different sequence in their fully articulated forms.” And this leaves White’s claim that “the distinction . language”.” In the light of this finding it is appropriate to examine the precise way in which White articulates the supposed unity of the two at the end of the book’s Introduction.20 ADRIAN WILSON of history. for example: “The important point is that. and this contradiction is glossed over by means of the strictly rhetorical claim that the “important point” is the one that fits the argument.. to Burckhardt. The initial move from the components of “linguistic prefiguration” (lexis.” Diacritics 12 (1982). and so on). . semantics) to the quite distinct linguistic space of the “master tropes” is given no justifying rationale. metonymy with reduction. namely “linguistic prefiguration. merely by transposing the rhetoric. 8 above): “This preconceptual linguistic protocol” (that is. 33). 93. cf. 92.
95.94 it is left unclear on what grounds individual historians and philosophers of history are each assigned a specific governing trope. by multiplying epicycles.” See Michael Oakeshott. “What is a Text?. imprimée pour le centenaire de 1789. epicycles (originally invented by Apollonius and Hipparchus) are the main devices by which the basic postulate of solely circular motion is accommodated to planetary movements.98 This is not to say that such external resources have no part to play in the theorization of historical knowledge.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 43 (2012). Metahistory. The Copernican Revolution: Planetary Astronomy in the Development of Western Thought (Cambridge. for the simple reason that no other discipline faces history’s problem of aspiring to knowledge of that which is inherently unobservable—for the past. . “But the number of possible explanatory strategies is not infinite. 161. 34-44. On History and Other Essays (Oxford: Blackwell. In the astronomical systems of first Ptolemy and then Copernicus. 98. MA: Harvard University Press. in fact. Another way of making the same point is to say that the task of elucidating the nature of historical knowledge cannot be accomplished merely by importing theoretical resources from elsewhere. and by varying such parameters as the relative periodicities. because linguistic categories are empty of the temporal aspect that is inherent in the discipline of history. (Paris: Imprimerie National. four principal types. CONCLUSION What went wrong? And in view of the wreckage of Metahistory’s theoretical edifice. II. 31). and the depictions of Michelet as metaphoric and of Tocqueville as metonymic are both qualified by the addition of irony: see White. 19. “L’histoire. has gone. as we have seen) the supposedly governing trope is later supplemented with an additional trope. 83 above. 346-347. and Adrian Wilson. 167. but their role can only ever be an ancillary one. the historical past—which is the historian’s object of knowledge—has gone. Metahistory. 201-203. 97. 1983). 106. and in several cases (for instance that of Ranke. which correspond to the four principal tropes of poetic language” (White. and notes 34. Temporality is built into the historical discipline (as Michelet put it. 65). Ranke’s synecdoche is supplemented with metaphor (above. 1957). by definition.THE REFLEXIVE TEST OF HAYDEN WHITE’S METAHISTORY 21 the assumption that those associations together exhaust the “possible modes” in which history can be apprehended. 1889). There are. thereby preserving the fundamental postulate.” and “linguistic prefiguration. by definition. thus any adequate theorization of historical knowledge must deploy categories that have at least the possibility of a temporal dimension. 5 vols.97 because its project is constituted by the distinction between past and present. 16-19. they cannot solve the problem. Michelet. the “theory of tropes” is a failure. 96. for every 94.96 In short. Histoire de le revolution française par J.95 a move analogous to the Ptolemaic and Copernican proliferation of epicycles. Kuhn. c’est le temps”). See Thomas S. this system can produce very close approximations to the actual motions of the planets. The planet is depicted as moving in a little circle (the epicycle) whose center rotates around the earth (Ptolemy) or the sun (Copernicus) in a larger circle (the deferent). More precisely. does the book have anything to offer to the would-be theorist of historical knowledge? The germ of an answer to the first question has already emerged in connection with “linguistic prefiguration”: that the categories in which historical knowledge is framed cannot in principle be mapped onto a linguistic grid. And it is this that ultimately accounts for Metahistory’s failure. 59-70. 351-353. 170-171.” “ideological implication. at n.” VI. just as are “formal argument. in contrast to what Oakeshott fruitfully denominates the “practical past.
then. “ideological implication” is presented as a “mode of explanation” but in fact performs no explanatory work. On the one hand. but rather the light that it sheds on the story that historians had been telling about the history of their own discipline ever since they began to reflect on that theme in the early twentieth century. the standard romance of historiographical progress as embodied in the professionalization of history and the associated rise of source-criticism or Quellenkritik.) Yet even emplotment is a failure in its actual application. it is ironic in a minor way for White himself. In the first place. It is thus no accident that emplotment is the only element of Metahistory’s conceptual array that passes the reflexivity test. In the first place. in the romantic and satiric layers respectively: it is impossible to have it both ways.” In short. my answer to the second question that was posed above will be positive: that is. sociology (ideology). for all the failings of its theoretical system. that official plot is fatally undermined by the intrusion of the very story against which both of its layers are pitched—to wit. yet that is what the plot requires. what vindicates Metahistory’s category of emplotment is not the way that the concept is deployed in the book itself. and the only one not marred by some inherent flaw. namely the criticism of sources. by mobilizing Northrop Frye’s categories. linguistic prefiguration is empty of content. Second. the book puts history’s own “disciplinary history” in question. though like the rest in coming from outside. and what is more. Metahistory makes available the concept of romantic emplotment that applies so precisely to that “disciplinary history. rhetoric (the tropes)—while conversely. since their strenuous use of romantic emplotment in telling that story un- . the book’s double-layered plot entails the irreducible contradiction that the culminating move to irony (in the historiography of Burckhardt and the philosophy of Croce) has to be presented both as a triumph and as a fall. (To recapitulate: “formal argument” is inadequate because only one of its four categories is appropriate for history. Nevertheless. On the other hand. has no place in that framework. that we are enabled to see the standard professional romance for what it is. accurate. Metahistory is based on an insight that is profound. What we must notice is that it is specifically thanks to Metahistory. it is Metahistory that placed on the historiographical agenda the form of historical writing.22 ADRIAN WILSON component of its theoretical framework comes from other disciplines—literary criticism (emplotment). simply by offering an alternative to it. for emplotment. This result is doubly. ironic. and this in three ways. and this in two respects. philosophy (“formal argument”). since he did not make this point but left his target wholly implicit. and asymmetrically. classically associated with the figure of Ranke. linguistics (the components of prefiguration). the point just made entails an indirect and ironic vindication of emplotment. it is ironic on a far more serious scale for the historians who had been telling the traditional story. Surprisingly. history’s own key practical and conceptual resource. and fruitful. Second. including emplotment. And third. is unique within the theoretical apparatus in embodying a temporal aspect. this in turn leads to an unexpected confirmation of Metahistory’s fundamental claim about historical knowledge. since all stories unfold in the medium of time. The partial exception that confirms the rule is emplotment. and tropology floats on a raft of unsupported assumptions.
yet this appears not to be the case. the insight will prove capable of richer and more fruitful development than has yet been suspected. 100. that the inadequacy of “linguistic prefiguration” would have been picked up long ago. and indeed of White’s subsequent oeuvre: that—as the title of one of his later essay collections neatly puts it—the form of historical writing itself has content. one might have expected. The Content of the Form. . indeed. But this collective oversight may be intelligible if we posit that appreciation of the aptness of White’s insight has led readers to gloss over the gaps. White.100 Though the theoretical apparatus has to be discarded. University of Leeds 99. the underlying insight deserves to be cherished. as distinct from an active form that constructs that knowledge. In paradoxically and unwittingly negating that premise. This disparity is relevant to the further theme of the book’s reception.99 That insight is Metahistory’s great strength.THE REFLEXIVE TEST OF HAYDEN WHITE’S METAHISTORY 23 dermined their own premise as to the relation between historical research and writing—the assumption that writing was merely a transparent medium through which to convey historical knowledge. At first glance it is surprising that most of the problems identified here have (so far as I am aware) entirely escaped notice in the literature. for instance. the “disciplinary history” of the historians actually constructed in advance an overwhelming argument for the central claim of Metahistory. contradictions. the baroque edifice of theory in which it is wrapped up is the book’s corresponding weakness. and errors in the theory itself. it is tempting to suggest that once freed from that apparatus.
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