You are on page 1of 13

Journal of the Philosophy of History 7 (2013) 244256

Semantics of Historical Representation in

Terms of Aspects
Eugen Zelek

Catholic University in Ruomberok, Slovakia

In his latest book, Frank Ankersmit proposes an original theory of historical representation. In this review I focus on what I take to be his most important semantic
points with respect to representation, meaning, truth, and reference. First, I provide a short summary of the book. Second, I explore his semantics in terms of
aspects and compare it with a different account inspired by the Fregean notion of
mode of presentation. As my examination shows, Ankersmits analysis faces the
problem of loosing indirectness and, moreover, there seems to exist an alternative and plausible view that does not suffer from this problem. Finally, I conclude
with a couple of comments on the Copernican Revolution advocated in the book.
Frank Ankersmit, semantics of history, historical representation, aspects
Frank Ankersmit, Meaning, Truth, and Reference in Historical Representation
(Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012; Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2012),
264 pp., ISBN 978-90-5867-914-7
The latest book of Frank Ankersmit is an excellent example of an attempt to examine distinctive features of historical writing. Ankersmit is exceptionally perceptive
to what he believes distinguishes history from some other disciplines and he is
assiduous in pointing out these interesting and sometimes surprising features to
his readers. In his book, he analyzes the basic notions of meaning, truth, and reference. He deals with the most important semantic questions of history and presents
detailed arguments in favor of treating historical discourse in a special way. His
examination results in a unique and original semantics of historical text, which is
probably unparalleled in its scope and thoroughness. One does not necessarily
Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2013

DOI: 10.1163/18722636-12341252

Review Articles / Journal of the Philosophy of History 7 (2013) 244256


have to agree with all the points made in the book, but a person with a serious
interest in the philosophy of history should be aware of the exciting proposals and
ingenious arguments contained in the book.
Frank Ankersmit, a renowned Dutch philosopher of history, is undoubtedly
one of the most original thinkers in the field today. Anyone interested in contemporary theory and philosophy of history must have come across some of his many
papers or books, which include, among others, Narrative Logic (1983), History and
Tropology (1994), Historical Representation (2001) and Sublime Historical Experience
(2005). The semantics of historical text has been already discussed in his Narrative
Logic a book presenting one of the most innovative accounts of historical writing
and some of its conclusions also inspire Ankersmits latest work. For instance, in
Narrative Logic Ankersmit argues that there is a crucial difference between singular statements and narratios (historical texts as wholes), namely, narratios are not
mere sums of statements.1 This is one of the most important pillars of his approach
to historical writing. It is further developed in terms of the distinction between
description and representation in the inspiring and philosophically rich first
chapter of Historical Representation.2 This pillar also supports some of the results
reached in his latest book. Moreover, in Narrative Logic, Ankersmit emphasizes the
metaphorical nature of historical texts and he introduces narrative substances
(i.e., points of view that are expressed by historical works) to argue that historical
works cannot be viewed as simple copies of the past reality. The same insights are
further advanced in his latest book. Therefore, those familiar with the work of Ankersmit, will find in his Meaning, Truth, and Reference in Historical Representation a
most welcome continuation and illumination of his project. On the other hand, the
latest book includes several original notions (e.g., the notion of aspect), observations
and arguments (e.g., those related to the presented of historical representation).
A number of Ankersmits conclusions may even seem to be inconsistent with some
of the views defended in his earlier books. But a careful reading will show that
these new ideas are in fact, in a certain sense, drawing on his older views.
In this review I focus on what I take to be the most important semantic points
presented, especially in the heart of the book consisting of chapters 4 through 7.
This is not, however, meant to imply that this is the only part of the book containing thought-provoking insights. On the contrary, other parts include analyses of
various other provocative topics such as historicism, the linguistic turn in history,
experience, etc. First, to acquaint the reader with the content of the book, I start
with a short summary of most of its chapters. Second, in the next two sections,
1)F.R. Ankersmit, Narrative Logic: ASemantic Analysis of the Historians Language (The
Hague: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1983), 59.
2)F.R. Ankersmit, The Linguistic Turn: Literary Theory and Historical Theory in F.R. Ankersmit, Historical Representation (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001), 2974.


Review Articles / Journal of the Philosophy of History 7 (2013) 244256

I explore Ankersmits semantic account in terms of aspects and compare it with

an alternative semantics inspired by the Fregean notion of mode of presentation.
Finally, I conclude with a couple of comments on the Copernican Revolution advocated in the book.
1.A Short Summary
The book starts with a chapter on historicism, the position that phenomena are
defined by their place in a process of development or change (10). Therefore,
according to historicists, we should focus on development in order to understand
what is happening in society and in history. But, as Ankersmit points out, even
historicists assume that each historical phenomenon contains something that is
not subject to change, namely, it contains an historical idea (11). Yet Ankersmit
argues that, even though the historicist notion of an historical idea is fruitful, it was
mistaken to locate the idea in the past itself. Instead, he suggests, we must situate it in the historians language about the past (13). He believes that historical
ideas (e.g., the Renaissance, the Cold War, etc.) are to be viewed as our tools that
help us organize our accounts of the past; they allow us to write comprehensible
works about the past. But they should not be understood as simple reflections of
pre-existing entities inhabiting the past itself. This is a familiar point (made, for
instance, in Narrative Logic with respect to narrative substances),3 but this time it
is derived from historicism.
Hence, Ankersmit announces, the goal of the project pursued in his book is to
take what is valuable from the historicist notion of an historical idea, to correct
what is misguided in its realist version, and to apply it to historical writing. So, in
a certain sense, his book might be interpreted as an attempt to translate Rankes
and Humboldts brand of historicism into amore modern philosophical vocabulary (28). As I read him, Ankersmit emphasizes that historical works are organized
in terms of structuring tools which do not have their source in the past itself but, to
put it briefly, in the historians language. Consequently, his book offers a translation of this point, i.e., it presents the semantics of historical representation in
terms of presenteds and other notions.
The second chapter, Time, begins with an outline of three different approaches
to time transcendental, chronological, and lived. Drawing on this overview Ankersmit examines some of the claims of Louis O. Mink and Arthur Danto, focusing
on Hans Michael Baumgartners transcendental reading of Danto. As it turns out
this excursion shows that the copy theory of representation (later called also the
Magritte conception of historical writing), i.e., the belief that there has been a
3)Ankersmit, Narrative Logic: ASemantic Analysis of the Historians Language, 96100.

Review Articles / Journal of the Philosophy of History 7 (2013) 244256


past that [historians] should copy as well as they can in the language they use for
writing about it (45), is wrong. The reason is that the historians language transcends the past. It does not copy the past but organize it in terms of things that
are not located in the past itself. These additional things are, for instance, such
notions as the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, or the Cold War and they transcend
the past because they lead their lives exclusively in historical narratives (46).
The following chapter, Interpretation, highlights a couple of notable points.
Ankersmit starts with a fascinating discussion of the painting by Jan Hackaert,
which is on the cover of his book. He uses this painting to document his conclusion
that representation precedes interpretation: you cannot even begin to understand
a texts or a paintings meaning (i.e., have an interpretation of it) as long as you have
no idea of, or deliberately refrain from asking yourself, what the text or painting
might be about (i.e., what it represents) (53).
Another remarkable point concerns the truth of historical representation. In
some of his earlier works Ankersmit is very cautious when it comes to speaking
about the truth in history. He tries to limit the notion of truth to the level of singular statements: we can assign a truth-value to statements but not to narratios as
wholes.4 Judging from the critical reactions,5 this is possibly one of the most controversial ideas defended in Narrative Logic. It may look surprising but in his latest
book Ankersmit is not so hesitant any more and he claims historical representation serves no other purpose than to discover the truth about the past (62). In fact,
as he points out, since historical representation is a typical example of representation (the notion analyzed in aesthetics) and at the same time it attempts to reach
knowledge and truth, it follows that historical writing aims at aesthetic truth (59).
This is an interesting development in Ankersmits account. Yet, in my opinion, it
should be understood neither as a radical change in his views nor as a claim contradicting his previous rejection of truth at the level of representation. It seems to
me that it is more appropriate to read it as a clarification of his views. As is made
clear in the chapter Truth, Ankersmit still rejects applying the notion of propositional truth based on correspondence between a statement and a part of the past
reality to representation as a whole. It is a different notion of truth that he is advocating. The latter notion of truth is characterized in chapter 6 as ontological.
Chapters 4 through 7 present an original semantic account to which I return
below. The rest of the book is devoted mainly to the topic of presence (chapter 8),
experience (chapters 9 and 10), subjectivity (chapter 11) and the decisive role of
political history (chapter 12).
4)Ankersmit, Narrative Logic: ASemantic Analysis of the Historians Language, 77.
5)See C. Lorenz, Can Histories Be True? Narrativism, Positivism, and the Metaphorical
Turn, History and Theory, 37 (1998), 309329; J. Zammito, Ankersmit and Historical Representation, History and Theory, 44 (2005), 155181, 181.


Review Articles / Journal of the Philosophy of History 7 (2013) 244256

It seems to me that the part of the book dominated by the topic of experience
tries to balance the earlier chapters pointing out that language gives only a complicated and indirect access to reality with observations about some kind of
direct experience of the past. Some may even find it confusing that, after reading
various ingenious arguments showing that historical representation cannot depict
the past reality in a straightforward way, one is told that a certain type of direct
experience of the past is possible. Is it not the case that these two views exclude
each other? My impression is that Ankersmit suggests this is not an either-or issue.
We should not conclude that either we have only mediated approach to the past or
we have always an immediate access to reality. As I read some of his claims and
similes, for instance the one about a hurricane, Ankersmit implies that although
historical works in general use a proxy (representational language) in order to help
us understand the past, sometimes we get in touch with the past reality in a more
direct fashion (experience). To use his simile: wherever the storms of historical
representation acquire the force of a hurricane, where storms of historiography
never come to rest think of the Renaissance and the French or the Industrial
Revolution we shall find in its eye the silence of a historical experience (232).
The penultimate chapter on subjectivity contains a sharp exposition of a paradox called the double bind of historical objectivity. Ankersmit argues that the
reason why moral and political values play such an important role in history is that
they are present both in the subject (the historian) and object (the past itself).
Since values infect both the former and the latter it is extremely difficult to disentangle subject and object. In fact, the attempt to accomplish such a separation and
to free oneself or ones historical work from values leads to paradox. An historian
trying to negate her values, or even to ban her subjectivity from her work, will find
herself in a paradoxical situation in which the subject underlines its presence by
its pathetic and self-defeating claims about its alleged absence (225).
The last chapter returns to historicism, which was already discussed at the
beginning of the book. This time Ankersmit approves of the historicist insistence
on the significance of political history. He argues in favor of this traditional view
and concludes with the claim that politics is historys backbone (256).
2.The Aspectual Semantics
Ankersmit outlines his semantics of historical representation in chapters 4 through
7 Representation, Reference, Truth, and Meaning. First he clarifies the
concept of historical representation, a crucial concept of his oeuvre, and subsequently he applies his results to analyses of the basic semantic notions of reference, truth, and meaning.

Review Articles / Journal of the Philosophy of History 7 (2013) 244256


In his earlier works Ankersmit firmly emphasizes that narratios or (to use the
terminology from his 2001 book) historical representations do not depict the past
reality in a direct way. In fact, he maintains that they are related to reality in a certain manner but the important thing, which is often denied or simply neglected, is
that they construct images or pictures (but these images are not copies trying
to resemble their objects, they are rather representations in a technical sense) of
the past.6 They propose certain points of view from which reality should be seen.7
In his latest book, he draws on these insights but he supplements them with a more
detailed account illuminating how representation works. Supposedly, the former
notions of image and point of view could have been understood by commentators
in various ways, therefore, Ankersmit tries to specify the nature of the things representations construct or propose. He does this in terms of aspects. Before I focus
on the notion of aspect, I need to clarify briefly one basic distinction, as well as the
notion of representation.
Ankersmit maintains that there is a crucial difference between description and
representation: singular statements describe past reality, whereas historical texts as
wholes represent it. More specifically, statements (such as Mikhail Kutuzov was a
general) contain terms picking out particular objects (Mikhail Kutuzov) and
terms that ascribe to them attributes (is a general). Because of the fact that the
singular terms uniquely pick out particular objects from reality, we say they refer.
Moreover, if the objects referred to possess the given attributes, we say these statements are true. This is how it is with reference and truth at the descriptive level of
statements. According to Ankersmit, the situation is very different at the level of
representation. Historical representations do not refer in the way statements do.
Therefore representations cannot be true or false in the same way statements are.
Hence, it may seem the notions of reference and truth do not apply to historical
representation. In reality, Ankersmit claims this is not completely right. Indeed,
representations do not refer to the past, but they are nonetheless, in a certain
sense, about the past. Moreover, even though the demise of reference in historical
representation (101) has to have its consequences, still Ankersmit speaks of the
ontological truth of representation (109).
According to Ankersmit, representation is a special relation (he uses the term
operator), which should be distinguished from description. First of all, one has to
realize that representation is not a two-place but a three-place relation: a representation (1) defines a[presented] (2) in terms of which the world (3) is seen and
the point is to avoid conflating (2) and (3) (72). [A] representation (1) offers us the
presented, or aspect (2) of arepresented reality (3), much in the way that we may
6)Ankersmit, Narrative Logic: ASemantic Analysis of the Historians Language, 204.
7)Ankersmit, Narrative Logic: ASemantic Analysis of the Historians Language, 225.


Review Articles / Journal of the Philosophy of History 7 (2013) 244256

draw someones attention to certain features of athing. Though these features are
reducible neither to that thing itself nor to its properties....aspects or presenteds
are less than things and more than properties (73).
A nave approach to historical work will probably assume that historical representations depict the (represented) past reality and this is basically all we need in
order to account for how to conceive of the language-world relation in history. But
Ankersmit warns us not to confuse presented that is defined or offered by representation with represented reality. According to him, the tie between the text and
past reality is more complicated and indirect than the nave view might suggest.
Historical texts as wholes are about the past (represented reality), but they offer
it in terms of something in the middle (presented). If one neglects this interme
diary, one overlooks something essential for understanding the mechanism of
It is interesting that Ankersmit proposes to analyze this intermediary, presenteds of representations, in terms of aspects.8 As far as I know, this is a new idea not
to be found in his earlier books. It was, however, already suggested in his paper
from 2010.9 In his latest book it is discussed in a more detail and it provides an
anchor for the semantics outlined here. So how should we conceive of aspects?
Ankersmit claims aspects are less than things and more than properties.10 But if
they are neither the former nor the latter, are they some kind of extra type of entity?
Are they a type of entity, which is when compared with things and properties
equally ontologically real? Of course, to provide a satisfactory characterization of
the ontological status of things and properties is not a simple matter. So why should
we complicate the whole situation even more by introducing another type of
entity? Is it not enough to rely on what usually figures in ontological and semantic
theories, i.e., to rely on things and maybe on events or (more controversially) on
properties? Let me state my concern in a somewhat traditional fashion adducing
to Occams razor, which is usually formulated as saying: entities are not to be multiplied beyond necessity.11 If this is read as a principle of semantic parsimony, one

8)The reader should note that I use the term presented as a general term to speak about
any type of intermediary and the term aspect to speak about one specific type of intermediary namely, Ankersmits proposal regarding how to understand the presented.
9)F. Ankersmit, Representation and Reference, Journal of the Philosophy of History, 4
(2010), 375409.
10)Although, he says later in the work that aspects are loose bundles of properties in the
absence of unique identifiable things to which they can be tied (111). Does this mean they
are reducible to sums of properties? Or are they some kind of irreducible bundles?
11)D. Cohnitz, M. Rossberg, Nelson Goodman (Chesham: Acumen, 2006), 76.

Review Articles / Journal of the Philosophy of History 7 (2013) 244256


may ask the following with regard to aspects: is it really necessary to postulate
aspects to account for the semantics of historical work?12
I have certain doubts when it comes to conclusive proofs of the necessity of this
or that. But I still believe it is possible to give arguments criticizing or defending
the introduction of this or that item into ones account. Before I turn to aspects, let
me start with a more general picture of history as presented by Ankersmit. In my
opinion, his critique of the view according to which historical works are straightforward depictions of the past reality is very persuasive. Historical texts are not
simple copies of past events; they are more complicated proposals of how to view
the past. But his criticism of the copy theory of historical representation goes
hand in hand with his proposal of a more sophisticated relation between the text
and the past reality. Therefore, if one accepts Ankersmits critique of the nave picture of the language-world relation in history and concurs with his suggestion that
the relation is in fact mediated I believe that Ankersmit is right in both issues ,
it seems necessary to conclude there is some kind of intermediary that has to be
included in the whole account. Ankersmit convincingly shows there must be a presented which plays a role in linking historical representation and the past. Nevertheless, does it immediately follow that the presented should be understood in
terms of aspects?
It seems the problem of whether aspects should be admitted into the semantic
account of history can be divided into two separate questions. First, do we need to
assume there is some kind of intermediary between historical representation and
represented reality? Indeed, Ankersmit shows that any accurate and fruitful
semantics of historical representation has to work with such an assumption. There
must be a presented offered by any historical work which represents a part of the
past.13 But here comes the second question. Do we need to analyze this intermediary (this presented) in terms of aspects? This is an independent issue. One can
agree that there are presenteds but refuse to equate them with Ankersmits aspects.
Such a refusal could be substantiated either by pointing to a problem with the
notion of aspect or by arguing there is a different and preferable analysis of the
notion of presented. Below I consider both options. I try to show that introducing
aspects into the semantics of history is problematic. I, then, suggest an alternative
analysis of presenteds.

12)The prime interest of the book under review lies in the area of semantics, but obviously
semantic issues are linked to ontological, so the discussion below could be extended also to
the latter questions.
13)Recall that the term presented is a more general term and the term aspect is used to
speak about Ankersmits understanding of the presented.


Review Articles / Journal of the Philosophy of History 7 (2013) 244256

3.Controversial Aspects and the Fregean Semantics

Earlier I posed a question about the nature of aspects. Should we take them to be
certain attitudes, perspectives, or points of view we use to approach reality?
Ankersmit explicitly opposes such an analysis. He claims an aspect is not a way
of looking at the world because it is part of the reality represented by a
representation hence part of reality itself (76). Thus, an aspect is part of the
world itself (105). Now, why should this be a problem?
As I read Ankersmit, one of his most interesting and convincing contributions
since the times of Narrative Logic has been his insistence on, and elaboration of,
the claim that historical texts (as wholes) do not depict reality in a direct way.
There is always some indirectness, at least at the level of whole texts such as narratios or representations. There is an intermediary (presented) between language
and reality in history. But, and here comes the problem, if presenteds are defined
in terms of aspects and aspects are part of the reality/world itself, it seems to me
we loose a certain kind of indirectness. Since aspects belong to reality, historical
texts are attached directly to reality itself only this time it is aspects they are
attached to. This is the problem of loosing indirectness.
To analyze this problem in more detail, let me come back to some of the main
points made by Ankersmit in his earlier works.14 In general, he argues that, when it
comes to the issue of the language-world relation in history, the situation differs
from a nave copy approach. There is both a certain complexity and a certain indirectness which the nave view mistakenly ignores. Historians do not describe past
events; they do not present textual copies of the past. Historians suggest proposals regarding how to account for past events. For instance, works on the French
Revolution offer certain proposals regarding how to explain events of the French
Revolution. The complexity in history stems from the fact that there are not merely
two items (i.e. historical texts and the past reality), but there are three items
historical texts define proposals, theses or, to use his recent terminology, presenteds,
to account for the past reality. That is why representation is a three-place relation.
Ankersmits discussion of this complexity is often intertwined with his discussion of indirectness. To put it in a few words, indirectness arises due to a logical
space,15 a gap existing between historical texts (language) and the past reality
(world). Ankersmit argues that the crucial things for understanding history happen precisely in the gap where presenteds should be located. In his earlier works,
when talking about what is located in this gap, Ankersmit used such terms as a
point of view or a thesis. In his latest book, however, he rejects defining a pre14)Ankersmit, Narrative Logic: ASemantic Analysis of the Historians Language, Ankersmit,
Historical Representation.
15)Ankersmit, The Linguistic Turn: Literary Theory and Historical Theory, 41.

Review Articles / Journal of the Philosophy of History 7 (2013) 244256


sented as a way of looking on the past and, instead, he says presenteds are aspects.
However, since aspects are part of the world, it seems to me the alleged gap
between language and the world is filled by another chunk of the world. Since
aspects belong to the reality/world itself, historical texts are directly attached to
certain chunks of reality. Hence, indirectness disappears. Yet indirectness of
historical representation (in the sense of a logical space between the text and reality) seems to be an important feature of Ankersmits critique of the nave view. It is
also a crucial element of his conception of historical representation. Therefore, it is
problematic to introduce aspects into the semantics of history to account for what
is expressed by historical representation.
Is there an alternative and viable analysis of the notion of the presented? Drawing on Ankersmits remarks from his earlier works, e.g., on his observation that
historical texts present points of view,16 one may suggest that the presenteds of
historical works should be analyzed in an epistemic fashion. Presenteds might be
conceived of as perspectives or cognitive standpoints we adopt when we look at
the world. This would mean, however, that they are not another ontological entity,
additional part of the world, something between things and properties. Presenteds
analyzed in this way would rather be cognitive outlooks that should not be reified.
One specific analysis going in this epistemic direction may be inspired by Gottlob Freges notion of meaning (sense).17 In a nutshell, Frege claims words (such as
the morning star) not only stand for their referents but they also express their
meanings (senses). So linguistic expressions are not simple labels of the things they
refer to. In addition, they present certain meanings, which are characterized by
Frege as modes of presentation of their referents.18 Now, there is an extensive
discussion about how to interpret Freges notion of meaning. For our purposes,
however, it is not important to pick the best available interpretation. We may simply draw on some of the insights presented by Frege (as interpreted by authors
defending an epistemic reading of his notion of meaning) and call the semantics
loosely inspired by them Fregean semantics.19 The main tenet of this semantics is
that words express modes of presentation (meanings) of their referents. Applied to
the case of history: historical texts propose modes of presentation of the past
events they are about. Moreover, a crucial feature of this semantics is that the
16)Ankersmit, Narrative Logic: A Semantic Analysis of the Historians Language, 225.
17)See G. Frege, On Sense and Reference in A.W. Moore (ed.), Meaning and Reference
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 2342. The application of what I call the Fregean
semantic framework is presented in more detail in my On Sense, Reference, and Tone in
History, Journal of the Philosophy of History, 4 (2010), 354374.
18)Frege, On Sense and Reference, 24.
19)Note, however, that the Fregean semantics is not necessarily the semantics Frege
defended or would defend.


Review Articles / Journal of the Philosophy of History 7 (2013) 244256

notion of a mode of presentation (meaning) is understood in an epistemic way.

The mode of presentation expressed by a historical representation is basically a
cognitive perspective from which the past reality is approached.
Of course, one would have to add flesh to these bones in order to present an
attractive alternative to Ankersmits analysis of presented in terms of aspects.20
However, even this short introduction to using Fregean semantics to explicate the
presented in terms of modes of presentation allows me to show that this semantics
does not suffer from the problem of loosing indirectness. The Fregean semantics
offers the following picture: historical texts are about the past reality but they
approach it via presenteds understood as modes of presentation or points of view.
Since these points of view are more or less epistemic attitudes, presenteds are not
another part of the reality itself. Therefore, there is an item inserted between the
text and reality, which is not a chunk of the world and which is, at the same time,
able to guarantee the indirectness.
Above I asked whether we need to analyze presented in terms of aspects. As my
examination shows, the notion of aspect faces the problem of loosing indirectness and, moreover, there seems to exist an alternative and plausible characterization of the presented in epistemic terms. Why, then, should we rely on a
problematic notion of aspect if what looks like a viable analysis of the presented is
4.The Copernican Revolution in the Semantics of History
My critical analysis concludes with a suggestion to replace the notion of aspect by
the notion of meaning (mode or presentation) inspired by Freges ideas. This result,
however, is firmly rooted in a rather conventional tactic of drawing on the semantic insights from the philosophy of language and applying them to the language of
history especially to the account of historical representation. Yet Ankersmit
makes it clear in his latest book that he refuses to follow this somewhat traditional
path. He believes we should not take notions of meaning, truth, and reference from
a philosophy of language focusing on singular expressions or statements and
20)I must add that Ankersmit refuses to interpret his account of representation in terms of
Freges semantics and he doesnt approve of equating the presented with the notion of
meaning (73, 105). But Ankersmit seems to interpret such a meaning as a conceptual entity
(105), whereas the Fregean semantics introduced here relies on a different notion of meaning. Here, it is understood in an epistemic way. Moreover, if one starts with a presupposition
that the presented is an aspect and aspect is a part of reality, then it follows that the presented cannot be a Fregean meaning interpreted as an item that is not part of the reality.
In this review, however, I try to question the given presupposition.

Review Articles / Journal of the Philosophy of History 7 (2013) 244256


employ such notions to make sense of historical writing. On the contrary, he

embraces a kind of revolutionary approach in historical theory: Paradoxically,
representation precedes true description. This, then, is the Copernican Revolution
advocated in this book (156). More specifically, he maintains we should first study
the uniqueness of history and historical representation and come up with a novel
semantics suitable for their purposes. So this is what he is trying to accomplish: to
introduce the notions of representational meaning, truth, and reference.
In fact, as I noted earlier, he claims representation does not refer in the sense
proper names do and there is no propositional truth to be found at the level of
representation. Finally, Ankersmit focuses on representational meaning and he
We cannot define meaning because there is nothing outside meaning or, rather, prior
to meaning (such as truth and reference) in terms of which it could be defined. But the
content of meaning what meaning a word, sentence, or text actually has in individual
cases can be fixed, established, or determined in terms of its contrast(s) with other
such words, sentences, or texts (143144).

This is an intentional reversal of what Ankersmit considers to be a traditional way

of analyzing semantic concepts in the philosophy of language where reference
and/or truth are used to define meaning (recall, for instance, that Frege characterizes meaning as a mode of presentation of the referent of the word). In contrast to
such a position Ankersmit believes meaning must remain undefined.
So how relevant does my alternative analysis of the notion of the presented
seem to be once we take into account the Copernican Revolution? It should be
obvious by now that the roots of aspectual and Fregean semantics are fundamentally different. Fregean semantics draws its inspiration from the standard philosophy of language. Ankersmit, on the other hand, develops a unique semantics of
history. Is this then a case of talking past each other? Do we have here incommensurable solutions arising from two rival paradigms? Since, at first sight, there is not
much common ground between the two standpoints, seemingly, it does not make
any sense to start the debate between the aspectual and the Fregean semantics. It
may appear that nothing fruitful can come out of such a dispute.
Yet I believe there is no serious reason why we should adopt such a pessimistic
attitude. Especially when it is clear that examination of the notion of aspect and
comparison of the two analyses of presenteds document that it is possible to
explore the results of one paradigm from the perspective of an alternative paradigm. It is even possible to criticize crucial points of one paradigm from the point
of view of the other. Of course, my critique of the notion of aspect will hardly lead
to its rejection. After all the notion of aspect receives a strong holistic support from


Review Articles / Journal of the Philosophy of History 7 (2013) 244256

several interconnected pillars of Ankersmits account of historical representation.

(For instance, from such presuppositions as historical representation needs a
unique semantics which does not have its counterpart in the usual philosophy of
language, representation and description differ in an important way and that is
why the items figuring in the semantics of the latter cannot be part of the semantics of the former, etc.) Nonetheless, it seems to me that a critical examination of
the aspectual semantics still makes sense at least it provides an opportunity to
rethink and strengthen the basic assumptions of the given semantics or maybe
even to modify them.
The same is true if one perceives the situation from the opposite side. Ankersmits original account challenges a more traditional paradigm which analyzes
historical writing in terms of concepts inherited from the standard philosophy of
language. Ankersmits semantics provides an exceptionally interesting alternative
to more conventional solutions. In short, his Meaning, Truth, and Reference in Historical Representation compels his critics to reconsider their positions and even to
wonder whether it all might be the other way. What if, in the end, it is really the
case that to understand historical writing we need to abandon the traditional
approach and embrace the new perspective offered by Ankersmit? Those who are
open to novel ideas and who are willing to question their own assumptions will
undoubtedly benefit from reading this book. It will not necessarily make them see
historical writing in the way Ankersmit sees it, but I would be surprised, if they
found nothing in the book to challenge their own view of history.
To conclude, although I am persuaded by most of Ankersmits claims about historical representation (e.g., representation cannot be accounted for in terms of the
copy theory; representation is a three-place and not a two-place relation; representation defines a presented in terms of which the past reality is represented, etc.),
I am still cautious when it comes to his notion of aspect and when it comes to an
enthusiastic and unshakable conviction that history requires a unique semantics.
On the other hand, Ankersmits discussion of the semantics of historical representation is so irresistible and, in many regards, so convincing that I cannot stop thinking What if, in the end, the Copernican Revolution, or a version of it, is right?21

21)I would like to thank Frank Ankersmit and Jn Haluka for their helpful comments on a
previous version of this text. This does not mean, however, that they agree with the views
expressed here.