Hayden White's Metahistory

Hayden White, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1973)

I’m tempted to jump right to looking at reviews of this, because it’s so absurdly
unreadable. As an example, it begins with a quote from Bachelard’s (who?) The Psychoanalysis of Fire (what?): “One can study only what one has first dreamed about.”

I picked this book up because I’ve read articles by White that have made sense, and because I’m aware he’s a pivotal figure in the battle over post-modern historiography. I’m disappointed that he was apparently unable to write in plain English. Either he believed his insights were too complicated for non-specialist language, or he was too infected with the jargon of the academies where he spent his time. White’s writing is as dense as the French, without having the excuse of being a translation.

But he does some things that are important. In the Preface, he tosses off a definition of history that bears looking at: “a verbal structure in the form of a narrative prose discourse…[that] combine[s] a certain amount of ‘data,’ theoretical concepts for ‘explaining’ these data, and a narrative structure for their presentation…of events presumed to have occurred in times past.” I’ll skip over the precious code-word, discourse, because the rest of the statement calls attention to some interesting points.

History is a verbal artifact, constructed using the tools available to writers. These include not only grammar and syntax, but since history is presented as a
story of the past, narrative structures (plots, themes, archetypes) that might carry meanings of their own, based on the reader’s level of literacy, sensitivity to these subtle hints, etc. So in addition to the choice of data and the explanations the historian advances, the way the story is plotted and presented may communicate the historian’s interpretation and even his/her philosophy of history.

White goes farther, claiming that the historian’s philosophy of history “
prefigures the field” of study, and that histories can be decoded for their philosophical content by analyzing the rhetorical “tropes” the historian uses in their presentation.

The book is built on an introduction, where White lays out his theory, and nine chapters of examples, where he reviews the work of nineteenth-century historians and philosophers of history. In White’s theory “the historical work represents an attempt to mediate among what I will call the
historical field, the unprocessed historical record, other historical accounts, and an audience” (5). The “historical field” remains fuzzy—I’ve yet to find where White pins this down. The other elements are interesting, since they point to the historian’s thought processes in searching for data, thinking about other historians’ interpretations, and trying to communicate something relevant and new with readers (White doesn’t mention the historian’s overriding motivation to find something new to say, and thus justify the new history. This is a major concern for the current generation of historians, and I see no reason to suppose it wasn’t relevant in the past.).

White goes on to point out that the historian “invents” history, in a way that shares some of the elements of fiction. A particular historical fact like “The death of a king may be a beginning, or an ending, or simply a transitional event in three different stories” (7). The act of binding a set of historical facts into a story is itself interpretation.

This is obvious on reflection, and it’s amazing that conservative historians like Marwick have allowed themselves to be viewed (or characterized) as trying to deny it. Even a list of data, completely lacking narrative, has been chosen from a much larger possible set. That choice is either completely random, or it’s based on some principle, some question, some pre-existing idea that sent the historian to the data in the first place.

In addition to the recognized forms of explanation (White calls them “explanation by argument” and “explanation by ideological implication”) emplotment itself is explanation, White says. And because it is, White makes his big jump and claims that the meanings of histories (and the philosophies of historians) can be analyzed using ideas from rhetoric.

For the most part, White seems to be claiming that these processes are consciously chosen by historians (in contrast to others, who say the historian is unconsciously preconditioned by his language/culture). “Before the historian can bring to bear upon the data of the historical field the conceptual apparatus he will use to represent and explain it,” he says, “he must first
prefigure the field—that is to say, constitute it as an object of mental perception. This poetic act is indistinguishable from the linguistic act in which the field is made ready for interpretation as a domain of a particular kind” (30). The problem is, if this means anything at all (and I have my doubts), it’s an issue that should be addressed by looking at the most advanced epistemology/cognitive science. Not by applying Northrop Frye’s literary theory and rhetorical ideas dating back to Aristotle.

Anyone who has read philosophy and still chooses to write history has either come to grips with these issues, or is trying to bamboozle people who aren’t aware of them. This is where White leaves himself a possible “out” by saying that “In order to figure out ‘what
really happened’ in the past…the historian must first prefigure as a possible object of knowledge the whole set of events reported in the documents. This prefigurative act is poetic [a term he uses interchangeably with “figurative”] inasmuch as it is precognitive and precritical in the economy of the historian’s own consciousness” (30-1). There’s an implication of naïve literalism in the beginning of White’s statement, as if historians (or at least un-enlightened ones) believe they’re finding “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” But worse, there’s a weird sense in which the history becomes the historian. A historian might hold a set of beliefs about the nature of knowledge in general and historical knowledge in particular, before beginning a given history. But that doesn’t make them “precognitive” or “precritical” for the historian; just for the particular work at hand. White doesn’t seem to want to be pinned down: are historians deliberate agents, using these tropes and devices consciously? Or are they the unwitting dupes of poetic prefiguartion?

White goes on to populate his three explanatory forms (emplotment, argument, and ideology) with four “modes” that combine in particular ways according to their “affinities” to create historiographical styles. Emplotment can take the form of Romance, Comedy, Tragedy, or Satire. White admits there are legitimate combinations (the Romantic Comedy or Romantic Tragedy) and others that are not allowed (the Romantic Satire), suggesting the “modes” may not all be of the same type. Argument can be Formist, Mechanistic, Organicist, or Contextualist, and ideology can be Anarchist, Radical, Conservative, or Liberal. The precise meanings of these terms as White uses them depend on extensive reference to Northrop Frye, Kenneth Burke, Karl Mannheim, and his own earlier articles. In some cases, notes go on for two or more pages in small type, but the categories still fail to seem definitive or convincing.

White associates these various modes with particular historians and philosophers of history, and also with the “tropes” of classical rhetoric: Metaphor, Metonymy, Synecodoche, and Irony. He reminds the reader of Nietzsche’s warning that “by such reductions…the phenomenal world can be populated with a host of agents and agencies that are presumed to exist
behind it” (35). It’s a warning that seems amazingly apt in this context!

I have to admit, I can’t stand this type of writing. I don’t see how it contributes anything to the content, and I suspect that it’s intended partly to browbeat the reader into accepting the argument in order to simply follow it. For example, White sneaks in a claim that “there are no extra-ideological grounds on which to arbitrate among the conflicting conceptions of the historical process and of historical knowledge…since these conceptions have their origins in ethical considerations, the assumption of a given epistemological position by which to judge their cognitive accuracy would itself represent only another ethical choice” (26). Ah, no.

The introduction concludes with a short sketch of nineteenth-century historiography, which White describes as a sort-of spiral of eternal return. The ironic stance of the Enlightenment (Hume, Kant, Voltaire, Gibbon) gives way to pre-romantic idealism culminating in Hegel’s organicism and Comte’s (organicist) positivism. This leads to mechanism in the form of Marx, and ultimately “the consistent elaboration of a number of equally comprehensive and plausible, yet apparently mutually exclusive, conceptions of the same sets of events” leads back to an ironic loss of confidence in the ability to know anything, “freeing…historical consciousness from the impossible ideal of a transcendentally ‘realist’ perspective on the world” (41).

That’s enough of that, I think. I’m not going to read the nearly 400 pages that separate this introduction from White’s concluding remarks in which he says that “if we wish to transcend the agnosticism which an Ironic perspective on history…foists on us, we have only to reject this Ironic perspective and to will to view history from another, anti-Ironic perspective,” because, in the end, it’s a moral or an esthetic choice. (434)

do think White calls attention to questions about the way “emplotment” carries implicit or explicit interpretation. I think there may even be something to the idea that we look for the archetypal stories and story-forms in history. Our culture, in this sense prepares us to some extent to see the world in a particular way. But I don’t think we need to be victims of this. Even if it was “precritical and precognitive” (which I don’t accept), we’re not uncritical, and we can be cognitive. So we can apply that thought and criticism to these questions, and examine them adequately.

I also don’t buy the idea that epistemological stances are essentially esthetic or moral in nature. Even in a world where reality is mediated by perception and conception (our senses and our mental training/language/etc.), some models of the world are more accurate than others. So it’s
not okay to embrace teleology or dialectical materialism just because it feels more comfortable or satisfies our yearning for beauty and meaning (or panders to our prejudices and justifies the status quo).

In the end, I don’t think there’s any excuse for a book like this. White continually says his analysis is formalist (in the sense he defines formalism in his theory) and ironic. But I suspect (not having read his narrative chapters) it’s actually organicist, with a generally upward/forward momentum. So I wonder, was he unaware of this? Or did he choose to hide it, as he chose to obscure so much else, in this maze of words?