Metahistory by Hayden White
What does it mean to think historically? What are the unique characteristics of a historical method of inquiry? In the 19thcentury historians, philosophers, and social theorists considered history to be a specific mode of existence comprised of historical consciousness: a distinct mode of thought and historical knowledge: an autonomous domain in the spectrum of human and physical sciences. 20th century continental thinkers such as Heidegger, Sartre, Levi-Strauss and Foucault challenged history to be placed among the sciences. Additionally, many Anglo-American philosophers believed that history as a whole was not to be taken seriously and should not constitute as a rigorous science or a genuine art. Hayden White’s Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe investigates the way historians write in different types of styles, and how various milieus shape history and ideas. His exegesis on the deep structure of historical imagination of 19th century Europe elucidates a fresh perspective on the debate over the nature and function of historical knowledge. Moving away from Romanticism, Idealism, and Positivism (cultural movements), and Liberalism, Radicalism, and Conservatism (ideological movements) that dominated the historicism at the time, White used a formalist approach to show the overlooked aspects that were inherent in historical works. Analyzing prominent historians such as Ranke, Michelet, Tocqueville, and Bruckhardt and four philosophical abrogations of naive realism of Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche and Croce, White was able to specify different levels of engagement, structural components and models. This more nuanced view showed the extent of aesthetic, epistemological, ethical, and linguistic engagement determined the ideological apparatus and structure of the narrative that the specific historian wrote about. Therefore, White was able to define and distinguish the difference between history proper and philosophy of history.
White distinguished the various levels of conceptualization of historical work (1) chronicle (2) story (3) mode of emplotment (4) mode of argument and (5) mode of ideological implication where the historical work represents an attempt to negotiate the historical field, historical record, other historical accounts and an audience. Historical elements are organized into a chronicle by their temporal occurrence; then it is arranged into components of a “spectacle” or process of happening, which has a discernible beginning, middle, and end. The transformation of chronicle into a story is affected by the characterization of some events in the chronicle in terms of inaugural motifs, of others in terms of terminating motifs, and of yet others in terms of transitional motifs.
“The king went to Wesminster on June 3, 1321. There the fateful meeting occurred between the king and the man who was ultimately to challenge him for his throne, thought at the time the two men appeared to be destined to become the best of friends…” This event that was reported naturally in a certain time and place becomes an inaugurating event. This transitional motif tells the reader to seize expectations until a terminating motif appeared.
“While the king was journeying to Westminster, he was informed by his advisers that his enemies awaited him there and that the prospects of a settlement advantageous to the crown were meager.” Lastly, a terminating motif shows a potential resolution of a situation or process.
“On April 6, 1333, the Battle of Balybourne was fought. The forces of the king were victorious, the rebels routed. The resulting Treaty of Howth Castle, June 7, 1333, brought peace to the realm-though it was to be an uneasy peace, consumed in the flames of religious strife seven years later.” Encoding a set of events in these motifs allows a reader to move from a diachronic process into a synchronic structure where analysis can begin through a series of questions. Why or how did that happen? What happened next? How did it end? These denote a connection between an event and are different than say What does it all add up to? What is the point of it? These questions concern themselves with the overall structure of the entire set of events and use a synoptic judgment to identify or uncover other potential stories. Questions can be answered by three types of explanation, (1) emplotment (2) argument and (3) ideological implication.
A historian uses explanation by emplotment to provide meaning behind his narrative and readers can ostensibly identify this type of story. The four different types of emplotment are Romance, Tragedy, Comedy, and Satire where the historian “emplots” a whole set of stories into one comprehensive story form.
The emplotment of Romance is a drama that symbolizes transcendence or victory. This self-identification symbolized dramas of good over evil, and resurrection of Christ in Christian mythology.
Satire is the antithesis of the Romantic drama where man is fettered to the world, and insufficient to overcome evil, death, and other dark forces. Hopes, and possibility are Ironic, is different than the truths found in Romance, Comedy and Tragedy. It prepares consciousness to revert back to a mythic conceptualization of the world and its processes.
Unlike Satire, Comedy shows the possibility of a limited liberation from the Fall of man, where there is a potential reconciliation of forces. These are symbolized through festive occasions, where the reconciliations of men with men and men with world and society. This act transforms society in a more positive and purer state due to the conflict that harmonizes these elements together. Tragedy is similar to Satire, however, there are fictitious and misleading occasions, where man must accept the conditions of the world, and work within them. Man is imposed of limits to what can be aimed at for security in the world.
Additional to the four forms of emplotment, Formal Argument is used by a historian to explain the events of a story (or the form that was imposed by emplotment in a specific mode) that are surmised by logical necessity. Examples such as “what goes up must come down” and the most famous Marx’s relationship between Superstructure and the Base where they are used to explain a certain event or phenomenon e.g. The Great Depression.
White uses the analysis of Stephen C. Pepper in World Hypotheses to differentiate four paradigms of “argument” make take form in: Formist, Organicist, Mechanistic, and Contextualist.
The Formist removes the apparent similarities shared by objects in the field, in order to properly identify them by specific types of attributes and labels. In order to be considered a Formist explanation, every object must be uniquely identified. These explanations are found in romantic historians and historical narrators.
Organicist used reductive operations in order to depict specifics within the historical field as parts of the synthetic process. Historians such as Ranke, and most of “nationalistic” historians in the 19th century like Sybel, structure their narrative in parts to whole relationship, where they are concerned with the internal process and individual elements over the whole in a deterministic fashion.
Mechanistic explanations are reductive instead of synthetic where the acts of inhabiting agents of the historical field are manifestations of extrahistorical agencies. Historians that use this method such as Marx, and Taine search for causational laws and the overarching operations that write history.
Assuming events can be explained by being within the context of occurrence, Contextualism, is a spectacle that is shown through specific relationships to other events. The explanations of the field are identified by the interrelationships that existed among the agents and agencies at that specific time. However, the first and last of the causational chain can never be known. This line of thinking was found in Herodotus and Jacob Burckhardt.
Explanation by ideological implication is an ethical assumption that historians use to draw conclusions of past events in order to comprehend the present. White uses the analysis of Karl Mannheim in his bookIdeology and Utopia for define the four ideological positions: (1) Liberalism, (2) Anarchisms, (3) Conservatism, and (4) Radicalism. These do not represent insignias of political parties and are meant to be general ideological definitions and preferences.
Conservative defined change in a “natural” rhythm or gradual like a plant.
Liberal defined change in a “social” rhythm, also known as education and voting.
Radical deemed structural transformation as a necessity. A utopian society would be created through a cataclysmic transformation.
Anarchist believed society to be corrupt and men must destroy the current establishment to bring a new community.
Lastly, White uses four types of tropes to analyze poetic or figurative language in an unambiguous way.
Synecdoche – Symbolizes an inherent quality: “He is all heart”.
Metaphor – Similar to and difference from: “My love, a rose”.
Metonymy – A part of something is substituted with a name as a whole: “Fifty sail” to “Fifty ships”.
Irony – Negation on figurative level for what is positively affirmed on literal level: “Blind Mouths”.
One of the master historians White analyzes is Hegel, where exemplified the trope of Irony. Hegel assumed that history was a superlative fact of both consciousness and human existence. It then moved to Metonymical and Synecdochic modes of comprehension, where metonymical comprehension became the base for physical scientific explanations. In doing so, it limited occurrences to cause and effect relationships. Synecdochic consciousness had a more general application to both nature and history, where the human world was comprehended in a taxonomic form comprised of species, genera, and classes. Therefore, the mind properly organizes the natural world through logical considerations only. Every formal coherence is a logical assumption found above it, identical to its logical assumption below it. However, due to the nature of species never changing or evolving, none of the formal coherences are the antecedent of the other.
Hegel believed that if history was denoted through consciousness, taxonomic characterizations, and causational logic only, then it would show the problems inherent in mechanism and formalism. A purely mechanistic approach to history was absurd because the whole of history was predetermined and no change or development occurred. This form of explanation would only rearrange elementary elements in different combinations and conclude that there was no advancement of religion or culture from primitive humans to the present. Formalist explanation of a historical process made sense where it differentiated higher and lower forms of life, however, it had no principles to explain the evolution from the various levels of forms. Also, it had no criteria that it could use to assess the ethical significance of evolution. Identical to the mechanistic historic approach, the formalist approach had to choose between history randomly appearing and disappearing or an infinite recurrence of the identical set of formal coherencies.
Criticism extended to “comparative analysis” which is the end form from which Metaphorical consciousness takes shape when it is projected as a theoretical trajectory into a method. Formalist explanations and Epic plot structures that characterize its stories are morally dangerous and are void of meaning. Hegel also criticized the emphasis on beauty as a way of distracting from the actual substance of history, where its narrative could find genius and poetry everywhere, but could not distinguish form and content.
In Encyclopedia and Lectures on Aesthetics expounded upon his theory of historical writing, which he defined as one of the verbal arts. Although not frequently noted, Hegel ostensibly defined his theory on historical works as something that was conceived under aesthetic consciousness. Characterizing and delineating a boundary between poetry and prose, poetry inherently could produce other tropological modes, Metonymy, Synecdoche, and Irony. What is expressed through poetry is a way to attain the idea of verbal self-expression. “Four thousand here from Pelops’ land Against three million once did stood (Herodotus, The Histories, bk. VII, chap. 228, p.494)”
Four thousand men fought against three million was the content, however, the main point is that it “communicates to contemporary life and posterity the historical fact, and is there exclusively to do so (Aesthetics, 23 ).” This poetic mode of expression is able to convey the content austerely while simultaneously embodying it with a definitive purpose. Poetry or a verse had an increased value where it attempted to replace an insipid sentence or prosaic speech. In comparison, prosaic speech would leave the writing unaltered, and not configure itself as an intimate union of content, which is only a poetic assertion. Therefore, the birth of poetry is from the segregation of consciousness from its object and the need to conjoin once again. The poet assumed a specific task of uniting consciousness and the world in thought by making universal terms specific and abstract concrete.
The distinction between prosaic speech and poetry created the two classes of poetry Classical (universal/particular expression) and Romantic (objective/subjective expression). The tension between these two classes created three different types of poetic composition: Epic, Lyric, and Dramatic. Epic and Lyric represent the effectively stable perspectives, both externally and internally, while Dramatic envisages resolution of the tension and unity of subject with object. The Epic “gives us a more extensive picture of the external world; it lingers by the way in episodical events and deeds, whereby the unity of the whole, owing to this increased isolation of the parts, appears to suffer diminution.” The Lyric “changes conformably to the fluctuation of its types, adapts itself to a mode of presentment of the great variety: at one time it is bare narration, at another exclusive expression of emotion or contemplation; at another it restricts its vision,” and so on. In comparison to Epic and Lyric, Drama “requires a more strenuous conjunction” of internal and external reality. Using speech and poetry as a tool that mediated consciousness and the world, Hegel historicized poetry and drama, as well as poeticized and dramatized history.
Another master historian of his time, Leopold von Rank created the historical method that was the antithesis of Sir Walter Scott’s representations in his novels of romance. Originally inspired by Scott’s pictures, Rank investigated and did research on the sources of medieval history and contemporary accounts, and became disillusioned by Scott’s false depictions. Finding the truth to be much more satisfying than representing history in a false light, Rank limited his writings that were only supported by historical documentary. Overall, he excoriated any ideology that prohibited the historian from seeing the historical field in its immediacy e.g. Hegel’s a priori philosophy and Mechanistic principles. White defines Ranke’s unique concept of realism as “doctrinal realism”, which “…is derived from no specific preconceptions about the nature of the world and its processes, but which presumes that reality can be known ‘realistically’ by a conscious and consistent repudiation of the forms in which a distinctively modern art, science, and philosophy appear.”
Ranke’s rebuke of Positivists, Romantics, and Idealists was favored by many historians of his time because his oeuvre exemplified what a “realistic” historical consciousness should be. The new age of historiography was prefigured in the mode of Metaphor, which was primarily concerned with the particularity and uniqueness of events. Subsequently after, it would use the Synecdochic comprehension and the final unity through analogy to the nature of its parts. Therefore, Ranke believed history might aspire to use a narrative description, which was the highest kind of the historical process.
High standard of research, prolific writing and superlative talent for narrative representation allowed Ranke to use a Comic mythos as his plot structure for most of his writing. Accumulating gargantuan amount of research allowed him to view different sides of conflicts with abundant evidence to decipher significant from insignificant events. Ultimately, Ranke concluded that world history was set in a metahistorical prefiguration of the historical field as a set of conflicts where nature was superseded by a society. Relying on an Organicist insight, he emphasized the process towards something where the movement abided by a specific rule and order. Therefore, history moved in an achieved system of relationships which is eternal and never changing.
Many historians believed that individuals were governed by natural or animal laws, and were inherently disorderly and destructive. According to Ranke, however, the church and the state were instruments that directed the energy of the people and could push them into collectively beneficial projects. Established by God, these institutions constituted the ordering principles in historical time. It was only through them that the disorderly world could become more directed and focused towards the conception of a nation.
During the Middle ages, the state and church gained excessive power in a way where it could constitute themselves as “universal”. Anxiety and fear overtook citizens where progress and the development of nationhood was hindered. However, at the end reformers held firm to the essential truths of religion and culture to band together to fight off the idea of “universal” church and statehood. This became the true significance of the Renaissance and Reformation because the nation emerged as the self-consciously governing principle to the direction of more orderly and humanly ways.
Because the idea of the nation functioned as an absolute value, ubiquity and individual freedom is the antithesis of history itself. A historian’s task was to maintain and re-enforce this principle of nationality in order to safeguard itself from barbarism. This conservative attitude did not want any new types of community that may allow the restrictions by churches and states to be removed.
Often denied the proper title as a historian, Alexis De Tocqueville’s doctrine is mostly positioned as a sociologist. Although most Tocqueville scholarship concerns his influence on sociology, Liberalism, and Conservatism, White contends that his work as a historian is Radical. Through tracing Tocqueville’s thought’s on history from Democracy in America to Souvenirs proved that he studied history to determine the various causational laws that governed its operations. “…He was implicitly committed to a conception regarding the manipulation of the social process of the sort that we associate with Radicalism in its modern, materialistic form. This implicit Radicalism is reflected in the Tragic mythos that underlies and provides the macrohistorical context of both of Tocqueville’s major works…”
Unlike Ranke, Tocqueville believed that the reconciliation of man with man in society was almost improbable. He placed man’s existence on two poles, one of social order that was a necessity in order for him to be a man, and the other an inherited demonic nature that halted him from becoming purely human. This oscillation and consciousness of his existence forced an individual to raise himself above the inherited animal that has been suppressed. The metaphysical existence of primordial chaos accentuates Tocqueville’s thoughts on history, society, and culture, where it is both a conundrum and blessing. Man’s being was a mystery and hindered him from obtaining monumental gains due to the forces that governed world processes. Therefore, like the tragic agon, he conceived that history was a permanent contest with and a return to himself. This Aeschylean and Sophoclean became the basis of his ideas on Liberalism.
Analogous to man’s existence, Tocqueville believed that the culture of his age oscillated between the older aristocratic idealism and democratic materialism. The critique of aristocratic Idealism made by the Enlightenment emphasizes that men should be concerned with the world external to them. It was not the sole emphasis of the time, but a transitionary period where Tocqueville believed “…thought and imagination would become fixed on “man alone” and more specifically on the future of mankind (II 76,77).”
Tocqueville’s paradox of despair and aspiration in human consciousness also applied to the future while simultaneously fighting against suffering. He believed that the future, the coming of age was the combination of social systems and a new vision that was not exclusively either aristocratic or democratic. Placing the task of the historian in a mediative role, his job was to assistance in showing the desire for freedom was inherited in both forms of government, aristocracy, and democracy.
During the time that he wrote Democracy in America, Tocqueville’s thought became dialectical and aligned himself with Hegel. Democracy in America depicted the chronological development and articulation of elements within the historical system. Although the revolution appeared to be inevitable where all men and events attributed to its cause, it’s destiny was Tragic. Europe had entered a transitional period where it established a path away from aristocracy but had no ideas to deem it beneficial.
Additionally, Tocqueville believed that Democracy in America was abominable and a monstrosity. It represented a development of extremities, discordant of the principles and sinew of Western civilization. The inception of European aristocracy was beneficial for a society because it supported independent thought and action, which America lacked in its ideal of ubiquitous rights. In the opening chapters of the second volume of Democracy in America, he elaborated that the independence of thought found in Luther to Voltaire was enervated in America by the concept of common opinion. Therefore, America’s future was uncertain due to the possibility of conjoining freedom with the tyranny of the majority found in the state.
Tocqueville’s meditation on America and democracy was cynical and Ironic in its extremity. He had concluded that the revolution could not bear anything beneficial to humanity and believing in deterministic principles would create “feeble men and pusillanimous nations.”
Differentiating from Tocqueville’s exchange between irreconcilable elements, Burckhardt believed that there was no process of development. History taught pensive truths, where political and religious motivations lead to oppression. Also, they did not suggest that humanity would sustain itself. Beginning where Tocqueville ended, Burckhardt’s Ironic stance where he found very little use in other ideas such as Romance, and Comedy. Although he aligned himself with old European aristocracy, he did not want to rejuvenate it and remember it for what it was.
One of the sections in The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, “The State as a Work of Art” compared the political situations of Germany, France, Spain and Italy, where each country had an external enemy that it fought against. The engagement in warfare could be used by a monarchy to unite people. Italy’s situation was much different because it was fettered to the ecclesiastical state, where it hindered the unity of the nation. The existence of the papacy caused Italian politics to miss an opportunity to conjoin its people, which Burckhardt portrayed with a sense of melancholy.
“The State as a Work of Art” was one of six parts that analyzed a different aspect of Italy’s culture throughout the Renaissance. Bruckhardt viewed the Renaissance to be a milieu which the cultural movement was alleviated from its subsidiary position to politics and religion. In this way, art could determine what type of form it would take, and human existence could be transformed into an art. Society and life were free from pragmatic and aesthetic concerns, and would show things for what they truly are. “Burckhardt’s picture of the Renaissance reminds one of a combination of the themes of a painting by Piero di Cosimo and Raphael, a painting bathed in the tired light of Burne-Jones and Rossetti. The tone is elegiac, but the subjects of the picture are both savage and sublime. The ‘realism’ of the subject-matter stems from the refusal to hide anything crude or violent, yet all the while the reader is reminded of the flowers that grew on this compost heap of human imperfection.” Therefore, the Renaissance was Ironic and represented the antithesis of the modern world.
Published after his first major publication, The Age of Constantine the Great, the guidebook The Cicerone: Guide to the Enjoyment of the Artworks of Italy continues his line of brilliance and at his best. Indulging in art, Bruckhardt reflected on historical objects in a way that the past did not. Artistic products and their contents or meanings were not mediated by verbal language, these objects were present and part of perception. He believed that history operated in a similar fashion because the text the documents could be coherent without having a relationship to the essence of what they professed to represent.
The Cicerone described a hierarchy of architecture, sculpture, and painting, in accordance to Schopenhauer’s aesthetics. Bruckhardt’s meditation on painting revealed a great deal of principles that where he placed them upon historical data. The taxonomic division began by comparing various forms and phases of Western art. “The paleo-Christian and Byzantine phases of Western art were regarded as inferior by virtue of the tendencies toward “mere mechanical repetition” which dogma and authority enforced upon the artists of the time. The art of the Romanesque period was viewed primarily as mythical and symbolical, though evidence of an essential healthiness was contained, in Burckhardt’s estimate, in the appearance of a ‘simple narrative’ style (The Cicerone, Clough ed., 18). The Gothic period in Italian art (as distinguished from its northern counterpart) was presented as signaling the birth of that naturalism which flowered in the Renaissance. Painting was liberated from service to architecture; and, though it remained in the service of religion, it was released to the development of its own unique potentialities of representation…” Specific artists were also compared to one another such as Giotto, Michelangelo and Raphael.
Coming to the center of intellectual thought, Schopenhauer influenced not only Bruckhardt, but many individuals from artists and historians. He also became admired by many intellectuals of the century such as Nietzsche, Wagner, and Freud, who all shared one thing in common, the dissatisfaction with life. Another attraction to his philosophical system, Schopenhauer accommodated Darwin’s concept of purposeless nature. It then became tacit that that man’s life was purposeless as well.
Although Schopenhauer did not have a definitive philosophy of history, his entire systematic thought attempted to show that social concerns and historical interests were unnecessary. Additionally, Schopenhauer’s world was egotistical in its extremes, where individuals were imprisoned with their own desires. In this way, Georg Lukas concluded that Schopenhauer represented German bourgeoisie ideology that came to prominence when the abandonment of humanistic values for egotistical gains allowed the middle class to formulate itself.
Schopenhauer envisaged a taxonomy of arts based upon abandoning the attempt to copy reality and transcend the temporal and spatial boundaries. “Fantasy is superior to fact, which means that poetry is superior to history. Within a given art form the same ranking can be made; thus tragedy is superior to comedy, comedy to epic, and so on. The same is true in the plastic and visual arts. Architecture is inferior to sculpture, since the practical interests of the former inhibit its aspiration to formal consistency. And sculpture is inferior to painting, since in sculpture the spatial determination is greater. Similarly, poetry is superior to painting, since words can be more freely arranged than visual images. But poetry is inferior to music, since the latter liberates itself from words altogether and aspires to the contemplation of pure form beyond the limits of time.” Therefore, he concluded that the highest form of art was will, and the world’s purpose was to reconcile with itself. The concept of will was narcissistic, and egotistical, where salvation was never available to a community, only an individual. The community could only be seen as contending wills view individuals as objects in their field of vision.
Through the analysis of the main forms of historical consciousness in the 19th century, White’s general theory of structuring historical works showed that specific linguistic nomenclature preconfigured the historical field prior to the explanation found in the records. This methodology allowed him to view historical narrative was much different than the ones designated by the schools of thought in the 19th century. A more nuanced view, it revealed the various levels of engagement (e.g. ethic, and linguistic) where it could determine the degree of influence of Liberalism, Romanticism or Idealism over the structure of the historians works. Additionally, White was able to show the division between Philosophy of history and history proper, where the philosophy of history uses a specific order of consciousness, and criteria to understand both the meaning and significance of the historical process. Therefore, every master historian that he analyzed with the possible exception of Marx to be a Philosopher of Language.
Although Metahistory may be criticized for overgeneralizing or not being applicable to the historical narrative of the present, White’s study can dispel or reveal the inherited biases where visions of history were superficially chosen between preferences of moral or aesthetic biases. In order to come to a neutral viewing of history, historical ideology had to remove itself from (at that time) 20th century Ironic perspective. This anti-ironic viewpoint would allow historians to conceptualize history and perceive the contents in its rawest form possible. At that stage, historians could impose their moral and aesthetic biases or aspirations while simultaneously conjoining the 19th century with the connection of the 18thcentury.