How history’s quest for truth became a call to action

  • Themes: Culture, History

Hayden White’s Metahistory was published fifty years ago. Many of today’s historians are its children.

Clio, the Muse of History. Oil painting by Charles Meynier, 1800.
Clio, the Muse of History. Oil painting by Charles Meynier, 1800. Credit: Iconographic Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

In 1824, the German historian Leopold von Ranke wrote four words that have since become synonymous with his name. Here they are in their oft-forgotten context:

‘History has been assigned the office of judging the past and instructing the world for the benefit of the future. The present work does not aspire to such high offices; it simply wants to show how it actually was.’

If historians ever had a credo, this was it. And if Hayden White is to be ranked among the most important historical theorists of the last century, it is because he did more than anyone to smash that credo to pieces.

White was born in 1928 and died ninety years later. He once described himself as having ‘always been on the left in my politics’, and it is tempting to trace that to his blue-collar beginnings. His father lost his job during the Great Depression and relocated the family from Tennessee to Detroit, finding work in the automobile industry. After the Second World War, White briefly served in the navy, before returning to Detroit for his university education, thanks to the G.I. Bill. He then spent much of his twenties in Rome, poring over the Vatican archives in preparation for a doctoral thesis on twelfth-century ecclesiastical politics. Later in life he explained what he had found so compelling about the medieval papacy: ‘I regard myself as eminently rational, and therefore irrationality interests me.’ Enthralled perhaps by a similar ‘irrationality’, he seems, around this time, to have developed a side-interest in the history of historiography; among his earliest publications were essays on the English historians Arnold Toynbee, R.G. Collingwood, and Christopher Dawson. This side-interest gradually swallowed up his main interest, and he left the Middle Ages behind.

Historians tend to be navel-gazing creatures, transfixed by the history of their own discipline. They are generally much less interested in the related area of historical theory, or the philosophy of history, which threatens to shake the foundations of what they do. ‘What did I have in mind’, White pondered in 2014, ‘when I undertook, sometime in the mid-1960s, and at the behest of Norman Cantor, to compose a book on nineteenth-century historiography?’ Political concerns, among other things; Claudio Véliz recalled that, ‘the last time I saw Hayden White, he was sprawled on the bonnet of a police car, where he had jumped to express his opposition to the Vietnam War’. Such activities were the impetus for the text that propelled Noam Chomsky to national prominence, ‘The Responsibility of Intellectuals’; perhaps they also shaped White’s thinking as he composed his book.

Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe, published fifty years ago, remains White’s best-known work. In one intellectual domain, it was revolutionary; David Carr wrote that it ‘changed the philosophy of history for good’. Yet although Dominick LaCapra praised it for having woken historians from their ‘dogmatic slumber’, its initial impact, as far as history was concerned, was relatively subdued. Quentin Skinner was not alone in finding White’s work ‘methodologically too far from my own prejudices to be able to profit from it’. Those historians who did take notice of Metahistory often disliked it; and the sense that White had strayed too deep into the philosophy of history caused him to become, as Allan Megill remarked in 1987, ‘something close to a bête noire within the discipline’.

None of this was helped by the fact that Metahistory does not make for particularly enjoyable reading. White acknowledged as much. It ‘still sells a lot’, he noted around twenty years after its publication, ‘but I don’t think people really want to read it; it’s very tiresome and repetitive’. Those who do read it, he declared with admirable candour, tend to ‘read some of the introduction and maybe read around a bit – but no one reads it through’. Stylistically, there is much to dislike about the book (I am particularly irked by White’s penchant for one of my least favourite verbs, ‘to apprehend’, which appears in some form on almost every page). Yet it is, in my view, unfortunate that most readers restrict themselves to the introduction, for it is in the main body of the book, the penetrating discussions of different nineteenth-century historians, where White really shines. Being more of a historian than a philosopher of history, I suppose I would say that.

In his preface to Metahistory, White announced that he was principally concerned with the literary and rhetorical dimensions of historical writing. ‘It is often said that history is a mixture of science and art’; but he complained that ‘very little attention’ had been given to history’s ‘artistic components’. He proceeded from the premise that the past is ‘chaotic’ and ‘sublime’; having no intrinsic meaning, it falls to the historian to impose meaning onto it. The historian achieves this, in the first instance, by accumulating the facts (White is often characterised as a postmodernist, but the postmodernist diehards would hardly share his ease with ‘facts’). Accumulating the facts does not, however, give us ‘history’; it can only give us a disjointed data-set, a formless chronicle. Having accumulated the facts, the historian must then ‘transform the chronicle into story’ by writing it down. The key insight of Metahistory is that, when historians undertake this ‘transformation’, they unconsciously rely upon literary and rhetorical conventions.

Here comes the most famous (or infamous) aspect of Metahistory: the rigid schematics of its oft-read and even more oft-cited introduction. White identified four ways in which historians ‘emplot’ their data to create historical narratives: Romance, Tragedy, Comedy, and Satire. This is one of many fourfold arrangements in Metahistory. White also found among his subjects four strategies of historical explanation (Formist, Organicist, Mechanistic, Contextualist), four modes of representation (Metaphor, Metonymy, Synecdoche, Irony), and four ideological implications (Anarchism, Radicalism, Liberalism, Conservatism). Historians can sometimes mix and match these things, but there are ‘elective affinities’ between them. Each of those ‘emplotments’, according to White, is typified by one of the giants of nineteenth-century historiography: thus we have the Romance of Michelet, the Comedy of Ranke, the Tragedy of Tocqueville, and the Satire of Burckhardt.

This Hogwarts House approach to historiography can be grating. When White remarks, in the conclusion to Metahistory, that he was tempted to ‘try to correlate the four basic forms of historical consciousness with corresponding personality types’, one cannot help but be relieved that he decided against it. Metahistory, as White later wrote, was a ‘book of a certain, “structuralist” moment, and if I were writing it today I would do it differently’ – which is to say, judging by his later work, without all the cumbersome, Procrustean categories. Still, White’s ideas about narrative and ‘emplotment’ are what really matter; and his chapter on Ranke effectively demonstrates that he was up to more than simply telling us ‘how it actually was’.

If White had left his analysis there, urging his audience to read historical works in full consciousness of their literary and rhetorical structures, he probably would have escaped controversy. What was really provocative was his argument that, since the same facts could theoretically be emplotted in different ways to produce different narratives, ‘when it is a matter of choosing among these alternative visions of history, the only grounds for preferring one over another are moral or aesthetic ones’. The evidence, in other words, can only take us so far; one ultimately has to choose which interpretation is most pleasing.

This left White open to the charge of relativism, at a time when such charges carried a certain stench about them. ‘I’ve been called a Nazi’, White once joked, ‘both by my first wife and by critics.’ On another occasion, he reminisced about an encounter with Eric Hobsbawm. The pair was asked ‘what it would take for history to give us some insight into the future’. White answered ‘More imagination!’, to which Hobsbawm said: ‘No, more rationality!’. ‘Too much imagination’, after all, ‘was what had led to Nazism’; Hobsbawm, White reflected, was a ‘man of the Enlightenment’.

At a conference in 1990 White was ambushed by Carlo Ginzburg, author of The Cheese and the Worms, with a similar attack. Ginzburg made hay out of apparent parallels between White’s ideas and those of Giovanni Gentile, Mussolini’s court philosopher, and tried to show how White’s philosophy left the door open to Holocaust denial. White was irritated by this objection, repeatedly pointing out that Nazis and Fascists are ‘anything but relativists’. Ginzburg’s attack on White was, in any case, ill-conceived; since the Holocaust is a historical fact, and since White’s philosophy of history left room for facts, he was being perfectly consistent when he condemned Holocaust deniers for being not only ‘morally offensive’ but ‘intellectually bewildering’.

These clumsy invocations of fascism muddied the waters, as they always do. The real problem with White’s ‘relativism’ was something that he readily owned up to. White was haunted by a sense that academic history had diminished in its ‘relevance’ and prestige. History, he wrote, ‘has sold out any claim to relevance to present existential concerns of the societies in which it is practised in order to purchase a much more dubious claim to “objectivity” (or, as Carlo Ginzburg would prefer, “neutrality”) in the study of the past’. It was Ranke who had negotiated this trade-off in his efforts to fashion history into science; and it is a trade-off that White bitterly lamented.

It could, White hoped, be reversed. In a 1982 essay on ‘The Politics of Historical Interpretation’, he showed how the theory of Metahistory could be put into practice, invoking an example that is, for unhappy reasons, already looming large in our minds. The Holocaust is a fact – White had no time for those who denied it – but it could be interpreted in different ways, with different political implications. There is, for example, a Zionist interpretation of the Holocaust, which frames it as the inevitable result of Jewish statelessness. This interpretation had been castigated by historians such as Pierre Vidal-Naquet as an ‘untruth’ with damaging consequences, but for White there was no objective or epistemological ‘truth’ or ‘untruth’ in matters of interpretation. The ‘truth’ of the Zionist vision of history, White wrote, ‘consists precisely in its effectiveness in justifying a wide range of current Israeli political policies’. Thus it would not do, for those invested in the Palestinian cause, simply to label the Zionist conception of history an ‘untruth’. ‘The effort of the Palestinian people to mount a politically effective response’, White argued, ‘entails the production of a similarly effective ideology, complete with an interpretation of their history capable of endowing it with a meaning that it has hitherto lacked’. This was a project, he added, ‘to which Edward Said wishes to contribute’.

Now, this has some troubling implications. As Wulf Kansteiner has pointed out, it follows from White’s argument that a Nazi historiography of the Holocaust – if it were at least to acknowledge the basic facts of what happened – would possess ‘under certain conditions (for example, a revival of Nazism) the same validity as our conventional histories about the topic today or the Zionist interpretation of the Holocaust in Israel’. After all, historians, according to White, emplot the facts in a manner conforming to their political prejudices anyway; the question is how we morally judge those political prejudices.

Kansteiner’s scenario has never been realised; neo-Nazis tend to have the good sense to know that denying the Holocaust is a more promising strategy than accepting it as fact and emplotting it in a favourable manner. Yet White’s own example, of a Palestinian ‘interpretation of their history’ to buttress an ‘effective ideology’, may come close to what Kansteiner had in mind. Edward Said’s project, which White applauded, was continued by Ilan Pappé in his fiery book, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (2008). Pappé crafted his narrative in order to give his readers the impression that the Jews had visited upon the Palestinians essentially the same fate that had befallen them in the Holocaust. The ways he did this were subtle and ingenious, as Benny Morris laid bare. With an irrelevant, but nonetheless suggestive, reference to gas as a method of killing early in the book, Pappé primed his audience to forge a connection between the Holocaust and the Nakba. Morris, like Pappé, is one of the Israeli ‘New Historians’; he is hardly a dogmatic Zionist. Yet his feet may be rooted more firmly to the ground, in matters of historical interpretation, by the fact that, like Hobsbawm, he prefers ‘rationality’ to ‘imagination’, and makes a conscious effort to retain that ‘objectivity’ or ‘neutrality’ that White thought ‘dubious’. Perhaps he was able to outfox Pappé, to unmask his interpretations not only as morally irresponsible but (it seems to me) historically wrong, because he cleaved to the old strictures. ‘I embarked upon the research not out of ideological commitment or political interest’, Morris once declared in a Rankean vein; ‘I simply wanted to know what happened.’

Does the ‘truth’ of a historical interpretation really consist of nothing more than its capacity to arouse political action? Must everything, including history, always be political? ‘The study of history’, White wrote, ‘is never innocent, ideologically or otherwise’, and it ought to ‘contribute to the question that Kant defined as the soul of ethics: what should I (we) do?’ It ought, in other words, to do exactly what Ranke said he wouldn’t do: ‘instruct the world for the benefit of the future’. White may have embarked on his career thinking that ‘historical knowledge’ was an ‘antidote to ideology’, but he ultimately arrived at the conclusion that scientific, Rankean history ‘is itself an ideology that, in excluding ethical concerns from its operations, produces apathy… rather than a will to action’. It is not possible simply to tell it as it actually was; and it is not admirable even to try.

If Ranke’s folksy dictum is mentioned by anyone nowadays, it is only for it to be treated as a relic of old-fashioned naïveté. Even among those who have never read White, his philosophy of history is in vogue. Many historians appear to agree not only with White’s anxious diagnosis of history’s ‘irrelevance’, but also his prescription: that ‘relevance’ can be recovered with a spirited focus on present political and ethical concerns, and that history’s value as an academic discipline resides in its capacity to arouse people’s ‘will to action’. Today’s historians might therefore be more White’s children than Ranke’s. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing I shall leave – as White would have wanted – to my readers to decide.


Samuel Rubinstein