Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-century Europe  

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"My own analysis of the deep structure of the historical imagination of Nineteenth century Europe is intended to provide a new perspective on the current debate over the nature and function of historical knowledge."--Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-century Europe (1974) by Hayden White

"One can study only what one has dreamed about".--The Psychoanalysis of Fire (1938) by Bachelard

"The revolutions of 1848 destroyed the middle ground upon which Liberalism had flourished since the eighteenth century. In the following age historians, like everyone else, had to take a stand for or against revolution and to decide to read history with either a Conservative or a Radical eye. The vision of Tocquevil1e, like that of Hegel, seemed far too flexible, too ambivalent, too tolerant, to thinkers who felt the necessity to choose in philosophy between Schopenhauer and Spencer, in literature between Baudelaire and Zola, and in historical thought between Ranke and Marx."--Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-century Europe (1974) by Hayden White

"I have tried to show that the works of the principal philosophers of history of the nineteenth century (Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, and Croce) differ from those of their counterparts in what is sometimes called "proper history" (Michelet, Ranke, Tocqueville, and Burckhardt) only in emphasis, not in content."--Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-century Europe (1974) by Hayden White

"Following the line indicated by Northrop Frye in his Anatomy of Criticism, I identify at least four different modes of emplotment: Romance, Tragedy, Comedy, and Satire."--Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-century Europe (1974) by Hayden White

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Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (1974) is a historiography book by Hayden White.

In Metahistory, White rejects the notion that historians or journalists are able to write about the past or present as it actually happens. Instead he defines archetypes of historians with specific characteristics who approach history with different types of narratives. The medium (the type of narrative) is the integral message of the history. White provides a system intended to de-mystify histories, historians, news reports, and journalists who claim to present things objectively. He also proposes some methods for determining in what ways a given account lacks complete objectivity and how it can be seen as ultimately ideological.



According to White the historian begins his work by constituting a chronicle of events which is to be organized into a coherent story. These are the two preliminary steps before processing the material into a plot which is argumented as to express an ideology. Thus the historical work is "a verbal structure in the form of a narrative prose discourse that purports to be a model, or icon, of past structures and processes in the interest of explaining what they were by representing them".

For the typologies of emplotment, argumentation and ideologies White refers to works by Northrop Frye, Stephen Pepper and Karl Mannheim. His four basic emplotments are provided by the archetypical genres of romance, comedy, tragedy and satire. The modes of argumentation, following Pepper's 'adequate root metaphors' are formist, organist, mechanicist and contextualist. Among the main types of Ideology White adopts anarchy, conservatism, radicalism and liberalism. White affirms that elective affinities link the three different aspects of a work and only four combinations (out of 64) are without internal inconsistencies or 'tensions'. The limitation arises through a general mode of functioning - representation, reduction, integration or negation, which White assimilates to one of the four main tropes: metaphor, metonymy synecdoche and irony. Strucuturalist as Roman Jakobson or Emile Benveniste have used mostly an opposition between the first two of them but White refers to an earlier classification, adopted by Giambattista Vico and contrasts metaphor with irony. The exemplary figures chosen by White present the ideal types of historians and philosophers.

Synoptic table of Hayden White's Metahistory
Trope Mode Emplotment Argument Ideology Historian Philosopher
Metaphor Representational Romance Formist Anarchist Michelet Nietzsche
Metonymy Reductionist Tragedy Mechanicist Radical Tocqueville Marx
Synecdoche Integrative Comedy Organicist Conservative Ranke Hegel
Irony Negational Satire Contextualist Liberal Burckhardt Croce


The received tradition: the Enlightenment and the problem of historical consciousness. The historical imagination between metaphor and irony -- Hegel: the poetics of history and the way beyond irony -- Four kinds of "realism" in nineteenth-century historical writing. Michelet: historical realism as romance -- Ranke: historical realism as comedy -- Tocqueville: historical realism as tragedy -- Burckhardt: historical realism as satire -- The repudiation of "realism" in late nineteenth-century philosophy of history. Historical consciousness and the rebirth of philosophy of history -- Marx: the philosophical defense of history in the metonymical mode -- Nietzsche: the poetic defense of history in the metaphorical mode -- Croce: the philosopical defense of history in the ironic mode.

Linking in as of May 2022

Cultural turn, Hayden White, Meta-knowledge, Novel, Storytelling, Structural stage theory, The French Lieutenant's Woman, Trope (philosophy)

See also

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