Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe
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Since its initial publication in 1973, Hayden White’s Metahistory has remained an essential book for understanding the nature of historical writing. In this classic work, White argues that a deep structural content lies beyond the surface level of historical texts. This latent poetic and linguistic content―which White dubs the "metahistorical element"―essentially serves as a paradigm for what an "appropriate" historical explanation should be.
To support his thesis, White analyzes the complex writing styles of historians like Michelet, Ranke, Tocqueville, and Burckhardt, and philosophers of history such as Marx, Hegel, Nietzsche, and Croce. The first work in the history of historiography to concentrate on historical writing as writing, Metahistory sets out to deprive history of its status as a bedrock of factual truth, to redeem narrative as the substance of historicality, and to identify the extent to which any distinction between history and ideology on the basis of the presumed scientificity of the former is spurious.
This fortieth-anniversary edition includes a new preface in which White explains his motivation for writing Metahistory and discusses how reactions to the book informed his later writing. In a new foreword, Michael S. Roth, a former student of White’s and the current president of Wesleyan University, reflects on the significance of the book across a broad range of fields, including history, literary theory, and philosophy. This book will be of interest to anyone―in any discipline―who takes the past as a serious object of study.
(58-59) In addition, he indicated what he conceived to be the two "qualities" without which no one could aspire to the office of the historian: a love for "the particular for itself" and a resistance to the authority of 'tpreconceived ideas" (59). Only by "reflection on the particular" would the course of "the developnlen t of the world in general ... beC0111e apparent" (ibid.). 1-11is course of developlllent could not, however, be characterized in terms of those 'tuniversal concepts" in which
possibility of aspiring to any nonlological comprehension of the forces dOIl1ina ting the historical process. He fell back upon an analogy bet\veen art and historiography, but invoked a conception of art which assunles the adequacy of the ideas of for111 contained in the imagination to the representation of the fornls of things nlet with in individuated being. The resultant theory of historical kno\vledge was ForInist in nature and typological in implication, but the nlystery of historical being
of a fornlalist approach to the study of historical thinking in the nineteenth century. 1'his being given, however, it is imnlediately apparent that the works produced by these thinkers represent alternative, and seemingly mutually exclusive, conceptions both of the same segnlen ts of the historical process and of the tasks of historical thinking. Considered purely as verbal structures, the \vorks they produced appear to have radically different formal characteristics and to dispose the
begin by distinguishing anlong the following levels of conceptualization in the historical "vork: (1) chronicle; ( 2) story; (3) Illode of enlplotment; (4) 1110de of argull1cnt; and (5) Blode of ideological inlplication. I take 1 . -1" an d_ u. St ory" ,[0 re f 1 .L'" In t'I1e rus .,. t otlCc1 - . l C_1r0111C_e er" to ' " pnnl1tlVe e_crnenLS clccount, but both represent processes of selection and arrangeI11ent of data frol11 the unprocessed historical record in the interest of rendering that
the like), \ve have no reason to be surprised by the fact that it "announces its fragnlentary character on the very face of if' (ibid.). Conceptual history adopts an "abstract position," but it also "takes a general point of view." It thereby provides the basis for a transi tion to Philosophical history, the third class of historical reflection for "vhich flegel's own work is supposed to provide the principles (7-8), because such branches of a nation's or a people's life as its art, laws, and