Hayden White and History


Hayden White is renown for publishing two books that has changed the discipline of history forever: Metahistory: the Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe and The Content of the Form which boils down to the demonstration how the claim of a precise distinction between history (the narrative form which describes what happened in history) and the philosophy of history (the schema that legitimizes the narrative) is naught but a methodological blunder.

All historical writings (in a narrative form) entail a philosophy that validates the particular style of narrative. Ergo, it follows that the common ground between narrative history and the philosophy of history, where both attempt to understand, describe and explain what happened, is “metahistory.” The concerns of metahistory are the structure of the historical perception and the epistemological nature of historical explanations.

There are four kinds of strategies the historian employs in his explanations: Formal argument, Emplotment, Ideological implication, and Tropes; each consisting of 4 modes of articulation.

Formal Argument

The 4 modes of formal arguments are formism, organicism, mechanism and contextualism.

Formism identifies the distinctive properties of the objects within the historical field. When a given set of objects has been properly identified, its class/generic/specific properties assigned and labels, the formist argument is complete. There is no precise conceptual generalization about the process within the historical field, since the formist strategy tends to be wide in its scope. This is why White calls the essence of formist analysis “dispersive” instead of “integrative.” Such formist historians are Johann Gottfried Herder, Thomas Carlyle, & Jules Michelet.

Organicist hypotheses are more integrative and reductive – since it renders the particular within the historical field as elements of synthetic processes. The paradigm of microcosmic and macrocosmic relationship determines the organicist’s thought pattern, since he structures the narrative that demonstrates a ‘crystallization’ of the individual entities into an integrated whole. The integrated whole is oftentimes abstract and teleological or oriented towards an end goal the process of history is directed towards. Idealists and dialectics number among the organicists.

Mechanistic arguments search and locate the laws that determine human activities. While mechanistic hypotheses are integrative, they tend to be more reductive than synthetic. Mechanistic historians study history in order to identify the nomological laws that rule its operation and write a narrative form that represents the effects of those laws. Individual events are considered less important than the class they belong to, and these classes are less important than the laws their regularities are taken to represent. Once a law or laws that govern history is discovered, the mechanistic historian’s explanation is complete. Alexis de Tocqueville, Henry Thomas Buckle, Karl Marx and Hippolyte Taine essay forth mechanistic arguments.

According to contextualism, events are explained by their relation to similar events and threads are traced to their origins. The contextual explanation indicates a functional theory of truth where the significance of events is explained by the context of their period. Like the formist, the historical field is seen as a ‘spectacle,’ but unlike the formist, the contextualist claims what happened may be explained by the interrelationship between the agents or agencies within the historical field. First an event is isolated, and then the threads that are related to the events are identified and finally traced to the natural or social space within the historical field backwards to discover the origin of the event and forwards to determine the impact or influence on subsequent events. Jacob Burckhardt is the exemplar of contextualism.

Since the beginning of the 19th century, formist and contextualist models have been dominant within the writings of the professional historians. They have viewed organicist and mechanistic models as ‘unfortunate lapse’ from “History Proper,” and the impulse of Organicist and Mechanistic explanation is attributed to that disreputable offshoot, the philosophy of history. My professor of history held nothing but unmitigated scorn for philosophers, and spared none for Hayden White in particular.

White argues that the grounds for the dismissal of both models are ‘extra-epistemological.’ When something is extra-epistemological, that means there are no apodictic epistemological grounds for the preference of one explanation over another whatsoever. There is a sneaking suspicion that the desire of scientism lurks behind the limitation of historical explanation to strictly formism and contextualism, and that desire is motivated by ideology and ethics. For instance, radicals contend the historian’s preference for both Formist and Contextualist models is ideologically motivated. Marxists in particular claim that mechanistic models are rejected because they expose the true nature of the power of the privileged, and that knowledge will lead to their expulsion from power. On the other hand, liberals argue that the radicals’ assertion of the discovery of the laws of historical structure is ideologically motivated as well, since they view historical laws being promoted for the sake of social transform. Ergo, the very pursuit of the laws of historical structure is suspect itself. This goes as well for the idealist’s dream of distilling the ‘meaning’ of history in its totality because their principles are already beholden to ideological positions held a priori.


The four modes of Emplotment are the archetypes of Romance, Comedy, Tragedy and Satire.

Romance is a “drama of self-identification symbolized by the hero’s transcendence of the world of experience” or the victory and the final liberation from it. Hayden’s examples are the Grail legend or the resurrection of Christ. They both are a drama of the triumph of good over evil/virtue over vice/light over darkness. Satire is the complete opposite; instead of redemption, it is a drama of diremption, or the realization that man is a slave of the world. Satire entails a stark pessimism that sighs over the fact that humanity is ultimately inadequate.

However, Tragedy and Comedy both offer a limited reprieve from the inevitable fate of Man and that reprieve is a ‘reconciliation.’ Comedy establishes hope as a temporary conquest over the forces of society and nature. Reconciliation as hope reunites men with men or with the world. However, there aren’t any temporary triumphs in Tragedy, except for a false or illusory one, and White points out that the division among men is shown to be worse than they were at the beginning of the tragedy. Yet the failure of the protagonist is not a complete loss for the spectators, who gain an understanding of the law of existence. Reconciliation as epiphany asserts the inalterable and eternal condition of the world that men must obey and work within them.

Ideological implication

The historian’s ideology contains ethical assumptions of life, the beliefs on how the past influences the present, how we ought to act right now, and the claims of scientific or realism. All ideologies recognize social change is inevitable, but they vary on its value and the appropriate pace of change. White also claims that prior to Enlightenment the ideology that did not refer to science as authority was authoritarian itself. This is no longer possible today.

The four modes of Ideological implication are Anarchism, Conservativism, Radicalism, and Liberalism. These categories lean heavily on Mannheim’s analyses.

According to the conservative ideology, history evolves, hopefully towards a utopia, but the changes are part of a natural rhythm. Conservatives are suspicious of a ‘programmatic transformation’ of the status quo, because they subscribe to the natural rhythm of social change, it should not be sped up artificially. There is no hurry, for utopia is already here.

For the liberal the progress of history comes from the changes in law and government. Liberals support fine-tuning of the structure of society, and believe that the pace of change is social, not natural. Utopia has not arrived just yet. However, both the conservative and the liberal think the social structure is already sound, that only the parts or components should or will change. While conservatives are most “socially congruent,” liberals are relatively so, and the anarchists are most “socially transcendent,” whereas radicals are relatively so.

The radicals and liberals believe that history can and should be studied rationally/scientifically. Radicals tend to emphasize the laws of the structure of history, and liberals concern themselves with the ‘general trends of development.’ Anarchists themselves are inclined towards romantic techniques, while conservatives are prone to integrate history with organicist accounts.

Both radicals and anarchists believe that structural transformation of society is necessary. The radical ideology presents utopia as imminent, so it must be brought about solely by revolutionary means. Social change is for the sake of reestablishing society on brand new bases.

Anarchists prefer to abolish society for the sake of an entirely new community of individuals who have a common humanity. All governments are inherently corrupt, so anarchists call for their destruction and replacement with a new standard of community. For anarchists, utopia is in the distant past, long before the rise of corrupt civilization. However, radicals are more sensitive of power, more cognizant of how much is needed to bring about change and they are also more understanding of the inherent inertia of institutions.

Since all ideologies are grounded within ethical concerns, an epistemological base that judges the ‘cognitive adequacy’ of an ideology is based on an ethical concern, there cannot be any way of determining which ideology is more ‘accurate’ than another. The outline of ideological positions itself does not and will not result in an “extra-ideological” ground to judge the conflicting ideologies. Therefore, all conceptual frameworks are ideologically driven or laden. Even the philosophies of history cannot bring about objectivity because they are already imprisoned by their own narrative strategies. The difference between historians with incompatible histories cannot be resolved by a mere appeal to the evidence because the question of what exactly counts as historical evidence is the crux of the problem.


White postulates a deeper level of consciousness the historian uses when he/she chooses conceptual strategies – a poetic act that prefigures the act of writing history. The ‘deep structural forms’ of historical reflection are the four tropes of poetic language: metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche and irony.

Metaphor is a ‘transfer’ where one phenomena is compared or contrasted to another by analogy or simile. Ex. ‘My love, my rose’ the identification is literally asserted, yet the phrase is meant to be taken figuratively. ‘My rose’ is a figure or a symbol of ‘my love.’ The loved one shares certain qualities with a rose, so the rose ‘represents’ the loved. However, were the phrase read as a metonymy, the ‘loved one’ would be reduced to a rose. Were the phrase read as a synecdoche, the loved one would be essentially a rose. Were the phrase read as an irony, the loved one would be the implicit negation of what is explicitly affirmed, the rose. The metaphor trope is representational in form, which implies formism.

Synecdoche is the use of a part to symbolize the character of the whole. Example: ‘he is all heart.’ the heart figuratively designates a quality of character. ‘All heart’ symbolizes a quality (generosity or compassion). The name of a part/property/component/character of an object quantitatively represents a whole object. Metonymy is literal whereas synecdoche is figurative. Ergo, metonymy is essentially reductive while synecdoche is integrative. The synecdoche trope is integrative in form, much like organicism.

Metonymy is the substitution of the name of the thing for the whole. Ex. ’50 sails’ refers to ’50 ships.’ Ships are reduced to sails in a part-to-whole relationship. The name of a part/property/component/aspect of an object is used to quantitatively represent the whole object. The metonymy trope is reductionist in form and lends to mechanism.

All three of the aforementioned tropes are inherently naive since they presuppose a language that adequately grasps things/concepts/meaning figuratively. Irony is where a literal meaning is nonsense figuratively. Irony is the self-conscious use of a metaphor as a ‘verbal self-negation.’ The trope inspires second thoughts or doubt about the nature of the thing characterized or the inadequacy of the characterization itself. Example: ‘he is all heart’ becomes a manifestly absurd expression, or Ironic, when applied to a person completely lacking the figurative qualities of a ‘heart.’ With irony, figurative language doubles back onto itself. The irony trope is negational in form, and is essentially dialectical. In this sense, Irony is metatropological.

Irony as a linguistic paradigm is radically self critical, doubly skeptical of the world of expression and the ability of language to adequately represent truth. Irony is shot thru with skepticism and relative ethics. Ergo, irony is inherently antagonistic to the naive formulations of formism, mechanism, and organicism as much as the form of satire is inherently antagonistic to tragedy, comedy and romance. However, irony can be used tactically by Liberals and Conservatives against the social forms or utopian dreamers, and offensively by the anarchists and radicals to deride the ideas of the liberals and conservatives.

Oversimplifications of the great historians:

Michelet’s rendition of the French Revolution is a Romance that employs metaphor that describes how the French struggled against and triumphed over tyranny and other obstacles. History is a series of triumphal progression of events.

Leopold von Ranke writes in the comic mode that advocates adaptation to the way things are, to accept them as they are.

Tocqueville presides over American and French society and judges them in an ironic mode, while writing in a tragic mode that the story is always the same: man’s worst enemy is himself, for he is at odds with himself.

Burckhardt’s presentation of the Renaissance is now the established view, for it abandoned the epic mode for an ironic one that results in a theory of history that accurately predicts the rise of the future and the symptoms that accompanies it.


Hayden White does not think history is capable of discovering the truth the same way the natural sciences can, for it cannot produce predictive or probable laws. Since history is at bottom a narrative genre, it is to be studied with models from literary and rhetorical studies, and the conclusions are essentially literary or artistic. The choice of a historiographical model is determined strictly on aesthetic and ethical grounds.

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...a philosophisticator who utters heresies, thinks theothanatologically and draws like Kirby on steroids.