Hayden White counts as the most influential contemporary philosopher of history. He is often praised and criticized for his “narrativist” approach to the study of history. Among historians and literary scholars in particular, the name of White is almost synonymous with a “linguistic” or “narrative” turn in historical studies. Few readers, though, have asked why White is interested in narrative discourse, how this interest relates to his moral concerns, and why most of White’s publications, including his ground-breaking Metahistory, focus on moral agency, human self-determination, ideology, and myth, rather than on narrative discourse.
My book tries to answer these questions. Starting with White’s doctoral studies in medieval church history, I try to show how White developed a highly “undisciplinary” philosophy of history, inspired more by existentialist–humanist preoccupations with human freedom and moral self-determination than by the academic historical discipline in its twentieth-century state. I argue that a desire “to get out of history”, or to exchange historical thought in its academic incarnation for more existential modes of historical representation, is a leitmotiv in White’s entire philosophy of history.
One of the surprising conclusions I reach is that White’s frequently-quoted Metahistory is often misunderstood. In spite of what many readers assume, it is not a study of historical discourse, but a passionate plea to reunite historical thought with myth and moral imagination. I also argue that White’s “tropes”, as famously presented in Metahistory, are no linguistic templates for historical thought, but metaphoric labels for ideal-typical views on how “history” relates to myth, dream, and imagination.
So, in a sense, this book offers a re-interpretation of White, thereby correcting the sort of Wikipedia wisdom so often associated with his name.
Herman Paul is lecturer in historical theory at Leiden University, and the author of Hayden White.