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From Analytic Philosophy of History to Narrativism

The philosophy of historiography looked very different half a century ago. Narrativism is currently the dominant school, but then it was the analytic philosophy of history, whose interests and problems were rather different. In order to appreciate the transition to narrativism and understand the change of perspective that accompanied it, it is instructive to begin with an exploration of the analytic philosophy of history.

Although Maurice Mandelbaum had published his analytic treatise The Problem of Historical Knowledge: An Answer to Relativism already in 1938, Carl Hempel's article The Function of General Laws in History in 1942 really kick-started the scholarly discourse that later became known as the analytic philosophy of history. This paper and the themes it raised came to dominate the discussion in the philosophy of historiography for the next thirty years.

Hempel was an arch logical empiricist, who formulated the (in)famous covering law model, that is, the suggestion for the formalization of (all) scientific explanation. This intellectual orientation is clearly apparent also in his article on historiography. Hempel's concern in this text is that the discipline of history does not seem to employ anything like general laws in its explanations because it studies individual phenomena. As a consequence, historiography did not seem to deserve the status of science. Historiography was, for logical empiricism and Hempel, thus a kind of borderline science and an unusually hard case to bring in from the cold of pseudoscience or non-science to the warmth of the family of sciences. Hempel is at pains to show that despite all the problems, 'general laws have quite analogous functions in history and in the natural sciences' (1942, 35).

Soon, two sides emerged. There were those, such as Mandelbaum, who together with Hempel, defended some form of the view that the same kind of explanation can be found in historiography as in the sciences. And there were those influenced by Collingwood's philosophy, such as William Dray, who argued that specifically human or historical understanding or other field-specific explanation is used in historiography.1 In general, the analytic philosophy of history was practiced under the shadow of logical empiricism, and the debate centered on the theme of the unity of sciences. Typical topics of interest were explanation, causality and understanding.

The analytic philosophers of history shared a mutual respect for a clear and argumentative style and an inclination towards conceptual explication with other analytic philosophers. However, sometimes it is even more enlightening to define a philosophical school by what it is not rather than by what it is. The analytic philosophy of history was not primarily interested in the writing of history. To put it in other words, it was only remotely concerned with the question of how historical findings are communicated by historians. Analytic philosophers did not analyze historical texts and their structures, that is to say, the elements that present historical knowledge.2 They were oriented towards implicit historiographical explanatory patterns, such as the covering law model (e.g. Hempel 1942) and rational action theory (e.g. Dray 1982), the preoccupation with which practically narrowed analyses to individual claims, or at most to very short specific segments of historical texts. By implication, this negative characterization offers us a preliminary idea of what narrativism is concerned with. Its focus is on history writing and text as the end result of the writing process. Narrativists are interested not so much in the generation of historical knowledge and explanation as in the forms in which it is presented.

The shift from the analytic philosophy of history concerned with atomistic statements and explanations about the past to the text-oriented philosophy of historiography accords with the self-understanding of the narrativists, although Ankersmit contrasts the concern with 'the philosophical problems of historical research' to that with 'the narrative writing of history' (Ankersmit 1986, 14). The former is identified by an interest in such questions as 'what are historical facts?', 'how can facts be explained?' and 'how do values influence the accounts given of historical facts?' By contrast, the 'narrative philosophy investigates the question of how historians integrate a great number of historical facts into one synthetical whole' (Ankersmit 1983, 16).3

The story of rupture and the change of focus in the philosophy of historiography is certainly not the only account that could be provided about the history of philosophy of history and historiography, but it appears to be a rational reconstruction in broad terms. Nevertheless, this tale needs some balancing. We should not forget that there were some scholars, whom we could see as participants in the discourse of the analytic philosophy of history, who were interested in and analyzed narrative aspects of history, but who still did not belong to the subsequent narrativist philosophy of historiography. The analytic philosophy of history in general and the debate on the covering-law model in particular have been discussed in earlier research, but the 'early narr- ativists' have not received much attention in previous studies.4 They however initiated many themes and argued many points that were later adopted by the narrativists. Knowing what they wrote helps us not only to understand the narrativist philosophy of historiography, but also to formulate a framework for the postnarrativist philosophy of historiography later in this book. I will next examine their thinking in more detail, most of which appeared just before the publication of Hayden White's Metahistory at the beginning of the 1970s.

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