Reading Hayden White and Frank Ankersmit
This chapter is designed to outline the transition from the concerns prevalent in the analytic philosophy of history to those of the narra- tivist philosophy of historiography. If this transition has to be reduced to only one issue, it is the shift of focus from atomistic linguistic analysis to the whole texts of history. And while it is not suggested that the concerns of analytic philosophy of history are or were unimportant, the narrativist perspective on historiography certainly is important and critically increases our understanding of historiography. In other words, the traditional philosophical questions and conceptual studies on causality and explanation, for example, have to be an integral part of the philosophical examination of historiography also in the future. But the same must be said of whole works of history and their texts, which arguably constitute the central historiographical contributions.
Narrativism as a scholarly phenomenon is diverse and widespread and not limited to Hayden White and Frank Ankersmit. In addition to historiography, the notion of narrative has 'successfully travelled to psychology, education, social sciences, political thought and policy analysis, health research, law, theology and cognitive science', as Matti Hyvarinen notes in his survey of the concept (2006, 20). Naturally, my intention is not to include all this diversity in this one study. It would be too broad an undertaking, and it is also questionable whether all branches of narrativism in fact have something in common. But even in a more limited sense, as a philosophical orientation, narrativism has more than one face. My argument in this study is that White and Ankersmit collectively amount to the most developed and comprehensive philosophy of historiography that there is. And although they are different kinds of philosophers, and their styles are quite dissimilar, my claim is that they have enough in common to be treated as sharing a certain core common philosophy.
Sometimes White and Ankersmit have been categorized as linguistic narrativists because they understand narrative as a linguistic condition of historical presentation and because they are above all interested in the configuration that leads the historian to construct a narrative out of historical 'raw material' (Kalela 1990, 90).9 There are also other narra- tivist philosophers such as Paul Ricoeur (1990) and David Carr (1986) whose orientation differs from that of H. White and Ankersmit. The name phenomenological narrativism is applicable to the former, as Ricoeur and Carr treat narrativity as a fundamental condition of human experiencing in general and have taken direct influence from phenomenological philosophers, such as Husserl and Merleau-Ponty. And in the case of Ricoeur, time and temporality could well be said to characterize his interests as much as narrativity. As he once put it, 'narrative [is],.. a guardian of time' (Ricoeur 1990, 241).
While phenomenological narrativism will occasionally be discussed in this book, it does not constitute the core subject. These thinkers are discussed only when they seem to directly contribute to the issue under consideration, but as a philosophical school their differences to the linguistic narrativists are at least as significant as the similarities. The most important difference is that the former are primarily preoccupied with a metaphysical question, which is beyond the main research interest of this book. My aim is not to take a stand on the transcendental limit of human experiencing or to take part in the debate on the nature of time. My focus in this book remains squarely on historiography; specifically, on the nature of historiographical construction and configuration. Furthermore, just like Mink and Mandelbaum above, I am skeptical as to whether time and the sequential before-after structure is essential for historiographical construction and presentation. Tucker has more recently expressed similar doubts (Tucker 2004, 139). My own reasons will become obvious in the chapters that follow.
Commentators often emphasize that Hayden White is an elusive character. Even more, despite all respect and interest that White's scholarship has attracted, it is not at all easy to decipher White's exact 'philosophical position'. Some say that his scholarship is focused on creativity and productivity at the expense of consistency and systematicity. And he uses the essay style to provoke, 'to try things out', and always moves on to new topics. Vann has said that any consideration of his oeuvre should therefore begin with the question 'Which White?' (Vann 1998, 144; 145); 'extracting from him - or imposing upon him - a systematic philosophy of history is impossible' (Vann 1998, 161). In his biography of White, Herman Paul similarly claims that the latter does not have any philosophical 'position' in the sense of a well-grounded system of philosophical beliefs (Paul 2011, 7).
This warning of over-interpreting White or imposing a rigid systematic philosophy on him is undoubtedly appropriate. Sensitivity to shifts in thinking must be one of the most valuable virtues especially in biographical writing, in which one tries to achieve a comprehensive and fair picture of someone's thinking. It is by no means rare that scholars change their minds and interests throughout their careers; therefore, one should be wary of the illusions of the career-length coherence of thinking. However, in this book the aim is not to create an intellectual biography of any one person. I make no claim to offer a 'full picture' of Hayden White, Frank Ankersmit or any other thinker who appears in this work. What is more important to note is the fact that not even in the case of White can we avoid the conclusion that his writings are philosophically loaded. While trying at all costs not to misrepresent White, I take his words at face value when he writes about the problems of historical knowledge and place his claims under philosophical scrutiny.
Paul specifically warns that reading White as an anti-realist risks missing the point that his epistemological anti-realism was inspired by moral reasons: 'although he [White] tended to accept Mink's and Ankersmit's epistemological anti-realism, his own reason for treating the past as meaningless in itself was a moral consideration' (Paul 2011, 116).10 Granting this point about the moral rationale in White's philosophy, Paul's reading of White nevertheless implies that he was a (philosophical) anti-realist of some kind. White might have been motivated by moral considerations, but he ends up saying something epistemologically significant. The good news is that the existentialist interpretation does not seem to contradict the anti-realist reading; rather, they seem complementary. We can take the former as detailing a personal motivation and driving force in his career, which led to a rich variety of essays and philosophical views, including anti-realism regarding historical knowledge.
With Ankersmit we are not faced with the problem of struggling to pin down deliberate argumentation for philosophical positions. Indeed, Ankersmit is often philosophically more amenable as an object of analysis than White for the simple reason that he is philosophically more explicit. However, Ankersmit also changes direction, as he clearly indicates at least on one occasion in his career (see below). This potentially poses a problem for the interpretation of his writings.
When Narrative Logic is read together with the papers written mostly in the 1980s, we find a principled and coherent view of historiography. The ten years from the beginning of the 1980s to the early 1990s constitutes the early period in Ankersmit's philosophical thinking and, in his view, more generally in the new narrative philosophy of historiography. According to Ankersmit, the attempt to formulate the transcendental condition of historical knowledge characterizes this early period. The introduction to a collection of his papers History and Tropology: The Rise and Fall of Metaphor is revealing in this respect. He says that the book attempts to 'break the spell of Kantian, transcendentalist patterns of argument' (1994, 17). He writes that four chapters out of the seven in the volume 'still operate on the basis of Kantian assumptions' (1994, 19), but the other three already attempt to move beyond it: 'If the collection could be said to tell a story, it would be the story of how to move from a metaphorical, transcendentalist conception of history to the Aristotelian-Freudian conception of historical writing' (1994, 28).11
Indeed, it seems that in the early 1990s Ankersmit became more interested in the question of how we experience our personal and cultural past, which subsequently led to such publications as Sublime Historical Experience (2005). Icke describes the change of focus in Ankersmit dramatically as a 'lost "historical" cause', and further calls the early Ankersmit 'The Good Ankersmit' as opposed to the later Ankersmit, whose goodness began to 'melt away' and who, as a result of this, succumbed to the 'highly subjective world of mysticism' (Icke 2010, 1, 8). It should, however, be noted that although Ankersmit in this later period devotes more attention to different questions than in the early stage, there is also detectable continuity and consistency in his career. First, questions regarding language, truth, knowledge, and historical representation have occupied him from his first writings. For example, historical representation was a theme of interest already in Narrative Logic (although the term itself does not appear there). The book that emerged twenty years later was tellingly entitled Historical Representation (2001). And the same topic plays a central role in his latest work: Meaning, Truth, and Reference in Historical Representation (2012). Even in Sublime Historical Experience he emphasized that, although that book was about sublime historical experience, it did not question whether or not we could make true statements regarding the past or explain the past in terms of texts representing the past (2005, 14).
Further, there is a programmatic aim that interweaves different periods together. From the beginning, Ankersmit has been very explicit that he wants to create a new kind of analytic philosophy and extend the examinations of the philosophy of language from the level of singular propositions onto the level of texts. First, although Ankersmit says in Narrative Logic that his aim is to formulate a 'synthetical philosophy of language', the style of the book is remarkably analytic. In a way, Narrative Logic is a book of analytic philosophy that argues for a holistic approach to historiography. In Historical Representation, Ankersmit suggests that analyzing historical representations 'add[s] a new and important chapter to contemporary philosophy of language' (Ankersmit 2001, 283). More precisely, 'Philosophers of language have over the last century and a half closely scrutinized the notions of truth, of reference, and of meaning in order to clarify the relationship between the true statement and that of which it is true. But they have never ventured upon the problem of the text, and surely this is an important aspect of our use of language ... philosophy of language will remain a mere theoretical torso unless it takes seriously the kind of problem that is addressed in philosophy of history' (Ankersmit 2001, 283; similarly 2008a). Furthermore, the analytic approach of Narrative Logic and Historical Representation resonates well with the agenda for The Journal for the Philosophy of History, written thirty years after Narrative Logic. The agenda is co-signed by Ankersmit, but one feels his touch more strongly in it, perhaps unsurprisingly since he is the chief editor. The agenda calls for clarity and rigor in the philosophy of history. It suggests that the philosophy of history may both learn from and contribute to the philosophies of language and science (Ankersmit et al. 2007). And the same desire to contribute to philosophy of language, to 'add a new chapter' to it, can still be found in Ankersmit's most recent book (e.g., 2012, ix). Also the break and discontinuity with Kantian philosophy is in doubt as he confesses in Meaning, Truth, and Reference in Historical Representation that, despite his resistance to it, transcendentalist discourse has inspired a large part of the book (Ankersmit 2012, 46).
However, perhaps a more important question than the continued development and rethinking of some particular issues is whether he has changed his mind in some other important respects. For example, after reading Narrative Logic and the early papers, in which the view that a historical representation (and a text) cannot be true of the past plays a prominent role, one may be surprised to find the following statement in his most recent book: 'we are justified in speaking of historical truth. Not only are a historical text's individual sentences typically true of the past . .. the same can be said of that text as a whole' (Ankersmit 2012, 124). So much for the postmodernism that has sometimes been attributed to Ankersmit!
There certainly have been modifications in the views and in their groundings as well as changes in emphases and terminology in his career. For example, with regard to the question of truth above, the understanding and use of 'truth' is different in these two contexts, which makes the seemingly contradictory assertions compatible. But it is again necessary to add a caveat. As in the case of White, this book is not a biography of Ankersmit, not even an intellectual one.12 My intention is not to force Ankersmit's whole career into a 'box of coherence' - but I do believe that there is a certain coherent and articulable core philosophical position to be found in his scholarship. If he has other scholarly interests and preoccupations - as most scholars do - these are beyond this study. This means that I will not be commenting on all of the changes of emphasis that his career may contain.
What I do claim in the next chapter is that three concepts, repre- sentationalism, constructivism and holism, are adequate to describe and summarize the central philosophical position of these two narrativist philosophers of historiography. The purpose of this chapter has been to set the stage for later investigations and offer an overview of the development in the philosophy of historiography in the decades after the Second World War. The next one aims to spell out the philosophy of the narrativist philosophy of historiography.