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Three Tenets of Narrativist Philosophy of Historiography

This chapter provides an in-depth analysis of narrativist philosophy of historiography. The two philosophers whose thinking was already introduced in the previous chapter are discussed in detail here: Hayden White and Frank Ankersmit. I hope to be able to show that despite some differences, they share a certain core philosophy between them.

The aim, in other words, is to spell out what this philosophy of narra- tivism is. My suggestion is that the kernel of it can be captured by three concepts: representationalism, constructivism, and holism. The emphasis in this chapter is on analysis, not on judgment. In subsequent chapters the evaluative function is more prominent. However, it would be impossible to analyze philosophical reasoning and claims without also providing some assessment of these three tenets of narrativism.


'Historians almost naturally opt for what one might call "the copy theory of historical representation." They believe that there has been a past that they should "copy" as well as they can in the language they use for writing about it. All that they say about the past should have its exact counterpart in the past itself - and language should not add anything to this. For that would be a distortion of the past wie es eigentlich gewesen,' writes Ankersmit in his recent book (Ankersmit 2012, 45). The quotation expresses the copy account of historical representation against which Ankersmit has argued practically throughout his career. It is noteworthy that the famous German statement by the 'father' of modern (scientific) historiography Ranke grounds this view theoretically and historically. Along similar lines, White suggests that one should not think of a historical account as a model in the way of a scale model of an airplane or a ship, a map or a photograph (White 1978, 88). It is typical for White to refer to 'a scientific kind of representation', an allusion to the Rankean type of historiography, in his critical comments on the kind of historical theory that treats narrative as a realistic portrayal of the past (e.g., White 1984, 26).1

The message in this section is that both Ankersmit and White assume that representations and their production are fundamental for historiography, a position that is called 'representationalism' in this book. Representationalism appears in many ways and on many levels in the philosophies of both Ankersmit and White. It is to be seen in the criticism of Rankean historiography and in the general characterizations of the nature of history writing. And in the case of Ankersmit, it is also apparent in the development of an alternative representation- alist account to remedy the problems of modern historiography. What is more, representationalism also limits the options available in this corrective endeavor.

For a more detailed analysis of representationalism it is good to start with Ankersmit's Narrative Logic. The possibility of historical re-presentation is the main sticking point between two central interlocutors, the narrative idealist and the narrative realist. One of the three pillars on which Ankersmit's philosophy, narrative idealism, rests is the statement that 'narrations contained in works of history are not images or pictures of the past' (Ankersmit 1983, 7). By contrast, the narrative realist is someone who regards narratio as a picture of the past and assumes that there is a correspondence between these two similar to that between a photograph or a picture and the reality depicted in them. Ankersmit says that the narrative realist understands historical narratio as something akin to a verbalization of individual images depicted in a film, and an even better analogy is the one between a machine and its blueprint (Ankersmit 1983, 75-76). Photographic, cartographic, and copying metaphors are very common indeed for both Ankersmit and White. They are used when the authors characterize the philosophical views that they oppose.

The interesting issue is that despite their critical perspective on representational realism, both White and Ankersmit see representations and the creation of representations as essential to historiography. White assumes that we have an inherent desire to project the qualities of narrative - such as coherence, integrity, fullness and the closure of 'an image of life' - onto real events, although the former features can only be imaginary (White 1984, 24-25). According to White, any historian has to face this problem of how to represent and re-create the past (White

2005). White talks about 'specifically historiographical representation', dubs the nineteenth-century classic historians whom he analyzed in Metahistory 'great narrativizers of historical reality' and suggests that (also) literature is interested in 'representing reality realistically' (White 2011, 392, 395, 398). Tellingly he calls the need to propose representations 'the decease of representationalism', thus indicating that realistic representation is something we are bound to attempt, but that it is an activity in which we will ultimately fail (White 2005).

Similarly to White, Ankersmit sees that creating representation is the central function of historiography. In spite of the fact that Ankersmit's first pillar in Narrative Logic rejects that narratios are images or pictures of the past, his second pillar suggests that (nevertheless) 'narrative historiography proposes "panoramic" interpretations, points of view or theses of the past' (e.g. Ankersmit 1983, 7). The representationalist language again catches the eye here. 'Point of view' implies that we are looking at some object from a certain location, which defines the 'point' from which we gaze at it. And 'panorama' is typically a comprehensive image of a landscape. Further, in some later publications, Ankersmit is very explicit as to what kind of role representation assumes in historiography. He writes that 'historical writing gives us representations of the past' and that 'all historical writing aims at a realist representation of past reality' (Ankersmit 2001, 11, 25; my emphasis). Provided that this is the aim of all historical writing, it is only natural that 'the central problem of historical theory' is 'the problem of how the historian accounts for or represents past reality' (Ankersmit 2001, 68). Finally, the following statement in Ankersmit's recent book is perhaps the most direct expression of the intimate and necessary relation between historiography and historical representation: 'My main thesis will be that there can be no historical writing outside historical representation' (2012, 47).

Ankersmit is convinced that visual and optical metaphors also offer us the correct language for understanding the nature of historical text (1995b, 223). Indeed, without them we might never succeed in this theoretical challenge: 'The relevant secrets of the nature of historical writing can only be discerned if we see the historical text as a representation of the past in much the same way that the work of art is a representation of what it depicts' (Ankersmit 2001, 80). In so explicitly endorsing the analogy between visual arts and historiography, Ankersmit takes a step further down the path that began with White's comparison of historiography to literature. This path, paved with representationalist vocabulary, leads Ankersmit, and slightly less also White, closer to modern historiography than has been recognized. One thing is that Ankersmit now clearly says that the representationalist account of Ranke and Humboldt was essentially correct although in need of updating (Ankersmit 2012, 1). On the other hand, many historical theorists bent on historical realism, unlike Ankersmit and White, nevertheless accept a similar characterization of the historian as a portrait painter, or other creator of representations, attempting to portray the past in his or her literary depictions (Ankersmit 1994, 145). For example, Croce understood historiography as a type of artistic representation that has the real event as its object (Croce 2012, 500). One might say that a commitment to representations, and more, to representationalism, that is, the view that historiography necessarily represents some kinds of objects, is a reversal of the radical legacy of narrativism, when it departed from the research- oriented analytic philosophy of history and from the traditional copy theory of historical reality.

But what is the kind of representationalism that White and Ankersmit advocate? I will begin with White. In the subsequent discussion on representation, he stays more in the background because, although he understands the basic representational function in history writing in very similar terms to Ankersmit, he has very little to say on the specifics of representation.2

White suggests that, even if we give up on the idea that the past can be represented directly, as if 'narrative' were just a 'neutral "container" of historical fact', we can still try to form representations of the past (1992, 37). His idea is that we use 'intransitive writing', in which the relationship to the events described is 'in the middle voice'. This can be understood as an attempt, not to portray the object as it really is, nor as a suggestion that we are imprisoned by our subjective point of view and language, but to describe (real) historical events through our own experiences. It is remarkable in this light, however, that White still wishes to cling to the idea of realistic representation: 'This is not to suggest that we will give up the effort to represent the Holocaust realistically, but rather that our notion of what constitutes realistic representation must be revised to take account of experiences that are unique to our century and for which older modes of representation have proven inadequate' (White 1992, 52). Although White thus regards the dream of copying the object in the historian's language as impossible to realize, he nevertheless hesitates in taking a step further and denouncing that the object is forever unreachable (although some of his Kantian inspired comments go some way towards this conclusion, as will be shown below). His middle voice is a compromise between these two extremes. This shows that White's theoretical thinking and options are seriously limited by the subject-object dichotomy. Just as the visual and representational metaphors suggest, the basic constellation is that between the historian as the subject (attempting to describe) and the past as the object (to be described).

Ankersmit has developed his account of historical representation especially in his later writings. The central publications in this respect are unsurprisingly Historical Representation (2001) and Meaning, Truth, and Reference in Historical Representation (2012). The clearest expression of what the representationalist and visual analogy means can be found in the latter. This is that the relationship between the historical text and historical reality is 'aesthetic in the same way that this can be said of the work of art' (Ankersmit 2012, 62).

The new representationalist account is meant to replace the old one implied by modern historiography and shown to be untenable by its critics. What emerges is a new technical notion of historical representation designed to overcome the problems that the traditional concept is marred with. Another name for the old copy theory is the resemblance theory of representation. The idea in this theory is that representation should resemble what it represents. So if the resemblance theory was correct, historical representations, that is, historical texts, would resemble the past or the part of the past that they represent.

The problem with the resemblance theory derives from the nature of representation itself. First, Ankersmit suggests that we distinguish between the terms 'reference' and 'representation'. They both stand in a relationship with reality, but while description may refer to reality via its subjects terms, a representation can only be said to 'be about' reality (2001, 41). An example is the representation of a black cat. According to Ankersmit, only in descriptions can we distinguish between a referring object, that is, 'cat', and its predicate, 'is black'. In pictures, and in historical representations, this kind of distinction cannot be made. That is, Ankersmit suggests that one cannot differentiate those parts of the picture that refer to a 'cat' from those that attribute 'is black' to it. Similarly, he says that one could not determine a reference of the 'Renaissance' and properties attributed to it in a historical text.3

In other words, visual and historical representations form wholes that cannot be decomposed into their constituent parts. According to Ankersmit, the problem is that the relationship between representations and past reality cannot be determined. We may well begin from an intersubjectively determinable level, such as the physical features of a model in a portrait painting and the sum of descriptions in a historical text. However, this is just the surface. Both types of representations

(visual and historical) go deeper than that and also contain 'personality', something that cannot be detected intersubjectively and will always remain unstable and unfixed. Representations themselves have layers that make reality opaque. Further, Ankersmit adds a metaphysical difficulty that hampers any attempts to reduce representations to their putative objects, that is, to the historical reality. The problem is that only representations, and not reality, can be 'coherent' or 'consistent'. White made very similar remarks above (p. 45). Further, reminiscent of Narrative Logic, Historical Representation characterizes this position as idealist and uses Kantian language in saying that the linguistic level of representation 'determine[s] what we shall find on the second level' (Ankersmit 2001, 39-48).

Now, what is to be done if the resemblance theory of representation is hopeless, but one still wishes to speak about historical representations? The answer is to change the way in which 'representation' is understood. Indeed, Ankersmit proposes that the 'substitution theory of representation' captures what historical representation is about. While 'resemblance' is the key concept and resemblance determines whether a representation represents what is represented in the resemblance theory, the central idea in the substitution theory is that a representation makes the represented present again - it re-presents it. The same conclusion seems to emerge, if one analyzes what the term 'representation' implies: 'The etymological meaning of the word "representation" already compels us to [consider the notion of "presence"] ... representation is a making present of ... something that is absent' (Ankersmit 2012, 157). And Ankersmit's intriguing claim is that such re-presentation can be achieved via the historian's writing: 'the past is categorically absent from the present, but it can be made present again by means of a textual representation of it by the historian' (Ankersmit 2012, 57, 159).

The substitution theory tries to achieve by means of identity what the resemblance theory attempts to do in terms of resemblance (Ankersmit 1998, 52). When we compare a representation and what it allegedly re-presents we compare a 'thing' to another 'thing', and not a linguistic entity to something non-linguistic as in the resemblance theory. This is to say that both representation and what it represents belong to the same ontological category; we replace a thing (the past) by another thing (the representation) (Ankersmit 1998, 48-52). Ankersmit writes that 'Since what is being represented is part of reality, the same must be true of its representation ... the ontological status of being part of reality is ... transferred from the represented to its representation' (2012, 56). An example of how this kind of substitution might work is the case of iconoclasts, initially introduced by Baudrillard. Iconoclasts feared that the worshipping of God is transferred to the reverence of the simulacra or image of him, because God is invisible and unreachable. Similarly, historical reality itself is beyond our reach and therefore appears to be substituted and known only by its representations.

Nevertheless, the idea that a historian's text would make the past itself present may stretch credulity in the minds of some. Would a book about the Holocaust really bring the Holocaust to the reader? My point is not to deny that some books of history may succeed in moving the reader emotionally and give the reader a sensation of what life in a concentration camp might have been like. Yet, while this may (in the absence of the past itself) be called substitution, the substitute is arguably not the same thing as that which it is a substitute for. The actualized past when it happened was something real and tangible, and not a sensation. To put it bluntly, it is quite a different thing to read about the Holocaust in one's armchair, no matter how moving the account is, than to live through the Holocaust.

Now, Ankersmit's latest articulation of his theory of representation develops the substitution theory further. The idea that something substitutes, or stands for, something else is the same, but Ankersmit feels the need to specify what it is that substitutes that which is absent (see 2012, 78). He introduces a new concept, 'aspect', and a new tri-partite account of representation. First we have a representation (such as a text), which offers us the aspect or the presented4 of represented reality. The crux of the matter is that one should not equate what a representation represents with its object in the world. If one were to think of a representation of Napoleon by historian X, we should say that the historian is not representing Napoleon himself, but presenting an aspect of him, which is specified in the book.5 Perhaps Napoleon is presented as a heroic soldier or as an arrogant ruler. And the same goes for paintings. The portrait painter's representation gives some aspect of a person, not the person him- or herself, and the aspect or presented functions as a substitute for the actual object.

Ankersmit claims that knowing a text's or a painting's presentation - what they are about or what their 'presenteds' are - is an absolutely fundamental requirement for understanding its meaning (2012, 53). In this sense, he says, aesthetics is logically prior to hermeneutics. He even talks of 'aesthetic truth' after admitting that there is something like historical knowledge and historical truth (2012, 59). One line of his argumentation connects to sublimity and historical experience. Because the substitution theory requires making the past present in the form of a presented or an aspect, we can see how the notion of presence is related to these two concepts. If the historical text really succeeds in its task, then the reader is experiencing historical reality although the reader is not in the past. However, here this theme will be largely sidestepped, although it will later require some further remarks, when I discuss the concept of truth.

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