Philosophy of History After Hayden White

Robert Doran
Bloomsbury
2013

This is a refreshing and challenging collection of essays, which in exploring various aspects of Hayden White's works, provide the reader both with important interpretations of White's own insights and with invaluable suggestions regarding the ways in which White's meditations on history might further impregnate our attempts to understand the historical domain. According to their varying specializations, the contributors have all succeeded in unraveling different -and sometimes even unacknowledged- aspects of White's works, while Doran's illuminating introduction and the careful arrangement of the essays guarantees that the book reads equally well as a whole.

The very title of the book might serve as a point of contention and debate, as it contains a bold and explicit reference to the allegedly obliterated and redundant notion of the philosophy of history. Indeed, one of its major themes is woven around the relation between the practice of historiography, the theoretical considerations underlying the science of history (and consequently to a certain extent the other social sciences) and philosophy of history. Doran's introduction is indispensable as a guide to both the initiated and the uninitiated reader, since it contains a short but informative and clear introduction to the issues and problems associated with traditional philosophy of history (p. 3-9). At the same time it shows how White's Metahistory could be interpreted as "a sustained defense of the philosophy of history genre" (p. 18). To be more precise it attributes to Metahistory the status of meta-metanarrative in relation to both history and philosophy of history, since his tropology applies to both levels of abstraction and writing (p.19).

However, Hayden White's two contributions to the volume (viz. the essay "History as Fulfillment" and the short "comment" that concludes the book) suggest that he might not feel that comfortable with the emphasis on the properly philosophical aspect of his works. This seems to be the case insofar as he readily admits of not thinking of himself "as a philosopher or even as a philosopher of history", while arguing that Robert Doran's introduction to this book makes him "sound more 'philosophical' " than he "really" is (p.210).

Importantly, Doran sees Whites' Metahistory as "both an epistemological critique of historical practice and a philosophy of history in its own right" (p.7). However, White seems more reluctant to admit a philosophical strand to his own approach when philosophy is intended in the sense of a contemplation regarding the epistemological and ontological status of history, than when the term is used to designate the conceptualization of the ethico-political implications of historical narratives. To my mind, this disclaimer undermines to a certain extent the undoubted importance of White's works for any contemporary attempt to address history with a philosophical intent, the latter being however powerfully demonstrated not only in Doran's excellent introduction but also in the contributions of two distinguished philosophers, Arthur C. Danto and Gianni Vattimo.

Danto seems to believe that despite the fact that he and White "drank at the same fountain" (p.116), meaning William J. Bossenbrook's lectures at Wayne State University, there is little in common between their approaches to history. Perhaps the very title of his lively and highly enjoyable essay "Hayden White and Me: Two Systems of Philosophy of History" suggests as much. Certainly, Danto admits a common -though distinctive- emphasis on narrative on the part of both thinkers, but when called to expose the common ground between these two approaches, he endorses Robert Doran's suggestion that this has to be sought in the very notion of "figurational mimesis" (p.117).

White's attempt to clarify his own position via the introduction of a clear-cut distinction between event and concept is therefore rather surprising, since it seems to re-introduce a strong notion of ontological realism. However, it is exactly the acceptance of historical "reality" as given and uncontested that is undermined both in Doran's introduction and in Vattimo's essay. Doran rightly emphasizes (p. 9-16) the elective affinities between the positions expressed by White in a number of essays (such as "The Burden of History" and "History as Fulfillment") and Sartre's existentialist privileging of praxis over essence, while he seems to also interpret (against the philosopher's self-interpretation as it emerges from his exchange with Sartre and especially in the "Letter on Humanism") Heidegger's prioritization of existence over essence in the introduction to Being and Time from an existentialist standpoint.

Similarly, in his essay "From the problem of Evil to Hermeneutic Philosophy of History: For Hayden White", Vattimo explores the affinities between White's works and his own appropriation of the Heideggerian problematique, which he sees as lying to the "left of Heideggerianism" and which following Foucault he furthermore defines in terms of a post-metaphysical ontology of the present (p.204). Vattimo argues that Heidegger's celebrated notion of the "ontological difference" exemplifies that 'Being' is not exhausted in -or identical with- 'beings', but has rather itself the mode of being of event. Therefore, in Vattimo's eyes, Heidegger's fundamental ontology is primarily a philosophy of praxis, not so much unlike Marxism, especially considering their (allegedly common) aim at a radical transformation of socio-historical reality. This is a valid argument and a quite important insight, which however remains in my view disturbingly unqualified in the absence of at least a seminal discussion of Heidegger's treatment of authentic historicity and authentic historiography in Being and Time and of the problems lying therein. Given White's insistence that he is primarily concerned with the manner in which historical writing is performed, such a move should have enabled Vattimo to spell out more explicitly the links between his interpretation of Heidegger and White's writings. As things stand, Vattimo seems convinced that Heidegger's philosophy and White's meditations on history converge exactly at the point where naïve realism regarding historical being is abandoned and the human power to actively transform historical existence is made manifest. Although he readily admits that White would most probably refuse to see his work as part of the ontology of the present project, Vattimo rightly observes that the "meaning of an oeuvre, especially if it is an oeuvre of crucial importance, always goes far beyond the intentions of its author" (p. 207).

This statement seems to successfully capture the spirit of the present collection of essays, since the majority of them explore their respective subjects in ways that are inspired -but not confined- by White's writings.

In this vein, Ankersmit's essay, "A plea for a Cognitivist Approach to White's Tropology", discerns a lacuna in White's treatment of the four tropes in which historical writing takes place. Ankersmit argues that White "never addressed" the problem concerning the need to "reconcile the semantic friction of figural language with the absence of friction in, and the smoothness of, the (historical) text (p.49). Ankersmit furthermore interprets White's Metahistory as "rearranging the field of forces between truth, reference and meaning, in favor of meaning" without thereby throwing light into the significance of truth and reference for "a correct understanding of historical writing" (p.52). With this move Ankersmit rightly reminds us that the problems of truth and reference are far for being settled and suggests that historical writing presents us with a mode of truth that is necessarily mediated by the tropes of historical writing (p.65). Needless to point out that this contention, like all important insights, opens up a new set of questions regarding the ontological status of history and the possible modalities of truth. The reader might also find interesting that Ankersmit also traces affinities between White's understanding of the sublime as ironic (irony being a meta-trope) and his own understanding of history as sublime experience (p.56).

Mieke Bal's essay "Deliver Us from A-Historicism: Metahistory for Non-Historians" explores also the question of truth and makes use of Metahistory in order to show that historical writing is structured and therefore subject to formalist analysis and to establish that that formal analysis is not necessarily a-historical in-itself.

Karyn Ball's essay "Hayden White's Hope, or the Politics of Prefiguration" makes thematic the linkage between aesthetics and politics through an interesting interpretation of Kant's distinction between transcendental and transcendent, as it attempts to unearth the aesthetic dimension in White's political agenda. There is a political twist also in Harry Harootunian's essay "Uneven Temporalities/Untimely Pasts: Hayden White and the question of Temporal Form", which uses White in order to highlight the repressive, ideological nature of dominant historical narratives fostered by nation-states under capitalism. Hans Kellner, the author of "Hopeful Monsters or, The Unfulfilled Figure in Hayden White's Conceptual System" focuses on the concept of figuralism and aspires to show how historical events are often misinterpreted when addressed from the standpoint of the present. In "Rhetorical Theory/Theoretical Rhetoric: Some Ambiguities in the Reception of Hayden White's Work", Gabrielle Spiegel makes central to her exploration the theme of prefiguration, while Richard Vann, the author of "Hayden White and Non-NonHistories", brings to the fore the problem of the relationship between 'reality' and 'simulation' with reference to experimental history writing. Evidently, the book covers in this manner a vast field of specific problems and theoretical questions arising from White's oeuvre, while successfully linking them with wider, perennial concerns in various, interrelated fields of knowledge. The width of its scope, the masterful arrangement of its topics and the exceptional quality of each individual essay, makes this publication an indispensable reading for everyone who wishes to understand deeper not only White's writings but also the various puzzles that our very historicity entails. A real gem and a highly recommended book. 

Doran, Robert (ed.) (2013), Philosophy of History After Hayden White, London: Bloomsbury // Reviewed by: Angelos Mouzakitis, University of Crete & Hellenic Open University