The Exemplification Theory of History: Narrativist Philosophy and the Autonomy of History

The “exemplification theory of history” is proposed to account for the relationship between the past and historical narratives. The theory states that what belongs to the past according to some narrative does so in order to exemplify the historical thesis of that narrative. As such the theory explains how the past receives its meaning. This implies that the past has no intrinsic historical meaning itself. Moreover, it follows that historical narratives possess an autonomy of their own with regard to the past. It is argued that the exemplification theory of history goes to the heart of narrativist philosophy of history. This claim is supported by the key arguments of three narrativist philosophers: Arthur Danto, Louis Mink and Frank Ankersmit. The distinction between the history of social individuals (“states”, “poverty”, “Thirty Years War”) and the identification of such individuals turns out to be fundamental in this respect. The article concludes by distinguishing between a Platonic and an Aristotelian view on narrative and by explaining why we ought to prefer the former to the latter.