Frank Ankersmit and Hayden White on the Politics of Historical Representation

Abstract We do not learn from the past nor from possible analogies between the past and the present. Rather we learn from representations of the past and the insights they offer, for those insights allow us to adopt the political and moral values that we need to plan a future course of action. It follows, so Frank Ankersmit argues, that aesthetics in its sense as a general theory of representation precedes ethics. This essay is concerned with this bold and important thesis. It will do so in the context of the politics of historical representation and the fact–value and subjectivity–objectivity distinctions. The subject was also dear to the heart of Ankersmit’s late American colleague Hayden White. Ankersmit is concerned with how historical representations support a future course of action. White, by contrast, was (also) concerned with how historical representations limit a future course of action since they cannot serve as a basis for utopian politics.