Historiography between scholarship and poetry: Reflections on Hayden White's approach to historiography

The paper critically examines the radical epistemological relativism of Hayden White's thought from the structural approach to historical narration in Metahistory (1973) to what White characterizes as his 'post-Saussurian' or semiological turn. There are two basic premises on which White and I agree, that history in contrast to literature requires a factual basis and that any attempt to go from historical 'facts' to an historical account involves imaginative, in White's language 'poetic acts'. Yet I question White's assertion that there are no criteria by which 'competing narratives' can be assessed, that hence 'history and novels are indistinguishable from one another' and 'the oppostion between myth and history . . . is as problematical as it is untenable'. This position makes it difficult for White to distinguish between history and propaganda and confronts him with the dilemma when on the one hand he emphatically repudiates the Holocaust deniers, but on the other hand is forced to maintain that all accounts of the Holocaust, provided they do not violate the facts, have equal explanatory value. This overlooks that although a multiplicity of interpretations of any series of events is possible, these are not arbitrary products of the historical imagination, but can be tested as to their factual validity and coherence. Faced with differing perspectives, historians can seldom reach a final consensus on historical problems, but are engaged in an ongoing dialogue following at least minimal agreement on what constitutes rational discourse. The paper further questions whether White in fact in his chapters on the master historians in Metahistory examined the great historical narratives of these historians but instead relied on a limited number of theoretical statements by these historians which were external to these narratives and left out of consideration the role which research and method played in the composition of their works.