The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe  
Author(s) Hayden White
Country United States
Language English
Genre(s) Historiography
Publisher Johns Hopkins University
Publication date 1973
ISBN 0801817617
OCLC Number 2438028

Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe is a historiography book by Hayden White first published in 1973.

On the second page of his Introduction Hayden White stated:

My own analysis of the deep structure of the historical imagination of Nineteenth century Europe is intended to provide a new perspective on the current debate over the nature and function of historical knowledge." [1]

The theoretical framework is outlined in the first 50 pages of the book which considers in detail eight major figures of 19th-century history and philosophy of history. The larger context of historiography and writing in general is also considered. White's approach uses systematically a fourfold structural schema with two terms mediating between a pair of opposites.


According to White the historian begins his work by constituting a chronicle of events which is to be organized into a coherent story. These are the two preliminary steps before processing the material into a plot which is argumented as to express an ideology. Thus the historical work is "a verbal structure in the form of a narrative prose discourse that purports to be a model, or icon, of past structures and processes in the interest of explaining what they were by representing them".[2]

For the typologies of emplotment, argumentation and ideologies White refers to works by Northrop Frye, Stephen Pepper and Karl Mannheim [3]. His four basic emplotments are provided by the archetypical genres of romance, comedy, tragedy and satire. The modes of argumentation, following Pepper's 'adequate root metaphors' are formist, organist, mechanicist and contextualist. Among the main types of Ideology White adopts anarchy, conservatism, radicalism and liberalism. White affirms that elective affinities link the three different aspects of a work and only four combinations (out of 64) are without internal inconsistencies or 'tensions'. The limitation arises through a general mode of functioning - representation, reduction, integration or negation, which White assimilates to one of the four main tropes: metaphor, metonymy synecdoche and irony. Strucuturalist as Roman Jakobson or Emile Benveniste have used mostly an opposition between the first two of them but White refers to an earlier classification, adopted by Giambattista Vico and contrasts metaphor with irony.[4] The exemplary figures chosen by White present the ideal types of historians and philosophers.

Synoptic table of Hayden White's Metahistory
Trope Mode Emplotment Argument Ideology Historian Philosopher
Metaphor Representational Romance Formist Anarchist Michelet Nietzsche
Metonymy Reductionist Tragedy Mechanicist Radical Tocqueville Marx
Synecdoche Integrative Comedy Organicist Conservative Ranke Hegel
Irony Negational Satire Contextualist Liberal Burckhardt Croce


Frank Ankersmit has forcefully asserted the importance of Metahistory for the English speaking world [5]. In the view of Ankersmit and like-minded scholars, White's work has made obsolete the view of language as neutral medium in historiography and has provided a way to treat methodological issues at a level higher than elementary propositions and atomic facts. So, with it, "philosophy of history finally, belatedly, underwent its linguistic turn and became part of the contemporary intellectual scene."[6]

Norman Levitt has pointed White out as "the most magisterial spokesman" for relativistic post-modernist historiography, where "[w]hen one particular narrative prevails, the dirty work is invariably done by 'rhetoric', never evidence and logic, which are, in any case, simply sleight-of-language designations for one kind of rhetorical strategy" [7]. But in making such criticism, Levitt failed to employ evidence of his own. He failed to acknowledge that White was actually a harsh critic of postmodernism, referring to Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida as the "absurdist critics".[8]

White can also be seen as a traditional moralist, and he has asked of historical and fictional narrative “…on what other grounds [than moralism] could a narrative of real events possibly conclude? […] What else could narrative closure consist of than the passage from one moral order to another? [9] White himself denies being a relativist or post-modernist, averring the reality of events in the past is not contradicted by literary portrayals of those events.

The mainstream historical discipline has been lukewarm about White, although traditional historians have sometimes found his work more relevant than that of most postmodernists. The historian Arthur Marwick praised Metahistory as "a brilliant analysis of the rhetorical techniques of some famous early nineteenth-century historians ... [who wrote] well before the emergence of professional history." But he went on to complain that "White seems to have made very little acquaintanceship with what historians write today." [10]

References and notes

  • Hayden White, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe, 1973 ISBN 0-8018-1761-7
  1. ^ p.2
  2. ^ p.3
  3. ^ pp.7, 14 and 22, Frye N., (1957), Anatomy of Criticism, Princeton ; Pepper S., (1942). World Hypotheses: A study of evidence, University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, Mannheim K., (1936) Ideology and Utopia, London: Routledge
  4. ^ In White's reading the epochs of Vico's Scienza Nuova are not three but four as the last age is followed by an 'ironic' episode of dissolution; he contends also that the same succession of tropes is underlying Foucault's analysis from The Order of Things; see White H., (1973) Foucault Decoded: Notes from Underground in Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press. 1978. p.241. In Nineteenth century historiography the leading tropes do not follow this strict order but coexist.
  5. ^ Ankersmit F., History and Tropology. The Rise and Fall of Metaphor. Berkeley : University of California Press, 1994.
  6. ^ Ibid p.67
  7. ^ Levitt N.,(2006), The colonization of the past and the archeology of the future in Archaeological fantasies: how pseudoarchaeology misrepresents the past ed. By G. Fagan, p.267; more precisely, Levitt sees him as spokesman "for this strange mixture of nihilism and sophomoric political enthusiasm"
  8. ^ White H., "Foucault Decoded" and "The Absurdist Moment" in Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press. 1978. pp. 230-282
  9. ^ White H., "The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality", Critical Inquiry, Vol. 7, (Autumn, 1980), No. 1, p. 283.
  10. ^ Arthur Marwick, The New Nature of History: Knowledge, Evidence, Language (Houndsmills: Palgrave, 2001) p. 14.

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