Metaphor and Truth in History

By McCullagh, C. Behan | CLIO, Fall 1993 | Go to article overview

Metaphor and Truth in History


McCullagh, C. Behan, CLIO


In recent years several philosophers of history have argued that historians employ metaphors in order to interpret historical data, and that consequently their interpretations cannot be true or false accounts of anything that has actually happened. This argument has not been examined critically, as far as I know, but it is far from convincing.

There are three writers who have presented different versions of this argument, namely, Hayden White, F. R. Ankersmit, and H. Kellner, and I will present their views in turn. I shall agree that some, though not all, narrative interpretations and particular descriptions of the past are metaphorical. To conclude that they therefore cannot be true, however, one must assume that metaphorical statements cannot be true or false. This assumption, which has been supported particularly by Max Black's writing on metaphor, is not really warranted, as I will explain. Metaphorical statements can be metaphorically true or false. It follows that, contrary to the opinion of these philosophers, metaphorical interpretations and descriptions can indeed provide us with true accounts of the past.

Hayden White was among the first to suggest that historical interpretations are metaphorical and therefore not true of the past. Narrative histories, he said, are structured according to types of plot which serve as metaphors by which historians can present an intelligible account of what happened. He wrote:

Properly understood, histories ought never to be read as unambiguous

signs of the events they report, but rather as symbolic

structures, extended metaphors, that "liken" the events reported

in them to some form with which we have already become familiar

in our literary culture.(1) White accepted that historians might have true knowledge of particular historical events, but he viewed the narratives they create as purely literary productions, based upon familiar kinds of plot: romance, comedy, tragedy, and satire. The resulting narratives, he said, do not in themselves represent anything true of the past. His ideas are well expressed in the following passage:

no given set of casually recorded historical events in themselves

constitute a story; the most that they offer to the historian are

story elements. The events are made into a story by the suppression

or subordination of certain of them and the highlighting of others,

by characterization, motific repetition, variation of tone and point

of view, alternative descriptive strategies, and the like-in short,

all of the techniques that we would normally expect to find in the

employment of a novel or a play. For example, no historical event

is intrinsically tragic; it can only be conceived as such from a particular

point of view or from within the context of a structured set of

events of which it is an element enjoying a privileged place. For

in history what is tragic from one perspective is comic from another,

just as in society what appears to be "tragic" from the standpoint

of one class may be, as Marx purported to show of the 18th

Brumaire of Louis Buonaparte, only a "farce" from that of another

class. (281) In another essay, White later added this remark:

Precisely insofar as the historical narrative endows sets of real events

with the kinds of meaning found otherwise only in myth and

literature, we are justified in regarding it as a product of allegoresis.(2)

White's claim that the kinds of plot he mentions provide "extended metaphors" might strike the reader as odd. Metaphors are normally considered to be words which suggest some similarity between one thing and another, as White himself had written: "In Metaphor (literally, |transfer') . . . phenomena can be characterized in terms of their similarity to, and difference from, one another, in the manner of analogy or simile, as in the phrase |my love, a rose. …

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