Academic journal article Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy

Narrative and History: Hayden White's Objections to Scientistic Changes to the Study of History

Academic journal article Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy

Narrative and History: Hayden White's Objections to Scientistic Changes to the Study of History

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

Prior to the 19th Century, historical writing and literary writing maintained a peaceful ideological harmony. Following the work of Aristotle, the general conception was that historical writing considered the real world and literary works (which Aristotle referred to as 'poetry') contemplated the possible, whilst maintaining that both were essentially rhetorical tasks. This remained so until the 19th century, during which there was a reformulation of the concept of history resulting in a theorisation of the historical consciousness, hailing the inauguration of the positivistic scientific method of historical inquiry. For the first time, history was not merely the past or an account of it, but subsequently come to be idealised as something to be examined, a mechanistic component in the system of human existence. In 1973, Hayden White published Metahistory, which succeeded in regaining the connection with the earlier conception of history, through the philosophical elucidation of a fundamental literary nature within history, specifically narratives. White's theory reasserted that the production of any historical text was comparable to that of literature in that it was essentially an imaginative task; and the subsequent creation had significantly more in common with a work of fiction than many historians would readily concede. Through this, White challenged the dominant scientistic orthodoxy, and emphasised the contention that historians' work inevitably takes a literary form. As a consequence of this action, they are culturally determined to shape the interpretation of history, to 'emplot' it, in a specific narrative derived from a particular ideological and contingent position. (1) This poses the question of how the relationship between history and narrative contributes to addressing the problems of compartmentalisation, disembodiment, logical inconsistencies and flawed ideology prevalent within modern socialscience, which will be explored in more detail throughout this essay. This question will be analysed specifically in relation to a historiography of the philosophy of history prior to and following the adoption of White's method, considered through a study of narrative and finally reflected onto social science. This essay will argue that historiography suffered a loss when it attempted to assert its legitimacy through the adoption of an analytic scientism, and was only redeemed through the application of a speculative approach in the form of White's metahistory and the formation of a grand narrative. If a grand narrative was able to address the problems within historical studies brought about by science, then perhaps the problems of social science could be solved by considering its own grand narrative. By illuminating the centrality of stories to life and physical reality, this essay is tasked to reveal the potential of stories to transform civilisation. This is important because, without an adequate narrative, history was left in an epistemological limbo as a consequence of ill-considered attempts to establish itself, only through self-reflection was it able to find legitimacy. It is the hope that this formulation will incubate the potential for a post-reductionist social science, and in doing hopes to reconcile estranged fields such as the sciences, the arts and the humanities, and provide the basis for more satisfactory social and political philosophies.

THE IMPORTANCE OF NARRATIVE

It is essential to begin by illuminating the essence of narratives. It must first be explained that a narrative is not simply a chronological sequence of events, since, as Hume points out with the rock and the broken window postulate, sequence is not necessarily causation. (2) To examine this further, if history were merely a sequence, a list of meaningless events occurring one after the other, then the only mode in which to examine human action or judgments of their effects would have to be by assessing singular moments. …

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