The Life of Interpretation
For the last six months of 2021, I had the tremendous honor and joy of participating in a reading group with Davood Gozli and John David on The Tropics of Discourse by Hayden White. This reading group already inspired one paper, “The Novel Historian,” but plenty of material was left unaddressed. In this work, we will try to explore and expound upon the rest of the essay collection, with a focus on the role of interpretation in thinking. Far from deconstruct all knowledge, life is found where we can locate hermeneutics.
The title of White’s essay — “Interpretation In History” — suggests the difficulty of interpreting history while simultaneously “in” history. How can we ever fully understand something while we’re in the middle of it? It seems like trying to understand a story without finishing it, and arguably trying to understand a novel from any point other than the end is arbitrary and “incomplete.” But that is the dilemma we must cope with while “in” history: the best we can do is set arbitrary parameters around “historic episodes” and hope they are “whole enough.” Otherwise, we’d have to give up history or deny it has anything to do with interpretation at all.
As I discussed with John David and Davood Gozli, there seems to be a fear that if we admit that historians interpret, history will collapse. After all, if all we’re learning when we learn history is an interpretation, what exactly are we leaning? A personal opinion? An arbitrary arrangement? On this point, by acknowledging the inevitability of interpretation, Hayden White has often been accused of being a “postmodern relativist,” of reducing history to fictional storytelling, but I think that is an unfair critique. As discussed in “The Novel Historian” by O.G. Rose, associating history with a “literary genre” is only a problem if we believe “there is no truth in literature” — a deep mistake — and, critically, White strikes me as making this move precisely in order to carry out a “triple action”:
1. To acknowledge history entails interpretation.
2. To bind the range of that interpretation.
3. To introduce the necessity of dialectics, which could elevate history.
White understands that if historians keep denying history entails interpretation, it won’t be long before the public finds out the truth, and then the public will grow skeptical and cynical of the entire historical enterprise. History could undergo what Habermas called a “legitimization crisis,” and if that occurred, people may give up history entirely (or begin viewing it with such “suspicions” and “cynicism” that the enterprise would become powerless). This in mind, White understood that it was critical for historians to abandon their claims of being “objective scientists” — White is alive when it was popular to think “history is a science” — which though perhaps historians claimed precisely to create imperative for people to read history, White understood could end up backfiring.
“The Novel Historian” by O.G. Rose focused on “The Burden of History”; here, we will mostly study “Interpretation in History,” which more directly tackles the problem of interpretation (and hopefully the arguments here help support the arguments presented in “The Novel Historian”).¹ We will then explore “The Historical Text as Literary Artifact,” and gradually move through the rest of The Tropics of Discourse.
If we’re going to take history seriously, ‘one must be prepared to ask questions about it of a sort that do not have to be asked in the practice of it.’² So it goes with interpretation: if we’re thinking about how interpretation “is an interpretation,” we’re not really interpreting but analyzing (logical structures, forms, etc.). Considering this, we don’t take either history or interpretation seriously unless we step back and do “non-historical” or “non-interpretative” work about history and interpretation, which suggests a problem with thinking that “the historian only needs to know history,” per se (and also a problem with a loss of interdisciplinary thinking in general). If we want to determine ‘[w]hat is the structure of a peculiarly historical consciousness,’ then we will need to be more than exclusively historical.³
If we don’t know the inside of something unless we can see outside of it (and its relation to other entities), then arguably the only way to be a specialist is to be interdisciplinary (the division of “specialist” and “interdisciplinary” is a fallacy). But once we admit this, then it feels like “specialization” is impossible, for how in the world can be competent enough in “everything” to warrant the title of “specialist” through the challenge of interdisciplinary thinking? Ultimately, we must all come up short, but not all “failures” are equal. And perhaps the epistemic humility that this realization would bring about would actually help history avoid being in service of ideology, as opposed to believing in “a science of history” that we adamantly tell ourselves is “value neutral,” all while it helps support ideology in its historical form (as White expounds on in his essays).
‘…in general there has been a reluctance to consider historical narratives as what they most manifestly are: verbal fictions, the contents of which are as much invented as found and the forms of which have more in common with their counterparts in literature than they have with those in the sciences.’⁴
This was discussed extensively in “The Novel Historian,” but it’s an example of an “interdisciplinary insight” that requires “zooming out” from a specialty to grasp. White notes there is an ‘opposition between myth and history that is as problematical as it is venerable,’ and it’s hard to imagine that someone strongly invested in “the science of history” arriving at such a point, regardless how true it might be.⁵ What our face is pressed up against, we do not see around.
To deny that history involves interpretation would be to deny history needs to be profoundly interdisciplinary, but the same logic applies the other way around: if history is interdisciplinary, then interpretation must be involved, for we must decide the order and stresses of the interdisciplinary subjects involved (and which to involve). White makes an interesting point on the choice of the historian to “order facts” which would apply just as well to the choice of ordering interdisciplinary concerns; considering the following sequence:
‘a, b, c, d, e,….’
‘A, b, c, d, e…’
‘a, B, c, d, e…’
‘a, b, C, d, e…’⁶
The letters represent facts and the capital letters stresses — White’s point is that even if an identical order of facts is maintained between historians, the “stresses” of those historians could still transform “the meaning” of the historic account. Similarly, my point is that the same logic applies just as easily to interdisciplinary subjects: even if four historians agree that psychology, philosophy, neuroscience, and music should be incorporated into a historical account, one historian could primarily stress the role of philosophy in the development of society, while another could focus on the sociology of the family.
If a historian concedes that interpretation must be involved in history, then the historian concedes that how interpretation is formulated and organized is a necessary consideration of the historian. If it is true that interpretation itself is a product of psychology, philosophy, neuroscience, etc., then a historian must take psychology, philosophy, neuroscience, etc. into consideration in order to assure the accuracy of their historic account. Similarly, if it is true that the historian must also take into account the psychology, philosophy, neuroscience, etc. of the historic episode to accurately portray that historic episode, then the historian who isn’t interdisciplinary will fail to understand key dimensions of historic episodes. If history is about humans who interpret their surroundings, then historians will arguably need to figure out how people “interpreted their worlds,” and that cannot be determined from the facts of history alone. On this point, Levi-Strauss writes:
‘A historical fact is ‘what really took place,’ […] but where […] did anything take place? Any historical episode — in a revolution or a war, for example — can be resolved into a ‘multitude of individual psychic moments.’ ’⁷
All of this is to say that “interpretation” and “interdisciplinary approaches” are indivisible, and if interpretation is ultimately everywhere, so too much be “the interdisciplinary” (though in some places more than others) Specialization risks abstraction, and worse yet it risks seeing itself as “objective” and so justified in its (over)confidence.
Literature is profoundly interdisciplinary: novels can be about anything and incorporate countless modes of presentation, “emplotment,” and so on. For me, the radical level of “interdisciplinary concerns” found in both history and literature provides further evidence that history is in fact “literary.” If this is true, then “the science of history” is a myth, a way that we have “emplotted” history to ourselves in order to increase its value in our eyes. ‘The coherence of the [science] […] is the coherence of myth.’⁸ As Dr. Frye put it:
‘[the historian] must be prepared to grant that there is a mythic element in proper history by which the structures and processes depicted in its narratives are endowed with meanings of a specifically fictive kind.’⁹
What applies to particular historic accounts applies just as well to “the history of history” itself.
Historians cannot escape interpretation (and thereby “interdisciplinary approaches,” similar to literature), ‘because the historical record is both too full and too sparse.’¹⁰ We cannot possibly include every fact and detail that could possibly be included about the Civil War in an account about it, and yet at the same time we lack details about the exact time and place General Grant ate breakfast on certain days (to make a random example). We have way too much information, and yet we’re also lacking all the “mundane information” that would prove necessary for a “full account.” It’s frankly no different than when we try to describe our day (really, try to describe every detail). Can we? Quickly, we discover this is impossible, as we also recognize that our account could include a lot of details that no one cares about and that aren’t “consequential.” When asked, “How is your day?” we instinctually know a “full account” is neither appropriate nor possible — historians find themselves in the same boat.
Since a “full account” is impossible and inappropriate, ‘the historian must ‘interpret’ his data by excluding certain facts from his account as irrelevant to his narrative purpose.’¹¹ Alright, if that’s true, why doesn’t the historian embrace this reality and write a novel? The novelist also finds herself overwhelmed with ideas and having to weigh descriptions that are worth making and descriptions that waste time — it’s a very similar dilemma. White hints that this is the right approach, but it’s almost as if for the historian to accept this makes the historian uncomfortable: they want to believe they “explain” more than “interpret” ‘to secure their authority.’¹² An “explanation” feels more scientific and objective, while an “interpretation” feels subjective, personal, and flippant, and so historians can be tempted to claim their “interpretations” are rather “explanations.” But this is not the case: historians interpret, which means there is a danger of the interpretation “being unbound” and vulnerable to endless multiplicities, thus the need for “bound interpretation,” as the model of the novelist can provide (as described in “The Novel Historian”).
‘[I]n historical theory, explanation is conceived to stand over against interpretation as clearly discernible elements of every ‘proper’ historical representation.’¹³ If there is no explanation in a historical account, how can we call it a historical account? If it explains nothing, then it is nothing. Or so goes the sentiment in many history departments, but White asks us to resist this conclusion. It’s an understandable sentiment, yes, for if history is just interpretation, what are we exactly learning? A personal take? What value is there in that? Well, to start, an “interpretation of history,” like the “interpretation of a novel,” is never mere interpretation: there is a “thing there” that we are trying to reach and, in that effort, preserve it as itself. Can we do it perfectly? Even if we did, we couldn’t know for sure that we succeeded. So no, we can’t interpret perfectly, but not all failures are equal. Additionally, there seems to be a fear that if there is any interpretation involved with an explanation, the explanation is corrupted, and like milk and dye, the mixture and corruption is irreversible. But White provides us tools to quell our fears about this, but not before first making it clear that “pure explanation” is impossible.
‘Even in representation,’ White notes, ‘interpretation [is] necessary, since historians might choose on aesthetic grounds different plot structures by which to endow sequences of events with different meanings as types of stories.’¹⁴ If there are two historians looking at “Set of Facts 1,” even if they both have the exact same interpretation of “Set of Facts 1,” the fact the first historian decides to structure the narrative like a tragedy while the second decides to merely list out facts is itself an interpretative move. For some reason, the first historian has decided a “tragedy” is “the best form” for relaying “Set of Facts 1,” while the second historian has decided “a list of facts” is best — ‘they simply had different notions of the kind of story that best fitted the facts they knew.’¹⁵
White explores a few genres according to which historical accounts can be “emplotted” — tragedy, comic, romantic and ironic — and points out that ‘[h]istorical situations are not inherently tragic, comic, or romantic. They may all be inherently ironic, but they need not be emplotted that way.’¹⁶ Regarding a given “genre of employment,” a historic event ‘can only be conceived as such from a particular point of view or from within the context of a structure set of events.’¹⁷ This in mind, ‘[a]ll the historian needs to do to transform a tragic into a comic situation is to shift his point of view or change the scope of his perceptions.’¹⁸ Take for example the idea that Hegel saw Napoleon as “the world spirit” — a famous and well-known story. Sounds grand and remarkable, yes? Do you envision Hegel looking up from the bottom of a hill at Napoleon on horseback? Well, what if I told you that Napoleon was burning Hegel’s hometown to the ground?
Changes things, doesn’t it?
Why does one historian choose x “emplotment” while another chooses y “emplotment?” You’d have to ask them, but it would be foolish to assume that both historians “approached the facts” with an idea in mind already of how they would arrange the facts. No doubt, both historians approached “Set of Facts 1” with “open minds” about how they would arrange said facts, but upon encountering the facts, they for some reason decided on one “form(ulation)” over other possibilities. Nietzsche notes that ‘the unity of plan must be put into the objects if it is not already there,’ but I think professional historians likely wait to “apply a plan” until they encounter the historical facts, not beforehand.¹⁹ This suggests why “historical interpretation” is not “mere interpretation”: a historian who waits to “apply a form to facts” until the “encounter” interprets differently and more “solidly” than the thinker who decides upon a form “pre-encounter” (which would be less informed and more likely subjective). White elaborates on this point:
‘But surely the historian does not bring with him a notion of the “story” that lies embedded within the “facts” given by the record. For in fact there are an infinite number of such stories contained therein, all different in their details, each unlike every other. What the historian must bring to his consideration of the record are general notions of the kinds of stories that might be found there, just as he must bring to consideration of the problem of narrative representation some notion of the “pre-generic plot-structure” by which the story he tells is endowed with formal coherency. In other words, the historian must draw upon a fund of culturally provided mythoi in order to constitutes the facts as figuring a story of a particular kind, just as he must appeal to the same fund of mythoi in the minds of his readers to endow his account of the past with the odor of meaning or significance. If, as Levi-Strauss correctly observes, one can tell a host of different stories about the single set of events conventionally designated as “the French Revolution,” this does not mean the types of stories that can be told about the set are infinite in number.’²⁰
Good historians do not decide ahead of time what kind of genre they want to “fit” a set of facts into; instead, they wait until “the encounter” with the facts, and then decide which “genre framing” and/or “emplotment” is best. Yes, it’s still true that ‘the human sciences are […] inevitably impelled toward the adoption of ideological positions by the epistemological wagers that their practitioners are forced to make among contending theories of what an ‘objective’ human science might look like,’ but, again, it does not follow from this that therefore history is “mere” interpretation.²¹ ‘[E]very representation of the past has specifically ideological implications,’ but that doesn’t make every representation propaganda, though that thought seems to be a temptation in a world that assumes ‘what is interpretation […] [that] what is not objective in a scientific sense is not worth knowing.’²² ²³ ‘There are […] ‘rules’ if not ‘laws’ of historical narration’: conflating “interpretation” (or “creation,” for that matter) with “anything goes” is another prevalent and misguided thought.²⁴ But it seems that many of us almost want to ‘take refuge in relativism,’ perhaps because what’s relative isn’t our responsibility to grasp beyond our “relative take” (taste, preference, impression, etc.).²⁵ What’s not relative I cannot outright dismiss, and if I can’t dismiss it, that means I “ought” to respond to it; if I don’t, I know I don’t. Worse yet, if “interpretation” entails “ideological emplotment,” then the act of ascribing to “comforting relativism” means the ideological “bents” go unchecked and uncritiqued: discussions end up ideologically highjacked all while we think we do nothing more than share our harmless opinions.
If we claim that a “historic episode” ends at x instead of y, then we have made a judgment, and that means we have interpreted. Even if we had all the facts of history in front of us, the moment we order them or include some at the exclusion of others (which we deem as less relevant), we have made judgments about “how” they should be ordered, and that means we have engaged in interpretation. Critically though, it does not follow that “therefore we are wrong,” for it is a mistake to conflate “interpretation” with “wrong.” Wherever there is a “meaningful narrative,” there is a story, and it is impossible to have a story without interpretation, both on the side of the creator and the reader. Why? Because ‘[w]e do not live stories, even if we give our lives meaning by retrospectively casting them in the form of stories.’²⁶
Yes, it seems like we live stories, but that’s just because the moment we think about our lives, we “story” it, precisely because we cannot comprehend “free floating facts”: the reality that we live out something lacking a beginning, middle, and end, stakes, plot development, etc. is also “instantly concealed” the moment we consider the lives we’ve live. We must necessarily pick a point at which to start thinking about our life and at which point to end; the fact we choose to think about one part of our lives versus another means there must “be a reason why” (which inherently means there is meaning and even stakes); and so on — the real nature of our lives is always concealed from us by thinking about them, and that thinking, to understand itself, must necessarily “story” its subject. Thus, “the phenomenology of recalling life” must also hide the real nature of our lives behind “a sense of story.” We cannot comprehend what isn’t “storied,” and so it makes sense that we would (erroneously) think that what isn’t “storied” doesn’t exist.
Critically, if we make the mistake of thinking that we “live stories,” then when history presents itself to us “as a story,” we will not take this as evidence that interpretation is involved. We will conflate “lived experience” with “story,” and yet something we “live” is actually experienced as a collection of impressions, facts, and the like — something “hard” and objective. Never mind that these impressions, facts, etc. don’t “present themselves to us” in a storied form, but if we think “we live stories,” then when we story these bits of data, we’ll easily think that we had “nothing to do with it,” that “the bits of data” “storied” themselves. And so, we will fall into error.
David Hume taught that we can never move from “is” to “oughtness” (though he does support such a move from “such-ness,” as discussed in “Dialectical Ethics” by O.G. Rose); likewise, we can never move from “a collection of facts” to a “story.” If we make such a “jump,” we are adding “ought” and “story” (in a way, “story” inherently entails an “ought,” for x facts “ought” to be assembled y way), though such cannot be found in the “is-ness” and “facts” themselves (a distinction between “information” and “such-ness” could be explored here, but that isn’t needed for our purposes). Now, that doesn’t mean “what we add” is necessarily wrong or bad, no more than an “interpretation” is necessarily wrong (versus perhaps “incomplete”), but it does mean that ethics cannot derive additional “authority” from “is-ness,” (as a ruler who wants to use ethics to control people may desire). Stories traditionally entail “morals,” so it’s not by chance that “stories” cannot be derived from “is-ness” any more than can ethical systems. When we make the mistake of thinking that “life is a story,” we end up like Cervantes — mad even if we’re learned.
Where there is a story, there is an interpretation, both in that the creator of the story deciding what information should be included and how it should be ordered and in that the reader decides the meaning of the story to them. And if we encountered “free floating facts” that weren’t organized at all, we wouldn’t understand them: thus, where there is understanding, there must be interpretation too. If there wasn’t interpretation, even if there was information, but there would only be ignorance
If “interpretation” and “interdisciplinary concerns” are indivisible, then where there is “understanding,” we will be interdisciplinary even if we deny that we are interdisciplinary. Then, how we are interdisciplinary (and influenced by fields outside our interests) will prove out of our control: we as historians will incorporate philosophical, economic, and sociological positions without realizing it and without awareness of which we are incorporating. Our “interdisciplinary values” will “do our thinking for us,” per se, and if this is the case, we have no choice but to try to think broad and widely. If understanding always entails interpretations, then there is no such thing as “non-interdisciplinary thinking”: all efforts to think are efforts to be interdisciplinary. No, we can never do this perfectly, but not all failures are equal.
Why is it so difficult to admit that “interpretation” is part of history? Well, there’s almost a feeling that we shouldn’t have to interpret history: if we lived x, we were there — what’s there to interpret? We experienced it. Perhaps we need to describe history, but description isn’t interpretation. If x was something the world went through, we need to “find the pieces” of the event, put them together, and we’ll be set! History feels like it should be an “act of collecting,” but not an “act of interpreting” — right? Indeed, that’s how it feels, but it also feels like I should be able to perfectly recall everything I did yesterday in the right order, with the right emphasizes here and there, with the right emotional connections, and so on. But regardless how I feel, the truth is I can hardly “explain” today, let alone historic events. I rarely realize it, but when someone asks me, “What did you do today?” I always answer with an interpretation: all of us, each day, create new ‘untold stories of our lives.’²⁷ Wherever there is sense, meaning, and understanding, something is left out.
If history can be “explained” to us, then we can learn our origins and identities, but if history can only be explained “to itself,” we will possibly always find ourselves “standing outside” the vaults in which our full identities are stored. To accept interpretation is to accept that we need to “own” how we are interdisciplinary (which means we have a lot of work to do and keep doing), and it is to accept that we can never get a “full grasp” on ourselves, our families, our homes, our nations — “origins” must always be stuck behind “a veil of uncertainty” (as must also be “the predictive power” of history). What we’re even talking about when we “talk about history” or “learn from history” also becomes less clear — best to avoid all that with “a myth of historical science,” but this is the equivalent to a fairytale that tells us that we can cross Kant’s noumenon and access “things-in-themselves.” As a “thing-in-itself” cannot be accessed with certainty, so we cannot a “history-to-itself,” but what we learn in philosophy we seem eager to forget when we step into history.
John David made the great point that if all history is “emplotted,” then all “historical accounts” must be cognitive (and so it goes with anything involving meaning). If this is the case, the we should indeed realize that what we learn from Kant applies to historical studies: as we cannot access “things-in-themselves,” so we cannot access “history-to-itself.” This doesn’t mean “our takes on history” have nothing to do with “how things actually happened,” but it does mean history is indeed interpreted and subjectively conditioned. Again, why is this so hard to admit? Another reason, I think, is that if history is interpreted, that also means it can be reinterpreted, and that means “the (historical) ground upon which we stand” can fall out from under us at any moment. It’s not stable, and that means everything we’ve built upon that ground is vulnerable. And if history can change, that means we can be changed too, likely without our consent.
Dr. White discusses therapy and the valuable role of “reemplotment” in healing a patient. As with Cervantes, the problem is often that the patient lives according to “the wrong story.” White writes:
‘The problem is to get the patient to “reemplot” his whole life history in such a way as to change the meaning of those events for him and their significance for the economy of the whole set of events that make up his life.’²⁸
In this way, “reemplotment” can heal, but conversely it can also be devastating; after all, the whole reason a person often suffers trauma is because they are “thrown into a terrible story,” per se, a story which we can never hit our heads hard enough to escape (without “turning everything off,” at least). The fact history can be interpreted is exciting and invigorating on one hand, but on the other it is existentially terrifying and risky. What if our understanding of WWII is changed? What if the war in which are grandfather fought wasn’t so noble after all? What does that “make us” to have loved a person who fought in an unjust war? And so on — where history can change, so can our lives, which means there’s always a chance for healing, but there’s also always a chance for devastation. Rather than risk it, it can be more appealing to just deny that history can change.
Also — and we’ll focus on this topic for a bit — if we accept interpretation, how we judge a historic account as “good” or “bad” suddenly becomes far more complex and demanding: if history can be objective, than all we have to do is “find and collect facts,” which though hard, is also in another way simple, because we do in fact “know what we need to do.” It’s one thing if something’s hard, but it’s even worse if it’s both hard to know what we need to do and hard to do that thing. As White puts it:
‘[…] that the effort to distinguish between good and bad interpretations of a historical event such as the Revolution is not as easy as it might as first appear when it is a matter of dealing with alternative interpretations produced by historians of relatively equal learning and conceptual sophistication.’²⁹
Why is it difficult? Because it’s difficult to judge Tolstoy as superior to Dostoevsky or Shakespeare as the better craftsman over Dante. If history is indeed literary, then judging it is like judging works of art, and the “rules” of what makes one piece of art better than another are not “self-evident,” and in fact can take years of work and immersion to cultivate. But admittedly “the principles of art” are much harder to identify and explain that simply arguing if something did or didn’t happen and judging the quality of a historical account relative to how well it reflected the account: “the science of history” presents us with a much easier standard of judgment, and in being so easy, it also seems more “open to the public.” History can seem “less elite” and democratic, which if we believe history “stands above ideology” and can potentially correct and stop ideology, then the idea that history would be “available to anyone” would suggest that anyone can rise above and stop ideology. For us to maintain faith in democracy, the vulnerability of ideology and possibility of overcoming it is a powerful and arguably even necessary ideas (if democracy is to maintain legitimacy to us). After all, if we didn’t think ideology could be defeated, would we really want people to vote? What good would come of it, what change?
Jonathan Rauch in his tremendous Kindly Inquisitors notes that ‘manag[ing] conflict of belief is […] a problem that every society must somehow solve’ (and contrasts how “free speech” manages this dilemma with the “totalitarianism over the reality industry” found in Plato).³⁰ For Rauch, science plays a unique role in helping advance knowledge (which is contrasted with “belief”), in that science relies on ‘the experience of no one in particular.’³¹ This means ‘particular persons are interchangeable,’ which suggests that though science seems elitist, it ultimately is radically “open” to any and everyone.³² No, few everyday people will actually take the time to visit a lab and see results for themselves, but the point is that they could: it’s absolutely allowable within the structure of the scientific experiment. Now, this might not apply to theoretical physics, but it does apply generally to work done in a lab: there, the question isn’t “What do the scientists see?” but ‘[W]hat [does] anyone [see]?’³³ The work of the scientist is to make their conclusions nonexclusive.
If we accept Rauch’s argument, then science is uniquely democratic. It seems to be controlled by elites (and certainly “theoretical science” can be), but this is only an appearance: anyone could run the same experiments as the scientists and come up with the same results. Since few of us ever actually take the time to do this, it seems like the scientist is no different than the literary critic, but they are in fact epistemologically distinct. Considering this, if we give up “the science of history” for something like “the literature of history,” we will also give up the possibility of a uniquely democratic epistemology of history, and that’s a tough pill to swallow. It’s one thing to say we cannot easily understand all the complexities of International Relations, but an entirely different matter to suggest we cannot easily understand our own history. That strikes deep: it both robs us of a tool to “objectively” ease and end ideological disputes, and places a foundation of our identities in the hands of others, or at least those skilled in literary analysis. Elites feel like they gain yet even more control, and, worse yet, we’re not even allowed to judge their actions unless we become like them. The loss of history feels total, but fortunately it’s technically not: yes, it’s hard to learn how to judge art, but it can be done (it just requires that we use our “leisure” better).
Art is traditionally associated with elitism, and whether that’s fair or not, I think there’s something to be said about the difficulty of learning how to judge and assess art. It’s admittedly not easy and takes a lot of practice, which if the same is required of history, that would suggest history is also elite (versus be “ours,” belonging “to the people”), and that would seem to tilt the study of history in favor of privileged classes. That feels like “taking history from the people” and giving it to the powerful, who can then use that history and power to further benefit themselves, adding to their power. Additionally, if judging history takes refinement, who has the power to tell us when we are so refined? Other experts, right? And suddenly we can see how the study of history could be exclusively controlled by an elite group of experts who could then use “democracy” in their favor, all while making it look like the people have power.
It would seem the only way to learn to judge art is to submerge ourselves in art, for there are indeed rules and principles that define “good art” from “bad art.” To use language from “Experiencing Thinking” by O.G. Rose, they are not “low order,” but “high order” laws, rules, and principles which are still real and relevant. “Low order complexity” is when a ball hits another ball and causes the second to roll; “high order complexity” is when a ball hits another ball, and I think about the time I played kickball with my brother back at our old home. Both are kinds of causality, but while the first is easy to observe and more “objective,” the second is unobservable and “subjective,” and yet it would be ridiculous to suggest that “high order causality” doesn’t exist. Likewise, the reasons one novel is better than another are not simply understandable in the realm of basic “cause and effect,” unfolding of the plot, character development, etc., though of course all those dimensions matter; rather, “high order” reasons play a critical role, such as how the action on page fifty is structured the same as the action on page two hundred, which suggests a critical parallelism between how the wife treats neighbors and how the husband does the same, even though the wife is extremely critical of her husband’s manner of receiving neighbors. The theme of the book could be “self-deception” and how we tend to judge people who are most like us, so this structural similarity suggests the theme of the novel without being overt. But what are the chances of a passive reader noticing the structural similarity between page fifty and page two hundred? Not high, which means that, if it’s necessary to grasp this “structural similarity” to really “get” the novel, then only “close readers” will appreciate the novel. In this way, the novel isn’t very “democratic,” but that’s not necessarily a bad thing; in fact, the most “democratic” books could be the simple ones we can pick up in an airport somewhere, forgetting soon after.
If history is literary, then as we don’t “get” a novel just by knowing the characters, plot, setting, and the like, so we don’t get history unless we can “read through” what men and women “say they want to do” in order to grasp their real motives and self-deceptions, unless we can compare historical events for structural similarities, unless we understand the thinking and worldviews of the actors involved; and so on. As we don’t appreciate a novel by only absorbing its “information,” so we don’t appreciate history by only memorizing its “facts.” As we must try to “enter” a novel, so we must try to “enter” history, but that is no easy feat. Also, what does it mean to “enter history?” A great question, one I hope “Feeling History” by O.G. Rose helps shed some light on.
We have outlined reasons why it is hard to accept that “history is literary,” but why exactly is it so important to accept that history is inescapably interpretative, interdisciplinary, and literary? Perhaps there’s no good reason to suffer the challenge? Perhaps not, but Dr. White has still given us reason throughout his collection of essays to think that history is always in service of an ideology, and if we alternatively assume history is always “a science,” then we will never “check and balance” the ideologies lurking in “the backgrounds” of our historical accounts. As a result, we will be shaped by these ideologies to be “toward” the world in certain ways without even realizing it, all while we think that we’re “just being objective.” The difficult choice between acknowledging interpretation or not is the choice of if we will control how we see the world and ourselves.
We all know of the obvious ways history can be shaped to serve ideology — an emphasis on certain facts over others here, a convenient omission of details there, etc. — but Hayden White asks us to envision other ways ideology can sneak into a “historical account” that aren’t so obvious. Mainly, Dr. White believes historical accounts are shaped by “ideological forms,” for he believes history must always be shared and expressed through a genre, and genre entails ideological “towardness”; in this way, “ideological bias” lurks in the background, undetected. All this is hopefully explained well enough in the conversations about Hayden White I shared with Davood Gozli and John David, but to summarize, White explains history must always be “emplotted,” which means it must always be situated within a “mode of emplotment.” He offers a useful and concise chart in his collection to help clarify which “modes of emplotment” he believes correspond with which “mode of ideological implication, and associates “Romance” with “Anarchist,” “Comedy” with “Conservative,” “Tragedy” with “Radical,” and “Satire” with “Liberal.”³⁴ Now, whether or not we agree with Mr. Whites association of “Comedy” with “Conservative” (for example) is a matter I won’t argue here: the point is that the very act of telling history as a “Tragedy” is in service of a “Radical” ideology and/or political project. For if history has been tragic, then we need “radical and extreme action” to break free from history: the very telling of history as “tragic” can serve a political program today. Perhaps this is for the best — that’s a different question — the point is that, where there is emplotment, there will be ideology.
Traditionally, there has been an idea that “the science of history” was a tool to fight ideology, that it was a corrective, but if Mr. White is correct, then history is always “formed” by ideological consideration. If this is the case, history may support ideology instead of fight it, but since people likely think history fights ideology, people can cease being critical of it, and as a result help keep ideology alive with the very act they think combats it. While we think we’re weakening ideology, we can end up making it stronger; as we think we’re bringing ideological conflict to an end, we might be declaring one ideology the winner (likely ours).
The very act of suggesting the American Civil War was “a tragedy” could suggest that the Northern military was unjustified to advance on the South; describing WWII as “good versus evil” could suggests the Allies did nothing wrong; and describing Napoleon’s invasion of Russia as a “farce” could suggest that even an idiot wouldn’t have been as stupid as Napoleon (when perhaps Napoleon had better reasons to invade than we realize). I’m not staying true to White’s categories with these examples, but the point is that tone, form, presentation, and the like — all literary devices — suggest ideological bias, regardless the facts and their ordering. Both a Liberal and Conservative account of the Revolution could entail the exact same facts in the exact same order, but the wording itself could suggest an entirely different meaning of those facts. In this way, checking the information for ideological bias isn’t enough: the form must also come under examination.
All this suggests why it’s so important to deconstruct “the myth of history as science,” for all such a myth can do is contribute to strengthening the power and presence of ideological by convincing us that ideology isn’t presence. It may seem like accepting the inevitable interpretability of history would strengthen ideology and ruin history, but White believes it is the exact opposite, for if we accept interpretation we will be ready to correct it and examine it instead of just passively reading history and “taking it in” uncritically. Better yet, we’ll examine history like a “literary critic,” which means we’ll focus on form, presentation, and design, not just “facts” — right now, if we’re critical of history, we tend to only be a “detective” checking to make sure all the right facts are present in the right order, which is better than nothing, but it fails to comprehensively check all the ways ideology can “sneak in” (such as through the “form” of the detective’s work).
By setting up a false and impossible ideal of “a science of history” which cannot be reached, we also set ourselves up for disillusionment when we realize this ideal cannot be reached: then, a “legitimization crisis” sets in (as Habermas discusses), and history dies by neglect. Worse yet, when we cannot acknowledge that history is always framed or “emplotted” in a way that favors one ideology over another, then we will fail to stop and examine the encroachment of those ideologies, all while thinking that we do indeed stop them. Where we are not conscious of the inevitable presence of interpretation and “literary” form of history, then we will have little incentive to examine beyond our “takes” of history, and we certainly won’t be “dialectical” in our thinking. If “The Novel Historian” by O.G. Rose is correct that the fate of history is strongly tied to its relationship with dialectics, then the fate of history is strongly tied to the acceptance of interpretation and “literary form” of history, as is necessary to accept for dialectics to occur.
To save history, White wants us to acknowledge the unavoidability of interpretation and literary “emplotment,” while at the same time giving us “literary devices” by which to “bind” and “contain” interpretation from spiraling off into radical relativism. Why bother making us acknowledge the role of interpretation if we’re just going to turn around and “bind” it? Because failure to acknowledge interpretation makes a “legitimization crisis” inevitable, and additionally history which isn’t literary tends to feel irrelevant and too stale to shape us (hence the drop of interest in history). White’s hope is to “let just enough subjectivity in” to make history more alive and truer, but not so much subjectivity that history collapses into endless relativity. For White, literature is key to finding this balance.
Pointillism generates paintings by just painting dots, and when we finish and take a step back from our canvas, we can see an image. Imagine each dot is a fact, and imagine that I am a historian who told you that I had “no preset idea” of what I was going to make ahead of time, that I was just “recording the facts” and making dots. Now, imagine that you step back and see the image of a swan. Is it really believable that I didn’t intend any image at all, that I just “painted the dots” without any idea where I would end up and yet still generated a picture of a swan? That seems impossible, frankly, but this is in essence what historian claim they accomplish when they say that they “just accounted for the facts.” Worse yet, the historian claims that because “the swan” emerged through “just creating points” (“just collecting facts”), the swan was “the objectively right” understanding of the historic event, granting themselves greater authority. It’s simply not believable that a “swan” would emerge without any preexisting design or intent, though that doesn’t mean the picture of the swan isn’t lovely or that there is no “truth” to the painting — again, the involvement of interpretation does not necessitate the involvement of error.
The only situation in which “just facts” would apply would be one in which the office I’m currently sitting in emerged directly and “straight out of” a Big Bang, per se, for this is the only situation in which no “story” led up to the existence of my office. It was just “there,” from the beginning, whole and entire (there has only ever been the facts which constitute it). This situation really would be one in which there was only ever “a point” in spacetime, and so accounting for that “point” would be to account for all of history. All we would need was a “point,” no lines to connect any points together, for there would be no time. In this situation, ‘[a] mere list of confirmable singular existential statements [would] add up to an account of reality,’ but in the situations which defines our lives, we need ‘some coherence, logical or aesthetic, connecting them one to another.’³⁵ Our worlds are not “pointillist paintings,” per se, which means that “lists of facts” (“chronicles”) do not fully describe them (even if there is “explanation,” there won’t be “address,” to allude to “Explained and Addressed” by O.G. Rose).³⁶
For us human beings, “events” are more fundamental than “facts,” which is to say that we always experience “an event” before we experience “facts,” and this suggests that “facts” are more abstractions that the “full body experiences” we originally undergo. A strange “bait and switch” has occurred where we think “facts” are less abstract, when really a world of “pure facts” is a world to which we as humans could never relate. Furthermore, a world of “pure facts” isn’t even a world we could describe and meaningfully, no more than we could start a “work of pointillism” and ever hope to generate an image that made any sense which we could then believably ascribe to as “just gathering the facts,” suggesting a “preexisting idea” played no role at all. Under these circumstances, our painting “should” end up a random collection of dots which don’t come together into an image — it’s simply a matter of probability. Where a meaningful image arises, we couldn’t possibly have “just gathered facts”; where an image is lacking, perhaps we indeed “just gathered facts” (not that our effort will make much sense).
Our emphasis on “just the facts” is meant to suggest a need to “bracket out” subjectivity so that we can get “at the truth of the matter” with more clarity and reliability (please don’t mistake me as saying there is no legitimacy at all to this effort). Rather, the point White is trying to make is that we must involve “subjective elements” if a created account is to hold any meaning to us (as even being an account), and furthermore we cannot “assume” that the presence of subjectivity necessitates the presence of error.³⁷ ‘The historian […] fashions his materials.’³⁸ Judgments, assessments, valuations — all of these are unavoidable — ‘[i]t is not the case that a fact is one thing and its interpretation another.’³⁹ The very use of language basically necessitates “a subjective element,” for if I choose to use one word versus another, I have passed a judgment which must somehow reflect my subjectivity. To make the point, let us say it was winter in Germany, and I wrote the sentence, “It was cold that day in Germany” — is this merely a statement of fact, or does the sentence “suggest” something? What about the phrase, “It’s a beautiful day?” Or let us consider, “He ran across the field?” Isn’t even the word “ran” a kind of “judgment” regarding the speed at which a boy moved? Is that judgment factual? Perhaps not, and yet “ran” could still “get at” truth.
All this brings to mind what White wrote: ‘the very language that the historian uses to describe his object of study […] [subjects] that object of study to the kind of distortion that historicists impose upon their materials in a more explicit and formal way.’⁴⁰ Perhaps inevitably, ‘the use of language itself projects a level of secondary meaning below or behind the phenomena being ‘described.’ ’⁴¹ Readers are likely to sense these “secondary meanings” (‘[the] ‘code’ by which the reader is invited to assume a certain attitude toward the facts and the interpretation of them offered on the manifest level of the discourse’), and yet if historians continue to argue that they are “just objective,” this could cause readers to lose trust in historians (causing that “legitimization crisis” White has admonished).⁴²
If we take the work of Robert Olen Butler seriously, the great teacher of creative writing, writers must do everything in their power to describe without judging, which sounds simple enough, but Butler makes clear that this is incredibly difficult. Arguably, we could sum up a lot of Hayden White’s thinking by saying that he would have historians master the lessons of Robert Olen Butler, a sentiment with which I concur. Why has this lesson been so hard for historians to learn? Well, many reasons, but Hayden White notes that it was once believed that if “history could become a science,” we could overcome politics, ideology, and the like, and then we could greatly accelerate societal advancement. People in the past ‘believe[d] that if one only eschewed ideology and remained true to the facts, history would produce a knowledge as certain as anything offered by the physical science and as objective as a mathematical exercise.’⁴³ This is an intoxicating and even hopeful vision, one which arguably people have wanted to believe, hoping that we could finally overcome all the failures of our previous efforts and revolutions. But ‘facts do not speak for themselves,’ which is to say that historians ‘speak on their behalf.’⁴⁴ This being the case, the work of historians and the work of writers end up very similar.
White ‘grant[s] at the outset that historical events [prove different] from fictional events,’ so we are not arguing here for a “total identification” of history and literature.⁴⁵ ‘Historians are concerned with events which can be assigned to specific time-space locations, events which are (or were) in principle observable or perceivable, whereas imaginative writers […] are concerned with both these kinds of events and imagined, hypothetic, or invented ones.’⁴⁶ Still, ‘[a]lthough historians and writers of fiction may be interested in different kinds of events, both the forms of their respective discourses and their aims in writing are often the same.’⁴⁷ ‘Readers of histories and novels can hardly fail to be struck by their similarities,’ and indeed ‘[b]oth wish to provide a verbal image of ‘reality.’’⁴⁸ ⁴⁹ This is only a problem to acknowledge if we mistakenly ‘identify truth with fact and […] regard fiction as the opposite of truth.’⁵⁰ As mentioned earlier, “facts” are actually more so “abstractions” than “events,” which suggests that truth should not be ‘equated with fact, but with the combination of fact and the conceptual matrix within which it [is] appropriately located in the discourse.’⁵¹ To say history cannot be “facts alone” isn’t to “lower the bar,” per se, but to raise it to a “higher standard.” It is to give ourselves more work, not less.
White’s aim is to end ‘the repression of the conceptual apparatus’ in which history operates and to make it vividly clear that history operates within literature.⁵² After suggesting “the historian” and “the historicist” are not so different, White writes that ‘[t]he principal difference between history and philosophy of history is that the latter brings the conceptual apparatus by which the facts are ordered in the discourse to the surface of the text, while history proper (as it is called) buries it in the interior of the narrative, where it serves as a hidden or implicit shaping device […]’⁵³ White notes that some historians didn’t make the mistake of trying to “hide their apparatus,” highlighting Tocqueville as an example of someone who ‘[wrote] about the French Revolution, but [wrote] even more meaningfully about the difficulty of ever attaining to a definitive objective characterization of the complex web of facts that comprise[d] the Revolution as a graspable totality or structured whole.’⁵⁴ But White wants all historians to be so forthcoming, and the hope of this project is to make denying this “coming forth” intellectually irresponsible. Personally, I think he succeeds: ‘a value-neutral description of the facts, prior to their interpretation or analysis, is [im]possible.’⁵⁵
‘The way one look[s] at the past […] condition[s] and, in the long run, actually determine[s] the shape that the future must have’ — if this is the case, then how we “observe” history influences how history unfolds.⁵⁶ This alludes to Hegel’s “Absolute Knowing,” discussed elsewhere in O.G. Rose, and suggests that the very act of observing history changes how we create history in the present. For this reason, if White is correct that history is more “literary” than “scientific,” then our failure to see history as such will impact the kind of world we make for ourselves. What White is arguing for is not merely a debate for academics that has nothing to do with our lives “now,” but an argument which practically impacts the present. The stakes are high
To make an example, as there can be a bias to think the financial market acts “rationally” and/or is comprised of “rational actors,” so we can think the same of historic events, causing us to underestimate the role “irrationality” may have played in generating the modern world. Stories, on the other hand, are not just products of “the best of all possible actions,” but if we don’t think of history as “literary,” the “space” in our minds we will make for irrationality, irony, tragedy, etc. in our historic analysis will be limited. As a result, it is unlikely that we will think of history unfolding “ironically,” for example, which means we will not likely think of us today unfolding ironically. We will not be “on the lookout” for such mistakes, greatly increasing our likelihood of making them.
In my view, it would seem we could problematically discuss an “efficient history hypothesis” just like we discuss an “efficient market hypothesis.” If history is “efficient,” then we don’t need “literary skills” to discuss it (literature focuses on “the human,” after all). Furthermore, “efficient history” will eventually work itself out — geopolitical crises, global warming — none of these should concern us. Where history is viewed “as a science” (or objective), the presence of an “efficient history hypothesis” will be high, which is to say we will ascribe to a “Myth of Progress.” If we accept this premise, then what happens in the world today is a product of rationality, and that means it would be foolish for us to resist or deny it. Our present lives will be shaped accordingly: if we accept ‘the power of history to take care of itself,’ we will at the same time accept the power of the present to keep advancing on its own.⁵⁷
‘One’s view of the meaning of history depended, Kant insisted, on the kind of man one was, the kind of man one wanted to be, and the kind of humanity that one desire to see take shape in the future.’⁵⁸ In this way, Hegelian, we cannot remove ourselves from historic processes: we constitute them in the process of being part of them. Considering this, ‘[i]f one chose to believe that humanity was either declining or remaining essentially the same, one would live one’s life in such a way as to bring to pass the condition of degeneration or stasis perceive to be reflected in the record of the past.’⁵⁹ In this way, we could say that humanity’s view of history always constituted a kind of “story” relative to which humanity shaped itself “as” at the same time participated in the story and created it (like an author who writes himself into his story, and then writes the story from the perspective of that character). It’s clear that “myths” like Eden and Progress have shaped humanity, but here White is basically arguing that the line between “myth” and “history” cannot easily be drawn. Both are stories which shape us and that we shape, and our world overflows with such stories.
White explores a few “myths” to sketch how society forms itself relative to them, notably in his eyes “The Form of Wildness” and “The Noble Savage Theme as Fetish,” two essays which seem out of place in White’s collection before we recognize that both constitute stories relative to which society forms its identity (this also explains the inclusion of “Foucault Decoded”). On the concept of “the frontier,” White describes a movement from “external frontiers” to “internal frontiers” through time. When there was a “frontier” external to the city, we could “draw a line” (however bigotedly and immorally) between civilization and “non-civilization,” and we could safely assume that if we were on “this side of the line,” we were civilized and “good.” But as frontiers vanished and “the internal life” became primary, “drawing the line” between “the civilized” and “the non-civilized” become much harder: White describes this as a movement from society worrying about “the barbarian” to worrying about “the Wild Man.” ‘Where the barbarian represented a threat to society in general […] the Wild Man represented a threat to the individual, both as nemesis and as possible destiny, both as enemy and as representative of a condition into which an individual man […] might degenerate.’⁶⁰ ⁶¹ With this change, it became possible that our very neighbors could be “barbarians,” thus profoundly multiplying existential anxiety. With the introduction of Christianity, notably, anyone could be a sinner/barbarian: we couldn’t assume we were safe simply because we were on “the right side” of some line.
Due to this “change in story,” a new source was needed to draw “a new line” between “the civilized” and “the uncivilized,” and that line became education. People who were educated were civilized, and those who weren’t educated were “wild.”⁶² “Being educated” started primarily as a matter of religious education, with theology being the highest field of thought, but gradually “being educated” was defined in terms of “more concrete” fields. After all, can education serve the proper “social function” of defining “the civilized” if it’s merely instruction in “subjective opinion?” A harder standard seemed necessary, thus the emphasis on science and desire to believe science could be “objective.” If that was possible, civilization could even “draw a line” between “the subjective” and “the objective” while associating those who thought “objectively” with “being civilized.” Personally, I think this association was indeed established, which helps explain why there has been such a strong reaction against White’s work and the argument that “history is literary.” If “objectivity” is a marker of civilization, then White threatens to take us “back to the Dark Ages.” We won’t allow this degression: after all, we view history as rational and “progression.” White simply cannot be correct…
White’s work threatens to destabilize “a standard of objectivity” which we have set to define “the civilized” from “the uncivilized,” but I think White is right that we’ve set ourselves up for trouble by using this standard and “line.” True objectivity is impossible, and so the standard must inevitably fail, and in not having an understanding of “literature as hermeneutic,” we’ve fallen into epistemic nihilism and chaos in losing objectivity (as evident by Modernity and Postmodernity). White argues persuasively why this doesn’t have to be so, but we have ignored White, and so the loss of “objectivity” has made us feel like everyone now is “wild.” We have no way to stop the rapid and persuasive spread of “wildness” — it feels like civilization is doomed. The barbarians are not at the gate — we are not so fortunate — which is only to say that we cannot claim they are “out there.” This is humbling, for we cannot say we are necessarily better than anyone else, but it is also terrifying.
“Wildness,” “barbarism,” “objectivity’ — all of these are examples of stories which we tell ourselves and form ourselves according to, making it seem as if they were “always true,” when really we may have simply “made them (appear always) true.” When “objectivity” became the new standard of defining “the civilized,” it became the case that “knowing facts” was a critical marker of “being civilized.” This isn’t to say we’ve always fully understood our stories or been able to readily articulate them beyond vague notions; in fact, we’ve likely mostly ascribed to “negative” accounts according to which we could give ourselves definition. White acknowledges this reality when he writes that ‘[i]f we do not know what we think ‘civilization’ is, we can always find an example of what it is not. [Likewise,] [i]f we are unsure of what sanity is, we can at least identify madness when we see it.’⁶³ “Negative stories” seem to be a critical way societies “emplot” and define themselves through history, for “positive stories” require risky exclusions and standards that many citizens may dislike (“positive stories” might also be easier to critique). But “negatively” defining the whole civilization according to what it “isn’t” helps people feel exclusive and “part of a club” — a far easier and more supported undertaking.
“the idea of wildness” has evolved in complex and nuanced ways through history: though it has often been used to define “the civilized” from “the uncivilized,” Rousseau inversed the concept to claim paradise was found outside civilization. Under Rousseau, ‘the Wild Man became gradually transformed from an object of loathing and fear (and only secret envy) into an object of open envy and even admiration.’⁶⁴ Hobbes disagreed, and back and forth the concept of “wildness” has shifted relative to the ideology using it. Still, the point stands that “wildness” has been a story in service of human and social organization, but not always in an idealistic or simplistic way. As White writes, ‘[m]yths provide imaginative justifications of our desires and at the same time hold up before us images of the cosmic forces that preclude the possibility of any perfect gratification of them.’⁶⁵ Eden was mythic, but not all myths are Edenic; in fact, myths can portray complex psychoanalytical realities that are hard to fully fathom (as Jung explored). We will not find simple answers in myths, but we will find stories according to which we can live and form as we live them. As such, history is mythic, which for Vico means there’s hope for us to grasp it. Far from an impenetrable and trite relativism, where there’s interpretation, there’s hope for understanding.
Hayden White spends a great deal of time focusing on the work of Giambattista Vico, the great genius who suggests that it’s possible for us to understand poetry but not gravity. If it is made, we can understand it, but if it is natural, it belongs to God’s understanding alone. Considering this, if history is a science, we cannot know it; if history is literary, it can be studied. Far from assuming all historic action was rational and progressive, ‘Vico appeared to make reason dependent upon unreason, to make of it a refined form of unreason,’ and what it produced could not be understood according to rationality alone (this point suggests that “the true isn’t the rational,” as discussed throughout O.G. Rose).⁶⁶ Paradoxically, it is precisely because history is to some degree irrational that history can be known: while for Leibniz, ‘the very concept of the irrational is ruled out as a category of significant historical being, since the notion of intrinsic irrationality would have suggested some inadequacy in the Creation and hence, by implication, in the Creator,’ for Vico irrationality is human and knowable because it is human (Vico seems to take a stronger view of “The Fall”).⁶⁷ To put this another way, for Vico, if history couldn’t be interpreted (only “read”), history could not be understood: the possibility of error means there is a possibility of understanding. Far from ruin history, subjectivity makes it knowable: if history is a process of gradually removing the possibility of “unreason,” then history is a process of gradually making itself forgotten.
‘Instead of setting the imagination over against the reason as an opposed way of apprehending reality, and poetry over against prose as an opposed way of representing it, Vico argues for a continuity between them.’⁶⁸ To use language from elsewhere in O.G. Rose, we cannot say that human action is either “rational or irrational,” for there is plenty of human activity which is “nonrational,” which is to say the activity transcends a simple binary (as argued well by Lorenzo Barberis Canonico). Vico seems to have understood something similar, understanding that a “purely rational account” of humanity would ironically leave out humanity, that what generated human civilization was primarily “nonrationality,” not rationality or irrationality. Where “nonrationality” is involved though, we cannot rely on a science to solve our problems and complete our thinking: we will need something “softer,” and this means we cannot avoid interpretation. Never do we only “read.”
Elaborating on Vico’s thought could take a lifetime, but hopefully the discussion on YouTube with Davood and John David productively covered some ground, at least. For White, what’s critical to understand about Vico is that ‘at the interior of Vico’s thought there resides a principle of interpretation.’⁶⁹ Vico will place the “poetic imagination” and language at the center of human and social development, both of which notably entail the involvement of the subject. This being the case, we cannot learn history unless we learn “the history of interpretation” — the incorporation of science would be the incorporation of ignorance. If we ourselves are to be “present” in an understanding, that understanding must be hermeneutical. This brings us to the final essay in The Tropics of Discourse, “The Absurdist Moment in Contemporary Literary Theory,” which I found splendid: after arguing that “interpretation is paramount” and “all understanding must be literary,” White proceeds to then argue that “literary criticism” is in decline. We must approach everything as literature, and yet our capacity to understand literature is remarkably weak (a great deconstructive irony, which I find literary itself).
Everything meaningful is literary, and ‘[i]n literary criticism [today], anything goes’ — a significant problem, suggesting that “literary criticism” is not ready to handle the responsibility and weight White would like to place on its shoulders (in arguing that history, and perhaps practically all knowledge, is literary).⁷⁰ ‘Literature [today] is reduced to writing, writing to language, and language, in a final paroxysm of frustration, to chatter about silence.’71 To discuss literature is to discuss what should be “read through,” making it unclear if we ever even discuss literature anymore, all while we emphasize “literary criticism.” Literature is the arena for training interpretation and our “interpretation of interpretation” itself, but the arena seems to be in flames.
Personally, I am sympathetic to concerns about assuming interpretation isn’t a problem, that words are “self-evident” in their meaning, and I can understand the ways in which ‘language itself [is] a problem.’⁷² In the past, as White notes, language was ‘only a puzzle which had to be solved before moving to the real problem, the disclosure of the meaning hidden within language,’ but now arguably language is the problem and it is never “moved through.”⁷³ Whether White is right about this or not, I leave up to you, but basically White argues that “literary criticism” might not be up to the task of guiding and aiding a world that begins considering all knowledge as “literary.” If everything is a text, then reading is everything, and reading might be what we no longer know how to do. ‘The critic no longer knows exactly why he is doing what he does or how he does it; yet he cannot stop.’⁷⁴ Why? Well, because reading is everything, which means interpretations matters. And since interpretation is a skill, there’s something about everything that we cannot dismiss, something for which we are all responsible.
‘I emplot, therefore I am (historically self-conscious)’ — Davood Gozli sums up the thinking of Hayden White well with a riff off Descartes. Where there is “emplotment,” there is consciousness and subjectivity, and where “emplotment” is lacking, there will be a lack of comprehension and meaning. If history means something to us, we have “emplotted” it, and thus all meaningful “historical accounts” must be cognitive (as John David noted). “History-to-itself” will never be meaningful to us: it will always exist across some Kantian noumenon.
As with our own lives, ‘the more we know about the past, the more difficult [it becomes] is to generalize about it.’⁷⁵ But, ‘[l]ike literature, history progresses by the production of classics,’ and yet a “classic” cannot be written that doesn’t “story” and “generalize” situations that technically cannot be “storied” and “understood” without leaving behind “the full story.”⁷⁶ If there is progress, there is failure, but, far from destroying history, accepting this reality, according to Hayden White, will save history.
‘In my view,’ Hayden writes, ‘history as a discipline is in bad shape today because it has lost sight of its origins in the literary imagination. In the interest of appearing scientific and objective, it has repressed and denied to itself its own greatest source of strength and renewal’⁷⁷ History is literature but not fictious — White stresses that accepting this reality will empower history, not deconstruct it. As argued in “The Novel Historian,” accepting the inevitable role of interpretation in history will open it up to dialectics which will help elevate it. If we take White seriously, far from a collapse of history departments, we could undergo a “historic renaissance.”
Perhaps we resist accepting that “history is literary” because that risks making history less democratic (not everyone can readily “get it” without literary training), more interdisciplinary (which makes it less specialized and technical), and vulnerable to “re-emplotment” (which makes us vulnerable to having our identities changed right under our feet at any moment, “re-emplotment” always being possible). But if we don’t accept that “history is literary,” it will continue to be in service of ideologies all while we think history fights and corrects ideology (to name one problem), making the ideological-support history provides all the more problematic and difficult to stop. Yes, accepting the role of interpretation in history is also to accept how interdisciplinary it is, which means understanding history requires understanding numerous fields (and ultimately more than we could ever hope to understand), but this also helps us be more “dialectical.” As such, we can maintain a state of tension and “checking and balancing” that makes us less vulnerable to stopping and resting on a spot where we could be seized and controlled by ideology. Where there are “dialectics,” there will be “tension” but not “relativism,” but where tension is lacking, we are likely “captured” by ideology, power structures, and the like. “Dialectical life” is critical for life well lived.
Life is a life of interpretation: if we believe otherwise, it’s because life allows us to interpret it as noninterpreted. At the same time, interpretation adds life, for where there is life, there is interpretation; thus, to “choose life” is to “choose interpretation.” In Hayden White arguing that history will not be properly studied until we learn “the art of interpretation,” White is arguing for a way to make history alive. Yes, this could risk turning history into a subject that serves our ideologies and personal agendas, but the same could just as well apply if we don’t accept the inevitable role of interpretation in history. This is because we will interpret, rather we like it or not, and the likelihood of us doing it well if we are not conscious of its role will be low. As life is a life of interpretation, life is a life of risk, but where there is risk, there is also an opportunity for us to rise to the occasion.
¹John David pointed out that White’s essay could be mistitled, that historians don’t really “interpret” — that’s the role of readers — and I think this is a fair point. Perhaps the essay should have been titled “Arrangement In History” or “The Judgment of Historians” — John’s point indeed got my gears turning on this possibility — but for now we’ll stick with White’s language. Still, John’s point made me wonder: if there is will, is there interpretation? If I will to do x, mustn’t I “interpret” x as more worth doing than y (or worth doing at all)? In this way, perhaps all “historical arrangements” entail an element of interpretation, for the historian must “judge” x as “fitting” here before y and not after it, and that act of “judgment” necessarily entails interpretation. I’m not sure.
²White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “The Historical Text as Literary Artifact.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 81.
³White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “The Historical Text as Literary Artifact.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 81.
⁴White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “The Historical Text as Literary Artifact.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 82.
⁵White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “The Historical Text as Literary Artifact.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 83.
⁶White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “The Historical Text as Literary Artifact.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 92.
⁷White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “Interpretation In History.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 55.
⁸White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “Interpretation In History.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 56.
⁹White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “Interpretation In History.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 58.
¹⁰White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “Interpretation In History.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 51.
¹¹White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “Interpretation In History.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 51.
¹²White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “Interpretation In History.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 52.
¹³White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “Interpretation In History.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 52.
¹⁴White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “Interpretation In History.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 52.
¹⁵White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “The Historical Text as Literary Artifact.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 85.
¹⁶White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “The Historical Text as Literary Artifact.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 85.
¹⁷White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “The Historical Text as Literary Artifact.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 84.
¹⁸White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “The Historical Text as Literary Artifact.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 85.
¹⁹Allusion to Nietzsche, as found in “Interpretation In History” by Hayden White. Tropics of Discourse. Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 53.
²⁰White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “Interpretation In History.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 60.
²¹Allusion to Lucien Goldmann, as found in “Interpretation In History” by Hayden White. Tropics of Discourse. Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 69.
²²White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “Interpretation In History.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 69.
²³White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “Interpretation In History.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 54.
²⁴White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “Interpretation In History.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 59.
²⁵White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “Interpretation In History.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 70.
²⁶White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “The Historical Text as Literary Artifact.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 90.
²⁷Allusion to Paul Richeor.
²⁸White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “The Historical Text as Literary Artifact.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 87.
²⁹White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “The Historical Text as Literary Artifact.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 97.
³⁰Rauch, Jonathan. Kindly Inquisitors. The University of Chicago Press. Paperback Edition, 1994: 38.
³¹Rauch, Jonathan. Kindly Inquisitors. The University of Chicago Press. Paperback Edition, 1994: 52.
³²Rauch, Jonathan. Kindly Inquisitors. The University of Chicago Press. Paperback Edition, 1994: 53.
³³Rauch, Jonathan. Kindly Inquisitors. The University of Chicago Press. Paperback Edition, 1994: 55.
³⁴White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “The Historical Text as Literary Artifact.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 70.
³⁵White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “Fictions of Factual Representation.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 122.
³⁶As described in “Absolute Knowing” by O.G. Rose, our worlds are more aligned with “The Absolute” than “The Truth.”
³⁷We could say that Hayden is arguing that history is a matter of “The Absolute,” alluding to Hegel.
³⁸White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “Historicism, History, and the Figurative Imagination.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 106.
³⁹White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “Historicism, History, and the Figurative Imagination.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 107.
⁴⁰White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “Historicism, History, and the Figurative Imagination.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 102.
⁴¹White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “Historicism, History, and the Figurative Imagination.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 110.
⁴²White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “Historicism, History, and the Figurative Imagination.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 107.
⁴³White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “Fictions of Factual Representation.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 125.
⁴⁴White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “Fictions of Factual Representation.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 125.
⁴⁵White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “Fictions of Factual Representation.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 121.
⁴⁶White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “Fictions of Factual Representation.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 121.
⁴⁷White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “Fictions of Factual Representation.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 121.
⁴⁸White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “Fictions of Factual Representation.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 121.
⁴⁹White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “Fictions of Factual Representation.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 122.
⁵⁰White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “Fictions of Factual Representation.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 123.
⁵¹White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “Fictions of Factual Representation.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 123.
⁵²White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “Fictions of Factual Representation.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 126.
⁵³White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “Fictions of Factual Representation.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 127.
⁵⁴White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “Fictions of Factual Representation.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 129.
⁵⁵White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “Fictions of Factual Representation.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 134.
⁵⁶White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “The Irrational and Historical Knowledge.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 148.
⁵⁷White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “The Irrational and Historical Knowledge.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 148.
⁵⁸White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “The Irrational and Historical Knowledge.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 148.
⁵⁹White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “The Irrational and Historical Knowledge.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 148.
⁶⁰White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “The Forms of Wildness.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 166.
⁶¹Even now, we organize our actions according to “wild men” and/or “barbarians”: if we are Conservative, Liberals are “barbaric”; if we accept Evolution, Creationists are “uncivilized”; and so on. “The myth of wildness” is not one we easily escape.
⁶²For those interested, in The Death of Childhood, Neil Postman describes how “being literate” became another “line” between childhood and adulthood.
⁶³White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “The Forms of Wildness.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 152.
⁶⁴White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “The Forms of Wildness.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 169.
⁶⁵White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “The Forms of Wildness.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 175.
⁶⁶White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “The Irrational and Historical Knowledge.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 147.
⁶⁷White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “The Irrational and Historical Knowledge.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 137.
⁶⁸White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “The Irrational and Historical Knowledge.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 144.
⁶⁹White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “The Tropics of History: The Deep Structure of the New Science.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 203.
⁷⁰White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “The Absurdist Moment in Contemporary Literary Theory.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 261.
⁷¹White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “The Absurdist Moment in Contemporary Literary Theory.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 262.
⁷²White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “The Absurdist Moment in Contemporary Literary Theory.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 263.
⁷³White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “The Absurdist Moment in Contemporary Literary Theory.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 263.
⁷⁴White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “The Absurdist Moment in Contemporary Literary Theory.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 267.
⁷⁵White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “The Historical Text as Literary Artifact.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 89.
⁷⁶White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “The Historical Text as Literary Artifact.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 89.
⁷⁷White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “The Historical Text as Literary Artifact.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 99.
1. Would a “history of neuroscience,” a history on how the brain has changed in its functionality over the ages, be possible?
2. It is tempting for the historian to research forever, for what if people associate the produced history with fiction?
3. As great writers like Dostoevsky “wrestle with themselves” and “steelman” the characters with whom they think least like, so historians should strive to do the same.
4. There is a radical difference between “specialization as focus” and “specialization as exclusivity.”
5. Is anything done well that isn’t interdisciplinary?
6. We seem to want history to be a watch we found while walking on the shore (to borrow from John David).
7. As Davood Gozli points out, if we believe history is determined, then studying it carries little importance, yet for a historian to study x instead of y suggests the historian must use a heuristic that makes x more worth studying than y (unless the historian used a dartboard).
8. All we can ever hope to write is “about history,” never “at history.” But arguably this applies to everything: ideas, words, thought — we are only ever “about,” never “at.”
9. If history is literature, then history must be dialectical, which means we either read a lot of different histories or practically none at all.
10. Levi-Strauss put it well: ‘there is a paradoxical relationship between the amount of information that may be conveyed in any given account of that field and the kind of comprehension that we can have of it.’¹
¹White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “Historicism, History, and the Figurative Imagination.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 102.
11. Hayden White seems to suggest that “the theory of evolution” didn’t “take off” until it found “the right presentation” in Darwin, which suggests that “literary histories” are more likely to “take off” than “non-literary histories,” it would seem. Language is a skeleton key. Paradigm shifts are literary.
12. Would an alien who encountered Shelby Foote and James Joyce assume they were friends?
13. Accepting the bias and subjectivity of historians will not bother us nearly as much if we don’t mind work.
14. Is War and Peace biased? Is this a meaningful question?
15. As with Hegel, there is no “Truth” only “Absolute.”
16. ‘When the barbarian hordes appear, the foundations of the world appear to be cracking, and prophets announce the death of the old and the advent of the new age.’¹ But if “barbarians” never appear, because now we must worry about (internal and existential) “wildness,” then we can never know for sure when “a new age” has begun and when the old has passed away. We must always live unsure if the ground is still beneath our feet.
¹White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “The Forms of Wildness.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 166.
17. ‘From biblical times to the present, the notion of the Wild Man was associated with the idea of the wilderness — the desert, forest, jungle, and mountains — those parts of the physical world that had not yet been domesticated or marked out for domestication in any significant way. As one after another of these wildernesses was brought under control, the idea of the Wild Man was progressively despatialized,’ which is to say the “Wild Man” ceases occupying a clear space and location and instead became an internal and psychological condition.¹ This is existentially difficult, so we were thrilled when we realized that we could make “knowing facts” a sign of civilization — a sign White threatens (for all the right reasons).
¹White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse. “The Forms of Wildness.” Baltimore and London. The John Hopkins University Press, 1978: 153.
18. What constitutes the idea of “wildness” in premodern thought? “Wildness” seems to help us define ourselves “negatively,” for if we cannot say what civilization “is,” we can always find examples of what it “is not.” The same logic applies to “the individual,” and a function of “wildness” and “the wilderness” has been to help us define ourselves without limiting ourselves to a definition. We want to be free, but we also don’t want to be lost.
19. Benedetto Croce both praises and critiques Vico, with Croce’s critique mainly being on how Vico fails to maintain “hard categories” in his thinking, but it seems to me that Vico’s whole point is that these categories cannot be meaningfully maintained without creating an illusion. History is the story of a subject coming to understand itself and its world, and in the subject all categories “come together.” Stories consistent of characters, which means psychology, sociology, and the like are involved, as stories consist of settings, which means geography, biology, physics, and science are involved — I could go on. “Hard categories” cannot be drawn within stories, and for Vico history is a story: we cannot discuss it unless we discuss everything, and that means Vico’s main category of concern is “everything.” Of course, we can question if that’s even a category at all, but our views mustn’t be imposed on Vico if we are to understand his work properly. Croce was a loving admirer of Vico, and his critique was delivered kindly, but I fail to grasp the critique all the same.
20. I avoided elaborating on White’s papers on Vico and Foucault in this essay, planning to write separate papers on both later.
21. It is a speculative point, but if it was successfully established that “irony is the fabric of reality” throughout O.G. Rose, then an “ironic emplotment” of history (for example) could actually increase the likelihood that history reflected reality. Where irony lacked, so too would lack reality.
22. If White is correct, “historic archetypes” could be more reliable than scientific discoveries. While science undergoes “paradigm shifts,” “literary archetypes” and/or “literary genres” remain constant.
23. Is there a history of historians?
24. Are archetypes “messages in a bottle” from across historic and human noumena, per se?
25. As John David pointed out, before the printing press, it was easy to believe someone “knew everything” (essentially), but believing such now proves far more difficult with the internet. When it was possible to believe people could “know everything,” perhaps it was far easier to be a Platonist.
26. Where there is interpretation, there is responsibility, not dismal.
27. What we don’t find interesting, we don’t care about, and what makes history interesting is the very interpretation which can keep us from fully accessing it.
28. Novels are personal systems.
29. Far from a “deconstructionist threat,” White would have us understand that accepting the role of interpretation in history is how we make it antifragile.
30. We don’t learn history by learning historic facts, but by learning historic events, which are never fully accessible.
31. If interpretation is everything but our capacities to interpret in disarray, there is great incentive to fix our capacities. Otherwise, is the loss so great?
32. To allude to “Experiencing Thinking” by O.G. Rose, interpretation is “high order” while science is “straight forward.”
33. Interpreting well requires interpreting everything, and everything is interdisciplinary and impossible to fully master. Where we all seek to be “specialists,” it is natural that we would then resist “interpretation,” for “specialization” is the opposite of “interdisciplinary,” and where there is “specialization,” there can be a science, a source of existential relief.
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