Open Journal of Philosophy
2012. Vol.2, No.4, 213-218
Published Online November 2012 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 213
Truth, Narrative, and Opening Space
Matthew Z. Donnelly
Philosophy, Boston College, Chestnut Hill, USA
Received July 11th, 2012; re vise d August 15th, 2012; accepted August 26th, 2012
This paper identifies the difficulties in confronting novel history from both a rigorous scientific and artis-
tic literary perspectives and suggests a practical reconciliation—in the form of a discussion and metapho-
rical opening space—between the two apparent poles of historical understanding and their accompanying
genres, types, and tropes.
Keywords: Narrative History; Historiography; Narrative Theory; Literary Genres; Philosophy of
The practice of history is fraught with disciplinary difficul-
ties. Like many liberal arts, history is pulled in two directions,
toward the institutional rigor of empirical science and toward
the expressive and culturally dynamic realm of creative art.
Hayden White describes a common response by the historian:
For better than a century many historians have found it use-
ful to employ a Fabian tactic against critics in related fields of
intellectual endeavor. The tactic works like this: when criticized
by social scientists1 for the softness of his method, the crudity of
his organizing metaphors, or the ambiguity of his sociological
and psychological presuppositions, the historian responds that
history has never claimed the status of a pure science But
when reproached by literary artists for his failure to probe the
more arcane strata of human consciousness and his unwilling-
ness to utilize contemporary modes of literary representation,
the historian falls back upon the view that history is after all a
semi-science… (White, The Burden of History, 1978)
This tension is acute when confronting extreme or novel his-
torical events such as the Holocaust or the employment of nu-
clear weapons. This tension is particularly acute because such
events naturally invite, and indeed require, both artistic and
scientific study. By the events’ very novelty, society is drawn
to confront and integrate the events into human narrative. For
example, both comprehensive scientific and artistic descriptions
of the 20th century would be incomplete without including the
Holocaust. On the other hand, an artistic narrative of the 20th
century could still be comprehensive without including string
theory; a scientific narrative could still be comprehensive with-
out Citizen Kane. Novel historical invite require comprehensive
and diverse treatment, while mundane events do not. The pur-
pose of this paper is to identify the difficulties in confronting
novel history from both the rigorous scientific and artistic liter-
ary perspectives and to suggest a practical reconciliation—in
the form of a discussion and metaphorical opening space—
between the two apparent poles of historical understanding and
their accompanying genres, types, and tropes.2
Some theorists, such as Hayden White, hold that “Contem-
porary Western man has good reason to be obsessed by his
sense of the uniqueness of his problems and is justifiably con-
vinced that the historical record as presently provided offers
little help in the quest for adequate solutions to those problems”
(White, The Burden of History, 1978: p. 41). The uniqueness of
Western society certainly seems to be a misattribution of im-
portance by White. Indeed, if the modern context has taught us
nothing else, it has revealed the global3 scope and impact of
human interaction. Any limited context, be it Western or oth-
erwise, assumes a characteristic of normality that claims un-
warranted privilege. The West (or any other privileged perspec-
tive or context) should not be treated as the critical realm of
history. It seems to me that the temporal perspective of Con-
temporary Western man also fails to establish any qualitative
uniqueness vis a vis historical experience. To say that the ex-
periences of the last century are unique is to bring historical
difference to the point of triviality and banality. Of course the
world had never experienced nuclear weapons or genocide on
the scale experienced in the twentieth century. Similarly, the
world had never experienced, and has not experienced since,
the erection of the pyramids of Egypt by an enslaved race. Ad-
ditionally, while technology and other implements of the mod-
ern age such as new forms of government and social control
may have made mass genocide possible, so too did the increase
in human population. Millions of individuals could not have
been killed, for example, in ancient Greece, because there were
simply not millions of people in ancient Greece. The novelty of
the modern experience has as much, if not more, to do with the
novelty of every historical experience as it does with the novel
qualities and types of influences that made it possible. Any
understanding of uniqueness is relative to the scope and “level
2Additionally, what constitutes a piece of history, as opposed to a piece o
art or science, should be taken quite liberally. Because we are indeed en-
gaged in a discussion of the scope and function of narrative history itself,
there should be no arbitrary or potentially arbitrary limits on what falls into
the scopeof this discussion. The form, function, and life of narrative history
is the subject of our investigation, rather than whether or not a particular
piece instantiates such form, function, or academic life.
3Rather than regional.
1One could easily see empirical scientists leveling similar charges against the
of precision” of historical inquiry (Ricoeur, 1984: p. 124).
Therefore, in investigating the way narrative history treats
novel and extreme history, we should assume neither a western
nor a modern arrogance. We do not want to be so precise as to
elevate the novelty of such events to triviality or so general as
to exclude an understanding of global historical diversity.
Narrative History and Its Telos
The teleological basis of narrative histories, as opposed to
compilations of facts in chronological order, is communication
and achievement of historical understanding. Perhaps it is true
that “no given theory of history is convincing… on the basis of
its adequacy as an ‘explanation’” (White, 1973: p. 429); how-
ever, objective explanation and communication are not syn-
onymous. It is inconceivable for an author to create a narrative
history that does not serve as an attempt to communicate. In-
deed, even in cases where none but a history’s author functions
as an audience, the author communicates and seeks to nurture
an understanding with themself.4 While naming the audience as
the radically essential operator in narrative is not necessary for
our purposes, the opposite radical position, namely the denial of
any function to the audience, is a blatant impossibility. Narra-
tive is impossible without audience, and as Ricoeur reminds us,
“history… cannot sever every connection with narrative with-
out losing its historical character” (Ricoeur, 1984: p. 177).
Therefore, it is misguided at best to attempt to address history
without addressing narrative and its accompanying audience,
author, and telos.
Criticized from both sides of the science/art divide as narra-
tive history may be, its theorists—historiographers and philoso-
phers—cannot ignore the valid and constructive points raised
by detractors (White, 1978: pp. 40-41). If narrative history is to
assert its ability to achieve its telos, it must do so within the
overall context of the intellectual academy. Both literalist and
interpretive historians are, perhaps unfairly, forced into “the
situation of a judge” (Ricoeur, 1984: p. 1 75). In order to a ch iev e
a coherent theory, history must “break through two resistances”
(Ricoeur, 1984: p. 163), the resistance to history as intrinsically
linked to truth in fact and event, and to history as intrinsically
linked to the interpretative endeavors of humanity. The Fabian
strategy often employed by theorists of narrative history may
perniciously obscure the potential for narrative history to have a
fruitful life within the academy.
Truth and Type
Most mundane concepts of “truth” treat it as accurate corre-
spondence between one’s thoughts or concepts, or the concepts
collectively assented to by a group, and independent reality.
Brute correspondence between language and truth is the prod-
uct of an ontological and linguistic position that one’s knowl-
edge accurately reflects the real5 world. Indeed, this correspon-
dence may be buried within the notion and practice of language.
Language may contain what Ricoeur refers to as “the ontologi-
cal presupposition of reference, a presupposition reflected in-
side of language itself as a postulate lacking any imminent jus-
tification”. Ricoeur continues, “Language is for itself the order
of the Same. The world is its Other” (Ricoeur, 1984: p. 78).
Taking these points immediately, a point of irreconcilable dif-
ference is reached. Ricoeur reconciles the internal coherence,
the “Same”ness of language for itself, with the “Other”ness of
the world by demonstrating that externalization required for
language to reflect the world is a “…counterpart of a prior and
more originary notion, starting from our experience of being in
the world and in time, and proceeding from this6 ontological
condition towards its expression in language” (Ricoeur, 1984: p.
Though language and knowledge grow from the same origi-
nary condition, a number of effective criticisms have been lev-
ied against the notion of truth-as-correspondence. Most notably
is the section entitled “Mirroring” in Richard Rorty’s Philoso-
phy and the Mirror of Nature (Rorty, 2009: pp. 129-312).
Rorty’s critiques mirror those described above. In response to
these difficulties, I offer two responses. First, incommensurable
discourses and ideas may be addressed through “hermeneutics”.
Rorty’s hermeneutics is “…the study of an abnormal discourse
from the point of view of some normal discourse—the attempt
to make some sense of what is going on at a stage where we are
still too unsure about it to describe it, and thereby to begin an
epistemological account of it” (Rorty, 2009: p. 320). Rorty
describes the difference between his notion of hermeneutics and
his notion of epistemology as:
one of familiarity. We will be epistemological where we
understand perfectly well what is happening but want to codify
it in order to extend, or strengthen, or teach, or ground it. We
must be hermeneutical where we do not unde rstand what is hap-
pening but are honest enough to admit it (Rorty, 2009: p. 321).
Second, the description of epistemologies is certainly more
plausible in realms where commensurability is, or is apparently,
ready to hand. These realms include (some portions of) science
and math. It will serve us well to allow for the establishment of
epistemologies in certain areas of human life, in order to allow
for the distinctly different process of hermeneutics in others.
This process is particularly applicable to novel and extreme
histories, because to claim perfect understanding would be to
deny their novelty.
An alternative to the correspondence theory of truth that
grounds Rortian epistemologies is the use of commensurability,
or mutual, practical understanding as the measure of a con-
cept’s (or thought’s) truth. In addition to Rorty’s descriptions,
David Carr describes the role of commensurability in theories
of narrative history, writing:
In our discussion of common experience we spoke of the role
of the common object, which refers back to the intersubjective
or we-subject7. If we consider the object as a temporally ex-
tended event then the unity of the experience, as with the
individual, must be procured by a projective-retrospective g ra sp .
In the reciprocal awareness of the individuals, this grasp is
affected by a group in relation to this particular experience: we
experience this object or event together (Carr, 1 9 8 6: p. 147).
In the communal experience of history, there is truth due to
the practical assent to common notions of history. This com-
mon assent allows for discourse based on fixed points, or fixed
notions. This is not merely common experience—it is rather
“experience and8 actions” (Carr, 1986: p. 149). These actions
6Emphasis added.
7Rather than reference to an objective truth. This is not correspondence be-
tween notions of truth and the objective world, but rather reference to other
agents and the “we” subject.
8Emphasis added.
4Perhaps a d ialogu e between asp ects of the author ’s self in differen t times. I
leave it to others to explore authorship, audienceshi p, and self over time.
5Whatever on e ho lds “ real ” to mean . Po ten ti al su bst itu tes incl ud e “mat eri al”
and “objec t ive.”
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
include and allow the practice of history. If for no other reason
than a preference for applicability, we should prefer to work
with the practice and commensurability model of truth, rather
than the correspondence model.
As it pertains to historical event and fact, the question of
truth becomes critically important. Especially when considering
types of interpretative narrative history, one must decide to
what extent certain descriptive elements, such as the horror of
the Holocaust or the triumph of man’s first flight, are a matter
of immutable truth, and to what extent it is a matter of mutable
interpretation. Had we held fast to a correspondence theory of
truth, history would potentially be bare of descriptive truth. As
Ricoeur writes, “One class of descriptions is missing from the
absolute chronicle…that is, the whole truth concerning this
event cannot be known until after the fact…” (Ricoeur, 1984: p.
145). The descriptive elements of the possible truth of an event
cannot be known until after the event, yet the correspondence
theory of truth would preclude such descriptive elements by
demanding that truthful notions reflect the event itself atempo-
rally. If descriptions reflected the truth over time, they would
not have the immutable pure correspondence sought by the
Additionally, if history is to be an instantiation of corre-
spondent, reflective truth, it should be capable of reflecting any
span of time, including the present. Yet “there is no history of
the present” (Ricoeur, 1984: p. 147). A history of the present is
impossible. If history is to be equated, however vaguely, with a
correspondence-based theory of truth, and if it is possible for
there to be correspondent truths about the present9, there should
be a transitive possibility of establishing a history, however
rudimentary, of the present. Carr supports this conclusion in
describing how history must be experienced either retrospec-
tively (in the case of complete histories) or “quasi-retrospec-
tively,” (in the case of portions of a historical concord which is
still being played out) (Carr, 1986: pp. 78-79). In addition to
Ricoeur’s investigation and Carr’s description of history,
common understanding and intuition assert that this is a patent
impossibility. Asserting a history of the present is as nonsensi-
cal as asserting a history of the future.
Truth as commensurability allows for relationships and de-
scriptive elements. As Michael Dummet writes, “The concepts
of truth of a statement, the ground of an assertion, and the point
of making one indeed belong to our ordinary linguistic reper-
toire; they are nevertheless second-level concepts, used to com-
ment on our employment of language10 (Dummet, 1991: p.
167). The emphasis is then placed on the “employment of lan-
guage.” This employment, and commentary on employment, is
the foundation of the concept of truth as practice and commen-
surability. With a theory of truth as practice and commensura-
bility, there is room for the recreational kicking of puppies to be
viewed as a true abomination. It is a true abomination because
we employ language to describe a commensurable condemna-
tion of the act. Indeed, because “history has objectivity11 as a
project” and because “it can pose the limits of objectivity as a
specific problem” (Ricoeur, 1984: p. 176) the concept of refer-
ential truth—“objectivity” in Ricoeur’s words—is a poor candi-
date for inclusion in the theoretical structure and practice of
Is it possible for truth to survive the refinement that changes
the raw “truth” of fact and event into truth in narrative history?
In discussing the propensity for historians to view facts as giv-
en rather than as the results of certain epistemological and
methodological frameworks, Hayden White writes: “It is the
same notion of objectivity that binds historians to an uncritical
use of the chronological framework for their narratives” (White,
1978: p. 43). If historians view the chronology that comes quite
naturally to an artificial emplotment as itself a given truth—as
Ricoeur demonstrates in his “Defenses of Narrative” in Time
and Narrative (Ricoeur, 1984: p. 146)—there exists, prior to
discussion of either the truth of particular facts and events (the
focus of literalist narrative history), or prior to discussion of the
truth of the themes and meaning of history (the focus of in-
terpretive narrative history); a potentially pernicious false
Particular types—or genres—of interpretive narrative history
may fail to communicate the truth of history. For example, a
lighthearted retelling of how I watched a child kick a puppy to
death for the enjoyment of doing so in a comedic genre would
likely fail to communicate the abominability of the act. Though
such an act might exist in a larger context, one that might dif-
fuse the sharper aspects of my true description of the event as
abominable, the event itself is nonetheless closed. This is how
Carr describes such closure: “In terminations, conclusions,
achievements, time is provided with a closure by the very ac-
tivities in which we are involved” (Carr, 1986: p. 81). These
terminations close histories, and allow for genre or type to be
connected with histories. However, because histories exist in a
global and grand-historical context, the bright lines defining
closure are themselves unnatural, or at best falsely understood
by humans to be brighter and stronger than they really are. Carr
describes this entropy as a “tendency” or “capacity, to fly apart
or to fragment, thus losing their narrative coherence” (Carr,
1986: p. 88). This potentially false (or potentially vague) appli-
cation of division, and the questionable understanding of the
division as natural, leads to failures of type to be able to reflect
the descriptive truth of a history. If one seeks perfect concor-
dance between notions of truth and history in genre12, one will
be disappointed due to failures of both truth and the structures
of division and termination that permit genre to be assigned to a
history. This tendency is surely exacerbated by the difficult
topics of novel parts of history.
Within intentional human disciplines such as science, history,
or even the execution of a type of art, epistemology of the kind
described by Rorty (Rorty, 2009) is certainly13 possible. Indeed,
thinkers of a previous era were able to agree on “a specific
mode of discourse” (White, 1978: p. 428). Issues of knowledge
within a framework of practical commensurabilities are cer-
tainly subject for fruitful discussion. In this way, different types
of history may themselves have internal epistemologies. White
describes the internal epistemologies of ( wh at may be desc r i bed
as) literalist history and interpretive history, stating that the
former looks to causal interaction similar to that found in
physical science, and the latter looks to coherence of story and
emplotment (White, 1978: pp. 54-55). Ricoeur describes the
role that time and understanding play as the “solution to the
paradox of distention and intention” (Ricoeur, 1984: p. 67).
Carr, on the other hand, takes narrative as a structure of every-
day experience. Despite their differences, both initially appear
to attempt a presentation of a Rortian epistemology of story.
9Such as the true phrase, “I am currently sleepy”.
10Emphasis added.
s too charitabl
, as the conce
t of refe
ential trut h.
12In addition, perha ps , in other areas of historical inquiry.
13Or at least contentiously.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 215
The basic elements of their philosophies are understood and
serve as solid points of departure for discussion within the phi-
losophy of story, and the effectiveness of their ideas can be
judged and debated within a steady framework.
Difficulty arises when one seeks to reconcile the frames of
Ricoeur and Carr’s investigations with investigations of global
scope. These points of incommensurability call for what Rorty
terms a “hermeneutic”14 (Rorty, 2009). Ricoeur, indeed, recog-
nizes this discontinuity, citing an example of “complementary”
yet divergent sociological and historically causal perspectives.
“Causal explanation” goes along with other modes of explana-
tion, despite differences (Ricoeur, 1984: pp. 188-189). Even
when one attempts to “methodologically” anchor narrative
history in such a general frame as “the first person” (Carr, 1986:
p. 124), there is an element of unnecessary and perhaps perni-
cious rigidity. Anchoring narrative history in either communal
or singular subjectivity precludes, or at best denigrates, the
excluded frame. It is easy to see where such exclusion or deni-
gration impoverishes the tools at humanity’s disposal when
confronting the aporias of novel history. Failures of genre or
type to accurately reflect the truth of historical fact and event
are themselves general failures of what Richard Rorty describes
as “epistemologies”. These epistemologies see “hope of agree-
ment as a token of the existence of common ground which,
perhaps unbeknown to the speakers, unites them in a common
intentionality” (Rorty, 2009: p. 318).
In order for one to establish a regional epistemology, there
must be points of commensurability. Often, aspects of the truth
of historical fact and event do not allow for widespread com-
mensurability. This difficulty is so acute as to lead historiogra-
phers such as Hegel, Droysen, Nietzsche, and Croce to reject
objectivity altogether, and treat it as a “myth.” (White, 1978: p.
52). More recent historians have been explicitly positive, and
suggested that history isnothing but interpretations” (Ibid. 55).
In addition to the fact that no regional epistemology is possible
without some assent to objectivity, the assault on general objec-
tivity cuts deeper and far beyond the study of history.15 What
concerns the region of narrative history is failure to find practi-
cal commensurability beyond the trivial (language, logic, and
other forces of order in the world).
This difficulty is acutely true in regards to descriptive truth.
If one assents to the truth in the descriptive portion of the state-
ment “kicking puppies for recreation is abominable”, one as-
sents to a point of commensurability in criteria for abominabil-
ity and in the act of recreationally puppy-kicking satisfying
such criteria. While both points seem intuitively commensura-
ble, benign clarifying questioning may conceivably throw both
points into doubt. Asking such questions as “What is it to be
abominable?” and “How does the act of puppy-kicking qualify
as abominable?” is both valid and fruitful. In diligently an-
swering such questions, one must adopt a perspective of (at
least momentary) issue-particular agnosticism. Instances of
such agnosticism are easily extended to questioning activity,
and indeed, to daily life. In mundane moments when clarifica-
tion between people is required in order for practical interaction
to continue, we have brief instantiations of the practical prob-
lems of establishing and maintaining commensurability. When
dealing with the practical issues of communicating history, the
vagaries of time and the complexities of history magnify diffi-
The inability to achieve commensurability, the inability to
find some historical truth, lies not in a failure to communicate,
but rather, in a failure of expectation. The expectation that par-
ticular genres will correspond to particular true aspects of his-
tory is once again falling into the difficult and narrow concept
of truth as correspondence. This is a failure of expecting a non-
scientific16 discipline to operate as a science founded upon firm
epistemological notions. As White remarks in discussing the
move beyond history founded on fixed notions:
I have suggested that the nonscientific or protoscientific na-
ture of historical studies is signaled in the inability of histori-
ans to agree—as the natural scientists of the seventeenth cen-
tury were able to—on a specific mode of discourse As a re-
sult, historiography has remained prey to the creation of mutu-
ally exclusive, though equally legitimate, interpretations of the
same set of historical events or the same segment of the his-
torical process (White, 1973: p. 428).
This general failure is especially acute when considering
novel and extreme historical events. Rather than be cause for
despair, this failure should prompt theorists to move beyond
attempts at epistemology and into the realm of hermeneutics.
Rorty describes the discussion of a subject around which
there is incommensurability as “Hermeneutics”. This normal
discourse is the (potentially natural) narrativization of history,
life, and fact and event described by theorists such as Carr,
Ricoeur, and White. It is this kind of critical and theoretical
discussion which must accompany the practice of diverse, un-
bounded application of narrative history to historical fact and
event. This dynamic process is not, as Ricoeur calls it, an
“epistemology of historical knowledge” drawing benefit from
“modes of explanation” (Ricoeur, 1984: p. 166)17, but rather a
discussion of, and around, points of incommensurability. Ra-
ther than advocating and implementing—and thereby bounding
and codifying—a framework of openness, discussion of narra-
tive history ought to recognize narrative history as an opening
and dynamic, self-defining phenomenon. Application of epis-
temological and correspondence standards to narrative—even
when such standards assert openness—confound the practice of
addressing history where there are points of incommensurabil-
ity. Such assertions of openness attempt to impose a standard,
namely openness itself, onto a practice that is the dynamic rev-
elation of commensurability and standards. Such imposition is
itself pernicious to the endeavor.
Opening Space
The open space I wish to set against a rigid concept of mod-
16Or at best, quasi-scientific.
17While Ricoeur undoubtedly has a different sense of the word “epistemol-
ogy” than Rorty, the benefits to knowledge from diverse “modes of explana-
tion”,contain the und eniabl e sens e of an ep istemic cl arif ication , a gai ning o
multiple metaphorical pe rspectives by which a knowing agent may develop a
fully justified true belief. This quest fo r justified true belief is the hallmark o
Rorty’s concept of epistemology, as well as the common concept of episte-
mology. Therefore, it is appropriate to draw a distinction between a clarifi-
cation of knowledge and a discussion of points of incommensurability
(Rorty’s herme neutic s).
14The extent to which Rorty’s concept of hermeneutics and epistemology are
faithful to the classical or mainstream understandings of the concepts are
clearly debatable. For clarity’s sake, throughout this paper any discussion o
hermeneutics and epistemology refers to Rorty’s concept. The potential
schism betw een his concepts is the subject of other investigations.
15Indeed, if one is to question objectivity in general, virtually all intelligible
endeavors, and not merely academic endeavors are in question. As such, we
will allow charges describing the failure of general objectivity to be put
aside for a different investigation.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
ernism (or any type/genre preference) is one in which a discus-
sion of “the real18” takes place. The open space is not merely
Ricoeur’s “remarkable intersecting of the possibilities opened
by the diverse narrative categories involved” (Ricoeur, 1984: p.
167), but rather the involvement itself of “diverse narrative
categories” and their treatments of the history writ large. The
space is itself the discussion, rather than a defined area (whe-
ther fictional or real). Perhaps, then, it would be better de-
scribed as an “opening” space rather than an “open” or “opened”
space. As Rorty writes, “…hermeneutics is an expression of
hope that the cultural space left by the demise of epistemology
will not be filled—that our culture should become one in which
the demand for constraint and confrontation is no longer felt”
(Rorty, 2009: p. 315). This space is not predefined nor con-
strained in order to facilitate discussion and dialogue (it could
then be pejoratively labeled “open-ism”), but it is whatever
space the discussion occurs in. A cosmological analogue would
be the physical universe, which itself has no boundaries, save
those in which the physical universe occurs.19 Similarly, any
functional opening narrative space is that which does not fill
boundaries, and does not admit of a central point to which one
may appeal.
Ricoeur’s statement, “History does not have a method but it
does have a critique and a topic” (Ricoeur, 1984: p. 173), pro-
vides alternate terms for the present discussion, ones which
allow for a further elucidation of the argument against a calci-
fied open space. The topic of history, or of particular histories,
is quite clear—it is the event and fact. Ricoeur appeals to Vico
and Aristotle for his concept of topic as “topoi or ‘common-
places’”. These “commonplaces” are “appropriate questions”
(Ricoeur, 1984: p. 173). Perhaps put too generally, the appro-
priate questions of history are of event and fact. Though history
has appropriate questions, it does not have method. The method
of history as science, if it did indeed exist, would be a Rortian
epistemology—a well-defined system of true references and
commensurable, practical truth. As we have seen, this is not the
case. Instead, history has a “critique”. Like all critiques, the
critique of history, and therefore of historical narrative, is more
of a discussion than a rigorous epistemology. The critique is, I
suggest, the description that accompanies the opening of space
for historical narrative and historical discussion. It is clear that
there is a double opening, first in the execution of narrative
histories, and in the accompanying theoretical discussion of the
opening. In the second discussion of the opening there ought to
be what Ricoeur names a “genesis of meaning” (Ricoeur, 1984:
p. 228). It falls to the theorists to ensure that this is indeed a
genesis, rather than a prescription of meaning. This responsibil-
ity is met in discussion.
The execution of narrative history allows the opening of dis-
cursive space. Indeed, the execution of diverse narrative histo-
ries is itself the opening of the critical discursive space. Criti-
cism and theory or narrative history, however, seem to lag be-
hind practice. Hayden White, whose theory of narrative lends
much to this essay’s argument, himself advocates a distinct
kind, or type/genre, of narrative history when confronted with
novel or extreme histories. White uses the example of the Nazi
attempt at exterminating Europe’s Jewish population. Though it
was both extreme and novel, White concludes his study of nar-
rative histories of the holocaust by writing that “…I do not
think that the Holocaust…is any more unrepresentable than any
other event in human history”. White goes on to say that it re-
quires “the modernist style, that was developed in order to rep-
resent the kind of experiences which social modernism made
possible…” (White, 1992: p. 52). Yet the modernist style, no
matter how much it aspires to be a space of open discourse,
remains a type. The assertion that modern type corresponds, or
mirrors, modern history implicitly excludes the possibility of
non-modern types of narrative history. The assertion that any
type, including modernism (and post-modernism), corresponds
directly to fact and event in history is the false premise that has
been revealed throughout this essay. Secondly, the implicit
exclusion of other types is pernicious to an opening, hermeneu-
tic discourse.
This example, however, does not demonstrate that theorists
are opposed to the dynamic play of the Rortian hermeneutic in
the historical academy. Quite the contrary, many theorists in-
cluding as Hayden White, who has displayed a tendency to-
wards calcification (in the “modernist style”), also hint at an
acceptance of a dynamic opening. As White himself writes,
the governing metaphor of an historical account could be
treated as a heuristic rule which self-consciously eliminates
certain kinds of data from consideration as evidence. The his-
torian operating under such a conception could thus be viewed
as one who, like the modern artist and scientist, seeks to exploit
a certain perspective on the world that does not pretend to
exhaust description or analysis of all of the data in the entire
phenomenal field, but rather offers itself as one way among
many of disclosing certain aspects of the field (White, 1978: p.
The rigidity identified in the previous White reference is the
result of this “one way among many of disclosing” mutating
into the way, or more precisely, the prescribed way to view
historical narrative. The conception White describes is part of
an unbound academic Rortian hermeneutic, one that exploits
the commensurable references which the particular perspective
uncovers and addresses points of incommensurability through
active discussion. The exploitation of commensurability and the
establishment of a plurality of perspectives should be judged by
theorists on its effectiveness in achieving the idiosyncratic telos
of any particular type of narrative history, rather than the way
that the particular type corresponds to particulars of fact and
Furthermore, White describes historical narratives as both
“models of past events and processes” andcomplex(es) of
symbols which gives us directions for finding an icon of the
structures of those events in our literary traditions” (White,
1978: p. 88). While the combination of these two concepts is
effective, it should not be presented as a modalized choice be-
tween the two regarding one particular narrative history, but
rather as a dynamic play between the two concepts in the larger
discussion of history. Insofar as historical narratives serve as
models, they do not reflect the inescapable interpretation of
history. Insofar as historical narratives serve as complexes of
symbols, they do not reflect the commensurable truth found
within literalist models. Yet both contribute, together, and often
through their clash, to a fruitful wider historical discourse.
In Hayden White’s “Historical Emplotment and the Problem
of Truth,” he argues for the use of a modern, open style to ad-
dress modern types of historical event. This prescription of
style is where discourse becomes dangerously calcified. Indeed,
18However one und erstands concepts of reality etc.
19Prior to “the big bang”, the entire physical universe was a point, and then it
expanded, but it did not expand to fill boundaries, and it did not expand from
a center.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 217
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
it is the assertion or prescription of style, based on a supposed
correspondence of type to fact and event that devolves histori-
cal discussion into vain attempts at epistemology. Yet the ex-
amples cited by White, such as Spiegelman’s Maus, are them-
selves not epistemological attempts at reckoning with history.
However much he cites them as examples of modern narrative
history (White, 1992), they eschew genre and type. Instead,
they emplot and execute narrative histories as part of a wider
and unbounded discussion. This leads one to believe that the
dangerous rigidity previously identified is primarily within
theory rather than practice. Indeed, it is most likely only present
when historiography becomes prescriptive. When prescribing
type or style, historiography moves away from theory and be-
gins to assert itself (vainly) upon a practice that, based on
White’s examples and many others, does not need to be bound
by prescription. The continual opening of narrative history
serves its purpose without having to aspire to a standard de-
scribed by theorists.
Postscript: Response to Charges of Relativism
The operation of this proposed opening space is not relativ-
ism as one might initially suspect. Working out points of com-
mensurability is the product of the wider Rortian hermeneutic.
As such, when one turns attention to particular truths of fact
and event, active and iterated agnosticism is the result. Another
way to describe this web of interconnected agnosticism is his-
torical “cosmopolitanism,” which White describes as the aban-
donment of true20 perspectives (White, 1978: p. 47). The abun-
dance of agnosticism regarding truth and fact, and indeed re-
garding perspective and type, should not be confused for radical
relativism. Comfort with agnosticism is something empirical
scientists are familiar with and one which narrative history
theorists should become comfortable with as well. Put differ-
ently, type in narrative history should function as what White
calls a “system of notation.” Within a particular system of nota-
tion, one should seek understanding (White, 1978: p. 47)—
commensurability, to use Rortian language—but remain agnos-
tic as to the place of the notated items’ place in any purportedly
universal system of truth and reference. This relative agnosti-
cism is natural because it is the same absence of an authority
(such as particular truths) to which one may appeal that occurs
in any pre-epistemological discussion. There must be un-cen-
tered, boundless discussions in order to reveal and define the
center and any possible boundaries.21 Such relativism is, by its
nature, unsettling; however it is not something which ought to
be avoided, because it has a natural place in our endeavor to
understand (to understand the world, history, each other, etc.).
I wish to thank Richard Kearney for his advice and encour-
agement, Nastassja Marshall for her support, and Adrienne
Bogacz for proofreading and initial review.
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Ricoeur, P. (1984). Time and narrative. Chicago, IL: The University of
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Rorty, R. (2009). Philosophy and the mirror of nature (30th-Anni-
versary Edition). Princeton: Princeton University Press.
White, H. (1973). Metahistory. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Univer-
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White, H. (1978). The burden of history. Tropics of Discourse (pp.
27-50). Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
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Friedlander, Probing the Limits of Representation (pp. 37-53). Cam-
bridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
20In this instance, White seems to be using the correspondence/reflective
model of truth.
21The same opening space operates in all pre-epistemological discussions.
For example, prior to the establishment of Newton’s laws, there was a long
(centuries long) discussion in an opening space c o ncerning the physical law s
of the world. Once Newton revealed and communicated certain laws, a
center and functional epistemological truth was established. The advent o
quantum mechanics threw this center into doubt, and (at least as far as I
know) there is an important discussion taking place in the scientific com-
munity whose goal is to reconcile Newtonian physics and Einsteinian rela-
tivity with quantum mechanics and thereby reestablish a centered, defined
space for science. This discussion is taking place in an opening space, a
space that is open because of the discussion. This space also contains rela-
tivism and issue-specific agnosticism, as do all pre-epistemological discus-