Age-old problems

November 25, 1994

History is best done by historians, argues Arthur Marwick, who are often blind to the reasons why they write what they do, replies Hayden White.

Arthur Marwick has (in the past) chided me and others for failing to take account of how "professional historians . . . go about their tasks". He thinks that "metaphysicians" such as myself "apparently never read such accounts" and therefore "totally misconceive the way in which historians go about their business". Our principal error is to overlook the research aspect of historical enquiry and to treat the historical work as if it were nothing but a poetic creation, a product of the imagination alone.

Marwick affects to perceive behind all this nothing less than a Marxist or at least a "materialist" and possibly even a Maoist plot, which would alarm him were he not certain that the hated Marxism had been throughly discredited by the course of recent "events" (by which he must mean the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the disintegration of the eastern European bloc).

But I am less interested in documenting Marwick's paranoia than in registering what I take to be a few of the reasons why he has good cause to fear for the future of the profession whose practices he wishes to defend. First of all, historical enquiry is not a science of the same kind as physics, chemistry or genetics -- by which I mean a science that utilises technical languages, hypothetico-deductive arguments controlled by experimental methods, and laboratory procedures relatively well canonised and agreed on by practitioners of the discipline in question. History is rather a craft-like discipline, which means that it tends to be governed by convention and custom rather than by methodology and theory and to utilise ordinary or natural languages for the description of its objects of study and representation of the historian's thought about those objects, based on "research" of the "primary sources" and efforts to co-ordinate those with "secondary sources".

Marwick is right, in my view, to insist on the continuity between the research phase of an historical investigation and the writing up phase. The composition of a historian's discourse does not follow on the full formulation of his thoughts about a given question, after the research has been completed. It consists rather of a continual process of formulation and reformulation or revision of findings, from the moment she conceives a topic to the time she puts the last period on the manuscript. But it is the written version of the results of one's research that constitutes what Marwick calls the historian's "intervention" in the ongoing discussion with her peers about a given segment or domain of the whole historical field.

Now this is why it is incumbent on anyone wishing to conceptualise a history of the profession, discipline or practice of historical inquiry to begin, not with what historians report that they have done in the "research phase" of their work, but with what they have actually written about their objects of study. If history is, according to Marwick (and I agree), a construction by historians, composed out of the data or evidence contained in the primary sources, it is important to be able to identify the ways in which the historian's language transforms her "object" of study into a "subject" of a specifically historical discourse. This means that any discussion of its form or content must begin with some characterisation of it in linguistic terms.

This is not "linguistic determinism" and it does not imply that historians any more than anyone else are "spoken by language". It is only to say that any historian's account of her subject is constrained by conventions of language, genre, mode (for example narrative), argument, and a host of other, cultural and social contextual considerations. This is not to say that there is no such thing as a historical "event", that there is no possibility of distinguishing between "fact" and "fiction", or that everything is "ideology", or beyond that, "anything goes", everything is "relative", and nothing is "objective". What it does mean is that what counts as an event, as a fact and as an adequate representation or explanation of a historical phenomenon must be adjudged to be relative to the time, place and cultural conditions of its formulation.

Marwick should feel more comfortable with this idea than with that of those who try to fob off historical accounts as contributions to a science of the past. After all, his idea of historical inquiry is a purely conventionalist one, featuring the notion that whatever the profession at a given moment in its history takes to be good history is what historical inquiry ought to honour as an ideal. Of course, the very notion of history-as-art has to be disconcerting to a profession which had cast its lot with the more masculinist ideal of history-as-science. But the issue is not masculinism versus feminism; it is rather more an issue of critical self-awareness or the lack of it.

And historians have systematically built in to their notion of their discipline hostility or at least a blindness to theory and the kind of issues that philosophers have raised about the kind of knowledge they produce since Hegel. This blindness takes the form of the commonplace which has it that, if historians were to take the time to consider epistemological and ontological issues regarding their object of study, they would never be able to get on with the work of sifting the evidence that alone permits them to write authoratively about their subjects.

Another commonplace that serves to guard historians against consideration of what might be embarrassing questions is that which insists that only "practising", or, as the phrase has it, "working" historians are competent to dilate on the question of how and to what purpose historians do the work they do. For example, Marwick simply assumed that, since I had written on historical writing as discourse, I must have been trained as a literary critic. Actually, I had been trained as a medieval historian and had turned to the question of the history of historical writing only because I had become interested in the ideology underlying the 19th-century fiction that, in that age, history had become a science.

But in any case, even if I had only been a literary critic, why should I not have taken up historical writing as a subject of interest within the tradition of realistic representation of the 19th century? Marwick's insistence that only historians know what historians really do is similar to modern scientists' objections to being studied by sociologists, ethnographers, philosophers and historians.

Actually, historians can be differentiated from other "scientists" by the fact that typically the majority of them favour the narrative mode for the presentation of their findings. But they do not understand the significance of their preference, indeed the necessity of this mode of representation for the determination of the specificity of their discipline among the human sciences.

Most historians are not only incapable of analysing the discursive dimensions of their writing, they positively repress the idea that there might be such a dimension. In the professional training of historians, there is much talk of the "historical method" (although this remains a largely untheorised concept), but not even talk of how to write a historical work, whether of narrative or an argumentative kind. That is to say, historians have not as a discipline theorised the form of their own discourse in such a way as to be able to teach it other than by a trial and error method -- which means having students submit their essays, telling them what they have done wrong, and ordering them to do it over again until they get it right -- which means doing it in the way the individual historian-mentor finds acceptable. Nor is it unfair to say, I think, that this is the way that editors of historical journals and readers of manuscripts for scholarly presses proceed as well.

Hayden White is professor ofthe history of consciousness, University of California, and author of Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in 19th-Century Europe.

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