Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-century Europe  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe is a historiography book by Hayden White first published in 1974.

In Metahistory, White rejects the notion that historians or journalists are able to write about the past or present as it actually happens. Instead he defines archetypes of historians with specific characteristics who approach history with different types of narratives. The medium (the type of narrative) is the integral message of the history. White provides a system intended to de-mystify histories, historians, news reports, and journalists who claim to present things objectively. He also proposes some methods for determining in what ways a given account lacks complete objectivity and how it can be seen as ultimately ideological.


According to White the historian begins his work by constituting a chronicle of events which is to be organized into a coherent story. These are the two preliminary steps before processing the material into a plot which is argumented as to express an ideology. Thus the historical work is "a verbal structure in the form of a narrative prose discourse that purports to be a model, or icon, of past structures and processes in the interest of explaining what they were by representing them".

For the typologies of emplotment, argumentation and ideologies White refers to works by Northrop Frye, Stephen Pepper and Karl Mannheim. His four basic emplotments are provided by the archetypical genres of romance, comedy, tragedy and satire. The modes of argumentation, following Pepper's 'adequate root metaphors' are formist, organist, mechanicist and contextualist. Among the main types of Ideology White adopts anarchy, conservatism, radicalism and liberalism. White affirms that elective affinities link the three different aspects of a work and only four combinations (out of 64) are without internal inconsistencies or 'tensions'. The limitation arises through a general mode of functioning - representation, reduction, integration or negation, which White assimilates to one of the four main tropes: metaphor, metonymy synecdoche and irony. Strucuturalist as Roman Jakobson or Emile Benveniste have used mostly an opposition between the first two of them but White refers to an earlier classification, adopted by Giambattista Vico and contrasts metaphor with irony. The exemplary figures chosen by White present the ideal types of historians and philosophers.

Synoptic table of Hayden White's Metahistory
Trope Mode Emplotment Argument Ideology Historian Philosopher
Metaphor Representational Romance Formist Anarchist Michelet Nietzsche
Metonymy Reductionist Tragedy Mechanicist Radical Tocqueville Marx
Synecdoche Integrative Comedy Organicist Conservative Ranke Hegel
Irony Negational Satire Contextualist Liberal Burckhardt Croce


  • Hayden White, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe, 1974 ISBN 0-8018-1761-7

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