History and Theory, Vol. 26, No. 4, Beiheft 26: The Representation of Historical Events (Dec., 1987), 87-97.
Historical Narration: Foundation, Types, Reason
What is historical narration? Most historians will feel bored when they hear this question, since they will not feel concerned with this problem; and probably will think, leave this matter to the people in the literature and philosophy departments. But in fact this question bears on the fundamentals of their own work and brings philosophy and linguistics much nearer than usual to historical studies.
Hayden White, with elaborate sagacity, labored to convince historians of this fact when he treated "the historical work as what it most manifestly is: a verbal structure in the form of a narrative prose discourse." But since he explicated this discourse of historians as "generally poetic, and specifically linguistic, in nature,"2 he shocked most historians. They felt consigned to the uncomfortable and ambiguous vicinity of poetry and robbed of their hard-earned dignity as scholars of a highly rationalized, methodologically confirmed discipline. Nevertheless, it is worthwhile to enter the poetical sphere. The word "poetical" should be understood in the original sense of poiesis, which simply means making or producing something. Indeed, no historian could deny the fact that there is a creative activity of the human mind working in the process of historical thinking and recognition. Narration is the way this activity is being performed and "history" more precisely, a history is the product of it.
I will not enter into a complex, epistemological discussion of the narrative structure of historical knowledge.3 Instead, I want to demonstrate the narrative fundamentals of historical consciousness by quoting an inconspicuous argumentation: despite the prejudice against locating poetry with the fundamentals of
historical studies, I want to quote a small dialogue between King Henry IV and his noble counselor Warwick:
From this small but profound dialogue we can learn what historical narration is: it is a system of mental operations defining the field of historical consciousness. Here time is seen as a threat to normal human relations, casting them into the abyss of uncertainty. The most radical experience of time is death. History is a response to this challenge: it is an interpretation of the threatening experience of time. It overcomes uncertainty by seeing a meaningful pattern in the course of time, a pattern responding to human hopes and intentions. This pattern gives a sense to history. Narration therefore is the process of making sense of the experience of time.
In this way I understand Hayden White's statement about narration as a poetical act constituting historical knowledge.5 Narration is a process of poiesis, of making or producing a fabric of temporal experience woven according to the need to orient oneself in the course of time. The product of this process of narration, the fabric capable of so orienting, is "a history." With respect to the threat of death, narration transcends the limits of mortality into a broader horizon of meaningful temporal occurrences. This is one of the essential truths of the tales of A Thousand and One Nights. Scheherazade knows that to narrate is to overcome death; narration is an act of de-mortalization of human life.6
But the Shakespearean answer to the question "what is historical narration" is as ambiguous as poetry itself. It tells enough about narration to understand it as a fundamental operation in the depths of historical consciousness; but since not all narration is historical, it tells too little about this difference. And this is
very often the case in the topical discussion of the philosophy of history when it stresses the narrative procedures of historiography.
So we need the help of more theoretical arguments to complement Shakespeare. The traditional argument would be to differentiate between factual and fictional narrations. Historical narration is usually defined as dealing only with facts and not with fictions. This differentiation is very problematical, and finally not convincing, because the all-important sense of a history lies beyond the distinction between fiction and fact. In fact it is absolutely misleading and arises from a good deal of hidden and suppressed positivism to call everything in historiography fiction which is not a fact in the sense of a hard datum.
I think that the peculiarity of an historical narration lies in the following three qualities and their systematic relationship:7
An historical narrative is tied to the medium of memory. It mobilizes the experience of past time, which is engraved in the archives of memory, so that the experience of present time becomes understandable and the expectation of future time is possible.
An historical narrative organizes the internal unity of these three dimensions of time by a concept of continuity. This concept adjusts the real experience of time to human intentions and expectations. By doing so it makes the experience of the past become relevant for present life and influences the shaping of the future.
An historical narrative serves to establish the identity of its authors
and listeners. This function decides whether a concept of continuity is plausible or not.
This concept of continuity must be capable of convincing the listeners
of the permanence and stability of themselves in the temporal change of their world and of themselves.
By these three qualities historical narration brings about the orientation of practical life in timean orientation without which it is impossible for humans to find their way.
Till now I have only given a rough outline of the wide and manifold field of historical narration. It is necessary first to establish a general theoretical model of the structure, process, and function of historical narration before considering the varieties of historiography. Only with such a model can we adequately distinguish historiography from other forms of understanding in our and in all other cultures.
But the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and so the proof of the abstract description is in the understanding of concrete phenomena. Therefore the question is inevitable: how can we develop the understanding of the narrative fundamentals of historical knowledge into the cognition of the manifold manifesta-
tions of historiography? To paraphrase Karl Marx: how can we ascend from the abstract to the concrete? We can do this by the means of typology.
And so we have come to the second point of my paper, in which I would like to give an outline of a general typology of historical narration, which should disclose the wide and manifold field of historiography. In this typology I try to stress the specific historical character of making sense of the experience of time by narration. With this intention, which is similar to that of Johann Gustav Droysen and Friedrich Nietzsche, the following typology differs substantially from that of Hayden White, which interprets historiography as literature and does not at all recognize its specificity.
So the point I start from is the function of historical narration. As I have already mentioned, historical narration has the general function of orienting practical life in time by mobilizing the memory of temporal experience, by developing a concept of continuity and by stabilizing identity. This general function can be realized in four different ways, according to the four necessary conditions which must be fulfilled so that human life can go on in the course of time: affirmation, regularity, negation, transformation. Therefore I can see four different functional types of historical narration with corresponding forms of historiography.
I would like to illustrate the types of examples drawn from the field of women's history, a subject-matter which today focuses the discussion on the fundamentals of historical studies.8
(1) Every form of human life is necessarily organized by traditions. They cannot be denied totally, otherwise people would lose the ground under their feet. The first type takes this into account. Traditional narrative articulates traditions as necessary conditions for humans to find their way. Traditional narratives in the field of women's history are very rare, but monuments are a traditional way of historically making sense of the experience of time. I found a good example in Grahamstown (South Africa) in the Main Street leading from Rhodes University to the cathedral. Here there is a monument which is dedicated "to Pioneer women" and inscribed as follows, representing historical meaning as traditional narratives do: "Keep their memory green and sweet / they smoothed the thorns with bleeding feet."
To say it in the generalizing way of theory: traditional narratives remind one of the origins constituting present systems of life; they construct continuity as permanence of originally constituted systems of life, and they form identity by affirming given or more precisely, pre-given cultural patterns of self-understanding. Other examples are: stories which tell about the origin and the genealogy of rulers, in order to legitimate their domination; within religious communities, stories of their foundation; stories which are told at the occasion of centennials and other jubilees (in Boston you can even walk a traditional narrative following the Freedom Trail painted as a red line on the pavement). In all these stories, time gains the sense of eternity.
Typology of historical narration
sense of time
Constituting present forms of life
of originally constituted forms of life
pre-given cultural patterns of self-understanding
time gains the sense of
Demonstrating applications of general rules of conduct
rules covering temporally different of life
experiences of time to rules of conduct
time gains the sense of
problematizing present forms of life
of given ideas of continuity
given patterns of identity
time gains the sense of befing an object of
Transformations of alien forms of life into proper ones
in which forms of life change in order to establish their permanence dynamically
permanence and change to a process of self-definition
time gains the sense of
(2) Traditions alone are not sufficient as forms of orientation, because they are very limited in their empirical content; and furthermore are manifold and heterogeneous, calling for an integration by rules or principles. These rules and principles are abstract because they are general and cover a wide range of diverse experiences of time. They therefore require relation to this diversity. It is exemplary narratives which bring about this relation. They make abstract rules and principles concrete, telling stories which demonstrate the validity of the rules and principles in single cases. To use our example of women's history, one can look back at an early period of women's studies. In order to demonstrate the abstract principle of women's equality, female historians preferred stories which told a lot about the accomplishments, capacities, importance, and efficiency of women of the past. This approach had the effect that many important women and their works in art, handicraft, science, religion, learning, the economy, and politics were saved from oblivion.
To say it again in the generalizing way of theory: exemplary narratives remind one of cases which demonstrate applications of general rules of conduct; they impose continuity as the supertemporal validity of rules which cover temporally different systems of life; and they form identity by generalizing experiences of time to rules of conduct. Other examples of this type of historical narration are stories which present models of virtue or vice. In the newspapers we can always find allusions to historical occurrences, and these allusions follow the logic of exemplary narration. An example is the following part of an article of the Cape Times from 17 February 1987:
Will we say: "We did not know"?
[T]he recent address in Parliament by the Minister of Finance . . . where he admitted
that he himself . . . did not know what was going on in the black townships is cause for concern.
We all know that the German people were not informed about the terrible conditions in the ghettos and prisoner of war camps or the extermination horror camps . . . and at the end, their answer to all this was: "we did not know." Some terrible parallels can be formed which could apply in the South African context and will we, at the end of the day, also say "we did not know"?
The core of the logic of exemplary narration is formulated by the old prase: historia vitae magistra (history is the teacher of life). Stories of the exemplary type open up the field of temporal experience beyond the limits of tradition: time gains the sense of spatial extension.
(3) The third type is critical narration. It is based on humans' ability to say no to traditions, rules, and principles, which have come down to us. This "no" stands before each intended alteration of the cultural patterns of historical understanding. It clears the space for new patterns.
In women's history this type of narration is abundant. Well known are the depressing stories relating the suffering of women in the long career of patriarchal domination. By these stories feminist historians shake the validity of traditional patterns of womanhood, thus opening minds for alternatives.
To say it in terms of theory: critical narratives remind one of deviations which make the present conditions of life problematic; they schematize continuity only indirectly, namely by dissolving or destroying culturally effective ideas of continuity. On the line of continuity these stories live on what they destroy. They form identity by denying given patterns of self-understanding: it is the identity of obstinacy.
Other examples of this type are the historical works which follow Voltaire's motto: "When reading history it is but the only business of a healthy mind to refute it."9 Critical narratives are anti-stories. These stories call temporal experiences before the tribunal of the human mind: time gains the sense of being an object of judgment.
(4) But critical narrative is not the last word of historical
consciousness. Its dynamic of negation is not sufficient; it only replaces one pattern
with another. The pattern that finds the change itself meaningful and significant is still
This pattern defines the fourth type: that of the genetical narrative.
Stories of this type give direction to the temporal change of humans and the world, to which the listeners must accordingly adjust their lives in order to cope with the challenging alterations of time.
In women's history stories of this type of narrative overcome the alternative of affirmation or negation, of defining or refusing given traditions and principles of womanhood. They replace the abstract antithesis by stressing the element of dynamic structural change and using gender as an historical category. It is this element of structural development which mediates the anticipation of alterna-
tives with the experience of the hitherto achieved alterations of the state of womanhood and of gender-relations.
In the words of theory: Genetical narratives remind one of transformations, which lead from alien forms of life into proper ones. They present continuity as development, in which the alteration of forms of life is necessary for their permanence. And they form identity by mediating permanence and change to a process of self-definition (in German this is called "Bildung"). Stories of this type represent the forces of change as factors of steadiness; they take away the threat of losing oneself in the temporal movement of human subjectivity, interpreting it rather as a chance of gaining oneself. They organize human self-understanding as a temporally dynamic process: time gains the sense of temporality.
Now one may ask what is won by discerning these four types. It is impossible to answer this question before we have looked into the complex relationship among them. Each type corresponds to one necessary condition which must be fulfilled if human life is to find its way in the course of time. Therefore the four types do not exclude one another but are closely connected, although each is clearly distinguished from the others. The complexity of this connection is too wide to explicate it here to its full extent. So let me just summarize the two main points: (1) All four elements are found in every historical text; one necessarily implies the rest. (2) There is a natural progression from the traditional to the exemplary and from the exemplary to the genetical narrative. Critical narrative serves as the necessary catalyst in this transformation.
To realize the whole fabric of relation between the types we have to combine the quality of implication with that of transformation. The result will not be a muddle, or a higgledy-piggledy mess, but a systematically ordered texture, the logic of which can be called dialectic. By this structure the typology enables us to analyze concrete works of historiography in a clear-cut conceptual framework. As Max Weber has demonstrated, it is the systematical, abstract, and strictly conceptualized form of theory which makes typologies useful for empirical research. And it is about this usefulness or function of the typology of historical narration that I want to make some remarks.
The first and most simple use of the typology is to classify historical works. So we can characterize Jacob Burckhardt's history of the Greek culture or George Bancroft's History of the United States as a traditional narrative, Machiavelli's History of Florence as exemplary, Voltaire's Essai sur les moeurs et I'esprit des nations as critical, and Theodor Mommsen's Roman History as genetical. But such a classification does not take us very far. Only when we take into account the internal relationship among the types can they disclose much more about historical works. In every historical work it is the composition of these four narrative elements that constitute its peculiarity. The typology allows one to disclose this peculiarity: it furnishes the conceptual means of discerning different elements of historical narrative and of reconstructing their composition into a whole. Thus we can exactly identify an historical narrative with respect to those
qualities which fulfill the specifically historical function. To give a small example: in the historiography of historicism the genetical type prevails. Turning to the first work of Ranke, one of its leading representatives, in the Geschichten der romanisch-germanischen Volker von 1494 bis 1514 (1824) the typologically sophisticated eye nevertheless finds distinctly exemplary forms which are not sufficiently integrated into the prevailing genetical sense of the book. This is even more surprising since, as is well known, in the foreword Ranke wrote the famous denial of exemplary history: he said he did not want to judge the past, but his history just wanted to show how it actually had been ("er will bloss zeigen, wie es eigentlich gewesen"). By detecting this quality of Ranke's first book, the typology opens a new way to understand it.
As we can characterize the peculiarity of a single historical work by using concepts of historical narration in general, we can also apply the typology for comparative analysis. It offers us the criteria of comparison, aiming at the deep structure of historical narration, and it also offers us a procedure of differentiation concerning the specifically historical quality of the compared works. Furthermore we can employ the typology to open up historical perspectives on historiography.
Historical perspectives are drawn from leading ideas of temporal change: in the light of such ideas temporal changes gain the quality of historical development.10 Concerning historiography, leading ideas of its development can be drawn from the internal tendencies of the types of historical narration. The types can be arrayed together according to a certain logical order. Each genetical narration has exemplary and traditional forms and functions of historical narration as its preconditions; likewise each exemplary narration has traditional ones. The traditional one itself is original. The critical narration is defined by its negation of the other three types.
If we now give a temporal sense to this logical order, we achieve a conceptual framework for the historical development of historiography. Historically, historiography can be seen in the light of a general tendency leading traditional narratives to exemplary and exemplary to genetical ones; the critical narratives are catalysts. I would like to call this tendency, in the words of the Enlightenment, a "theoretical" or "hypothetical history." By this I do not want to attribute to the tendency a metaphysical meaning, but the quality of a rational order of historical experience. Therefore the tendencies do not separate the temporal change of historiography from general history and do not form an autonomous sphere of Geistesgeschichte, but, as it were, its conception serves as a mirror, showing how the challenge of temporal change is met by a structural change of historical narration.
The conception of the internal dynamic tendencies in the relationship of the four types can be used to periodize the history of historiography. In this periodi-zation the three types mark the three main steps in the evolution of the historical
consciousness from early pre-neolithic cultures to pre-industrial cultures and to modern societies.
In this evolution the acceptance and significance of time itself is transformed. In the first period the course of time became arrested in eternity; in the second period, which in our culture can be traced from Herodotus to Voltaire, this eternity acquired the quality of supertemporally valid principles, and the course of time widened to a multitude of experiences; in the third period, which began in the second half of the eighteenth century,11 time is temporalized: human self-understanding is no longer seen as a rejection of variety and chance, but rather as defined by change and variety. The sphere of real historical experience becomes infinite.
But the typology not only gives us general periodization of the history of historical thinking; it also gives special periodizations within particular epochs. As I have said, the four types are always present in historical texts; one is dominant, the others secondary. The dominant form establishes a general epoch; the relationship among the secondary ones and between them and the dominant may define subperiods.
These theoretical considerations can lead to conceptual frameworks of empirical research and interpretation. The epoch of the late Enlightenment, for instance, can typologically be described as a structure shift from exemplary to ge-netical narration as dominant forms in the deep structure of historical narration. Reinhart Koselleck depicted this shift as a dissolution of the topos historia magistra vitae at the outset of the move towards modern history.12 It would be worthwhile to look for the analogous shift from traditional to exemplary narration as a founding form of historical thinking. I assume that this shift took place during the rise of ancient civilizations.
There is another use of the typology which I only want to point to without dealing with it in detail. It is still a very hypothetical one. We know scarcely anything about the structural development of historical consciousness in the process of individualization and socialization. But the temporal interpretation of the logical order of the four types would lead to an hypothesis about this development. It seems worthwhile for further differentiation and empirical investigation to conceptualize the ontogenetical development of historical consciousness as a structural process which brings about narrative competence in a sequence of the four types along with the stages of development in other fields we know much more about, as for instance the stages of moral development according to Piaget and Kohlberg.
Peter Reill illuminated the German part of this beginning: The German Enlightenment and the Rise of Historicism (Berkeley, 1975); cf. Von der Aufklarung zum Historismus: Zum Strukturwandel des historischen Denkens, ed. H. W. Blanke and J. Riisen (Historisch-politische Diskurse, vol. 1) (Paderborn, 1984).
"Die Auflosung des Topos im Horizont neuzeitlich bewegter Geschichte." R. Koselleck, "Historia magistra vitae: Uber die Auflosung des Topos im Horizont neuzeitlich bewegter Geschichte," in Vergangene Zukunft: Zur Semantik geschichtlicher Zeiten (Frankfurt, 1979); cf. J. Riisen, "Von der Aufklarung zum Historismus: Idealtypische Perspektiven eines Strukturwandels," in Von der Aufklarung zum Historismus, 15-58.
After this quick excursion into the history of historical thinking and after the even quicker glimpse of the psychology of historical learning, I would like to conclude my considerations on historical narration with a glance at its most elaborate forms: that is, modern historical studies and modern historiography. I will raise just one question: In which way would modern historical studies and historiography fit into the typology of the four functions of historical narration?
Modern historical studies and historiography are distinguished from other forms of historical narration by the achievements of theoretically and methodologically organized empirical research. Can one of the four types be applied to this research, or do we have to ask for a new, fifth type? Both questions are inappropriate, because the peculiarity of modern historical studies with respect to the structure and function of historical narration lies across the four types. This peculiarity is based on the special manner of realizing the fabric of historical narration woven by elements of all types: it is the manner of reasoning and arguing theoretically and methodically in the process of making sense of the experience of time. In each historical narrative we can find elements of reasoning and arguing: they have to make the stories credible. Historical studies are nothing but an elaboration and institutionalization of this reasoning and arguing.13 Most historians identify this reasoning and arguing in their discipline as the methodical rationality of empirical research.
But this self-understanding of historians as scholars lacks insight into the fundamental practical function of historical narration. As I have shown in the first part of this paper, this is the function of formulating human identity by mobilizing the forces of historical memory; or, to say it briefly, orienting human life in the course of time. If professional historians recognized this function as a function of their own work, maybe their work would give a little bit more reasoning and arguing to practical life.
To stress this aspect of historiography is one of the main purposes of the theory of history in general and the typology of historical narration in particular.14 But it is not the task of the theoretician to prescribe historiography. He or she only can try to elucidate the structure of historical narration and discuss aspects of reasoning and arguing in it. So finally I would like to raise one point concerning the historiographical representation of continuity. As I have already said, continuity is the leading idea of a history connecting the experience of the past with the expectation of the future, thus realizing the unity of time. Historians have presented this idea in different ways. In the good old times of so-called narrative historiography, they presented it by the stream of events seen by a god-like omniscient author. In the modern times of structural and social history, historians often present their idea of continuity in the form of a theory (for example, theory of modernization). This means a progress in reasoning, for in this form concepts
of continuity are a matter of discussion; but nevertheless, the reader is exposed to a finished process of making sense of temporal experience.
I can imagine a further progress in reasoning. This might happen if historians presented history to readers in a way that by reading it they would have to create the sense-making idea of continuity themselves using their own reason. Then historiography would gain a form which does lie in the vicinity of modern literature.