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expectations come from? Lots of places, including our knowledge of the world
(our knowledge of what is causally possible in everyday life), our knowledge of
what is possible within the conventions of a certain narrative genre, and our
knowledge of what is thought possible given the beliefs of the culture in which
the narrative is composed. These expectations are not always “ indeed, possibly
rarely “ consciously articulated. Metaphorically speaking, they are like opening
certain directories for access in our mental computer. I leave it to the psycholo-
gists to discover the actual mechanics of this process. Suffice it to say that the addi-
tion of such causally necessary conditions to the narrative prepares us mentally for
certain kinds of possibilities rather than others, and when one of those possibilities
is realized by subsequent events in a narrative, we find it intelligible if it accords
with one of the kinds of lines of possibility we have been primed to expect.
Following a narrative involves understanding what is going on in the narra-
tive.This is a matter of assimilating what is going on into a structure “ of integrat-
ing earlier events and later events into a structure.That structure is comprised of
possibilities opened by earlier events in the discourse that function at least as
causally necessary conditions.The sense of intelligibility that attends the narrative
connection is a matter of the later events falling into the range of possibilities
opened by or proponed by earlier events.
Stated negatively, following a narrative is a matter of not being confused when
later events arrive in a narrative. Stated positively, following a narrative involves a
sense of the direction of the narrative as it unfolds, and a sense of intelligibility or
fitness when earlier events are conjoined with later events in the narrative.These
events can all be explained by the hypothesis that earlier events in narratives are at
least (and perhaps typically) causally necessary conditions (or contributions
thereto) for the later events in the story.We are not confused by later events in a
narrative because they fall into the range of possibilities opened by earlier
episodes that function at least as causally necessary conditions (or contributions
thereto). Or, if we are confused, that can generally be explained by pointing out
that the subsequent events do not appear to fall into the range of possibilities for
which the earlier events have prepared us. When we follow a narrative success-
fully it is because we find subsequent events in the narrative rationally acceptable.
The criterion of rational acceptability here is whether the subsequent events fall
into the range of possibilities opened by earlier events and/or states of affairs in
the narrative.
Likewise, when we say we have a sense of the direction a narrative is taking,
we mean that its destination is roughly defined by the possibilities that the repre-
sentation of earlier events and states of affairs have opened up. Figuratively, we
INTERPRETATION, HISTORY, NARRATIVE 133
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might say that the narrative is “headed toward” those possibilities (and “away
from” the ones precluded by earlier events and/or states of affairs).
Moreover, when the arrival of subsequent events in a narrative strike us as
intelligible or fitting, that is because they accord with our sense of what is possi-
ble, given earlier events. This does not mean that we are not often surprised by
subsequent events in a narrative. I was surprised when I learned who the culprit
was in the movie The Usual Suspects, and in its spiritual forebear, the novel, The
Murder of Roger Ackroyd. However, once the culprit was revealed, I recognized that
he fell into the range of possibilities opened by earlier scenes, even though I had
not explored that particular possibility in my own thinking about these cases.
Moreover, being surprised is consistent with there being causally necessary condi-
tions in the narration that are, so to speak, stylistically recessive. In the cases of The
Usual Suspects and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, we might say that they were
downright “hidden.”
In this essay, I have tried to develop a definition of the narrative connec-
tion, which connection I think is fundamental to our concept of narrative “ to
the way in which we go about categorizing large-scale discourses as narrative.
The most controversial aspect of that theory, I predict, is my contention that
the basis of the narrative connection is that earlier events and/or states of affairs
are at least causally necessary conditions (in the sense of INUS conditions), or
contributions thereto, for the occurrence of later events in the relevant stories.
I have attempted to defend this hypothesis by contrasting the narrative con-
nection with annals and chronicles, and by an appeal to our intuitions about
narrative. I have also tried to use this notion to characterize and explain aspects
of narrative comprehension, especially narrative anticipation and its role in fol-
lowing a narrative. If these explanations are attractive, it is my hope that they
will make my hypotheses about the nature of the narrative connection even
more compelling to you.14




INTERPRETATION, H I S T O RY, NARRATIVE
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1. I N T RO D U C T I O N : H I S T O R I C A L N A R R AT I V E S
A S F I C T I O N S A N D A S M E TA P H O R S

At present, one of the most recurrent views in the philosophy of history claims
that historical writing is interpretive and that a primary form that this interpreta-
tion takes is narration. Furthermore, narration, according to this approach, is
thought to possess an inevitably fictional element, namely, a plot, and, in this

From: The Monist, vol. 23, no. 2 (April 1990), 134“66.
134 ART, HISTORY, NARRATIVE
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regard, the work of the narrative historian is said to be more like that of the imag-
inative writer than has been admitted. The upshot of this philosophically, more-
over, is the assertion that historical narrations, qua narrative interpretations, are to
be assessed, in large measure, in terms of the kind of criterion of truth that is
appropriate to literary works.And a subsidiary, though far less tendentious, conse-
quence is that our understanding of historical interpretation can profit from liter-
ary or “discourse” analysis.
This position, which was perhaps anticipated by Nietzsche,1 is suggested in
varying degrees by Roland Barthes2 and Louis Mink;3 it has been developed most
extensively by Hayden White;4 and it commands a following among historians,
literary critics, and philosophers of history.5
For White, historical writing is interpretive in several separable, though inter-
related, registers. Historical argumentation in the dissertative mode involves a par-
adigm choice; second, in a broad sense, a historical tract requires the choice of an
ideological perspective; and, also, a historical narrative itself enjoins a choice of a
plot structure, which, in turn, is related to the discursive tropes that “figure” the
writing of the text.6 For the purposes of this essay, it is White™s conclusions about
the specific status that he assigns to narrative interpretation that preoccupy us.7
Stated roughly, White identifies historical discourse with interpretation and
historical interpretation with narrativization. A historical narrative is not a trans-
parent representation or copy of a sequence of past events. Narration irreducibly
entails selecting the events to be included in its exposition as well as filling in links
that are not available in the evidential record.The historian does not find or dis-
cover her narrative; she constructs it.This process of construction involves distor-
tion8 and the imposition of generic plot structures (such as Romance, Tragedy,
Comedy, and Satire) on the sequence of past events. The plot structures that are
culturally available to the narrative historian are inherently fictional; they are not
merely neutral, formal armatures on which events are displayed; they have a con-
tent “ hence,White™s emphasis on the notion of the content of form. Moreover, that
content is fictional.
This conclusion, however, does not lead White to argue that historical inter-
pretations cannot be truthful. Rather they are truthful, but in the way that White
takes fictions to be truthful. That is, historical narratives, like fictional narratives,
are, by virtue of their plot structures, true in the ways that metaphors are true.
Marx™s characterization of the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte as a
farce is assessable in the same way that the sentence “our last faculty meeting
was a farce” is assessable. Here, the presiding idea is that there is a variety of
metaphorical truth, in contradistinction to literal truth, and that fictions and
that historical narratives (with plot structures derived ultimately from myths) are
a subspecies thereof.
In according historical narrative this means, albeit fictional in nature, of char-
acterizing reality,White stands at odds with various Continental theorists, such as
L©vi-Strauss9 and the Annales school,10 who disparage narrative history as regres-
sively unscientific, alternatively mythic and fantastic.White, in contrast, grants his-
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torical narration cognitive purchase, specifically in terms of metaphor (though
sometimes he also uses the notion of allegory to make this point).
White summarizes his position succinctly by saying:
To emplot real events as a story of a specific kind (or as a mixture of stories
of a specific kind) is to trope these events. This is because stories are not
lived; there is no such thing as a ˜real™ story. Stories are told or written, not
found.And as for the notion of a ˜true™ story, this is virtually a contradiction
in terms. All stories are fictions which means, of course, that they can be
˜true™ in a metaphorical sense and in the sense in which any figure of
speech can be true. Is this true enough?11
Though as a slogan this is quite pointed, it does require some care in order to
understand what White is asserting. Contra Paul Ricoeur™s analysis of White,12
White is not entirely erasing the distinction between fiction and historical writng.
Historical writing does refer to past events and those references must be support-
able on the basis of the evidential record. In virtue of this evidential requirement,
historical writing can be assessed in terms of a literal criterion for truth in a way
that fictional exercises should not be. However, in addition to this standard of
truth, the historical narrative “ that is, the selection, combination, and arrange-
ment of events attested to by the record “ is to be evaluated by another criterion,
one shared with fictional narratives “ to wit: metaphorical aptness.
In this regard, there is a superficial resemblance between the structure of
White™s account of historical interpretation and Joseph Margolis™s notion of robust
relativism. For Margolis, the descriptions that ground interpretations are suscepti-
ble to evaluation in terms of truth and falsity, whereas the overall interpretation
requires some other sort of assessment, say in terms of plausibility.13 For White, the
notation of the events by the historian is responsible to literal canons of evidence,
whereas the narrative constructions themselves are metaphorically true.The histo-
rian promotes understanding in her reader by casting a sequence of historical
events in the form of a culturally shared and familiar narrative pattern (e.g.,
tragedy), and we assimilate the past under a common myth.This pattern of mean-
ing “ embodied in the plot structure, which itself has a kind of mythic content “
illuminates insofar as it is a serviceable analog for the past.
So far, I have merely offered a sketch of historical constructivism à la White. In
the next section, I will try to refine the various arguments that he uses to advance
this position, and, in the concluding section, I will review the problems that con-
front White at almost every turn, along with offering a diagnosis of certain of the
deep presuppositions that I believe lead White astray.

2. W H I T E ™ S A RG U M E N T S

White characterizes his approach as concerned with a specifically historical kind of
writing14 and he explicitly aligns himself with the narrativist, as opposed to a sci-
entific, conception of historiography.15 This seems extravagant to me, for clearly
136 ART, HISTORY, NARRATIVE
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science can be narrative in form “ for example, the geological account of the dis-
position of the continents “ without ceasing to be scientific, and, therefore, narra-
tive cannot be the quiddity of history as differentiated from science.16 However,
even if White™s commitment to narrativism is sometimes overzealous, his position
is still a challenging one. For, obviously, history is often (most often?) presented in
narrative form “ even if narration is not the essence of historical exposition “ and,
thus, the finding (if it is that) that historical narrative is always in fundamental ways
fictional remains a significant epistemological thesis.17
White™s leading idea is that historical interpretation is a construction or an
imposition on a sequence of past events insofar as it involves narration.The coher-
ence that narration supplies to a sequence of events is an imaginative invention.
The historical series of events is not coherent “ despite the claims of speculative
philosophers of history like Hegel; rather, historical events begin to take coherent
shape only through the historian™s narrative efforts.
In this respect, White is not thoroughly antirealist; he does not deny that the
past existed. He is only opposed to the notion that there are “real stories,” that is,
that narratives of the past reflect the structure of ongoing, successive, past events.
The past, in other words, is not storied, and representing sequences of events in
story form is, strictly speaking, adding something to them.
Furthermore, even if the references to past events in the historical account are
assessable in terms of truth or falsity, that added “something” “ the narrative con-
figuration or pattern (which is more than the conjunction of all the truth-func-
tional references in a historical account) “ is not. It must be evaluated as metaphor
or allegory.That is, narrative histories must be thought of in terms of something
called narrative truth, which involves more than establishing the truth values of the
conjunction of the atomic sentences that comprise them and which is spoken of
as a different kind of truth.18
On White™s account, typical historiographic practice proceeds under the
assumption that narrative historians are discovering the structure of past processes
“ that is, “real stories.” But for White stories are invented, not found, and their
invention by historians is structurally continuous with the efforts of authors of fic-
tion.Thus, historical narratives are on a par with fictional narratives in this respect,
and their cognitive value, qua narration, is of a piece with things like novels “
namely, they are sources of metaphorical insight.
White attempts to support his view with a wide range of considerations, involv-
ing slogans, contrasts, and analyses of the nature of narrative.These different forms of
argumentation build on and segue with each other in various ways.Their effect, one
supposes, is meant to be cumulative, though one also suspects that White thinks that
each has force independently of the others. So for purposes of this presentation, I will
introduce them as separate considerations, while also taking note of the ways in
which later analyses and arguments build on and flesh out earlier ones.
White™s often repeated19 core slogan, which he shares with Louis Mink,20 is
that lives are lived and stories are told. Our lives do not come packaged as stories;
we invent stories about them retrospectively through imaginative effort.Thus, the
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historians™ narrative cannot be taken as a reflection of the lives lived by historical
agents. If historians think this way “ as White believes they do, despite what they
may say “ then narrative historians are woefully mistaken.
Though the invocation of “lives” here, as we shall see, is too restrictive as well
as infelicitous in other ways, what is intended can be put more rigorously and
comprehensively: “Histories, then, are not only about events but also about the
possible sets of relationships that those events can be demonstrated to figure.These
sets of relationships are not, however, immanent in the events themselves; they
exist only in the mind of the historian reflecting on them.”21
This slogan is fleshed out in terms of various, further contrasts. Since the past is
not storied, historical narratives are not found or discovered; rather they are invented.22
In this sense, historical narratives are constructions23 “ constructions that give a
sequence of events, such as one might find notated in a historical chronicle or annal,
a meaning.24 Historical narratives, in this regard, are also said to constitute meaning.25
But events, as lived, do not have meanings. They only get meanings by being
invested with a function in a narrative.That the Battle of Stalingrad was the turning
point of World War II, for example, acquires this significance by being a complication
in a narrative plot about World War II. The Battle of Stalingrad, qua event, had no
meaning; and, indeed, it could figure in other stories in which it would have a differ-
ent meaning. (In an architectual history, for example, the significance of the battle
might be that it occasioned the destruction of important buildings.)
Related to the meaning/real event contrast is a contrast between meaning and
a copy of an event. Putatively, practicing historians have the naive view that their
narratives could be copies of events past “ by which I understand White to mean
something like a perfect replica or mirror image.26 But historical writing cannot
afford a perfect simulacrum of the past. It involves selection and filling in; so it is
actually a deviation from an exact copy or representation of the succession of
events. In fact,White does not hesitate to call it a distortion,27 presumably a distor-
tion in contrast to whatever would count as a perfect replica or mirror image of a
succession of past events.
Narration has its own conditions of intelligibility. Narrative coherence requires
features like beginnings, middles, and ends “ ends, particularly in the technical sense
of closure. But, on what must be ontological grounds,White thinks it is obvious that
events do not emerge from the flux of history closured. Closure is a product of nar-
rative coherence. It is the aim of achieving narrative coherence that leads to the selec-
tion and hierarchical ordering that imbues the relevant events with meaning, while

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