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measure of cohesiveness to the narratives of human events does not restrict us to a
form of historical intentionalism nor does it preclude discussion of corporate
entities like states or classes.42
Of course, in speaking of courses of events, I do not mean to imply that any
given event is only a member of one course of events.The appointment of Sandra
Day O™Connor to the Supreme Court is part of the course of events that led to
the decision alluded to above. But that event also undoubtedly figured in various
other courses of events “ some in the history of the O™Connor family and some
concerning the social advancement of women in the United States. And, equally,
the event of O™Connor™s appointment will also figure in courses of events still in
the making.The same event can be part of different courses of events, and, there-
fore, can be represented in different stories. But the fact that different events can
figure in different stories in no way indicates that the stories are fictional. For this
suspicion to counterfeit plausibility, we would have to assume that in order to be
nonfictional, there would have to be only one relevant story, perhaps of the sort
proposed by speculative philosophers of history, and that each event in it would be
significant in one and only one way.That is, if there is more than one story, then
stories are invented, and, therefore, fictional. But the presumed disjunction that
either there is one real story or a multiplicity of fictional ones fails to accommo-
date the fact that courses of action intersect and branch off from shared events,
which intersections and branches can be found or discovered.
In White™s way of speaking, when a given event is situated in different narra-
tives it can acquire a different meaning.That events have these differential mean-
ings indicates that they are imposed and, therefore, fictional. But talk of meanings
144 ART, HISTORY, NARRATIVE
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here may be a little misleading. Events have different significances in different
courses of events.43 Anthony Scalia™s appointment to the Supreme Court has one
significance in terms of the great abortion debate and another, though perhaps
not completely unrelated, significance in the history of Italian Americans. In these
examples, the idea of significance can be cashed in causally. If meaning here
amounts to playing a role in a network of socially significant causation, then there
should be no problems in admitting that Scalia™s appointment may have a different
meaning in different courses of events.This simply allows that a single event can
play a different role in different causal chains.This does not indicate that a mean-
ing has been imposed on the event.Again, the event may occur in different stories
because the different stories track different courses of overlapping events.44
White™s use of the notion of meaning in his arguments gives his thesis a
semantic flavor, which perhaps suggests a level of arbitrariness that would warrant
talk of imposition. However, it is important to stress that the kind of meaning that
an event has in a narrative is a matter of its significance with respect to subsequent
events, often in terms of causation and/or practical reasoning.And whether signif-
icance in this sense obtains is not arbitrary or imposed.That the historian wants to
know what caused the American entry into World War II does not make her cita-
tion of the attack on Pearl Harbor an imposition on the historical train of events
nor is her imputation of causal efficacy to the attack arbitrary in any way.This is
not to deny that events in historical narratives will be events under a description;
but within the context of a given research project, the description of a pertinent
event is not arbitrary in the way that on some views of language the relation
between a signifier and a signified is arbitrary. Similarly, it is not helpful to think of
the historian™s description of an action in terms of its significance in a course of
events as constitutive of the event in any strong sense; whether Pearl Harbor, for
example, was a cause of World War II is a fact even if it were not asserted in his-
torical accounts.
White contrasts historical narratives replete with meanings to copies of the
past. The historical narrative, involving selection and abduction, is not a copy of
the past, and, therefore, is fictional.The contrast here seems forced; the visual ref-
erences to copies and mirrors is particularly strained though revelatory of an
empiricist residue in White™s thinking. Obviously, historical narratives are not mir-
ror images of the past; in general (save for things like cinematic documentaries)
they are not even pictorial, let alone perfect pictorial replicas of anything. But why
should the fact that they are not pictures imply they are fictions?
However, the preceding worry misses the point.The idea of a copy of the past
should probably be understood metaphorically.A copy of the past would be a per-
fect reflection of everything that transpired in the relevant time span with nothing
added or subtracted. It would bear an exact correspondence to all and only what
came about, or, even more strictly, to what could have been perceived as past
events unfolded.Anything that falls short of this is said to be fictional.
Of course, it is difficult to imagine that practicing historians pursue the pro-
duction of such copies in their work, or that, informed as they are of the histori-
INTERPRETATION, HISTORY, NARRATIVE 145
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cal evidence, they construe their narratives as perfect replicas of the past. But
White, it seems, wants to confront them with a dilemma. Either historical narra-
tives are copies in the relevant sense or they are fictional.The way to deal with this
dilemma is to reject it “ to maintain that historical narratives are not and, in fact,
should not be copies in the mirror sense while also maintaining that this does not
make them fictional.
The notion that only copies in the mirror sense would not be fictional pre-
supposes something like a narrowly empiricist, correspondence criterion of truth.
White explicitly denies the viability of this approach in one sense “ he denies that
historical narratives could meet it. However, this does not seem to lead him to
reject the criterion entirely.That is, he appears to continue to regard it as the ideal
criterion for nonfictional historical exposition, even if it is an unrealizable ideal.
And, to the extent that it is unrealizable, he consigns historical narration to the
realm of fiction. But what is strange here is that White doesn™t take the inapplica-
bility of this ideal of truth as a grounds for advancing alternative criteria of non-
fictional truth for historical narratives.
Confronted by the inapplicability of the copy ideal of an empiricist view of
correspondence truth, it seems to me that the line one should take is to search for
some other grounds for accommodating the truth of historical narratives con-
strued as nonfictional. That is, we should hold onto the intuition that historical
narratives can be truthful in the way that nonfictional discourse is true, drop the
expectation that this is explicable in terms of a naive view of correspondence to
the past as a whole, and explore alternative models.White, in effect, maintains the
criteria of empiricist correspondence, which leads him to reassigning historical
narration to the realm of fiction. In this respect, oddly enough, he turns out to be
a closet empiricist “ presupposing that anything that falls short of the correspon-
dence standard is fictional.45
Undoubtedly, there is a parallel between White™s strategy here and that of
many deconstructionists. When they note the failure of certain theories of lan-
guage on the grounds that no language is an absolute mirror of the world, they
conclude that meaning is an arbitrary, infinitely fluctuating construct rather than
surmising that the expectation that a language might absolutely mirror the world
was a theoretical error to begin with, and that a better view of the way in which
a language is objectively constrained should be sought.That is, they remain in the
thrall of a bad theory of language, employing it to motivate their skepticism, at the
same time that they agree that no language squares with the idealization. This is
akin to reasoning that either existence has an absolute meaning ordained by God
or it has no meaning; since there is no God, there is no meaning. This way of
thinking shares the theistic assumption that only something like God could serve
as a source of meaning. An alternative would be to search for other sources of
meaning once the hypothesis that there is no God is endorsed. Similarly, in con-
signing historical narration to the realm of fiction on the grounds that it is not a
perfect replica of the past, White remains implicitly in the very empiricist camp
from which he explicitly wishes to part company.
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Armed with the copy ideal of nonfictionality,White recycles the issue of selec-
tivity, which must be the most perennial pretext for suspecting the objectivity of
historical narration. Obviously, a narrative selects a subset of events and event rela-
tionships from the historical flow; thus, if candidacy for nonfictionality depends
on correspondence to the whole past, or the whole past within certain stipulated
time parameters, a historical narrative will be discounted. But, again, this should
lead us to drop the copy ideal of nonfictionality and not to jettison the idea that
historical narratives are nonfictional.This is not the place to review all the argu-
ments that are designed to show that the selectivity of historical narratives need
not be epistemologically problematic in any way that warrants special attention.
Some historians may select the events they highlight in dubitable ways, but there
are procedures for ascertaining whether the processes of selection a given histo-
rian employs are questionable.That is, historians may produce distortive represen-
tations of the past because of biased procedures, but this only goes to show that
the selective attention of a given narrative may be distorting, and not that selec-
tivity, in and of itself, is problematic. If it were, then scientific findings, which are
also selective, would also, by parity of reasoning, be fictional.
White, himself, may remain unmoved by our last argument. For he is apparently
convinced of the constructivist/conventionalist view of science.Thus, he seems to
gain confidence by analogizing historical narratives with scientific theories, as con-
strued by constructivists. Surmising that scientific theories are constructed on the
basis of observational data that underdetermine theory choice, which data them-
selves are theory-laden,White thinks of narratives as similarly constructed, in con-
texts where the data would support alternative stories, and he thinks of narrative
events as, so to speak, story-laden.Thus, if the adoption of a scientific theory is con-
ventional, given the putative fact that it is one construction of the data within a
range of equally acceptable ones, then historical narratives, assuming the analogy to
scientific theories, are equally conventional.Their selective organization of the data
does not correspond to reality, but is an invention developed within conventional
choice procedures. Thus, one dispels the argument of the preceding paragraph by
maintaining that scientific selectivity forces us to concede that scientific theories are
imaginative constructions “ and in that sense fictions “ and, therefore, no incon-
gruity is engendered by maintaining that comparable processes of selection with
respect to historical narratives render them fictional as well.46
A major problem with this invocation of the philosophy of science is that it pre-
sumes that the facts of scientific theorizing pointed to by constructivists entail antire-
alism. But a solid case for the compatibility of scientific realism with the facts of the
history of science, upon which constructivists rely, is available,47 thereby blocking any
facile attempt to derive historical antirealism with respect to narrative from scientific
antirealism with respect to theories. That is, the selective procedures and inferred
nature of theoretical entities does not commit us to antirealism; it does not force us to
deny that scientific theories are approximately true.Therefore, even if suitable analo-
gies could be drawn between constructivism in science and constructivism in histo-
riography,48 we would not have to regard historical narratives as fictional.
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A course of events transpiring between t1 and t5 need not comprise every event
or state of affairs in its temporal neighborhood.Therefore, a narrative representation
that tracks that course of events need not refer to every occurrence in the stipulated
time span. Narratives are selective, but this is appropriate given the nature of courses
of events. Nor is it useful to call the reconstruction of a course of events distortive
just because it involves selection. Indeed, from the perspective of attempting cogni-
tively to assimilate a representation of the past, the portrayal of a course of events
that chronicled all the events in the temporal neighborhood would distort insofar as
it would muddy the links between the pertinent elements in the sequence.
Likewise, our narrative accounts may have to be revised in the light of subse-
quent events; this does not show that historical narratives are fictional, but only
that there are always more stories to tell. Moreover, that some historical narratives
may be superseded by ones that are more fine-grained no more shows that the
earlier ones were fictional than the adjustment of one approximately true scien-
tific theory with further details (atomic theory amplified by the characterization
of subatomic particles) shows that the earlier viewpoint must now be evaluated
according to a different standard of truth.
No historical narrative says everything there is to say, not even about all the
events within the time frame that it discusses.The historian exercises choice in the
sense that the linkage between some events and not others will be given salience
in order to illuminate a given course of events. It is true, as White repeatedly
emphasizes, that in charting these linkages and in making the relevant selections,
the historian uses her imagination. But, pace White, it is quite a long throw from
the historian™s use of her imagination in discerning said linkages to the inference
that the historian™s narrative is on a par with that of the imaginative writer (i.e.,
the writer of fiction). White appears to presume that there is a correlation
between the use of the imagination and fiction. But this is illicit. On many views
of the imagination, such as Kant™s, the imagination plays a role in perception, but
my perception of my house is in no way fictional.
Many of White™s arguments for the fictionality of historical narrative hinge on
contrasting said narratives with copies of the past.Any addition (imaginative con-
struction) or subtraction of detail (selection) from such a copy, conceived of on
the model of a mirror, is evidence of fictionality. But the foil is inadmissable. Not
only is the visual metaphor inapplicable “ it is not the case that not being an exact
copy of x entails being a fictional representation of x; but it indicates a residual
commitment to a very radical version of an empiricist expectation of exact “per-
ceptual” correspondence between a representation and its referent, which is not
only philosophically bogus but is at odds with White™s own suspicion of empiri-
cism. Like the skeptic who arrives at her position by accepting a phenomenalist
account of perception and who, therefore, remains effectively an empiricist,White
regards historical narration as fictional, because he continues to employ something
as implausible as perceptual correspondence as the standard of nonfictionality.
White™s emphasis on the verbal dimension of historical narration sends him to
contemporary discourse theory for insight.There he encounters the idea that nar-
148 ART, HISTORY, NARRATIVE
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ration in what is called the realist text gives the reader the impression that the text
is transparent “ that it is unmediated, for example, by a narrator exercising selec-
tivity “ indeed, that it is as if the text were reality narrating itself.This corresponds
to White™s own view that historians write as if they were discovering real stories,
stories immanent in the historical process, whereas they are really fitting preexist-
ing story templates onto past events. The ideas that “events narrate themselves”
and that the historian, so to speak, records them as a dictaphone might, ostensibly
shows acceptance of the disreputable assumption of speculative philosophers of
history to the effect that the historical process is storied “ that is, that historical
events have a single significance in some overarching historical narrative.
This is a very perplexing argument. It begins by attributing transparency “ or,
narrativity, as White calls it “ to realist texts. But to whom does the text appear
transparent? Presumably, to naive readers and the naive historians who write
under the supposedly misguided faith that they could track a historical course of
events. These naive readers and writers are somehow possessed by the idea that
reality is narrating itself. Stated this way, the belief attributed to them is at least
obscure and, on a number of readings, absurd.
It is absurd to think of events as telling or narrating their own story in any lit-
eral sense, as White notes. But, in fact, it is so absurd on a literal reading that it is
hard to believe that any readers or writers, no matter how naive, can be taken in
by it. No one could believe that reality literally narrates itself, so it is an inadequate
starting point from which to field a dialectically alternative account. It is, so to say,
an argumentative red herring, rather than a genuine competing theory whose
defeat gives way to White™s alternative, fictional account of historical narration.
That is, faced with a transparency account of historical narration and White™s
account, we are not moved to White™s theory by the all-too-easy defeat of the
attributed transparency view, but rather suspect that we have not started with a
viable field of competing accounts.
Stated nonabsurdly, but still obscurely, the transparency effect might be thought of
as the impression on the part of naive readers and naive historians that the text is
unmediated, that it is without gaps, that it renders a full account of the past. However,
this too seems to be such a bizarre conviction to attribute to anyone that it is a non-
starter. Historians obviously know that they are selecting a series of events from a
larger sequence, and readers have only to look at the title page of the book to learn
the identity of the narrator/mediator. No one, in short, believes that historical texts
are unmediated; or, to put it positively, any informed reader or writer is aware that a
text involves selection. In this, everyone agrees with White, and the view that some
do not is a straw man.Where there is undoubtedly disagreement is in the assumption
that selection implies fictionality. But the burden of proof is on White to show this,
and, in my opinion, the only means at his disposal is the dubious, implicit assumption
that nonfiction requires exact correspondence.49
Associated with White™s implicit presumption of a standard of exact corre-
spondence is his apparent view that if one assumes that there are “real stories,”
then said stories would have to be of the nature of what we can call absolute sto-
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ries. For any series of events, an event emplotted in a narrative structure that is
immanent in the historical process will have one and only one fixed significance.

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