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Something like this view is what leads him to believe that the narrative exploits of
practicing historians correspond to those of substantive philosophers of history. I
suppose that White is prompted to this intuition on the grounds that if one actu-
ally composed a nonfictional narrative in accordance with the exact correspon-
dence standard, one would have a unitary picture of the past in which every event
had a determinate place. Of course,White, and perhaps everyone else, thinks that
this is impracticable. But White goes on to argue from the infeasibility of absolute
stories to the fictionality of all historical narratives.
That is, given an event or a series of events, we can develop a number of sto-
ries. No event or event series has one final, that is, single, fixed significance for rea-
sons rehearsed above. Events and event series can, through narration, be connected
with alternative events and event series. A collection of events, in a manner of
speaking, underdetermines the stories in which they can play a role. From this,
White infers that there can be no “real stories”; if there were “real stories,” imma-
nent in the historical process, events would fall into one and only one train of
events, said train inscribed in events like the evolution of Hegel™s world spirit. His-
torical narrative presumes that the historical process is narrativized and if the his-
torical process is narrativized and there are real stories, the significance of each
event fits into one and only one story. So, since there is always more than one
derivable story, there are no real stories.
But once again, the argument proceeds on the basis of a straw man.The require-
ment that “real stories” be absolute stories is exorbitant from the outset. Stories will
be nonfictionally accurate insofar they track courses of events. But courses of events
overlap and branch, and there is no need to presume “ as perhaps Hegel did “ that
there is only one course of events.Thus, events and series of events may play different
roles in different stories. But that events and series of events figure in different stories
is no obstacle to those stories being nonfictional.There are different stories because
there are discrete courses of events whose interest is relative to the questions the his-
torian asks of the evidence. This relativity, which precludes the possibility of an
absolute story, however, does not make the historical narrative fictional. Rather it
makes the accuracy of the nonfictional account assessable in terms of what questions
are being directed to the relevant courses of events.50
Like innumerable poststructuralist commentators, White appears to believe
that agreement that there is no absolute interpretation, no final word, so to say,
with respect to x, should impel us to avoid the imputation of truth to an inter-
pretation of x. That is, if there are a multiplicity of interpretations available for x,
then the question of literal truth goes by the boards. A true interpretation would
have to be an absolute interpretation; an absolute interpretation would have to be
the final word on its subject; but since there are no such absolute interpretations “
here with respect to historical narratives “ there is no question of literal truth.
Needless to say, this is a bad argument with respect to literary criticism.To say
a literary interpretation is true if and only if it is the only acceptable account of a
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text is absurd; one does not deny the truth of a literary interpretation by showing
that another interpretation is possible. For the other interpretation may be com-
patible with the interpretation under scrutiny.That a text supports a multiplicity
of interpretations does not disallow the possibility that all of them are literally
true; the epistemological issue with respect to a collection of interpretations of
texts only becomes live when they are inconsistent.
But here it is important to keep two very different arguments separate: one
says that truth is inapplicable to interpretations because there is always a multiplic-
ity of acceptable interpretations of x available; the other says that truth is inapplic-
able to interpretations because there is always, at least in principle, a multiplicity of
equally acceptable but inconsistent interpretations of x available.The former view
is based on the truism that there may be no absolute interpretation of x, but from
that truism it does not follow that several different interpretations of x cannot be
conjointly true, for example, that 1984 is about totalitarianism and that it is about
Stalinism.The pressure to abandon the question of truth with respect to interpre-
tations only impinges when it can be argued that we are always confronted by a
multiplicity of incompatible interpretations.
Turning from literary interpretation to historical narration, the pressing ques-
tion is which of the preceding arguments can be sustained. Here, it seems to me
that it is obvious that there are multiple stories that can be derived from a given
set of events, but, without buying into White™s confidence in generic emplotment,
there is no reason to presume that these different stories must conflict, and, there-
fore, no reason to believe that they cannot be assessed in terms of literal truth.51
Sandra Day O™Connor™s appointment to the Supreme Court is part of the narra-
tive of somewhat recent abortion decisions and part of the narrative of women™s
social empowerment. These stories need not conflict and both could be true.
Insofar as White™s arguments about historical narration, unlike Joseph Margolis™s
arguments about literary interpretation, do not show that different historical nar-
ratives can always in principle be nonconverging and inconsistent, historical nar-
rations remain assessable in terms of literal standards of truth.
Again, the recognition that an event or an event series affords an ingredient for
more than one story is a truism. It does not force us to concede that historical narra-
tives cannot be assessed in terms of literal truth. Nor does it seem compelling to sup-
pose that ordinary historians must buy into the presuppositions of substantive
philosophers of history in order to regard their narratives in terms of truth. For there
is no logical requirement that true narratives be absolutely true. Historians can trace
alternative courses of events without presupposing that some one course of events is
privileged because history is the story of human emancipation or class struggle.
So far we have been considering White™s more abstract, philosophical argu-
ments. Now we must evaluate his empirical theses. For it may be the case that
White™s abstract arguments, when filled in by his empirical claims, are more con-
vincing.We have argued that the fact that an event may be incorporated in more
than one story supplies no reason to believe that historical narratives cannot be lit-
erally true. But if we accept White™s claim that all historical narratives are generi-
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cally emplotted in terms of romance, tragedy, comedy, and satire, perhaps White™s
position can be given new life. For, on the one hand, most events do not seem to
be intrinsically comic or tragic; and, on the other hand, if events are alternatively
emplottable as comedies or tragedies, then alternative, equally acceptable, but
incompatible interpretations seem available such that both cannot be literally true.
That is, if one historian™s narrative of an event sequence portrays it as comic and
another portrays it as tragic, and both are acceptable, though incompatible, then
what warrants these interpretations cannot be literal truth.
Of course, whether this argument is successful depends upon whether White
is correct in claiming that all historical narratives are generically emplotted in
terms of the sort of narrative forms that White suggests. Undoubtedly, some histo-
rians may deploy the kinds of mythic plots typified by Frye. But do all historical
narratives do this? My own inclination is to think that they do not. For example,
in a recent, randomly selected, narrative explanation of the perplexities con-
fronting contemporary socialism, Michael Harrington writes:
One might say from 1883 (when Marx died and the social democracy was
about to enter its golden age) to 1945 the socialists attempted, with a
notable lack of success, to figure out precisely what they meant by social-
ism. Then in the postwar age, it seemed that John Maynard Keynes had
miraculously provided the answer that Marx had neglected: socialization
was the socialist administration of an expanding capitalist economy whose
surplus was then partly directed to the work of justice and freedom.When,
sometime in the seventies, that Keynesian era came to an end, the socialists
were once more thrown into confusion.Which is where we are now.52
This brief narrative does not seem to me to be identifiable as either a tragedy, a
comedy, a romance, or a satire. And, furthermore, if most narrative writing of his-
tory is, as I suspect, as generically neutral as this example, then the importance of
generic emplotment for the assessment of historical narration becomes extremely
exiguous. Of course, whether, in fact, historical narration is typically plotted
generically or is more like the preceding example is an empirical question. But
even if my counterexample is not the norm, it still shows from the perspective of
the philosophy of history that not all historical narratives are generically emplot-
ted. Therefore, not all historical narratives can be matched with equally com-
pelling alternatives in contradictory generic modes. Therefore, not all historical
narratives raise the problem of the multiplicity of inconsistent interpretations in
such a way that talk of literal truth is rendered problematic.
Moreover, assessing the empirical accuracy of White™s theory of generic
emplotment would be very difficult “ not because there would be so many narra-
tives to consider, but because White™s characterization of his generic modes is so
vague. Confronted by the preceding counterexample, White would probably
attempt to show that it fits one of his genres. But his apparent success in this mat-
ter would be based on the fact that these genres are very loosely defined and there
are no conditions of application for these modes in evidence. Consequently, some
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feature of Harrington™s little narrative can probably be lined up with at least one
feature of one of White™s genres. However,White™s freewheeling, associative man-
ner of identifying genre membership not only makes his thesis suspicious, but
unfalsifiable.Thus, the very ad hoc flavor of White™s analysis undercuts its reliability
as the basis for maintaining that for any historical narrative, there is an equally
acceptable contradictory narrative “ that is, a narrative in an incompatible genre “
that forces us to concede that the criterion of truth is inapplicable to it.
On White™s view, historical narratives will be emplotted in terms of romance,
comedy, tragedy, satire, or a mode of comparable generality; those modes are said to
be incompatible but alternatively available for a given series of events; so, no narrative
can be literally true. I am not convinced that these genres are necessarily contradic-
tory in the sense that the argument requires. However, even if they are, it seems to me
that many (most?) historical narratives are not emplotted at this level of generality, but
derive their plot structures by tracking causes, reasons and consequences in a way that
allows for straightforward evaluation in terms of truth.This is not a matter of impos-
ing cultural conventions (White™s generic plots) on event series, so the putative unde-
cidability between White™s story-templates is of little moment in assessing typical
historical narratives. Furthermore, if White wishes to dispute this claim, he will have
to rigorously define his generic plots so that should he find them everywhere, we
may rest assured that this is because they are everywhere and not because they are so
carelessly characterized that they can be applied to anything.
Along with his theory of generic emplotment,White has his theory of tropes,
which is meant to reinforce his theory of plots. Every historical narrative relies on
tropes “ specifically those of metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony “ and
the historian™s choice of trope prefigures her choice of generic emplotment. Inso-
far as narratives are troped, they are emplotted in generic forms. Emplotment in
generic forms, then, seems unavoidable, despite my protests to the contrary.
Unfortunately, many of the problems that afflict White™s theory of emplotment
also plague his tropology. On the face of it, it does not seem difficult randomly to
peruse the work of narrative historians and to find long stretches of nonfigurative
writing.White seems to think that because historians use ordinary language, they
must use tropes. But since there is nonfigurative ordinary language, it is difficult to
be persuaded by this argument.53
One would think that it would be easy to determine whether historical writing
is dominated by the four tropes in the ways White argues. It should be a simple mat-
ter of statistically gauging their incidence (along with correlating that incidence with
the frequency of the associated generic plots). However, the question is not so easily
settled because White™s idea of troping pertains not only literally to instances of figu-
rative language but to modes of thought.Thus, to determine whether a given trope
dominates a historian™s writing may call for an interpretation of her style of thought
and the correlation of that mode of thought with a trope. A historian, for example,
who emphasizes the repetition of certain kinds of events in her narrative might be
said to be thinking tropically in terms of metaphors. But as with White™s plot cate-
gories, his trope categories are not tightly defined, and one worries that his attribu-
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tions of this or that trope to a particular writer has an ad hoc ring to it.That White™s
discussion of tropes can shift between specific verbal structures and vaguely sketched
styles of thought suggests a capacity for ambiguity that renders the claim that all his-
torical writing is tropological disturbingly unfalsifiable.
Furthermore, construed as figures of thought,White™s tropes bear a strong similar-
ity to associationist principles for the connection of ideas. Thus, to the extent that
such a theory represents a crude but still rather commodious cartography of mental
operations, it will come as no surprise that examples of one or another connectives “
for example, similarity, contiguity or contrast “ will subsume virtually every example
of human thinking.That is, whether thinking is articulated in ordinary language or
scientific language, or whether it is narrative or analytic, it will exemplify fundamen-
tal associative principles. Thus, casting tropes at a level of generality such that they
become indiscernible from associationist principles of thought undermines the
attempt to separate historical narrative from other types of human thought, such as
science. Indeed, tropes thought of as mental processes subvert the distinction between
the literal and the figurative that White himself needs to particularize what he thinks
is special about the way historical narratives inform us about the world.
Of course, if we think of tropes less expansively, then I think that we have no
reason to think that historians must employ tropes at all, or that in actual practice
a historian™s writing will inevitably be figurative or dominated by the choice of a
particular, dominating trope.And, as well, even if a historian™s writing were figura-
tive that would not force us to evaluate it according to some figurative or
metaphorical standard of truth because even metaphors, conceived of as implied
similes, can be straightforwardly said to be true or false.54
If it is not the case that all historical writing is tropological in some nonvacu-
ous way, then it is not true that in virtue of their tropes all historical narratives
correspond to a generic plot of the order of comedy, tragedy, romance, or satire.
That is, the hypothesis of the pervasiveness of tropes cannot support the claim of
the generality of generic emplotment nor the corresponding claim of the perma-
nent possibility of conflicting interpretations.
However, even if it were plausible to maintain that all historical writing indulges
in the use of the four tropes and that for any given piece of historical narration one
of the four tropes is likely to dominate, the link between the choice of a trope and
the choice of a generic mode of emplotment “ the prefiguration thesis “ remains
persistently obscure. For example,White writes that “The mythos of Synecdoche is a
dream of Comedy, the apprehension of a world in which all struggle, strife and con-
flict are dissolved in the realization of a perfect harmony.”55 Yet, granting the Frye-
derived conception of comedy here, we still want to know what this has to do with
any literal construction of the trope of synecdoche. Here we are likely to be told that
the trope of synecdoche is integrative,56 so the integrative trope goes with the inte-
grative plot. But surely one can employ synecdoches, even a great many of them,
without that resulting in a narrative of reconciliation.And, if we are told that what is
at issue is not literal synecdochal structures but a style of thought that underlies the
text, then we shall wonder whether we have two things here “ synecdochal think-
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ing and comic thinking “ or just comedy, construed ever so broadly as integration,
which has nothing to do with tropes except that White has implicitly stipulated that
synecdoche can be an equivalent name for it. And, if this is the case, then we merely
have a jerry-rigged definition masquerading as the discovery of the very causal-
sounding relation of prefiguration.
Neither the generic emplotment hypothesis nor the tropological hypothesis seem
to pertain to all historical narration. Nor does the idea “ even if the tropological
hypothesis were true “ that choice of tropes prefigures choice of generic emplotment
seem plausible. So accepting the hypothesis that all historical narratives are tropolog-
ical would not entail that they were all generically emplotted.And if we have no rea-
son to think that all historical narratives are generically emplotted in terms of
romance, tragedy, comedy, and irony, then we are not threatened by the prospect that
any given historical narrative will be in one of these genres but could be equally in
another conflicting genre (events emplotted as comedy could always be emplotted in
the incompatible genre of tragedy). Rather, historical narratives can be (and generally
are) plotted at a lower level of structure, tracking courses of events in terms of such
things as causes, reasons, and consequences.And there is no reason to think that there
must be alternative, equally cogent, but incompatible narratives of given courses of
events at this level of structure.
Underlying White™s overall view, it seems to me, is a picture of the following
sort: a narrative, specifically a nonfiction narrative, is a collection of sentences
ordered in a certain way. Narratives, however, are not simply evaluated in terms of
the truth or falsity of their constituent sentences.The way in which the sentences
are ordered is also epistemically crucial. But this dimension of epistemic evalua-
tion would not be assessed if the narrative were evaluated solely in terms of the
conjunction of the truth values of its individual, fact-asserting sentences. More-
over, it seems to be presumed that saying a narrative™s epistemic adequacy for
White would have to be reducible to the assessment of the truth value of the con-
junction of the constituent atomic sentences in the narrative. But since the ade-
quacy of the narrative “ with respect to its structure of ordering relations “
involves something beyond the truth of the sum of the truth values of its atomic
sentences, the narrative as a whole must, at least in part, be assessable in terms of
some other standard.

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