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Six Theses on Narrativist Philosophy of History


Historical narratives are interpretations of the past.


The terms historical narrative and interpretation provide better clues for an understanding of historiography than the terms description and explanation .


We interpret not when we have too few data but when we have too many (see 4.3). Description and explanation require the "right" amount of data


Scientific theories are underdetermined since an infinite number of theories may account for the known data; interpretations are underdetermined since only an infinite number of interpretations could account for all the known data.


Interpretation is not translation. The past is not a text that has to be translated into narrative historiography; it has to be interpreted ,


Narrative interpretations are not necessarily of a sequential nature; historical narratives are only contingently stories with a beginning, a middle, and an end.


Historical time is a relatively recent and highly artificial invention of Western civilization. It is a cultural, not a philosophical notion.

These theses summarize the views I expounded in my Narrative Logic: A Semantic Analysis of the Historian's Language , The Hague, 1983.


Hence, founding narrativism on the concept of time is building on quicksand.


Narrativism can explain time and is not explained by it (see 2.1.3 and 4.7.5).


Twenty years ago philosophy of history was scientistic; one ought to avoid the opposite extreme of seeing historiography as a form of literature. Historism is the juste milieu between the two: Historism retains what is right in both the scientistic and the literary approaches to history and avoids what is hyperbolic in both.


Historiography develops narrative interpretations of sociohistorical reality; literature applies them.


There is no precise line of demarcation between historiography and narrativist philosophy of history (see 4.7.5 and 4.7.7).


Narrativism accepts the past as it is. In the form of a tautology: it accepts what is unproblematic about the past. What is unproblematic is a historical fact. Both senses of the latter statement are true (see 3.4.1 and 3.4.2).


It is necessary to distinguish between historical research (a question of facts) and historical writing (a question of interpretation). The distinction is similar, though by no means identical, to the distinction in philosophy of science between observation statement and theory.


The results of historical research are expressed in statements; narrative interpretations are sets of statements.


The interesting distinction is not that between the singular and the general statement but between the general statement and historical narrative. The singular statement may serve both masters.


Temporal determinations are expressed in statements and not by statements and are therefore not of particular interest to narrativist philosophy of history. Narrativist philosophy of history deals with statements and not with their parts (like temporal indications).



There is an affinity between philosophy of historical research and the components (statements) of a historical narrative. Philosophy of historical writing and the historical narrative in its totality are similarly related.


With a few exceptions (W. H. Walsh, H. V. White, L. O. Mink), current philosophy of history is interested exclusively in historical research.


Its distrust of (narrativist) holism prevents current philosophy from understanding historical narrative.


The most crucial and most interesting intellectual challenges facing the historian are found on the level of historical writing (selection, interpretation, how to see the past). The historian is essentially more than Collingwood's detective looking for the murderer of John Doe.


Since it deals only with the components of historical narrative, philosophy of action can never further our insight into historical narrative.


Philosophy of action can never speak the language of the unintended consequences of human action. As a philosophy of history, philosophy of action is only suited to prehistorist historiography. Being unable to transcend the limitations of methodological individualism, it is historiographically naive.


Von Wright's and Ricoeur's attempts to solve this problem for philosophy of action are unsuccessful. Historical meaning is different from the agent's intention.


The language of the unintended consequences is the language of interpretation (there ordinarily is a difference between the historian's perspective and that of the historical agent).


The logical connection argument is a special case of narrativism (in that it provides a logical scheme in which knowledge of the past is organized).


Narrativism is the modern heir of historism (not to be confused with Popper's historicism): both recognize that the historian's task is essentially interpretative (i.e., to find unity in diversity).



Interpretations strive for the unity that is characteristic of things (see 4.4).


Historists attempted to discover the essence, or, as they called it, the historische Idee , which they assumed was present in the historical phenomena themselves. Narrativism, on the contrary, recognized that a historical interpretation projects a structure onto the past and does not discover it as if this structure existed in the past itself.


Historism is an unexceptionable theory of history if it is translated from a theory about historical phenomena into a theory about our speaking about the past (that which was metaphysical must become linguistic).


Insofar as the notion of plot or intrigue is suggestive of a structure or story present in the past itself, this notion is an unwarranted concession to historist, or narrativist, realism.


Historical narratives are not projections (onto the past) or reflections of the past, tied to it by translation rules which have their origin either in our daily experiences of the social world, in the social sciences, or in speculative philosophies of history.


Narrative interpretations are theses, not hypotheses.


Narrative interpretations apply to the past, but do not correspond or refer to it (as [parts of] statements do).


Much of current philosophy of historical narrative is bewitched by the picture of the statement.


Narrative language is autonomous with regard to the past itself. A philosophy of narrative makes sense if, and only if, this autonomy is recognized (see 4.5).


Since narrative interpretations only apply and do not refer (cf. the point of view from which a painter paints a landscape), there is no fixity in the relation between them and the past. The requirement that there should be such a relationship results from a category mistake (i.e., demanding for historical narrative what an only be given to the statement).



Narrative interpretations "pull you out of historical reality" and do not "send you back to it" (as the statement does).


In narrative language the relation between language and reality is systematically "destabilized" (see 5.1.2).


Epistemology is of relevance to philosophy of historical research, but of no importance to philosophy of historical writing or philosophy of narrative interpretation.


Epistemology, studying the relation between language and reality insofar as this relation is fixed and stable, disregards all the real problems of science and of historiography which only arise after that which others epistemology has been accepted as unproblematic. Foundationalism is interested in what is fundamentally uninteresting.


The philosophical investigation of "what justifies historical descriptions" is an implicit denial and denigration of the historian's intellectual achievements.


Narrative language is not object language.


Narrative language shows the past in terms of what does not refer or correspond to parts or aspects of the past. Narrative interpretations in this regard resemble the models used by fashion designers for showing the qualities of their gowns and dresses. Language is used for showing what belongs to a world different from it.


Narrativism is a constructivism not of what the past might have been like, but of narrative interpretations of the past.


Narrative interpretations are Gestalts .


Logically, narrative interpretations are of the nature of proposals (to see the past from a certain point of view).


Proposals may be useful, fruitful, or not, but cannot be either true or false; the same can therefore be said of historical narratives.


There is no intrinsic difference between speculative systems and history proper; they are used in different ways. Speculative systems are used as master-narratives to which other narratives should conform.



The writing of history shares with metaphysics the effort of defining the essence of (part of) reality, but differs from metaphysics because of its nominalism (see 4.7.1).


Narrative interpretations are not knowledge but organizations of knowledge. Our age, with its excess of information—and confronted with the problem of the organization of knowledge and information, rather than of how knowledge is gained—has every reason to be interested in the results of narrativism.


Cognitivism, with regard to narrative interpretations, is the source of all realist misconceptions of historical narrative.


Logically, narrative proposals are of the nature of things (not of concepts); like things they can be spoken about without ever being part of the language in which they are mentioned . Language is used here with the purpose of constructing a narrative interpretation which itself lies outside the domain of language, though the interpretation is "made out of" language (similarly, the meaning of the word chair cannot be reduced to the letters in the word).


Narrative interpretations cross the familiar border between the domain of things and the domain of language—as does metaphor.


A historical discussion about the crisis of the seventeenth century, for example, is not a debate about the actual past but about narrative interpretations of the past.


Our speaking about the past is covered by a thick crust not related to the past itself but to historical interpretation and the debate about rival historical interpretations. Narrative language has no transparency and is unlike the glass paperweight through which we gain an unobstructed view of the past itself.


The autonomy of narrative language with regard to the past itself does not in the least imply that narrative interpretations should be arbitrary (see 5.3, 5.6).


Facts about the past may be arguments in favor of or against narrative interpretations but can never determine these interpretations (facts only [dis]prove statements about the past) (see 1.2.1). Only interpretations can (dis)prove interpretations.



Narrative interpretations may have proper names (like the General Crisis of the Seventeenth Century, the Cold War, Mannerism, or the Industrial Revolution). Mostly, however, this is not the case.


Narrative logic is strictly nominalist.


Names like Mannerism refer to historical interpretations and not to past reality itself ("What Mannerism do you have in mind?" "Pevsner's Mannerism.").


This does not imply that these names are floating in a domain unrelated to historical reality itself (example: the name Mannerism refers to the statements of a narrative interpretation, and in these statements, reference is made to historical reality itself).


Narrative interpretations have no existential implications (for example: the Industrial Revolution is not a vast impersonal force in historical reality, unnoticed and undiscovered until 1884 when Arnold Toynbee wrote The Industrial Revolution in England , but an interpretative instrument for understanding the past).


Nevertheless, if a narrative interpretation goes unquestioned for a long time, is accepted by everybody, and becomes part of ordinary language (thereby losing its historiographical nature), it may turn into the notion of a (type of) thing. A narrative thing (see 4.4) has become a thing in reality. This is how our concepts of (types of) things originate. Typification procedures decide what is still merely interpretative and what is real; there is nothing fixed and absolute about the demarcation between what is interpretation and what belongs to the inventory of reality.


Concepts of (types of) things (like dog or tree ) are logically more complicated than narrative interpretations, since they presuppose a typification procedure still absent in the case of the latter. Interpretation logically precedes our (notions of) types of things. Ontology is a systematization of interpretation.


Metaphor and narrative interpretation form the basis of our language.


Without a theory of types, narrativism is impossible. Without it, we inevitably look in the wrong direction. (Types of) things are then more fundamental than narrative interpretations.



To require fixed meanings for words like the Cold War or Mannerism would amount to requiring that historical debate should stop. Historical writing does not presuppose, but results in definitions.


Notions like the Cold War , being sets of statements, are logically distinct from theoretical concepts.


Causal explanation—for instance, along the lines of the covering law model (CLM)—has its function exclusively on the level of historical research (and on that of the components of historical narrative): we should not ask for the cause of the Cold War since what this term refers to is a narrative interpretation. It makes no sense to ask for the cause of a historical interpretation. Anyone who asks for the cause of the Cold War is really asking for a vigorous interpretation of events between 1944 and the early 1990s and not for a causal tie between two separate sets of events.


The statements of a historical narrative always have a double function: 1) to describe the past; and 2) to define or individuate a specific narrative interpretation of the past.


Logically, both historical narratives and metaphor consist of two operations only: 1) description; and 2) the individuation of a (metaphorical) point of view. Historical narrative is a sustained metaphor.


Metaphor shows what the metaphorical utterance is about in terms of something else (e.g., "John is a pig"); similarly, historical narrative shows the past in terms of what is not the past, (i.e., a narrative interpretation) (see 4.1).


Thanks to its autonomy with regard to historical reality—in historical narrative the relation between language and reality is constantly destabilized—historical narrative, like metaphor, is the birthplace of new meaning. Accepted, literal meaning requires a fixed relation between language and reality.


The discrepancy between the (literal) meaning of the individual statements of a historical narrative—if taken separately—and the (metaphorical) meaning of historical narrative—if taken in its totality—is the scope of historical narrative. This shows the difference between the chronicle (corresponding to the separate statement)


and historical narrative (corresponding to the totality of a narrative's statements). A set of statements arbitrarily jumbled together has no scope.


A historical narrative is a historical narrative only insofar as the (metaphorical) meaning of the historical narrative in its totality transcends the (literal) meaning of the sum of its individual statements. Being a historical narrative, therefore, is a matter of degree.


The historical narrative resembles a belvedere: after having climbed the staircase of its individual statements, one surveys an area exceeding by far the area on which the staircase was built.


The historian's capacity to develop (metaphorical) narrative scope is the most formidable asset in his intellectual arsenal.


The best historical narrative is the most metaphorical historical narrative, the historical narrative with the largest scope. It is also the most "risky" or the most "courageous" historical narrative. In contrast, the nonnarrativist has to prefer an unmeaning historical narrative without internal organization.


The narrative scope of a historical narrative cannot be established by considering only that historical narrative. Narrative scope only comes into being when one compares narrative interpretations with rival interpretations. If we have only one narrative interpretation of some historical topic, we have no interpretation.


Historical insight, therefore, is only born in the space between rival narrative interpretations and cannot be identified with any specific (set of) interpretations.


Cognitive knowledge is to be identified with the linguistic means used for expressing it (singular statements, general statements, theories, etc.); historical insight lies in the empty narrative space between the narrative interpretations (it is stereoscopic, so to speak).


Historical insight is constituted in and by historiographical controversy and not by the individual phases of historiographical controversy, hence not by individual narrative interpretations in isolation from others.



Historiographical debate, ultimately, does not aim for agreement but for the proliferation of interpretative theses. The purpose of historiography is not the transformation of narrative things into real things (or their type concepts) (see 4.7.5). On the contrary, it attempts to bring about the dissolution of what seems known and unproblematic. Its goal is not the reduction of the unknown to the known, but the estrangement of what seems so familiar.


This emphasis on disagreement and historiographical controversy requires us to reject the notion of a Cartesian or Kantian, interchangeable, transcendental knowing subject. The Aristotelian view is to be preferred. For Aristotle, experience and knowledge are  the interaction between us and the world and not an abstraction from it determined by a transcendentalist, formal scheme. Similarly, historic interpretation arises from the interaction of interpretations and should not be attributed to either a concrete individual nor to a transhistorical, transcendental subject.


Narrative scope is logically independent of the realm of values; therefore, historical narrative need not be value-free in order to have a large scope—that is, in order to be objective (for example, the notion of the totalitarian state proposed by K. Popper, J. L. Talmon, H. Arendt, and others was not value-free but had a very large scope).


The historian is the professional "outsider": the gap between himself and historical reality, which he is always attempting to bridge, is identical to the gap between the individual and society, which ethics and political philosophy attempt to bridge. The ethical dimension must therefore be ubiquitous in historiography. Modern historiography is based on a political decision.


Metaphor and narrative are the trait d'union between the is and the ought —the is of the constative statements of a historical interpretation may suggest what ought to be done.


Leibniz's predicate in notion principle is the crucial theorem of the logic of historical interpretation. All statements about a historical narrative are analytically either true or false.


The fashionable view that the variables of quantification will take the place of the subject term in statements (Russell, Quine) is incorrect for narrative statements (i.e., statements about historical


narratives). The subject term in narrative statements is unvoiceable, precisely because it merely "collects" the statements contained by a historical narrative.


Narrative interpretations have explanatory force since the description of historical states of affairs can be analytically derived from them.


There is no room for historical skepticism. We can see the rationality of why historians in a certain phase of historical debate preferred one view of the past to another. Skepticism only results if one is not content with the rationality of historical debate and absolute foundations are required. But, in practice, this requirement can never be more than an exhortation to historians to do their job carefully and conscientiously.


The roots of historicity go deeper than is suggested by either modern historiography or current philosophy (of history).


The notion of the self is a historical, narrative interpretation—the narrative interpretation that is presupposed by all other historical interpretations. This is the kernel of truth in Anglo-Saxon hermeneutics.


Consequently, the fact that narrative interpretations already play a role on the level of the life of the human individual can never be an argument in favor of a certain variant of narrative realism (i.e., the view that historical knowing should be modelled on our experiences of daily reality). It is the reverse: interpretative narrativism has already invaded our daily reality.


The concepts of (types of) individual things are logically dependent upon narrative interpretations (identity). Thus: identity precedes individuality, not the reverse, as positivism suggests (see 4.7.5).


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