Hayden White’s Interpretive History

On April 20, 2018 by admin


Aniruddha Chowdhury


[Aniruddha Chowdhury received his PhD from the Graduate Program of Social and Political Thought at York University.  He is the author of Post-deconstructive Subjectivity and History: Phenomenology, Critical Theory, and Postcolonial Thought (Brill, 2014)]


Hayden White has challenged the veritable intellectual tradition that since the time of Aristotle rests on the distinction of poetry (imaginary) and history (real).  According to White, the modern positivism on the one hand and the Philosophy of History on the other consolidate the oppositions (fact and interpretation, objectivity and imaginary, scientific and artistic).  However, it is not only the critics of history, White’s favourite example is Claude Levi-Strauss, who insist on the “mythopoetic” aspects of the historical discourse, but the great practitioners of history themselves, say, Jacob Burckhardt or Ranke, to take two distinct examples, dwell on the artistic and the poetic, if not the speculative-theological, ground of history. Now, If White is intrinsically a hermeneutic thinker who questions the separation of fact and interpretation his hermeneutic enterprise has a Kantian aspect (of historical reason) of a transcendental-formalist kind.  What characterizes White’s interpretation, I argue, is a catachrestic formalism. The objectivity, in White’s account, is not erased, but appears as figural object.  If White is a transcendentalist, as I think he is, then it is quasi-transcendental as the nature of the ground is figurative.

When White wrote his essay ‘The Burden of History,’ in 1966, much of the claims of either the scientific or the aesthetic conception of historical work had been considered antiquated in the sense that what was outmoded was history’s attempt to combine a late-nineteenth century social science and a mid-nineteenth century art, which had led the historiography to an essentially positivist distinction between scientific objectivity on one hand and imaginary on the other. Now, it is not only the philosophers of history — Hegel, Nietzsche, Croce, Dilthey, Spengler, Foucault et al–  who have  challenged the non-discursive claims of the historians either from cognitive-philosophical or from artistic perspectives, but the distinction between objectivity and imaginary in the historical discourse has been refuted from within the “proper” historical discourse itself.  Even if we set aside the work such as Burckhardt’s Civilization of the Renaissance which experimented with the most advanced artistic techniques of his time and with an aesthetic conception of science not in order to tell the whole truth about the Italian Renaissance but one truth about it, the very notion of objectivity to which Rankean positivism appealed and the radical self-effacement that his (Ranke’s) method implied was supplemented by the theology on the one hand and literary hermeneutics on the other, as Gadamer has shown perspicuously.   Even if Ranke rejects speculative philosophy of history of the Hegelian kind he nonetheless grounds universal history in a certain Lutheran theology.  The notion of the singularity of each period and its immediacy to God, which the historian chronicles was not sufficient to mark a break with speculative philosophy of history since in Ranke’s universal history, as Gadamer argues, the universe is raised to a consciousness of itself in a manner close to German Idealism. This consciousness is an empathic co-knowledge of the universe in the context of which Ranke’s famous self-effacement should be understood. 2 The Whitean formalism is to show that it is discourse that constitutes the source and the ground of the opposition of history and metahistory.  White’s intervention consists in the fact that he represents a kind of Copernican turn that unravels the discursive ground of historical reason and, may I say, of historical being.

In Metahistory, White writes an ambitious history of the historical consciousness of the Nineteenth Century Europe. It is a discursive history of the already discursive historicities (on the historicity later).  This is precisely what his formalism amounts to.  The discursive historicities (the object of White’s history) include the historical practitioners such as Michelet, Ranke, Tocqueville, and Burckhardt and the philosophers of history such as Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, and Croce. It is White’s point in the masterwork that the real or the actual in historical discourse has no pre-critical, transcendent status as opposed to the imaginary but is constituted in relation to what is imaginable.  They are dependent upon not only the figurative discourse that the historian uses but also, on another level, upon the linguistic tropes such as metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche etc.   These two levels — the verbal discourse of figuration as narrative plots and the linguistic forms– constitute, for White, the ideal-type structure of the historical work. 3 The turn from the one level to the other is one meaning of what White calls troping.

    Even though White never denies the objective pole of the historical discourse, the referent, he insists on the discursive nature of the actuality.  There is something profoundly inventive about the discourse that constitutes objects of history. It has to be said that in White the temporality of the historical discourse belongs to the instance of imagination and invention in figurative discourse.  Discourse, for White, is a movement of meaning from one notion to another notion with the acknowledgement that things can be expressed otherwise (TD 2).  “A discourse moves “to and fro” between received encodations of experience and the clutter of phenomena which refuses incorporation in to conventionalized notions of “reality,” “truth,” or “possibility”(TD 4). The possibility of other expression belongs to the inventiveness of discourse, especially the verbal, figurative, discourse.  There is no transcendent (which we have to distinguish from the notion of the transcendental) referent in which discourse must be grounded.  Following Barthes White too would suggest that the real in a discourse is a certain “unformulated signified, sheltering behind the apparently all powerful referent.” 4

It is White’s influential point that the content of the historiography is indistinguishable from the discursive form in which the ‘real’ is articulated.  A history, especially a classic, is not a picture that resembles the object it depicts but a complex linguistic form, allegorical in nature (more on this later), which is “dense and opaque” (Frank Ankersmit’s expression).  White does not undermine the necessity of the conceptual and logical reflection in the historical discourse. History, however, does not have accepted conceptual rules like natural sciences or social sciences.  Figuration is the process through which historical meanings are articulated.   A discourse, for White, is itself a mode of consciousness which is metareflective in its operation (TD 5).  But White would contest himself: discourse should not be seen as a modality of consciousness at all.  Discourse is not about consciousness; it consists in what White calls turning and, as we will see, time(ing), which is the meaning of troping.  “Tropology centres attention on the turns in a discourse: turns from one level of generalization to another, from one phase of a sequence to another, from a description to an analysis or the reverse, from a figure to a ground or from an event to its context, from the conventions of one genre to those of another within a single discourse, and so on” 5


I need to remark in this context that the notion of discourse, more than anything else, disturbs the sharp distinction between the cognitive-scientificity of a structuralist history (Annalistes) and the historical discourse that grounds itself in art.  While the Annalistes’ critique of the narrative history as dramatizing and novelizing ignores the fact that the imaginary characteristic of drama and novel has always been part of historical discourse, the artistic history’s disdain of scientificity in the name of an old fashioned science ignores the imaginative ground of science itself.  White’s formalism is to show the figural ground of the conventionalized opposition that, finally, amounts to the distinction between the literal and the figurative.   It is to show that history is, first and foremost, a verbal artifact, a discourse. The notion of the content of the (linguistic) form “authorizes a search for and analysis of the function of the figurative elements in historiographical, no less than in fictional, prose” (FR 4).

The great historians, White avers, choose as their object the traumatic.  Hermeneutics of the historicizing consists in interiorizing what is utterly exterior, in refamiliarizing the unfamiliar, and make them understood. A Historian is a kind of therapist.   More methodically, the understanding is achieved through historian’s figurative work. The Historian conceives time as figural, by way of prefiguring the temporal, grounds the temporal in the subject’s imagination.  Figuration, in White, is a complex interlacing of the pre-generic plot structures which are symbolic codes available in a culture, and work of narrative.  White suggests that the latter mediates between the events encountered and the pre-generic plot structures (TD 88). To repeat, for White, history has the structure of verbal fiction the contents of which are as much invented as found (TD 82).

According to Northrop Frye, when the historian reflects on the structural aspect of historical discourse he elevates it to the level of mythoi.  Frye speaks of Romantic myth, Tragic myth, Comic and Ironic myth of historical discourse.  But Frye suggests that while the fiction writer invents the contents of his narrative and works deductively the historian depends on found data and works, as it were, inductively.  The historian “does not work “from” a “unifying form,” as the poet does, but “toward” it” (TD 82).   It is the pre-generic plot structure, the mythoi, that informs a fiction and distinguishes it from history. White differs from Frye.  What Frye calls pre-generic plot structure characteristic of fiction that is the condition of making a story out of a chronicle.  White contends that Frye must be prepared to grant that there is a mythic element in “proper” history which Frye distinguishes from the philosophy of history.  Historian refamiliarizes events by figuring them in the story of a particular sort.  The same event can be emplotted as comic by one historian and as tragic by another though this does not lead White into a complete relativism.  The modes of emplotment are finite in number in a given culture.  White, by extending Frye’s argument, undermines the very distinction between ‘proper’ history and metahistory.  Historical accounts produced by Michelet, Ranke, Tocqueville, and Burckhardt are grounded in theoretical forms characteristic of philosophies of history of a Hegel, a Nietzsche, a Spengler, a Toynbee.


In a more radical, structural, critique of historiography, in The Savage Mind, Levi-Strauss argues that history is a kind of mythopoetic discourse from which history has attempted to distinguish itself, in vain.  As White reads Levi-Strauss, history is nothing but interpretation of a narrative kind that imposes a “fraudulent outline” on the so called original “data” and constructs a coherency of narrative (TD 55).  The data is already interpretive. The facts are constituted by the historian “by abstraction and as though under the threat of an infinite regress” (TD 55).  What really happened did happen in a where, in a modality (how) of a “multitude of individual psychic moments” which can be translated into “a manifestation of some basic process of unconscious development” (TD 55).  Moreover, the facts are first constituted and then the data has to be constituted further as elements of verbal structure which is written for a purpose and for a particular audience (TD 56).  Levi-Strauss says that even the chronological dates, the temporal sequence of before and after, which distinguish history from myth, cannot be maintained in opposition to myth as the dates belong to classes of dates, “hot” and “cold” chronologies, which are constitutive of the very historiographic operation, and the chronological sequence “is secured only by dint of fraudulent outlines” (TD 57).  The fraudulent outlines constitute the explanations of the narrative field and involve moments of decision and selection.  More importantly, this proves, for Levi-Strauss, that history is a discipline without any particular object corresponding to it.  History is not a science, its explanations and interpretations are mythic in nature (TD 57).  To historicize, according to Levi-Strauss, is to mythologize.  What does it mean?   It means, for White, that the metahistory informs the historical works essentially.  The formal aspects of historical discourse, which are produced by historiographic classics, cannot be negated, “and this nonnegatable element is its form, the form which is its fiction” (TD 89).

I have remarked that White represents a kind of Copernican turn, a transcendental-formalist turn, in historical reason.  It may be in order to dwell briefly on what the transcendental turn amounts to in Kant.  The ‘Copernican Revolution’ in Kant, let us recall, substitutes the pre-critical idea of a pre-established harmony of subject and object with the necessary and legislative priority of subject over object, a necessary subjection of object to the legislative faculty of knowledge. Here is Kant’s definition of the transcendental:

I call all cognition transcendental that is occupied not so much with objects but rather with our mode of cognition of objects insofar as this is to be possible a priori. 6

Thus transcendental means the investigation of conceptual or intuitive forms that make possible synthetic a priori judgements.  Transcendental investigation is divided into a transcendental aesthetic that deals with a priori forms of intuition (space and time) and a transcendental analytic that deals with basic concepts or categories such as causality, substance etc.

This notion of the transcendental is distinguished in Kant from the concept of transcendent.  While both designate independence from experience the concept of the transcendental grounds the possibility of ‘transcendence’ in the faculty of the mind or reason, which the concept of transcendent makes otherworldly and speculative.  While transcendental relates to experience without arising from experience the transcendent simply goes beyond experience in a speculative manner that Kant criticizes in the dialectic part of his Critique.

Kant’s infinite effort lies in unravelling what Adorno critically calls “the universal mediation by the subject,” which, finally, in an affirmative tone, amounts to the self-reflexivity of reason itself, reason’s self-consciousness.  The idea that what is unmediated is mediated is Kant’s insight before it is Hegel’s.  The mediation by the subject, reason’s self-reflexivity, does not, however, deny Kant’s other contention: finitude of reason.  It is to Heidegger that we owe the insight that Kant’s salvaging of metaphysics is essentially finite.  The unity of these two strands in Kant constitutes his conception of transcendental-ontological synthesis.  It is not my intent here to give an adequate account of Kant’s elaborate and complex discussion of ontological/formal synthesis, which will take us too far from our theme.  Suffice it here to make few crucial points pertinent to White’s constructivism.

First, synthesis does not work on the original diversity of things, but on the already synoptic ‘presentations’ of the diversity in the form of manifold of space and time, as contained in the aesthetic, in which, as Heidegger reminds us, time has the priority. For Kant, sensibility and thought belong together in the cognitive unity which is the essential aspect of pure knowledge, which Kant demonstrates in the process of what he calls synthesis.  Synthesis is “the mere effect of the imagination, of a blind though indispensable function of the soul, without which we would not have cognition at all, but of which we are seldom even conscious”7.  What is given, for Kant, a priori, is not the utter diversity but as they are represented in the manifold of space and time; Synthesis by means of imagination is the second thing which, by itself, cannot yet constitute pure knowledge.  The concepts that give this pure synthesis unity are the third thing.  And together the three elements form pure knowledge. 8 In the act of synthesis imagination (Einbildungskraft) has a central and mediating role; pure intuition and pure thought co-belong in imagination.

    Kant returns to the formal synthesis in the context of the Transcendental Deduction of categories.  Transcendental Deduction establishes the principle of general applicability of a priori categories to empirical objectivity.  It is imagination that, according to Heidegger, plays central, mediating, role in the ontological synthesis.  The Deduction is divided into three moments though they co-belong together in an organic unity. The “Synthesis of Apprehension” is time-forming, is generative of time in pure intuition. Time consciousness is presupposed in the attempt to grasp immediately any object.  It is through synthesis of imagination in reproduction, the second, mediating, moment, that I relate the present apprehension to past apprehension.  In Kant, imagination has the temporal character.  However, imagination is not, in itself, self-conscious.  But, according to Kant, the a priori self-consciousness, the third moment, is the medium through which representations are related to object.  The latter prevents our modes of knowledge from being arbitrary.  But the manifold can be referred to object if we have the form of the object in general (=X) which, according to Kant, is the correlate of transcendental self-consciousness or “I think” which Kant calls transcendental apperception.   The three moments together reveal the subjective/transcendental ‘constitution’ of pure knowledge and the ontological/objective aspect.

In the complex and elaborate Deduction, Kant’s task is to show that the dynamic system of ‘nature’ is not only not independent of us, but that “the a priori conditions of a possible experience in general are at the same conditions of the possibility of objects of experience.”9 Imagination is not legislative, but it is through the mediation/synthesis of imagination that phenomena are subjected to the legislative understanding.  This is what the formalism of Kant amounts to even though it is always supplemented by empirical realism.  It is through the time-forming synthesis of imagination that object is “given” to us.  This is the meaning of the subjective mediation in Kant.  This is his ‘constructivism’.

To return to White, the time-forming ‘synthesis,’ in White, is the work of figuration as narrative emplotment and tropological forms, which, though analytically distinct, have to be always thought together. This is White’s project in his masterwork Metahistory in the context of the historical imagination in the nineteenth century.  Historical discourse is not a mirror image of the events that it describes but, as White says, is a sign system which has a double movement toward the facts and toward generic story forms which the historian ‘synthesizes’ with the facts in order to disclose the coherence of the latter.  Historian fashions his facts a priori as the narrator of a story.  This is his work of figurative imagination and conceptualizing.  In Metahistory, White employs four levels of figuration which constructs the meaning of the historical discourse: 1) mode of emplotment; 2) mode of argument; 3) mode of ideological implication; 4) tropological mode.  We can say that rhetorical discourse constitutes the ground of the figuration.  Broadly speaking, discourse constitutes the whole (interlacing of modes) in which to ground the meaning of each parts.

White conceives “chronicle” and “story” as “primitive elements” in the historical account, which are already discursive in the sense that on this level facts are selected and arranged from “the unprocessed historical record in the interest of rendering that record more comprehensible to an audience of a particular kind” (M 5).  Chronicle is not a story, it becomes a story through, as White says, characterization of certain events in the chronicle in terms of “inaugural motifs”, of others in terms of terminating motifs and of yet others in terms of transitional motifs” (M 5).

The explanation by emplotment provides the meaning of a story by identifying the kind of story that has been told (M 7).  There are Romantic, Comic, Tragic, Satirical, Epic and Ironic plots.  These plots are not immanent in facts themselves but are “imposed” by the historian.  They belong to what Levi-Strauss calls “fraudulent outline,” mythoi, of the historian.  Here White’s distinction from Kant is apparent.  To Kant’s transcendentalism corresponds empirical realism.  For White, historical discourse is a sign system with no immediate reference to the real or the actual. There is a certain cosmopolitan relativism in White in that he suggests that it is the historian’s perspectival modes of emplotment, modes of explanation (argument and ideological positions) and linguistic tropes that endow the same event with different meanings.  As both Levi-Strauss and White remind us, one can tell a host of different stories about the single set of events conventionally designated as “French Revolution.”  As White points out, Michelet construes his great history of Revolution as a drama of Romantic transcendence, while his contemporary Tocqueville emplotted the events as ironic tragedy.


Another level of historian’s operation that White considers is the formal argument to explain, in “nomological-deductive” terms, why the events developed the way they appear to have done in the story.  “The argument can be analyzed into a syllogism, the major premise of which consists of some putatively universal law of causal relationships, the minor premise of the boundary conditions within which the law is applied, and a conclusion in which the events that actually occurred are deduced from the premises by logical necessity” (M 11).  The distinction between the two modes is analytical and pertains to historian’s investigative work on one hand and narrative operation on the other.  White differentiates four paradigms of “explanation”: Formist, Organicist, Mechanistic, and Contextualistic.

The third mode is the explanation by ideological implication.  By the term ideology White means “a set of prescriptions for taking a position in the present world of social praxis and acting upon it” (M 22).  Following Karl Mannheim White postulates four basic ideological positions: Anarchism, Conservatism, Radicalism, and Liberalism.

There are, as it were, “elective affinities” among the modes, which work in combination and form what White calls historographical style.  We can call it discursive style.  According to White, there is a dialectical tension in the work of a master historian when he weds a mode of emplotment with a mode of argumentative explanation or mode of ideological explanation.  For example, as White argues, Michelet tried to combine a Romantic emplotment and a Formist argument with a liberal ideology.  So, too, Burckhardt uses a Satirical emplotment and a Contextualist argument in the service of a Conservative ideology.  Hegel emplotted history on two levels –Tragic on the microcosmic, Comic on the macrocosmic –both connected to an Organicist argument with either Radical or Conservative ideological implications (M 29-30).  The three modes, together, form the figurative language of the historian.

White seeks to ground these modes in some more basic level of consciousness (TD 72).  This ground is that of language itself, which operates tropologically in order to prefigure a field of perception.  In order to bring to bear his conceptual apparatus on the material the historian must first prefigure the field.  This the historian achieves through linguistic protocols. The preconceptual linguistic protocol is characterized in terms of tropological modes, which White describes as precognitive and precritical (M 30-31).  I take the latter to mean that the tropes work as the deeper linguistic structure that is prior to the conceptual and logical.  Tropes constitute the poetic or discursive ground of historiographical operation.  And this problematic of the structure shifts the perspective from the ‘psychological’ to the hermeneutic ground of experience.

Following Giambattista Vico White identifies four basic tropes in the Western tradition: Metaphor, Metonymy, Synecdoche, and Irony.  These tropes determine the experiences in figurative ways, especially when the experiences are ambiguous.  In Metaphor (literally, “transfer”) phenomena can be determined in terms of similarity to, or difference from, one other.  Through Metonymy the name of a part of thing can be substituted for the name of the whole.  Synecdoche works like Metonymy,that is, substituting a part for the whole.  In Irony what is affirmed on the literal level is negated on the figurative level.  “Metaphor is essentially representational, Metonymy is reductionist, Synecdoche is integrative, and Irony is negational” (M 34).  Unlike other tropes, which White characterizes as naive, Irony is a self-conscious use of Metaphor for verbal self-negation.  Catachresis and aporia are favoured examples of Irony.  Here is an elective affinity between the mode of emplotment and the use of linguistic trope.  Michelet, for example, recodes the Revolution in the mode of synecdoche, while Tocqueville recodes the events in the mode of metonymy.  As White argues, in each case, the movement of code to recode is narrativistically described as a kind of drama that we can recognize as Romantic and Tragic, respectively.

In several places White responds to the general objections the critics have raised against the theory of tropology.  The objections can be reduced to three. First objection is that the theory is a species of linguistic determinism and thus of linguistic relativism.  White’s answer is that, first of all, the tropology is a theory of discourse and not a theory of consciousness.  The theory, “far from implying linguistic determinism, seeks to provide the knowledge necessary for a free choice among different strategies of figuration” (FR 17).  The second objection is that the theory dissolves the distinction between the literal and the figurative and thus deprives the historical discourse of the truthfulness of discourse.  White’s response is that tropology does not deny the extradiscursive entities and our capacities to refer to them. “Tropology stresses the metalinguistic over the referential function of discourse because it is concerned more with codes than with whatever contingent messages can be transmitted by specific uses of them” (FR 17).  The third general objection is that the theory stresses the poetic, conative, and metalinguistic functions of historical discourse at the expense of the referential, phatic, and expressive functions.  White’s point is that tropological theory is true also of the tropologist’s own discourse.  In White’s case the theory is catachrestic formalism.  The theory not only does not imply that troplogy is a frivolous game but implies, rather, that we should rethink the distinction between serious and playful discourse (FR 17).

As we have mentioned, historical discourse, according to White, prefigures time, which it does through narrative encodation.  Narrative constitutes, increasingly, the main object of reflection in White’s discourse.  In The Tropics, White considered narrative as symbolic, as part of the mythopoetic aspect of a culture.  Later, White regards narrative not so much mythic or ideological, in the manner of Structuralism and Post-structuralism, as allegorical, that is, as saying one thing and meaning another (CF 45). White defends, in a Kantian language, narrative as the test of the systems of meaning production (figuration) in a given culture against the capacity of “real” events to yield to such systems. 10 The Inventiveness of discourse is the inventiveness of narrative.  White, as I read him, does not ontologize narrative in the manner of Barthes, Ricoeur, and Jameson. Narrative is language, which means that we have figural access to time and being.  For White, as for Foucault, discourse refers not to life but to time.  Which is true of the narrative discourse as well.

    The narrative mediates between the chronicle and the pre-generic plot structures.  As the mediating moment narrative makes the events expressed otherwise. There is a performance model in narrative discourse which White insists on.  In this model, narrative discourse works as a production of meaning rather than as the vehicle to communicate information about extrinsic events (CF 42). A chronicle, though not devoid of meaning, is not a narrative.  Narrative, White suggests, produces different sort of meaning than chronicle, and it does this by imposing a discursive form which is poetic in nature.  Narrative is not more literary or more representational than chronicle.  Rather, “On this level of encodation, the historical discourse directs the reader’s attention to secondary referent, different in kind from the events that make up the primary referent, namely, the plot structures of the various story types cultivated in a given culture” (CF 43).  The historical narrative tests the capacity of culture’s fictions to endow real events with literary meaning which is not immanent in events themselves.   In other words, the historical narrative has to be conceived as allegorical, that is, saying one thing and meaning another (CF 45).  Allegory is, for White, the species of the symbolic form of encodation.  The historical narrative is allegorical in that it endows the events (chronicle) with a pattern of meaning that any literal representation cannot produce.

Conceiving narrative as allegory does not lead White to undermine truth as such.  Rather ‘truth” is conceived, indirectly, as figural truth.  White considers Marx’s characterization of the events of the “the 18th Brumaire of Louis Buonaparte” as farce as allegorical (CF 46).   True, to treat Marx’s use of the literary trope is not to deny the factual truth value of the historical events.  It is rather Marx’s narrative encodation of the events, which, White suggests, exists along with the chronological and ‘scientific’ explanatory nature of his analysis.  The distinction has to be maintained only in order to see better the narrative role of the allegory.  It is not the facts of “the 18th Brumaire” or Marx’s dialectical logic of explanation that prove the events as farce.  For White, it is a judgement that can be maintained by the poetic troping of facts, which is allegory (CF 47). Allegory is the logic of what White calls transcodation.


The allegorical transcoding, which can be characterized as White’s own method, refers to the real in an indirect manner as figural object. For there is no transcendent referent in which the narrative discourse has to be grounded.     And White’s crucial insight is that, which he draws from Heidegger and, especially Ricoeur, it is time that is the referent of narrative, and that the time-referent distinguishes narrative from chronicle. This is, I think, White’s version of the time-forming synthesis in Kant. White also means by time what Heidegger called “historicality.”  For Heidegger, as White reminds us, repetition is “the specific modality of the existence of events in “historicality” as against their existence “in time” (CF 52). Why repetition? In Heidegger, historicality takes the form of repetition because temporality is, strictly speaking, itself outside itself, out of joint, which is the meaning of the term ecstatic.  White, however, does not ontologize historicality.  For him, the historian figures time in the narrative, which means that he trans-figures the ‘real’ in allegoresis.  Narrative is the allegorical figuration of time itself.  This is the meaning of what I have called White’s catachrestic formalism.

In traditional rhetorical theory, the notion of catachresis means use of a word without an adequate literal referent, a term wrenched from the supposedly proper context.  Catachresis is an improper use of a word or a concept.  This is less a Heideggerian than a Foucaultian strand in White.  The catachrestic discourse defamiliarizes.   “This means that all verbal constructions are basically catachretic, inasmuch as no union of any signifier with any signified is “natural” or given by necessity” (CF 115).  It does not deny the necessity of truth, but the truth must unfold in the modalities of figuration in which the relationship between “words and things” is construed.  This figuration is the mediation of time itself, which is the defamiliarizing truth of the narrative discourse.



  • Hayden White has passed away in March, 2018. This article is written in homage to him.
  1. Hayden White, Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985), 43. Hereafter cited parenthetically as TD with the page number
  2. Hans Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, Second, Revised Edition, trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall (New York: Continuum, 1993), 211.
  3. Hayden White, Metahistory:The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973), 5 Hereafter cited parenthetically as M with the page number
  4. Roland Barthes, ‘The Discourse of History’ in The Postmodern History Reader, ed. K. Jenkins (London: Routledge, 1997), 122
  5. Hayden White, figural Realism: Studies in the Mimesis Effect (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), 10 Hereafter cited parenthetically as FR with the page number
  6. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), B 25, 149B 103, 211
  1. B 104, 211
  2. A 111, 234
  3. Hayden White, The Content of The Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987), 44 Hereafter cited parenthetically as CF with the page number

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