A Narrativist View of History

Narativistický pohľad na históriu

In the second half of the 20th century a remarkable thing occurred in the area of philosophy of history. Several historians and philosophers of history ceased to discuss at that time popular topics of historical explanation and historical fact and instead they posed new questions focusing on the nature of historical work. They were interested mainly in the language used by historians, i.e. they began to study the rhetorical dimension of their work. The language was no longer considered to be a transparent instrument simply depicting pure historical facts. It started to be viewed more like a tool that helps us significantly to construct our interpretations of the past. This new philosophy of history dealing primarily with the language of historical narratives is usually known as narrativism. The aim of the paper is to present and clarify the narrativist view of history. Following the ideas of Hayden White and Franklin Ankersmit, the leading proponents of this movement, the paper tries to outline six key narrativist theses concerning the nature of historical work. The first one states that there is a necessary fictional dimension present in every historical narrative. In addition, as the second thesis goes, this fictional element plays a crucial part in forming the content of the historical work. The third narrativist thesis claims that also historians importantly influence the content of their work. One of the most controversial views of narrativists is summarized in the fourth thesis. It contends that, in a certain sense, it is impossible to provide a truthful account of the past, because the narrative structures of historical texts are not found in the past itself but imposed by historians. The fifth thesis states that historical works should not be viewed as mere descriptions but rather as interpretations of the past. All these points lead to a final narrativist thesis claiming that history is not a scientific discipline. On the contrary, narrativists prefer to place history closer to literature and to arts in general.