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Hayden White’s “Theory of the Historical Work”: A Re-examination*

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Abstract Hayden White’s Metahistory is best known for its “theory of tropes”; but Metahistory also put forward a distinct “theory of the historical work”, which has received rather less attention, and indeed has tended to be swallowed up by White’s tropology. This is a symptom of a wider problem, that the theory has been apprehended in paraphrase and synopsis rather than in the terms in which it was actually articulated. This paper seeks to redress these oversights through an exegetical analysis, embracing the structure of the theory, its rhetoric, and its relationship to the “theory of tropes”. The results bring several surprises, not the least of them being that Metahistory’s well-known relativism was accompanied by a hidden naïve realism; and it is shown that the book’s anti-epistemological stance was unfounded. Nevertheless some of the theory’s main concepts remain fertile, and even its limitations are instructive.

Affiliations: 1: University of Leeds


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