Hayden White’s Metahistory


In 1973, historian Hayden White published Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-century Europe. His key fourfold was that of literary emplotments due to Northrop Frye: Romance, Comedy, Satire, and Tragedy. White also derived a synoptic table that associated other fourfolds by Stephen Pepper (Organicist, Mechanicist, Formist, and Contextualist), tropes (Metaphor, Metonymy, Synecdoche, and Irony), plus various modes, ideologies, representational historians, and key philosophers.

I’ve had this fourfold sitting around for a while, and I haven’t written anything about it, because I don’t really agree with the synopticisms as given. For instance, I would pair Romance with Organicism, Comedy with Formism, Satire with Contextualism, and Tragedy with Mechanism. Why? Romance is the “drama of self-identification”, as the organism is self-identified, being that the “individual part of the whole is more than the sum of its parts”. Comedy is “harmony between the natural and the social”, as Formism is created by social “classifying, labelling, and categorizing” of natural objects. Tragedy is about the “limitations of the world”, as Mechanism is “finding laws the govern the operations of human activities”. Finally, Satire is the “opposite of romance — people are captives in the world until they die”, whereas Contextualism is “events explained by their relationships to similar events”. That last one isn’t very convincing, but I’ve only switched Romance and Comedy, and left Satire alone.

Again, as with my problems with the synoptic table of Arthur M. Young, it would be nice to play the Game of Fourfolds to see if I can find better arguments for my synoptic claims, or to convince myself that the claims of others are better. Of course, it would probably help for me to read the original works, instead of reading summaries. One might care to look elsewhere for better exposition.

Perhaps I could elaborate further at a later time:

  • Romance: The individual succeeds.
  • Comedy: Most succeed. Society wins.
  • Satire: Most fail. Society comes up short.
  • Tragedy: The individual fails.

Further Reading:


[*3.172, *3.173]



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