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Hayden White (born 1928) is a historian in the tradition of literary criticism, perhaps most famous for his work Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (1973). He is currently professor emeritus at the University of California, Santa Cruzmarker, and professor of comparative literature at Stanford Universitymarker.


White received his B.A. from Wayne State Universitymarker in 1951 and his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Michiganmarker (1952 and 1956, respectively). While an undergraduate at Wayne State, White studied history under William J. Bossenbrook, who inspired several undergraduates who later went on to achieve academic distinction in the field of history, including White, H. D. "Harry" Harootunian, and Arthur C. Danto (The Uses of History).


White rejected the post-Collingwoodian philosophy of history by brushing away previous distinctions and debates and by rejecting the notion of causality in history. He proposed a return to the historical text, which, he thought, had been abandoned in favor of the study of other works in the philosophy of history. He wanted historians to have linguistic skepticism and to question their use of language. Perhaps most controversial is his defense of the idea that "the techniques or strategies that [historians and imaginative writers] use in the composition of their discourses can be shown to be substantially the same, however different they may appear on a purely surface, or dictional, level" (Tropics of Discourse 121).


In Metahistory (1973), White extended the use of tropes from a linguistic usage – figures of style – to general styles of discourse, underlying every historian's writing of history. He believed histories to be determined by tropes, in as much as the historiography of every period is defined by a specific trope. For White, the metaphor may be the most useful trope, and historical explanation "can be judged solely in terms of the richness of the metaphors which govern its sequence of articulation" (Tropics of Discourse 46). White used the work of historians and philosophers of history in the nineteenth century - specifically, that of G. W. F. Hegel, Jules Michelet, Leopold von Ranke, Alexis de Tocqueville, Jacob Burkhardt, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Benedetto Croce - as embodiments of particular historiographical tropes and political/moral aims.

White did not see tropes as incompatible with the historian's freedom in his actual writing of history. He justified his position – among other ways – on the basis of the historical unfolding of tropes (from metaphor to metonymy, synecdoche, and finally irony); he placed himself within the ironic historiographical tradition, one that allowed certain elements of the absurd and of contradiction. These ideas can be seen in light of White's support of the idea of narrative as an essential constituent of historical experience and method. He writes in The Content of the Form (1987) that "A true narrative less a product of the historian's poetic talents, as the narrative account of imaginary events is conceived to be, than it is a necessary result of proper application of historical "method" (27). Referring to Paul Ricoeur, by whom he was strongly influenced, White writes, "plot is not a structural component of fictional or mythical stories alone; it is crucial to the historical representations of events as well" (51).

The traditionally positivist American historical profession has not known what do to with White. Norman Levitt has pointed White out as "the most magisterial spokesman" for relativistic post-modernist historiography, where "[w]hen one particular narrative prevails, the dirty work is invariably done by 'rhetoric', never evidence and logic, which are, in any case, simply sleight-of-language designations for one kind of rhetorical strategy" (Archaeological Fantasies 267). White, however, can also be seen as a traditional moralist, and he has asked of historical and fictional narrative “…on what other grounds [than moralism] could a narrative of real events possibly conclude? […] What else could narrative closure consist of than the passage from one moral order to another? ("The Value of Narrativity" 283). White himself denies being a relativist or post-modernist, averring the reality of events in the past is not contradicted by literary portrayals of those events.

Lawsuit against the LAPD

White figured prominently in a landmark California Supreme Courtmarker case regarding covert intelligence gathering on college campuses by police officers in the Los Angeles Police Department. White v. Davis, 13 Cal.3d 757 (1975). In 1972, while a professor of history at UCLAmarker and acting as sole plaintiff, White brought suit against Chief of Police Edward M. Davis, alleging the illegal expenditure of public funds in connection with covert intelligence gathering by police at UCLA. The covert activities included police officers registering as students, taking notes of discussions occurring in classes, and making police reports on these discussions. White v. Davis, at 762. The Supreme Court found for White in a unanimous decision. This case set the standard that determines the limits of legal police surveillance of political activity in Californiamarker; police cannot engage in such surveillance in the absence of reasonable suspicion of a crime ("Lockyer Manual").


Further reading


“The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality,” in Narratology: An Introduction, Jose Angel Garcia Landa and Susana Onega, eds. London and New York: Longman, 1996.

Criminal Intelligence Systems: A California Perspective, Attorney General Bill Lockyer (aka "Lockyer Manual"), 2003.

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