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Keywords:

  • Hayden White;
  • historiography;
  • philosophy of history;
  • humanism;
  • modernist events;
  • practical past

ABSTRACT

This article assesses Herman Paul's intellectual biography of Hayden White, the most important figure in the philosophy of history of the past half century. Offering a clear overview of White's career and contribution, Paul's account proceeds chronologically from the 1950s to the present, distinguishing the phases of White's career, but convincingly pinpointing an abiding core of concerns around an existentialist and liberationist humanism. In that light, White sought to show the way beyond historiographical realism to more innovative approaches—ideally to serve progressive politics. Paul notes, however, that White failed to connect with most mainstream historians, and Paul's account is not sufficiently probing and critical to explore the gulf. Indeed, following White, Paul is too prone to take White's particular liberationist agenda as the only alternative to a conservative, passive realism—and thereby to gloss over alternative ways of conceiving the postrealist cultural space. Moreover, Paul fails to note White's tendency sometimes to imply that mainstream history claims more than it does, and sometimes to denigrate prejudicially what it in fact does, or could do. Although much of White's challenge could have been especially salutary, he tended toward mischaracterizations that fostered polarization in the historical discipline and reinforced prejudicial understandings of historiography in the wider culture. Paul's overview provides a useful, and in many ways exemplary, introduction to White's legacy, but it is too deferential to provide a convincing overall critical assessment.