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Ankersmit's Postmodernist Historiography: The Hyperbole of “Opacity”

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Ankersmit's articulation of a postmodern theory of history takes seriously both the strengths of traditional historicism and the right of historians to decide what makes sense for disciplinary practice. That makes him an exemplary interlocutor. Ankersmit proposes a theory of historical “representation” which radicalizes the narrative approach to historiography along the lines of poststructuralist textualism. Against this postmodernism but invoking some of his own arguments, I defend the traditional historicist position. I formulate criticisms of the theory of reference entailed in his notion of “narrative substance,” of his master analogy of historiography with modern painting, and finally of his characterization of historical hermeneutics. In each case I find him guilty of the hyperbole which he himself cautions against. While it is true that historical narratives cannot be taken to be transparent, in taking them to be opaque Ankersmit puts himself in an untenable position. Finally, Ankersmit seeks to buttress his theoretical case by an interpretation of the new cultural historical texts of authors like Davis and Ginzburg. While this is a concreteness heartily to be welcomed in philosophers of history, I cannot find his construction of this new school's work plausible.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Rice University

Publication date: 01 October 1998

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