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On Frank Ankersmit's Postmodernist Theory of Historical Narrativity

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In this article I discuss Frank Ankersmit's postmodern theory of narrativity, which argues that historians' narratives and interpretations (as representations) do not refer to what actually happened in the past, because the real past is not epistemically accessible to us. I try to show that the plausibility of his anti-realist and constructivist theory is considerably undermined by the fact that it leads to many problems that remain unsolved. His discussion of historical referentiality is confusing, because he uses the term 'the past' to refer both to what actually happened and to historians' narrative construction of the past, even though he denies the reality of the past. It follows from his position that historians do not study what really happened in the past, because they have access only to historical representations. I argue that historical narratives and interpretations do refer to the past in the ordinary sense. Historians need not, in addition to writing their narratives in which they describe and explain what happened, construct any 'narrative substances' that could 'replace' the past. Second, I show that Ankersmit is wrong in claiming that interpretations cannot be true or false, correct or incorrect, for historians do attempt to construct truthful interpretations that they justify by appeal to the evidence. Finally, I show that Ankersmit's sceptical view that historians cannot have knowledge but only (non-cognitive) 'insight' about what happened is unwarranted. I argue that historians do have knowledge about the past if the normal conditions for knowing are satisfied.
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Keywords: Interpretation; Knowledge; Narrative; Narrativity; Postmodern; Referentiality

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: March 1, 2005

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