In Search of Narrative Plausibility

Auf der Suche nach narrativer Triftigkeit

The hand-wringing about narrative in history and fiction that followed Hayden White’s challenges to historiography is now largely over. What has replaced it is a broad consensus about three propositions. While putting certain issues to rest, this consensus raises a question: how shall we articulate a concept of plausibility of historical narratives as a way to assess their adequacy and to teach students to do so? Jörn Rüsen offers a starting point with his definition of ‘Triftigkeit’.[1]


A Consensus on three Propositions

1) Historical narratives and the past itself are different kinds of things. Accordingly, a narrative’s “concordance” with “the past” is not a workable basis for judging it.[2] We cannot speak of the vanished “past” at all except through narratives. Arthur Danto captured the idea: “Not being what it is a picture of is not a defect in pictures, but a necessary condition for something to be a picture …

Categories: 4 (2016) 41

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  1. Again, very interesting thoughts and a valuable step towards the theoretical junction of two traditions of History Education.

    Peter Seixas and Andreas Körber have both already reflected on different meanings of technical terms on historical consciousness in English and German, and I´d like to add a quick remark on the German translation of the text:

    It might be misleading to translate the term “narrative” (EN) as “Narrativ” (GER). In common German history education linguistic usage, the term “Narration” (GER) usually refers to a concrete story about the past (e.g. a movie depicting life in the medieval times), whereas “Narrativ” (GER) usually means the abstract meta-narrative, the story behind the story, the interpretative schema/pattern that gives explanations (e.g. the conception that the medieval times where brutal, dark, dirty, misanthropic, barbaric and a cultural setback compared to the ancient times, and that they came into being / to an end because of xyz). Any account on the past–may it include a narrative interpretation or be just a description linking points in time–would be a Narration (GER), while a Narrativ (GER) represents the conceptual notions that derive from these accounts and again manifest themselves in narrations. And it is especially the “Narrativ” (GER) that generates historical meaning.

    To my understanding, the English term “narrative” (EN) refers mostly to Narration (GER) in the German sense, while “Narrativ” (GER) would be translated as “master-narrative / grand narrative / meta-narrative” (EN). It could be argued that the Canadian historical thinking concepts offer superb tools to deal especially with meta-narratives, while the problem of Triftigkeit/plausibility applies mostly to concrete narratives. Maybe some clarification on this linguistic issues might be needed.

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