What is a Historical System?

  • Hayden V. White


The title of this paper is misleading. For it suggests that I have an answer to a problem which has been debated, with inconclusive issue, by historians, philosophers, and social theorists for over one hundred and fifty years. It is also misleading because I propose primarily to tell what biological systems are not rather than what historical systems consist of. And this might seem presumptuous, given the presence in this audience of so many better qualified to speak on this subject than I am. But it seemed better to err on the side of presumption in the interest of encouraging debate than to stifle discussion by re-rehearsing the trivia of my own discipline’s internecine squabbles. In order to do our work, we historians frequently have to act as if we knew what a biological system was, the point at which the biological level of integration shades off into the historical level, and the ways that the two levels are related to one another. It would have been cowardly not to have admitted this at this gathering and to have avoided the issue altogether. And so, in the interest of possible clarification and at the risk of possible self-annihilation, I have decided to set forth what I believe to be some crucial distinctions between biological and historical systems, at least as they appear from the vantage point of the historian. If it turns out that these distinctions are not justified from the standpoint of biologists and philosophers of science, so much the better. We only discover the error of our ways by testing them in the presence of those best qualified to judge them.


Genetic Endowment Eighth Century Historical System Russian People Actual Genetic Constitution 
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Copyright information

© Plenum Press, New York 1972

Authors and Affiliations

  • Hayden V. White
    • 1
  1. 1.University of CaliforniaLos AngelesUSA

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