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History and Theory 52 (May 2013), 171-193 Wesleyan University 2013 ISSN: 0018-2656


This essay discusses the role of the notions of reference, truth, and meaning in historical
representation. Four major claims will be argued. First, conditional for all meaningful
discussion of historical representation is that one radically discards from ones mind
the paradigm of the true statement and all the epistemological and ontological problems
occasioned by it. Second, representation is not a two-place, but a three-place operator: in
representation a represented reality (1) is represented by a representation (2) focusing on
certain aspects of represented reality (3). Third, applying the notions of reference, truth,
and meaning to historical representations compels us to give them a content basically
different from the ones they have in contemporary philosophy of language and science.
Fourth, it will be shown that in (historical) representation, meaning precedes truthand
not the other way around as in most of contemporary philosophy of language.
Keywords: Frege, Heidegger, historical representation, reference, representational mean-
ing, Saussure, truth
Take a perfectly unproblematic and pedestrian statement such as the moon is
uninhabited. Most people will then be willing to say that this statement is true,
has a meaning, and refers to a particular object by means of its subject term.
Then we should ask ourselves how to understand here the words truth, mean-
ing, and reference. Next, what justifies our belief that this sentence is true,
possesses a meaning, and refers to the world? A good deal of twentieth-century
philosophy of language dealt with these questions.
but now take a historical text on no less a pedestrian historical topic than the
Austrian War of Succession from 1740 to 1748. I shall suppose that we have all
read enough history to know what such a text would look like and that we can
agree that such a text consists mainly of a very long list of statements sharing
with the moon is uninhabited the property of being true (or false, of course),
of having a meaning, and of referring to past reality. I readily grant that this will
not be the case with all of them. but I shall assume without further argument that
utterances different from, or not reducible to, such statements will not be condi-
tional for an understanding of such a historical text on the Austrian War of Suc-
cession. And where I use the word understanding, it is in agreement with how
that word is ordinarily used by historians when discussing the cognitive claims of
a historical text, for example, when during an oral examination an undergraduate
student is asked by his or her teacher to expound the main cognitive claims of
some historical text that both of them have read.
Second, anyone even remotely familiar with the practice of historical writing,
the nature of historical discussion, with how historians interact with one another
and with how they react to the claims made in one anothers books and articles,
will recognize that historians do not hesitate to apply the terms truth (and fal-
sity), reference, and meaning to historical texts as well. No historians in their
senses would say that historical texts are meaningless, that the criteria of truth
and falsehood are inapplicable to them, or that there should be no referential rela-
tionship of any kind between the historical text and that part of the past it is about.
Hence, historical writing presents us with two contexts within which the
notions of truth, reference, and meaning can be used: that of the text as a whole
and that of the individual sentences of which it consists. Id like to emphasize
that there is nothing particularly new, strange, or abstruse about this. Its much
the same in the sciences, where one may distinguish between, on the one hand,
empirical observations on the corrosion of a piece of iron, and, on the other, theo-
ries about corrosion. Scientists will be ready to use the notions of truth, meaning,
and reference in both cases as well. Philosophers of science have invested a lot
of time and energy in the scientists propensity to do so. Many of them believed
that scientists were basically right about this and took it to be their main task to
explain why.
At this stage two alternative strategies present themselves to philosophers of
history. They may be deeply impressed by the achievements of twentieth-century
philosophy of science and therefore discover here their most obvious guide in
their exploration of whether and how textual meaning, truth, and reference are
related to propositional meaning, truth, and reference. It might well be that this
strategy will yield interesting results. Nevertheless, there is room for skepticism.
It seems reasonable to assume that such results will be forthcoming only to the
extent that history and science can meaningfully be compared. Admittedly, there
may be a number of more or less interesting parallels. but precisely in the case
of the problem at stake here, differences are more likely than similarities. After
all, historical texts and scientific theories are quite different things; for example,
how do we translate a historical text into a scientific theory, or vice versa? The
languages of science and history seem to have little in common, as will imme-
diately be clear if one compares two founding texts, one from each discipline,
such as Sir Isaac Newtons Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy and
Leopold von Rankes Deutsche Geschichte im Zeitalter der Reformation. What
translation rules would enable us to translate the language of the former text into
that of the latter, or inversely? Obviously, the onus of proof rests with those who
believe otherwise, for the differences between the two kind of texts are so huge
and so wholly impossible to overlook that there simply is no room for any other
It is true that the languages of science and history may come close to each other
in disciplines such as economics or biology. but would it follow, then, that we
ought to begin by studying economics or biology if we wish to explore the secrets
of the historical text? Not in my opinion. Would that not be an enormous detour
in our efforts to grasp the secrets of the historical text? Why try to find out about
the nature of silk by establishing where it agrees and differs from cotton or wool?
Why not just begin with silk itself? Moreover, are detours not where we ordinar-
ily get hopelessly lost? Why should it be different here? So why not simply take
our point of departure in the problem at stake, hence that of the historical text,
while leaving the similarities and the differences between the sciences and the
historical text to some later phaseif we think it worthwhile to discuss them at
all? This, then, is the strategy I shall adopt in this essay.
Finally, I warn about a possible misunderstanding of the nature of my enter-
prise here. When addressing the issue of the meaning, truth, and reference of his-
torical texts, we should temporarily bracket literally all that we are accustomed
to associating with these notions. It is true that there are limits to this. It would be
nonsensical to begin using them for denoting, for example, the land, the air, and
the sea. Nevertheless, the basic fact is that the very meaning of these notions is at
stake here. More specifically, we must abandon our habit of seeing propositional
truth, reference, and meaning as the paradigmatic use and allow for the possibility
that other uses of these notions can also claim that honor for themselves as well.
Put differently, in the course of one hundred years of philosophy of language, a
whole galaxy of epistemological and ontological concerns has developed around
the paradigm of the true sentence, exercising an enormous quasi-gravitational
pull on all discussion of the notions of meaning, truth, and reference. In the pres-
ent context, however, it is of decisive importance that we stubbornly, persistently,
and unwaveringly resist this gravitational pull. We should radically eliminate
from our mind all prejudices about the hierarchy among textual meaning, truth,
and reference and their propositional counterparts.
In fact, I shall argue that, contrary to what common sense would have us
believe, textual meaning, truth, and reference are logically prior to their sentential
cognates. Propositional meaning, truth, and reference and all the epistemological
and ontological concerns clustering around them have a genealogyand as we
shall see below, this genealogy gets us back to the text, or rather to what I shall
understand by (historical) representation, instead of the other way round.
There is an evident asymmetry between singular true statements and represen-
tation. In the case of the former, one can ordinarily distinguish between the
statements subject and predicate terms. but this is not the case with historical
representations: even though they consist of statements having a subject term and
a predicate term, representations themselves do not have that structure. Hence,
the model of the true statement cannot be projected onto the text. What could
possibly be the subject and the predicate part of a historical text? A meaningful
and sensible answer to this question cannot be given. Recall the observation that
Simon Schamas The Embarrassment of Riches is about seventeenth-century
dutch culture, though the book may contain not even one sentence having sev-
enteenth-century dutch culture as its subject term. It is no different with picto-
rial representation. A portrait cannot be divided up into dots of paint exclusively
referring to the portraits sitter, while other dots of paint exclusively attribute
certain properties to the sitter. Reference and attribution cannot be separated in
representation. Two consequences follow from this.
The first consequence is that the notion of reference in the proper sense of the
word cannot be used without further critical scrutiny for characterizing the rela-
tionship between a representation and its represented. The notion (as we custom-
arily use it) is tied to how the subject-terms of true statements are related to what
they refer to. So it would require a separate vindication to prove that the latter does
not differ from that between a representation and its represented. At first sight
such scruples may seem to be exaggerated: for what could possibly be wrong with
saying that a portrait or a biography of Napoleon are representations referring to
the man who lived from 1769 to 1821 and succeeded in becoming Emperor of the
French? Cant we say of that portrait that it is true that it is a portrait of Napoleon
and not, for example of Louis XVI, so that the portrait (representation) relates
to Napoleon as the true statement relates to the world? Indeed, so it may seem.
However, we would then lump together two separate operations into one. Indeed,
such a statement is true of the portrait as such, but not of the portrait if regarded
as a representation (namely, as the representation of a represented). There is, first,
the phase of representation at stake in our present discussion covering the trajec-
tory from the represented to its representation and, second, the phase of statements
about the representation once it has come into being, and we must avoid projecting
the logic of the latter onto the former. So we cannot infer from the indisputably
correct claim that we can truly (or falsely) state that this is a portrait or biography
of Napoleon the quite different (and mistaken) claim that the portrait or biography
itself can be said to be true (or false) of Napoleon.
Moreover, think of historical representations of, for example, the Enlighten-
ment or the Cold War. Historians systematically differ with regard to the question
what parts of the past correspond to those notions and, worse still, these disagree-
ments are not of a mere secondary importance, but concern the heart of their
discussions. So we had better be careful here. I therefore propose to exchange
the term reference for being about to characterize the relationship between a
representation and its represented. The latter notion does justice to the indubita-
ble fact that there is some tie between a representation and what it representsif
only because in the true statements making up a representation reference is made
to the past, thus effectively preventing representations from beginning to float
through all of historybut without pronouncing, at this early stage of my argu-
ment, about how this tie has to be understood.
Second, if propositional truth requires the possibility of distinguishing between
a statements subject and predicate term, it follows that we cannot say of repre-
sentations that they are propositionally true or false. This does not in the least
excludeas we shall see in section Vleaving room for an alternative concep-
tion of representational truth.
This brings us to the question of the relationship between a representation and
its represented. At first blush, no problems seem to present themselves. Think of
the example just mentioned. What would be more obvious than to see a biography
of Napoleon as a historical representation of Napoleon, where Napoleon himself
functions as the representations represented? Agreed, but its only part of the
whole truth. Suppose we have different biographies of Napoleon, each of them
giving us a different representation of Napoleon; their being different from each
other is the very raison dtre of each of themif not, why would historians
write them at all? In all these cases the represented is, of course, the same
namely Napoleon himself. They are all representations of Napoleon, yet all these
representations are different. but their difference from one another could not pos-
sibly be accounted for by the fact that they are all representations of Napoleon,
for, obviously, this is what they have in common. So how then to account for their
being different from one another? That is the truly big question. My proposal is
to solve this problem with the hypothesis that representation is not a two-place
but a three-place operator. We have 1) the historical Napoleon, 2) a certain
biography or pictorial representation of him 3) making us aware of those aspects
of the historical Napoleon that the representation wishes to highlight. It follows
that the phrase what is represented by a representation is ambiguous because
this phrase may stand for 1) the historical Napoleon and 2) aspects of him as
highlighted by a certain representation of Napoleon. Needless to say, these are
different things that we should not confuse with each other. In agreement with the
foregoing, I propose to distinguish between a representations represented (for
example, the historical Napoleon) and 2) a representations presented (namely,
the aspect of the historical Napoleon highlighted by a certain representation). The
difference between different representations of, for example, Napoleon, can then
convincingly be explained in terms of the difference between presenteds.
This hypothesis seems to be supported by its parallelism to the three-placedness
of Freges theory of the signbasic to so much of contemporary philosophy of
languagedistinguishing among 1) the sign, 2) the signs extension or denota-
tion, and 3) the signs intension or connotation. So what seems more natural than
to model representation on Freges notion of sign, hence 1) to see the represented
as representations analogue to Fregean extension, 2) the presented as its ana-
logue to Fregean meaning, and 3) to conclude from this that representation does
not present us with anything really new under the Fregean sun?
but this would be wrong. In the previous section we argued against putting on
a par the represented with the Fregean extension, that is, the object of reference.
So we can be quite brief about this: there simply is no analogy here. The present-
ed cannot be seen as the representations analogue of Fregean meaning either. In
order to recognize this we must begin with stating what exactly we might have in
mind when saying that a representations meaning can be seen as its presented (or
vice versa). Two possibilities then suggest themselves. First, we may choose to
remain close to Freges own intentions and hold that it is a representations mean-
ing to highlight a certain presented. At first sight this may seem a sensible sug-
gestion: we read a representation and then become aware of a certain presented,
just as reading a word will give us access to its Fregean meaningwhich would
then give us the representations meaning. but this presupposes the possibility of
strictly distinguishing between a representation and its meaning (and where the
latter is understood as the capacity to highlight a certain presented)just as we
can undoubtedly distinguish between a word and its meaning within the Fregean
model. If not, how could we then possibly argue that this thing here is the word/
sign or representation itself, and that thing over there its meaning? but no such
distinction is possible in the case of representation. The Fregean distinction
between words and their meanings presupposes that some (set of) word(s) may
have the same meaning as some other (set of) word(s), allowing us to exchange
them for each other salva veritate. However, this does not have its analogue for
representations, if we recall our argument in the previous section that they cannot
properly be said to be true. Therefore, the very notion of sameness of meanings
makes no sense for representations. It then follows 1) that we cannot pull repre-
sentation and meaning apart from each other as is the case in Freges theory of
the sign, and 2) that representation does not have its own counterpart to Fregean
meaning. The other possibility is to identify a representations meaning with its
presented. but this is a suggestion we can reject right away since it is at odds with
the intensionality of Fregean meaning: presenteds or aspects are part of the world
itself and therefore could never function as believable candidates for Fregean
meaning. In sum, representation leaves no room for a representationalist variant
of Fregean meaning.

Nevertheless, the suggestion to associate a representations meaning with its
presented may deepen our insight into the nature of representation and its rela-
tionship to the world. In order to see this I turn to Arthur dantos theory of the
metaphorical character of representation:
When Napoleon is represented as a Roman Emperor, the sculptor [Canova] is not just
representing Napoleon in an antiquated get-up, the costumes believed to have been worn
by the Roman emperors. Rather the sculptor is anxious to get the viewer to take toward
the subjectNapoleonthe attitudes appropriate to the more exalted Roman emper-
orsCaesar [sic!] or Augustus (if it were Marcus Aurelius, a somewhat different attitude
would be intended). That figure, so garbed, is a metaphor of dignity, authority, grandeur,
power, and political utterness. Indeed, the description or depiction of a as b always has
this metaphoric structure: Saskia as Flora, Marie Antoinette as Shepherdess, Mrs. Siddons
as the Muse of TragedyGregor Samsa as bugas if the painting resolved into a kind of
imperative to see a under the attributes of b (with the implication, not of course necessarily
sound, that a is not b: the concept of artistic identification, introduced earlier, may be seen
as possessing this much of metaphoric structure).
danto emphasizes here that representation always is metaphorical in the sense
of being a representation as: Napoleon is represented as a Roman Emperor,
Saskia as Flora, Marie Antoinette as a shepherdess. So it is in historical writing:
just as the metaphor a is b requires us to see a as b, so does a historical repre-
sentation require us to see a representations represented as, or in terms of that
representations presented.
1. but as we shall find in section VII, this does not in the least imply that no content could be
given to the notion of representational meaning. In fact, the notion of representational meaning is
conditional for all understanding of (historical) representation.
2. Arthur C. danto, The Transfiguration of the Commonplace: A Philosophy of Art (Cambridge,
MA: Harvard University Press, 1983), 167.
As dantos examples make clear, the presented is always something we should
situate in reality itself, such as a Roman Emperor, Flora, or shepherdesses. This
is where representation is most manifestly out of step with Freges theory of the
sign. Roman emperors and so onhence, representations presentedsare not
meanings, intensions, or connotations that we can get hold of by consulting dic-
tionaries. Again, they are part of historical reality itself. However, this account
is wrong in a certain way: for it certainly is not the case that representations refer
to Roman emperors in the way this can be said of proper names such as Augus-
tus or Septimius Severus. The metaphorical representation of, for example,
Napoleon as a Roman emperor is in no way an attempt to identify Napoleon with
Augustus or Septimius Severus. Instead, metaphorical seeing as draws our
attention to certain aspects that Napoleon and Augustus or Septimius Severus
have in commonand that are highlighted by the representation. In sum, a rep-
resentations presented is an aspect of what is represented by that representation.
but, as such, the presented is part of reality itself: aspects of objects (such as
Napoleon) are just as much parts of reality as the objects themselves of which
they are aspects.
Id like to insist on this. Metaphors acquire their meaning by the interaction
of what we associate with the meanings of the terms of a metaphorical utter-
ance. Commenting on the metaphor man is a wolf, Max black says: what is
needed is not so much that the reader shall know the standard dictionary-meaning
of wolfor be able to use that word in literal sensesas that he shall know
what I will call the system of associated commonplaces.
Metaphor invites an
interaction of the meanings of the terms on both sides of the copula (and not of
what these terms refer to)this is why black speaks of the interaction view of
metaphoragain, where reality itself is not involved in this interaction.
but this is different with danto and with the metaphorical dimension of histori-
cal representation. Take a historical metaphor such as the Renaissanceand it
will be clear that this is a metaphor, for the art and culture of fifteenth- and six-
teenth-century Italy was not a renaissance in the literal sense of the word. This
metaphor does not present us with an interaction of meanings in the sense meant
by black. Instead, we have to do here with the one-way traffic of the projection of
certain connotations on (part of) the past itself and where the relevant part of the
past undergoes this projection with the same passivity as a house that is painted
in one color or another. Resistance against any such projection could only be
articulated at the level of representationand historical reality itself is sui gen-
eris incapable of getting to that level. Put differently, the historical metaphor a
is b transcends the borderline between language and reality in the direction of
the latterwhereas blacks interaction model never moves beyond the domain
of language and meaning.
The parallelism between the claim that the aspects of
the past presented by a historical representation are part of the past itself, on the
3. Max black, Metaphor, in black, Models and Metaphors (Ithaca, NY, and London: Cornell
University Press, 1962), 40; his italics.
4. This is where historical metaphor differs from all that has been said about metaphor since black
by, among others, philosophers such as Hesse, davidson, Rorty, derrida, or Lakoff and Johnson.
one hand, and the one that in historical writing metaphor bridges the gap between
language and reality, on the other, will need no further clarification.
This may also shed some new light on the old idealism versus realism debate
as exemplified by contemporary philosophy of history. Hayden White and his fol-
lowers have often been accused of an idealist account of historical writing. Quite
rightly so, since they tended to identify the meaning of the past itself with that of
the historical text. When doing so they unwittingly projected Freges scheme onto
that of representation, thus elevating presenteds or aspects of the pasthence
aspects of past reality itselfinto the domain of meaning. Clearly, one may well
call this a variant of idealism. In this idealist account of historical writing no room
is left for past reality itself, nor for how it may help us to discover historical truth
and expose unconvincing representations of the past. This is regrettable and needs
correction, which is achieved by the notion of the presented and the aspect. It is
true that presenteds and aspects presuppose there being linguistic things such as
historical representationsjust as only a lantern may make us aware of trees,
houses, and ditches in the nights darkness. but what representations make us see
in terms of their presenteds is no less part of past reality than these houses and so
on are part of our daily reality orfor that matterthan the neutrinos investigated
by the physicist in physical reality.
In this way my account of representation pays
its due respect to both past reality itself and its conceptualization in the historical
text. Conceiving of representation as a three-place operator enables us to avoid
the idealism versus realism dilemmaat least as far as historical thought is con-
Let us now address the issue of reference. From Frege and Russell down to
Strawson and Searle reference was a central theme in philosophy of language.
but since the 1970s the notion has lost much of its former importance to truth
and meaning. The notion began to look like a nation in decline and to which
remained only the memory of the days of its former glory. Characteristic here is
Keith donnellans essay of 1972 on proper names and identifying descriptions.

Here, donnellan attacked Strawsons and Searles widely accepted theory of ref-
erence and made a first step in the direction of what would come to be known as
Saul Kripkes causalist theory of reference. The suggestion was that reference
is a problem child rather than the solid and reliable foundation for many other
insights into the relationship between language and the world one had always
believed it to be. Even worse for reference was the Quine-duhem thesis saying
that our statements about the external world face the tribunal of sense experience
not individually but only as a corporate body.
This provoked an indirectness in
5. I deliberately refrain here from saying the neutrinos as investigated by the physicist. To move
automatically from the former to the latter is the origin of the penchant for idealism in much of con-
temporary history and philosophy of science, for the as lifts the neutrino from the level of reality
to that of the scientists language.
6. Keith donnellan, Proper Names and Identifying descriptions, in Semantics of Natural Lan-
guage, ed. donald davidson and Gilbert Harman (dordrecht: Reidel 1972), 356-380.
7. W. V. O. Quine, From a Logical Point of View (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press,
1961), 41.
the relationship between language and the world entailing, according to Quine,
three indeterminacies: 1) the underdetermination of theory by evidence, 2)
the indeterminacy of translation, and 3) the inscrutability of reference.
too, reference is no longer the solid pier on which the bridge of knowledge and
truth can be built. It is no different with the role of reference in representation, as
we shall see in a moment.
In section II we observed that in representation, reference and attribution are
inextricably bound up with each other, since representations cannot be divided up
into a part that exclusively refers and another part attributing certain properties
to what is referred to. We concluded that the relationship between a representa-
tion and what is represented by it cannot be modeled on how a true statements
subject term relates to what it refers to. The conclusion was that when talking
about representation wed better be reluctant about using the notion of reference;
this is why I proposed to replace it by the noncommittal alternative of being
about. Quines indeterminacy thesis thus has its counterpart in the relationship
between a representation and its represented. This need not surprise us when we
consider vague and polysemous terms such as the Renaissance or the Cold
War and the no less ill-defined parts of the past corresponding therewith. but it
is the same even with biographies of, for example, Napoleon. Of the statement
this is a biography of Napoleon we can say that is either true or falseand,
indeed, then there is an object of referencenamely, the biography referred to in
that statement. but the biography itselfas representationhas no subject term
and, therefore, no object of reference either.
However, we have now learned to distinguish between the represented and
the presented and that the latter are aspects of the world. So what about seeing a
representations presented as what that representation refers to? To begin with,
each representation fixes a certain presented or aspect of the past; the unique-
ness of each representation guarantees the uniqueness of the aspect of the past
corresponding with it. Hence, there is no Quinean indeterminacy here. Could
we not see, therefore, the relationship between a representation and its presented
as the representational equivalent of that between a true statements subject term
and what it refers to?
but, alas, our search for parallels between representation and the true statement
comes to grief here as well. Admittedly, it is true that presenteds and aspects can
be said to be unique. Howeverand this is the big and insurmountable prob-
lemnot in the way we can say this of Napoleon or of Westminster Abbey. For
each component of some aspect of (past) reality that we would wish to propose
as a likely candidate for providing us with what is unique for this aspect (or
presented) can be the component of an infinity of other aspects, each of them
corresponding with an infinity of other representations. Succinctly, in the case of
these aspects, uniqueness does not go together with there being individual objects
of reference.
8. For a brilliant synopsis of the relevant part of the recent history of philosophy of science, see
John Zammito, A Nice Derangement of Epistemes: Post-positivism in the Study of Science from Quine
to Latour (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 15-52.
This certainly is a startling finding: does as uniqueness not set it apart from
anything else not being a, and is this not all we need for being able to refer to
a? but, in fact, this is less bizarre than it might seem at first sight, for it also
manifests itself in more familiar contexts. Take the phrase this planks center of
gravity. This phrase certainly determines a unique point on that plank, a point
that we can establish with all the precision we wish to bring to it if we dispose of
all the relevant physical data about the plank in question. Nevertheless, the phrase
does not refer to some identifiable individual object. Admittedly, it may be that
there happens to be a knot in the wood or a scratch on the planks surface coin-
ciding with the planks center of gravity, and these undoubtedly are identifiable
individual things to which we can refer. The same would be true of the carbon or
oxygen atom located precisely at that center of gravity. but it would be wholly
arbitrary to associate any of these with the planks center of gravity, and we have
no good reason to prefer any candidate to any other. So here we have, too, the
uniqueness of a particular aspect of reality (for this is how we could describe
the planks center of gravity) but without there being an identifiable individual
object corresponding to it. Here, too, we have no objects of referencesuch as
Napoleon or Westminster Abbey to which any number of other properties can
be attributed on the basis of empirical research, once the object of reference has
been identified. Just like aspects determined by a representation, the center of
gravity of the plank is nothing more and nothing less than what is attributed to it
in languagebut in neither case are we dealing with linguistic entities because
of this: they are as much part of the world as the past or the plank themselves. In
sum, representation problematizes reference no less than is the case in contempo-
rary philosophy of languagethough for different reasons.
This does not imply, however, that there should be no room at all for the notion
of reference in representation. One could say about the statements being part of
some historical representation that these statements recursively define that rep-
resentation. In this way they can be said to refer to the representation of which
they are part, though it would probably be more appropriate to speak here about
self-referentiality: the representation defines itself by means of the statements
recursively referring to it.
In section III I argued that representation leaves no room for propositional truth.
It may well be that logic compels us to agree with this claim. Nevertheless, as
I shall be the first to concede, the claim is profoundly counterintuitive. Take a
portrait presenting a bald man with a wealth of hair. What could possibly be
wrong with saying that the portrait is false or untrue? Much the same would
hold for a deplorable piece of historical writing full of factual errors and ignorant
of all the relevant secondary literature. but appearances are misleading us here.
In the argument rendered just now, the statement x has a wealth of hair (and
that can, indeed, be true or false) is confused with the evidence we have for that
statement. Indeed, a portrait (if painted by a trustworthy painter) will present us
with reasonably reliable evidence for the statement that its sitter is/was bald or
notbut in contrast to that statement the portrait itself does not actually say so.
We can formulate that statement only after having had a good look at the paint-
ing, as is the case with the sitter himself. So the portrait possesses here the same
ontological status as the sitter him or herself. The sitter for a portrait is a human
being and not a set of true statements about him though he may serve as evi-
dence for true (and false) statements about his physical appearance.
We cannot fail to be struck by the parallelism of objects in reality itself (such
as the portraits sitter) and representations of those objects. both can provide us
with evidence for true statements about the world even though they do not express
such true statements themselvesat least not necessarily so. This fact about repre-
sentation is most adequately done justice to by the so-called substitution theory of
representation, according to which it is the representations task not to offer a good
resemblance of what it represents,
but to function as a substitute for what it rep-
resents. It must be added, however, that under certain circumstances resemblance
may powerfully contribute to a representations capacity to function as a substi-
tute. but in other cases resemblance is wholly irrelevant: the French tricolore
represents France, but does not resemble it. What strange meaning must we give
to the verb resemble in order to allow us to say that a biography of Napoleon
resembles Napoleon? books dont resemble persons and their actions.
but it may be that there are other ways to rescue the notion of truth for (histori-
cal) representation. For example, we could now appeal to our distinction between
the represented and the presented and ask ourselves how matters stand with truth
from the perspective of either of them. Self-evidently, little is to be expected for
the notion of the represented. On several occasions we have already enlarged
extensively on the asymmetries between the true statement and representation,
implying that representations cannot be propositionally true. The situation is not
much better for the representations presented. Surely, it is promising that only
one presented corresponds to a representation, just as to each true statement cor-
responds only one state of affairs making the statement true. but when discussing
reference we found that even this does not yield a believable object of reference
(and without which propositional truth is out of the question). Moreover, since to
each representation corresponds only one presented, we would be compelled to
hold that representations are always true. but that is unfortunate, for what is truth
if there is no falsity as well?
Yet this may make us think. For will this strong tie between the representa-
tion and its presented (without leaving room for propositional truth, as we saw
just now) not remind us of the relationship between a word or sign and what the
word or sign stands for, where standing for embraces both the signs denota-
tion and its connotation? Within this Fregean account the represented will be the
obvious candidate for the signs denotation and the presented for its connotation.
The reverse option is too absurd to need further discussion. but even if we avoid
such absurdity, two insurmountable problems announce themselves. First, since a
representation cannot be said to refer to a represented, as we found in the previous
section, representeds cannot count as a representations denotation. Second, and
9. As is demanded by the resemblance theory of representation whose history goes back to Platos
more important, we must recall here again that presenteds are part of reality itself
and could therefore under no circumstance parade as meanings, intensions, or
connotations. In sum, the proposal to see representations as a somewhat unwieldy
variant of words or signs runs aground even before we might begin to develop on
the basis of it some theory of the truth of (historical) representation.
There is one last catch. What about seeing presenteds or aspects as the proper-
ties of (objects) in the past, so that we can make truth dependent on the question
whether an object in the past does or does not have the property that a repre-
sentation attributes to it by means of its presented? This at first sight promising
suggestion immediately runs into two difficulties. First, we will encounter here
again the earlier difficulty that this proposal, too, leaves room only for truth and
not for falsity. but second, and more important, aspects and/or presenteds cannot
possibly be seen as properties. Aspects (as understood in the context of this essay)
are constituent parts of objects in (past) realityhence, just like these objects
themselves one can say of them that they possess certain properties, but not
that they are properties. Aspects (and presenteds) are less than things and more
than properties. They have the peculiar capacity to combine the uniqueness of
objects with the universality of properties. Hence, in the presented or aspect the
dichotomy between the object and its properties is embryonically present already.
Aspects and presenteds could, therefore, be seen as abbreviations of things, or,
inversely, as properties that somehow transcended their proper limitations with
regard to the object whose properties they are. both the object and its properties
are latently present in the aspect (the object on its topside and the other at its
downside, so to speak), and both quietly await there the later good and trustwor-
thy dispensation of objects and their properties. but as long as we have not yet
gotten to that stage, aspects and presenteds are neither properties nor objects
and are therefore incapable of rescuing the notion of truth for representations.
However, it is my conviction that all that was said just now about the relation-
ship among things, their properties, and their aspects as indicated by representa-
tions legitimates a notion of (representational) truth that is basically different
from propositional truth but that, nevertheless, respects its memory, so to speak,
though it would be better and more appropriate to say that the notion of truth I
have in mind here precedes propositional truth.
My proposal is to define representational truth as what the world reveals of
itself in terms of its aspects as singled out by a representation.
Let me add the following clarification. First, just like propositional truth,
representational truth connects language and reality. The first succeeds in doing
so by expressing in terms of true statements something about the world. The
second bridges the gap between language and the world by the representations
capacity to highlight certain aspects of realityand, again, these aspects are part
of reality, even though they need language in order to stand out against their
background. but since these aspects are not identifiable individual objects (see
section IV), there is no room here for the correspondence or coherence theory of
truth or any variant of them. Second, even though both propositional truth and
representational truth transcend the gap between language and reality, they do so
in different ways. In the case of propositional truth, the seal of truth is on the
side of language and the subject: truth here is a property of what we say about the
world. However, in the case of representational truth, that seal must be situated
on the side of the object and of reality itself: truth here is to be found in the world;
it announces itself in those aspects of reality that representation makes us aware
of. Hence, the notion of truth is radically desubjectified here.
Nevertheless, there certainly is a tie between propositional and representational
truth. Recall that we found that aspects anticipate the dichotomy of things and their
properties (hence, the two most important agents on the scene of what one might
call, with Strawson, the descriptive metaphysics of the true statement
). but in
that sense propositional truth, postulating a link between things and their proper-
ties, is present already as the promise of the later regime of language and reality.
Think of salt that has been dissolved in water. One might say that we then have no
salt anymore, because it has separated into individual sodium and chloride ions, so
that we then have only them. but it is no less plausible to say that we do certainly
have a salt-solution here having the unique physical properties of a salt-solution.
So it is here, where representational truth corresponds to salt and propositional
truth to the salt-solution. In this sense propositional and representational truth can
be said to be manifestations of each otherin crucial respects different from
each other, but closely related as well.
A moment ago representational truth was defined as a revelation of the world
in terms of its aspects. Needless to say, this comes quite close to how Heidegger
defined truth in his Sein und Zeit:
a statement is true means: it discovers being in itself. It asserts. It indicates, it
shows() Being in its disclosure. The being-true (truth) of the statement has
to be understood as disclosing-being. Truth here has not in the least the structure of a cor-
respondence between knowledge and an object in the sense of a becoming identical of a
being (subject) with another (object).

Three comments are apt here. First, Heidegger is speaking of the truth of state-
ments (Aussagen), and it will be clear that we cannot follow him here because
of the sharp distinction made throughout this essay between true statements on
the one hand and representation on the other. So what Heidegger says here is
wrong for the statement but correct for representation. Second, in agreement
with his attack on (neo-Kantian) epistemology, pulling apart the orders of know-
ing and being, both are tied together again with Heideggers claim assertion is
a being to the being thing itself (das Aussagen ist ein Sein zum seienden ding
Obviously, this claim is repeated in our observation at the beginning of
this section that according to the substitution theory of representation the repre-
10. That is to say, the form of the true statement x is invites us to embrace the metaphysical
doctrine that reality is built up of individual objects all having certain properties. Hence, it is a form
of metaphysics drawing its inspiration from what our language happens to look like.
11. Martin Heidegger, Sein und Zeit (Tbingen: Niemeyer, 2006), 218, 219. die Aussage ist
wahr, bedeutet: sie endeckt das Seiende an ihm selbst. Sie sagt aus, sie zeigt auf, sie lsst sehen
() das Seiende in seiner Entdecktheit. Wahrsein (Wahrheit) der Aussage muss verstanden
werden als entdeckend-sein. Wahrheit hat also gar nicht die Struktur einer bereinstimmung zwi-
schen Erkennen und Gegenstand im Sinne einer Angleichung eines Seienden (Subjekt) an ein anderes
12. Ibid., 218.
sentation (order of knowing) and the represented (order of being) have the same
ontological status. The sitter for a portrait and the portrait are both objects in
reality. It is no different with historical representations, notwithstanding the fact
that these happen to consist of statements (the kind of language we normally use
for speaking about reality). Third, in agreement with the etymology of the word
(aletheia), Heidegger relates truth to the un-hidden, dis-covery,
dis-closure, or un-veiling.
Truth is what is revealed to us as when a veil that
used to hide it were pulled away:
Translation [of : F.A.] by the word truth and certainly the theoretical connotati-
ons we associate with truth thus hide what the Greeks self-evidently considered to be basic
to the term in a pre-philosophical sense.
Again, it will need no elucidation that this links up wonderfully with what was
said above about representational truth.
In sum, just like Heideggers notion of truth as or Unverborgen-
heit, representational truth is also a self-revelation of the world (though the
notion of revelation has to be stripped of all its theological and sublime connota-
tions, for we have to do here with a phenomenon as commonplace as the writing
of history). This self-revelation of reality always needs to be triggered by rep-
resentation, however, for if left to itself reality will remain under the veil hiding
it from us. Nevertheless, not language, but reality itself carries here the light of
truth. To continue this light metaphor: representational truth can be seen as the
reflections sent out to us by reality in response to the light that representations
have thrown on it. We construct these representations for no other reason than to
achieve precisely this effect. All this will remind us of M. H. Abramss metaphor
of the romantic poet whose work is like a lamp casting light on things hidden in
darkness and that he illustrates with a few lines taken from Coleridges comment
on Wordsworths The Prelude:
of moments awful,
Now in thy inner life, and now abroad,
When power streamed from thee. And thy soul received
The light reflected, as a light bestowed.
There is one important difference, however: Coleridge had in mind here the
genius of the Romantic poet, whereas in the case of historical representation
the light of truth is ignited in such a modest and unspectacular occupation as
13. The component - is derived from the Greek verb meaning being hidden or
escape. Heideggers etymology of the word has been disputed. See for this J. D. Caputo,
Demythologizing Heidegger (bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993), 22ff.
14. Heidegger, Sein und Zeit, 219. Die bersetzung [von ] durch das Wort Wah-
rheit und erst recht die theoretische begriffsbestimmungen dieses Ausdrucks verdecken den Sinn
dessen, was die Griechen als vor-philosophisches Verstndnis dem terminologischen Gebrauch von
selbstverstndlich zugrunde legten.
15. Quoted in M. H. Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tra-
dition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1953), 60. No less illustrative is the quote from Yeats
that Abrams chose as his books epigraph: it must go further still: that soul must become its own
betrayer, its own deliverer, the one activity, the mirror turn lamp. It is to be regretted that Richard
Rortythe author of Philosophy and the Mirror of Naturenever pronounced about the preference
of Romanticists for the metaphor of the lamp to that of the mirror, for quite a lot depends on this.
the writing of history. The discipline of history with all its research methods as
developed in the last two hundred years takes the place here of the Romantic
genius. A similar observation holds for Heidegger. Heidegger accompanied his
conception of truth with unargued obiter dicta and the enigmatic philosophical
hocus-pocus that repelled so many of his (Anglophone) readers. but there is no
need for this. The practice of historical writing and the normal course of historical
debate demonstrate how such a thing as representational truth comes into being.
Philosophical inquiry aiming at a reconstruction of how knowledge is achieved in
historical writing is far from easyand it is true that not much success has been
achieved here yetbut there are no grounds whatsoever to believe that we are
dealing here with something radically elusive or mysterious that should necessar-
ily remain hidden from the all-seeing eye of Reason.
Finally, two examples of representational truth in the writing of history: I begin
with an example given by a historian himself, the English medievalist Sir Richard
Southern (19122001):
[I]t was in October 1927; I was fifteen. Like many thousands of young every year I was
facing the depressing prospect of writing an essay on King Henry VII. Acres of fact of an
intolerable dreariness stretched out in all directions, numbing the senses. Then suddenly,
out of nowhere, the precious words formed themselves. I can see them yet. They were:
Henry VII was the first King of England who was a business man. Wrong of course, or
right only in a peculiar sense. but no words can express the illumination then brought by
To use Southerns own terminologycoming so close to that of Coleridgethe
historical landscape of late fifteenth-century England was suddenly illuminated
for him by the embryonic historical representation of Henry VII as a business-
man. A second example: Our teachers at school and even at the university always
told us about the antagonism of the Enlightenment and Romanticism: the Enlight-
enment was the cult of Reason whereas Romanticism opposed to this the cult of
Feelinga very compelling story indeed. but then we read Gadamer:
Romanticism no longer measures the past with the measure of the present as if the latter
were something absolute, it grants to the past a value of its own. The greatest achieve-
ments of Romanticismthe awakening of the dawn of mankind, the harking at the voice
of the peoples in their songs, the collection of fairy-tales and legends, the cultivation of
venerable traditions, the discovery of speech as expressing a Weltanschauung, the study
of the religion and the wisdom of Indiaall of these broke the ground for the historical
investigation of the past, transforming itself slowly, and step by step from an empathetic
re-evocation of the past into objectivist historical understanding. The link-up between
Romanticism and historicism thus confirms that the Romantic repetition of the original has
itself its roots in the Enlightenment. In fact, nineteenth-century historicism is the Enlight-
enments proudest product and it regards itself as the ultimate perfection of the Enligh-
tenment, as the final stage in the emancipation of mind from its dogmatic constraints, as
the final step toward an objective understanding of the historical world; it regards itself as
being of equal rank with the knowledge of nature as acquired in modern science.
16. R. W. Southern, The Historical Experience, Times Literary Supplement (June 2, 1977),
17. Hans-Georg Gadamer, Wahrheit und Methode (Tbingen: Max Niemeyers Verlag, 1972), 259.
[die] Romantik . . . mit nicht mehr die Vergangenheit mit den Mastben der Gegenwart wie an
einem Absoluten, sie spricht vergangene Zeiten einen eigenen Wert zu. . . . die groen Leistungen
Hence, there is no antagonism of Enlightenment and Romanticism at all, but
instead the perfection of the former by the latter! Romanticism was the continu-
ation of the Enlightenment with new and far more powerful means that had been
unknown to the Enlightenment. When reading this passage in Gadamer many
years ago, it effected in me the same kind of illumination that Southern had in
mind. It was like a lamp lighting large parts of nineteenth-century culture and of
its intellectual landscape, making me aware of aspects of them hitherto unknown
and unsuspected. This, then, is why I would not hesitate to characterize Gadam-
ers conception of the relationship between the Enlightenment and Romanticism
as truer (in the sense meant here) than the more traditional one. I would not
shrink from the claim that most great historians from past and presentsuch as
droysen (Hellenism), burckhardt (Renaissance), Weber (Weber-thesis), Pirenne
(Pirenne-thesis), braudel (Annales), Cobban (on the French Revolution), Fou-
cault (Surveiller et punir)owe their reputation to the revelation of such truths.
Reference, truth, and meaning have traditionally been the three central notions
in philosophical semantics. In the two previous sections we dealt with reference
and truth. So that leaves us with representational meaning. In section III we found
that the presented is not a suitable candidate for the function of representational
meaning since it is part of reality itselfwhereas (Fregean) meaning is some-
thing that we consult dictionaries for. So this is where the three-pronged Fregean
model of 1) sign, 2) denotation, and 3) connotation differs from the no less three-
pronged model of 1) representation, 2) the represented, and 3) the presented that
has been discussed in this essay. Even more so, at first blush there seems to be no
room whatsoever for such a thing as representational meaning. When speaking
about meaning, synonymy is the first thing to come to mind. Thus the dictionary
informs us that the word calaboose means prison since the words are synony-
mous, so that each time the word calaboose is used it can be replaced by the
word prison salva veritate (unless, of course, we speak about the word cala-
boose itself). So it is with meaning. but what could possibly be synonymous
with a certain historical representation (apart from that representation itself)?
There are no dictionaries in which we can look up the representational meaning
of a certain representation. So that does not look very promising.
This should make us ask what good reasons we might have (if any) for being
interested in representational meaning at all. More particularly, how and why did
der Romantik, die Erweckung der Zeitenfrhe, das Vernehmen der Stimme der Vlker in Liedern, die
Sammlung der Mrchen und der Sagen, die Pflege des alten brauchtums, die Entdeckung der Spra-
chen als Weltanschauungen, das Studium der Religion und Weisheit der Indersie alle haben his-
torische Forschung ausgelst, die langsam, Schritt fr Schritt in ahnungsreiche Wiedererweckung in
abstndige historische Erkenntnis verwandelte. der Anschluss der historischen Schule an die Roman-
tik besttigt damit, da die romantische Wiederholung des Ursprnglichen selber auf dem boden
der Aufklrung steht. die historische Wissenschaft des 19. Jahrhunderts ist ihre stolzeste Frucht und
versteht sich geradezu als die Vollendung der Aufklrung, als den letzen Schritt in der befreiung des
Geistes von dogmatischer befangenheit, der Schritt zur objektieven Erkenntnis der geschichtlichen
Welt, die der Erkenntnis der Natur durch die moderne Wissenschaft ebenbrtig zur Seite tritt.
the notion of meaning become so prominent in philosophy of language? Perhaps
this occurred under circumstances that had no counterpart in (historical) repre-
sentation. If so, wed be well advised to stop our discussion of representational
meaning right away. We all know why Frege needed the notion of meaning in
addition to those of truth and reference. Compare the two following statements:
1) Hesperus is Hesperus and 2) Hesperus is Phosphorus. If Mill and Russell
were right in their claim that the only logical function of proper names is to refer
to the world, there would be no differencethus Fregebetween 1) and 2), since
the two proper names Hesperus and Phosphorus both refer to one and the
same thing (namely, the planet Venus). but obviously this is a most implausible
standpoint: 1) is a logical and 2) an empirical truth. So there must be more to this,
which is what made Frege hold that proper names, apart from their reference,
must also have a meaning. This, then, is where the proper names Hesperus and
Phosphorus differ and, hence, where 1) and 2) differ as well. but if this is to
be more than an explanation of obscurum per obscurius, a satisfactory account of
this new notion of meaning will have to be given. Since Frege down to Quine and
davidson the strategy ordinarily was to define meaning in terms of truth. Thus
dummett: to the sense of a word or expression belong only those features of its
meaning which are relevant to the truth value of some sentence in which it may
For example, the meaning of a proper name is a certain set of statements
all being true of the object that the proper name refers to (with the implication that
meaning becomes dependent on truth). The debate about what criteria these sets
have to satisfy finally crystallized in what has come to be known as the Searle-
Strawson criterion.
but in whatever way one would wish to elaborate this, it will be of no use for
representation since representation leaves no room for reference and proposi-
tional truth. Hence, one may plausibly ask oneself whether we really need such
a thing as representational meaning at all. Perhaps all we need for a proper and
adequate understanding of historical representation is 1) a notion of reference that
is watered down to being about and 2) representational truth as discussed in the
previous section. We can then safely throw overboard the notion of representa-
tional meaning as useless ballast.
However, one can think of an argument remotely resembling Freges of a
moment ago suggesting that representational meaning certainly deserves our
attention. I have in mind here the novel Chocolate by the Russian author Alex-
ander Tarasov-Rodionov (I admit, this is not a historical representation but a
novel; nevertheless, it cannot be doubted that the novel gives a representation of
an albeit imaginary represented (historical) reality). The novels main character
is Aleksej Zudin, President of the Tcheka in Leningrad. He is a devoted com-
munist; his loyalty to the party and to Russia cannot be doubted for a moment. In
spite of this he becomes the victim of ridiculous accusations and is condemned to
death on the basis of them. He finds it difficult to accept this. but on the evening
before his execution a former friend visits him at the prison and explains to him
why his execution is truly inevitable. Zudin allows himself to be convinced by
18. Michael dummett, Frege: Philosophy of Language (London: duckworth and Cambridge, MA:
Harvard University Press, 1981). 84.
his friend, and the next day he walks to the firing squad with feelings of sublime
elation, convinced that acceptance of the death penalty is supreme proof of his
unconditional loyalty to the party. Every reader of the book will read it as a bit-
ter indictment of Stalins show trials after the attempt on Sergej Kirov in 1936.
but then the reader will come to the amazing discovery that Tarasov-Rodionov
(18851938) wrote the novel in 1922, at a time when Lenin was still alive and
more than a decade before Stalins show trials. Above all, Tarasov-Rodionovs
intention had been to present Zudins slavish subjection to the party as an exam-
ple of how each good communist should behave under such circumstances. The
discovery comes as a bit of a shock to the reader, which can only be explained
by assuming that the meaning of the novel is diametrically opposed to the mean-
ing that the reader initially gave to it himself and by his sudden recognition of
Tarasov-Rodionovs real intentions when writing the book. This grants to the
notion of representational meaning something of the inevitable. We simply feel
that there must exist something like that.
So just as Frege felt compelled in a somewhat similar situation to embrace the
notion of meaning, I shall take seriously the notion of representational meaning,
though without presenting a definition of that notion. At the end of this section
I shall discuss how the notion of representational meaning hangs together with
those of (propositional) truth and reference and how these can be derived from
that of representational meaning, with the implication that (representational)
meaning becomes a primary term in our philosophical vocabulary on which truth
and reference are dependent. This gives us a picture of philosophical semantics
that is the reverse of the generally accepted one. In the philosophy of language
from Frege to Quine and davidson, truth is most often the primary notion in
terms of which meaning could be defined (recall the quote from dummett of a
moment ago). In philosophy of language one argues from truth to meaning; in
the reflection on representation, as defended in this essay, the argument moves
from meaning to truth.
Having arrived at this stage, we find Saussures theory of the sign to be
remarkably useful. Just like Freges theory of the sign and representation, Saus-
sure presents us with a triad. For him there is 1) the sound-pattern of a spoken
word, 2) the words meaning or concept, and 3) the sign within which 1) and
2) go together. Saussure needs 3) because, according to him, the relationship
between 1) and 2) is arbitrary, so that 3) is needed in order to tie them together.
Observe that Saussure leaves undefined here the notion of meaning and/or of the
concept. by means of his definition of the sign as the union of a sound-pattern
and a meaning, he rejects the view that the meaning of a term is to be defined in
terms of what the sign refers to (self-evidently, proper names and uniquely iden-
tifying descriptions are the paradigmatic examples here). Saussure refers to this
view as nomenclaturism; its primeval model is how in Genesis God (or Adam)
gave names to all things in the world. So within the nomenclaturist model you
have, first, things in the world and only afterwards the names you can give to
them, plus their eventual meanings. So we have been born in a world consisting
of individual things, before we hit upon the idea that this is what the world is like,
which is, needless to say, a typically metaphysical claim. Self-evidently, Saussure
would have called Freges theory of the sign nomenclaturist, and he would have
said the same about Quines and davidsons efforts to derive meaning from truth.
After having so ruthlessly cut through the ties between words and things,
Saussure was obliged to explain where meaning comes from now that its origins
cannot be found in the true statements we formulate about the world. The decisive
fact here is that Saussure defines meaning in terms of other meaningshence,
not in terms of anything lying outside meaning itself. This is the crucial step
because meaning now becomes the primary term in semantics from which others
can be derived:
In a given language, all the words which express neighbouring ideas help define one
anothers meaning. Each of a set of synonyms like redouter (to dread), craindre (to
fear), avoir peur (be afraid) has its particular value only because they stand in contrast
with each other. If redouter (to dread) did not exist, its content would be shared out
amongst its competitors. On the other hand, words are also enriched by contact with other
In sum, if a word, a sentence, or a representation possesses a meaning, this is
because other words, sentences, and representations have a meaning; the same is
true for these others, and so on ad infinitum. Observe that the definition of mean-
ing is not at stake here, but the question how in the interaction among different
meanings they may take on their contours in specific cases. Hence the question
here is: if there exist, or rather, supposing that there exist such things as meanings,
how can we then establish in concrete cases what they are like? Again, meaning
cannot be defined since there is nothing outside meaningand more basic than
meaning itselfin terms of which such a definition could be given. but meaning
has no source outside itself. However, this does not exclude the possibility of
establishing how meanings crystallize out in the interaction between meanings.
The nice thing about it all is that there happens to be no better example to illus-
trate Saussures argument than the writing of history. As every historian knows,
the differences and similarities between a set of representations of, for example,
the Enlightenment or the Cold War to a large extent fix the meaning of each of
them. Representational meaning is relational. So much so that if one were to
have only one representation its meaning would be wholly indeterminatejust as
we may experience the absence of wind as the wind coming from any direction.
Only if one can compare several representations of a certain historical phenom-
enon with one another may one become susceptible to what is peculiar to each of
themand, hence, to what their meaning is.
It is as if you have a pile of very
soft cushions, where the form of all of them is changed to some extent by each
new cushion that is thrown on that pile. The cushions need one another to have
any more or less fixed form at all. It is the presence of other cushions weighing
upon them that gives them the form and consistency they have. So a representa-
tion without any rival representations disintegrates into its constitutive individual
sentences. Inversely, each representation of part of the past that is added to an
19. Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, transl. and annotated by Roy Harris
(London: duckworth, 1983), 114.
20. For a further elucidation and for how the argument in question can be related to Leibnizs
monadology, see my Narrative Logic (The Hague/boston: Martinus Nijhoff, 1983), 239-241.
already existing set will help refine the semantic contours of all the others in that
(always open) set. This is why we may agree with Saussures claim that mean-
ings may enrich one another. Self-evidently, since clarity about the meaning
of a representation of the past is conditional for any pronouncement about its
representational truth (as defined in the previous chapter), semantic enrichment
is so as well.
Finally, there is the question of how to move from representational meaning to
truth and reference. Again Saussure is quite helpful here:
For Saussure, the meaning of any linguistic sign is not isolable from that of other signs
in la langue. This is because he envisages a language as a system of signs held together
by chains of syntagmatic and associative relations. Syntagmatic relations he describes
as relations in praesentia: in the phrase my house the individual signs my and house are
syntagmatically related. Such relations are invariably expressed in the dimension of lin-
earity, even though they are not linear relations as such. Associative relations Saussure
describes as relations in absentia: in my house the individual sign my is associatively
related to you, his, her etc., while the sign house is associatively related to home, domicile,
dwelling, apartment etc. The phrase my house thus represents a syntagmatically organised
selection from a large range of associatively organised possibilities made available by the
So meanings can be systematized in two ways, syntagmatically or associa-
tively (or paradigmatically, as one preferably says since Jakobson). Syntag-
matic ordering puts different things metonymically together as in the case with
the statement. For example, the syntagmatic combination of meanings in my
house can effortlessly be transformed into the statement this is my house.
Paradigmatic ordering is, on the contrary, metaphorical and is restricted to the
interaction of meanings.
Since representations are metaphorical (see section IV) and resist being fitted
within the model of the statement (see section III), they permit of a paradigmatic,
but not of a syntagmatic ordering. Nevertheless, the demarcation line between
these two ways of ordering can be transgressedthough with the all-important
reservation that each such transgression is, basically, illegitimate. In the first
place, one can sin against the commandment to respect the distinction between
the represented and the presented by conflating representeds and presenteds. Pre-
senteds and aspects are then upgraded to things in the historical past. This will
give us so-called speculative philosophies of history. Thus, for Toynbee, civiliza-
tions were objects in the past whose histories one could write just as if one were
writing a biography of Napoleon or Churchill, and so it was with Marxs notion
of the socioeconomic class. but there is a second possibility. Suppose that the
debate about, for example, the Renaissance were to go on for a thousand more
years, that all the relevant historical material were to be analyzed and considered
from each conceivable perspective. Suppose, furthermore, that this results in a
universal consensus among historians about how the Renaisance should be seen,
so that the word Renaissance now has for each of them the same meaning. At
21. Roy Harris, Language, Saussure, and Wittgenstein: How to Play Games With Words (London
and New York: Routledge, 1988), 23. Observe that in the last sentence of this quote Harriss sug-
gestion is that syntagmatic ordering is a specific case of associative ordering. If this interpretation is
correct, Saussures model of the two axes should be replaced by that of a set and a subset of that set.
that moment the word Renaissance will have acquired a fixed meaning, just
like words such as Antarctica or the galaxy, that can be defined in dictionar-
ies without eliciting dissent from historians (or from any other competent user of
the English language). Then it will be possible to make true statements about the
Renaissance just as one can about tables, trees, or cats and dogs. The regime of
words, their denotation and connotation and of propositional truth has then taken
the place of that of representational meaning.
As it is with propositional and representational truth, so it is here. One only
gets from the one to the other after transgressing a demarcation lineand by now
we know where to situate that demarcation line and what its nature is. but if the
demarcation line is transgressed, representational meaning is transformed into
propositional truth and reference.
There are two levels for evaluating this essay. First, one can focus on shortcom-
ings and flaws in my argument. Since the path staked out in this essay has not
been walked down before, I readily concede that more things may have gone
wrong here than in the case of subject matters that have been worked through
in every conceivable way already. So I readily concede that there will be errors
in my argument. Second, however, one may ask oneself whether this essay puts
a problem on the agenda deserving closer attention. More concretely, are the
problems occasioned by what I have referred to here as historical representation
wholly reducible to those occasioned by the true statement and the kind of lan-
guage used in the (exact) sciences? Or should we decide, instead, that philosophy
of language will have to be supplemented by a closer philosophical reflection on
historical representation because the former focus will not help us out when we
try to get to grips with the latter? That the answer to this latter question can only
be affirmative is the claim I have defended here. If the reader if willing to grant
me this, this essay will already have served its purposes.
I end with a remark on the implications of my argument for the philosophy
of history. discussing historical representations requires us to consider histori-
cal texts as a wholeand not just parts or components of it. Thanks to Hayden
Whites Metahistory it is now generally acknowledged that the philosophical
problems occasioned by the historical text as a whole cannot be adequately
understood if the text is reduced to its constituent parts. However, White did not
have much interest in the cognitive dimensions of the historical text; he rarely,
if ever, discussed in detail the issue of the meaning, truth, and reference of the
historical text as a whole. As far as I know, the issue has not been addressed by
othershence this essay.
So since White, philosophy of history has become stuck in a peculiar halfway
position, and the obsession with the literary dimensions of the historical text fur-
ther contributed to philosophy of historys failure to deal with the issue. On the
one hand, it is recognized that the historical text needs to be taken seriously in it
own right, but on the other, the cognitive dimensions of the historical textor of
historical representationhave been allowed to remain unexplored.
Research into the nature of the cognitive claims made by the historian in cur-
rent philosophy of history still obeys what I referred to in my introduction as
the gravitational pull of the sentence. (Logical-)positivists, hermeneuticists (of
either Anglo-Saxon or German pedigree), philosophers of language, and ordinary
language philosophers all focus on the components of the historical texts and on
what can be said about the past in terms of isolated true sentences.

One may think of two explanations for this state of affairs. Obedience to the
gravitational pull gave philosophers of history, adhering to any of these denomi-
nations, an easy and most welcome access to an already existing wealth of epis-
temological and ontological insights. It is only human that many succumbed to
the temptation to exploit that wealthhowever, with the unintended result to
further reinforce the paradigm of the true statement again at the expense of that
of the historical text or representation. One appealed to these insights because of
their respectability, while failing to notice that they did not really pertain to the
problem in question. The desire to associate with the great names in philosophy
is truly irrepressible. One is reminded of the drunkard who was looking for the
keys to his home not in front of the door to his house where he had lost them, but
under a lamppost because he had better light there.
A more profound explanation can be given with an appeal to Louis Minks
notion of Universal History, which I would not hesitate to applaud as the deep-
est insight achieved in philosophy of history since World War II. The main idea
here is that we believe the past to be an untold story and that historians try to
approximate as much as possible with their histories. Now, the absolutely crucial
aspect in Minks argument is that this belief is unconscious: we are unaware of
this belief (hence Minks effort
to awaken us from our dogmatic slumbers, to
use the right terminology here).
Put differently, we are story-blind (in much the
same way that someone looking at a painting might believe that he is looking at
reality itself
) and therefore believe that just getting the facts straight is enough
as is, of course, typically done by means of true statements about the past. This
may explain, then, why (logical-)positivists, hermeneuticists e tutti quanti never
felt any urge to seriously think about the historical text and historical representa-
tion. Paradoxically, since everyone unconsciously is a representationalist every-
one could forget about representation.
22. As far as I can see, the only exceptions to this rule are phenomenologists (Paul Ricoeur and
david Carr) and dialecticians (Fredric Jameson). However, what they say about the historical text as
a whole emasculates the texts cognitive powers by tacitly (Ricoeur) or explicitly (Carr, Jameson)
subscribing to Minks notion of Universal History to be discussed in a moment.
23. Minks argument about Universal History has never been challengedas far as I knowand
yet Im convinced that most historians and philosophers of history still believe in it. At least, they
argue as if they do.
24. Yet the idea that the past itself is an untold story has retreated from the arena of conscious
belief and controversy to habituate itself as a presupposition in that area of our apriori conceptual
framework which resists explicit statement and examination. See Louis O. Mink, Historical Under-
standing, ed. brian Fay, Eugene O. Golob, and Richard T. Vann (Ithaca, NY, and London: Cornell
University Press, 1987), 194.
25. What I have described elsewhere as the Magritte conception of history. See Ankersmit,
Meaning, Truth, and Reference in Historical Representation (Ithaca, NY, and London: Cornell Uni-
versity Press, 2012), 192-196.
To conclude, obeying the gravitational pull is required if we wish to clarify
the epistemological and ontological dimensions of the components of the his-
torical text, but it is absolutely fatal to any effort to explore representation as a
cognitive instrument.
Groningen, The Netherlands