History's demarcation problem

History and Theory 51 (2):270-279 (2012)

In his 1998 book Heterocosmica: Fiction and Possible Worlds, Lubomír Doležel put forth a theory of narrative fiction based on the interdisciplinary framework of possible worlds. In Possible Worlds of Fiction and History: The Postmodern Stage, Doležel takes his earlier theory further and applies it to historiography as well, with the specific aim of showing how the study of history might be defended against the postmodern challenge via the use of possible worlds semantics. Doležel's book is essentially an argument against the postmodern views expressed by Roland Barthes and Hayden White, who have claimed that fundamentally, there is no difference between fictional and historical narratives. According to Doležel, this difference can be saved if the focus of attention is shifted from the textual features of these narratives to the fictional or historical worlds that the narratives project.Doležel's comparison of fictional and historical worlds to each other is quite illuminating and thorough. However, the question remains whether the application of PW semantics does anything besides offering a detailed analysis of the structure of the different types of narrative worlds. After all, one should not overlook the perhaps more practical way of differentiating between historical and fictional narratives through their institutional status. Furthermore, we argue that by focusing on the properties of the end products, that is, the resulting narratives, Doležel concedes too much to postmodernists. A stronger way to give postmodernists a taste of their own medicine would be to argue that the rules that historians follow in the process of generating, constructing, and evaluating weighed causal explanations are fundamentally different from whatever rules govern the generation and construction of fiction
Keywords counterfactual history  narrative history  postmodernism  historical fiction  possible worlds semantics
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DOI 10.1111/j.1468-2303.2012.00625.x
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