Published online by Cambridge University Press: 02 March 2021
One of the most interesting metahistorical investigations would be an inquiry into the great historical rhythms.Ortega y Gasset
What is a “metahistory”?
When one organizes the events over periods of years, and gives it an appellation such as “Modernism,” the organization of facts is guided by concepts and values discerned throughout these periods, comparable facts sufficient to call it an “era,” or an “epoch,” or other terms that insist on the shared aspects of those years, regardless of differences seen as well over the span considered. One can call such an effort a “metahistory,” in that what is tracked is not merely human events that are political, economic, ideological, sociological or other disciplinary descriptors, but an overview that critically links all the years under consideration. Even more, to have a “metahistory” is to discern how the people of eras, epochs or the other organizational labels thought. Human history is generated by choices, choices informed by intuitions and more intentional understandings. One of the aspects I will dwell upon in this “metahistory” of Modernism is the presence of “perspective,” how one sees in a time what is there to be addressed and dealt with. Perspectives can be poorly informed or in their very nature not adequate for a sufficient knowledge of what is addressed, even as one must as a human judge what faces one. To discern from evidence how one's perspective configures an event is the “meta” of “metahistory.” To have “meta” knowledge is this comprehension of the scope and benefits, yet limitations, of one's “perspective” and that of others. Only a historian interested in such perspectives can be called a “metahistorian.”
Wilhelm Dilthey wrote of metahistorical rhythms in history earlier than Ortega y Gasset, while not using the concept explicitly. The metaphorical “historical rhythms” meant for Ortega y Gasset as well as Dilthey how humans individually and collectively perceived and acted toward what was necessary in formulating the problems and necessary actions of a time in a society, yet also the changing emphases that created a “rhythm.” What is a “historical rhythm”?