A metanarrative is a theory of history that is said to move in a specific direction and, on the strength of which, confident predictions about the future can be made. Metanarratives have also been called Grand Narratives, or Master Narratives (usually complete with capital letters) and the philosopher Karl Popper spoke of historicism in the same context. The critical factor in a metanarrative, and what distinguishes it from a historical perspective, is the blending of the historical account into an assertion about how the future will unfold.
Several great systems of thought have articulated, or at least assumed, a historical narrative. Marxism and Christianity, for instance, both involve a metanarrative. For example, Christianity speaks of a creator God who made the world and then placed Adam and Eve in it as the most important products of that Creation. Eve’s sin meant the expulsion of them and their progeny from paradise and into the world of sin, suffering, and death. People were then offered a way out of this condition when God sent his only son as savior, so those who believe in his salvific efficacy would be saved from death and live in bliss in heaven for eternity. Eventually history will be brought to a close when, at some time in the future, Jesus Christ returns (the Second Coming) to judge the living and the dead and confer punishments and rewards as appropriate. This is a metanarrative in that the theory of history blends seamlessly into a prediction about the future.
Metanarratives have been around for a long time. Ancient and medieval writers frequently spoke in terms of history being a succession of ages. In 725 CE, the Venerable Bede (673-735 CE) wrote of the ages of man in his De Temporum Ratione (On the Reckoning of Time). Bede followed the most popular route, thinking in terms of the four ages of man. This goes back to the Pythagorean numerology and to the association of the number four with the four seasons, the four cardinal directions, and the four original elements as outlined in Greek philosophy.
In the 12th century, the idea that human history is in fact punctuated by seven ages became more popular. Unlike the four-ages theory, the seven-ages theory was astrological in origin, working on Ptolemy’s seven-planet (including the sun and moon) cosmos. It is most memorably recalled for us now in Shakespeare’s As You Like It (act II, scene 7).
The extraordinary appeal of Marxism in the 19th and 20th centuries lay in the secular treatment it gave to what was fundamentally a religious metanarrative, with its confident belief that socialism would, in the future, be replaced by communism, which will mean that all material contradictions and inequalities will have been resolved.
Metanarratives found their most enthusiastic critics in postmodernist thinkers. Postmodernism was not so much a coherent philosophical movement as a diffuse mood. It remains influential in some humanities’ disciplines but, since the second half of the 1990s, has faded from prominence in most areas. The classic definition of postmodernism was given by the French thinker Jean-François Lyotard as “incredulity toward metanarratives.” This seemingly reasonable idea was promptly undermined, however, when Lyotard made it clear he did not mean incredulity at all, but outright opposition. It was also apparent that Lyotard was, if unwittingly, assuming a metanarrative of his own. A few sentences after talking of incredulity, Lyotard spoke of “the obsolescence of the metanarrative apparatus” and the time “after metanarratives.”
The postmodernist hostility to metanarratives was expressed even more openly by Patricia Waugh. In her introductory essay to an influential anthology of postmodernist ideas, Waugh went further than Lyotard when she added that postmodernism was about the “abandonment of all metanarratives which could legitimate foundations for truth.” More than this, Waugh also declared metanarratives were no longer even desirable. Another influential postmodernist, Zygmunt Bauman, spoke of modernity as a “long march to prison,” one that was being undone by the “second Copernican revolution” of postmodernist thought, led by Martin Heidegger. And the most radical postmodernists spoke in terms of modernity having been vanquished and the theories that sustained it destroyed, leaving modernity redundant, never to be brought back. At whichever point they were located along the postmodern spectrum of thought, it appeared that, however much they declared their incredulity toward metanarratives, it seemed postmodernists could not free themselves from them.
Much more effective criticism of metanarratives came from Karl Popper’s book The Poverty of Historicism. Written in 1935, it was not translated into English until 1957 but quickly established itself as influential after that. The key weakness of historicism, Popper argued, was to equate laws of development with absolute trends, which were arrived at by some metaphysical necessity. The historicist went on, Popper claimed, to want to change the course of history by virtue of superior knowledge of the dialectic of history. But this was to put the cart before the horse. While history needs to be written from a preconceived point of view, Popper wrote, this does not mean the historian’s preconceived points of view should be taken as historical laws.
Others have wished to retain a place for metanarratives, even if only for their symbolic power. Some feminist thinkers, for instance, have been fiercely critical of the wish to jettison historical accounts of the progressive emancipation of women from patriarchal oppression. By dismissing such an important struggle as simply an arching tale, these critics suggest, the historical reality of those emancipations is jeopardized.
See also Bede the Venerable, Saint; Bible and Time;
Language; Marx, Karl; Popper, Karl R.; Postmodernism
Bauman, Z. (1993). Intimations of postmodernity.
London & New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul. Lyotard, J.-F. (1988). The postmodern condition: A
report on knowledge. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Popper, K. (1957). The poverty of historicism. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Waugh, P. (1994). Postmodernism: A reader. London: Edward Arnold.