Hayden White borrows the title for The Practical Past from philosopher Michael Oakeshott, who used the term to describe the accessible material and literary-artistic artifacts that individuals and institutions draw on for guidance in quotidian affairs. The Practical Past, then, forms both a summa of White’s work to be drawn upon and a new direction in his thinking about the writing of history.
White’s monumental Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (1973) challenged many of the commonplaces of professional historical writing and wider assumptions about the ontology of history itself. It formed the basis of his argument that we can never recover “what actually happened”in the past and cannot really access even material culture in context. Forty years on, White sees “professional history" as falling prey to narrow specialization, and he calls upon historians to take seriously the practical past of explicitly “artistic” works, such as novels and dramas, and literary theorists likewise to engage historians.