Monday, September 3, 2007

In Abstract: Understanding Objectivity in History

The goal of the historian is to look at the past through an objective lens, to analyze and explain events without prejudgment or bias. How did this idea begin? The text I am reading for historiography, "Telling the Truth About History", offers an intriguing perspective: that science and history, two very different disciplines, are inextricably linked and that the answer to this question lies in the Enlightenment. The complementary reading, Peter Novick's "That Noble Dream", also identifies the origins of objectivity with science, though his book does not begin with the Enlightenment but rather with the professionalizing of history. What is the link between history and science? For the is a link, and a strong one, because the final degree in history is a doctorate.

Leopold von Ranke is famous among historians as being the father of objectivity. Before there were doctoral programs in American universities, American graduate students traveled to Germany to study history and the scientific method. The scientific method began during the Enlightenment, as evidenced in Newtonian physics and Baconian methodology. Ranke never taught any American graduate students, and few of them ever actually read his pamphlets, and yet he gained a reputation for absolute objectivity that borders on the mythological. The mythology followed these historians back to America, where they formulated ideas on an 'objective truth' which could be identified, quantified and agreed upon based on a thorough reading of sources. In an ideal world, an objective world, every historian could read the same source and come up with the same conclusion.

Two major incidences challenged this notion. The first was World War I, in which hyperpatriotism had led many historians to compromise their own objectivity. After this war, the first "revisionists" begin to appear. A declared war between two historians, Schiff and Barnes, is a good example as to why objectivity clearly didn't work the way it was supposed to. Schiff and Barnes both wrote histories on the origins of World War I using similar sources and methodologies, but came to two completely different conclusions. Barnes believed Russia and France were the top two to blame or starting the war while Schiff thought Germany and Austria were clearly at fault. This rift among Europeanists led to a similar rift among Americanists when it came to the Civil War. Up until that point, Reconstruction had been declared a terrible mistake and slavery a clear result of science (scientific racism identified blacks as an inferior people) by Northern historians as part of an attempt to achieve a national consensus. This consensus fell apart when Marxists and black historians began reinterpreting the history surrounding the Civil War.

Objectivity experienced a resurgence during World War II when a nationalist fervor seemed to unite all of America against the forces of totalitarianism. But post-war years led a to a resurgence of dissent that ended with post-modernism, a bleak outlook on history that argued there was no such thing as the truth, and any attempt at objectivity was doomed to failure. A historian, post-modernists declared, could not step out of the social, cultural and political indoctrination which he/she was naturally inclined to make clinical observations about the nature of history. In spite of the wide spread use of this method, no post-modernist history of the world has ever been written; it remains little more than an interpretive outlook. It is perhaps no coincidence that post-modernism emerged right around the time that science began to lose its heroism among populations. The dropping of the atomic bomb, and the use of technology (under the premise of scientific racism) to exterminate a race of people during the Holocaust shook the faith of millions of people. Science had proven itself to be a tool of humanity, and subject to human error and fallacy. It was not in and of itself objective.

Objectivity still plays a significant role in history. Any good historian will attempt to "step outside themselves" and report on past events with as little bias as possible. At the same time, every good historian will acknowledge the existence of their bias, however undetectable it might be, and recognize that that bias will affect what they write, what they read and how they interpret. The goal then, is not a perfect truth. It is merely a small piece of a larger picture: each person can only present one perspective, and taken quantitatively, this multitude of perspectives is history.