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To what extent can historians be objective?

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Introduction

To what extent can historians be objective? 'You have reckoned that history ought to judge the past and to instruct the contemporary world as to the future. The present attempt does not yield to that high office. It will merely tell you how it really was' - Leopold Von Ranke 'There are no facts, only interpretations' - Nietzsche Here we encounter two diametrically opposed views concerning objectivity. It can be argued that "true" objectivity cannot exist, as history is more exposed to differing interpretations than any other discipline and to be "factual", dispassionate or truly objective would be at best unrealistic and at worst impossible. Historians, in their selective analysis of the past on the basis of surviving historical records and evidence, draw conclusions, which must necessarily be subject to their own individual interpretations - interpretations that are in turn subject to the historians' own individual ideologies. The fact that history is constantly being rewritten is testimony to the impossibility of attaining "true" objectivity. On the other hand, "true" subjectivity would constitute a threat to history itself as a discipline - the logical outcome of this would be to grant every historian his or her own perspective, no matter how out of synch with the "truth" it might be. ...read more.

Middle

Even so, using primary source data only does not necessarily result in objectivity as primary records are just as prone to their writer's personal preconceptions and can suffer from selectivity or even censorship. A Russian journalist close to the events of the 1917 Revolution could hardly have been expected to publish an uncensored, impartial account. Even film and photographs can be staged. In response to postmodernist views that historians' writings are invariably present-minded and therefore always subjective, Sir Geoffrey Elton maintains that historical study should be separated from the present - the writer should not be 'at the centre of the historical reconstruction' and should 'escape from his prejudices and preconceptions'. However, Elton concedes that, whilst the historian should aim for this detached subjectivity, their work is 'processed through [their] mind and pen'; therefore some degree of objectivity is always present. 1 Howard Zinn acknowledges that historical writing involves selecting, from an often-vast amount of source data, what will be presented. The writers' choice will depend on what they deem to be important or relevant to what they are writing. ...read more.

Conclusion

Carr argues that particular societies that historians belong to invariably shape their particular views or opinions on the past. This could be taken to mean that a truly objective historical enquiry cannot exist - how could it, under these circumstances? Carr goes further, stating: 'Great history is written precisely when the historian's vision of the past is illuminated by insights into the problems of the present'.3 Here, the "dialogue" is moving from the present to the past (events in society at the time of writing are influencing how the writer interprets the facts before them). Carr believes that it is equally important for the "dialogue" to move from the past to the present - here emphasis here is on learning from the past, history as a guide to future actions. Carr (like Zinn) assigns the utmost importance to historical study - he sees the historian as having a duty to analyse and interpret relevant historical facts, and the causal links between them, for the purpose of making 'fruitful generations'.4 Trevor Roper in a 1957 lecture agreed, saying history without usefulness is "mere antiquarianism", adding that history without controversy is "dead". To Carr, objectivity is not desirable - a good historian should be selective, and good historical writing is a product of subjectivity. ...read more.

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