Investigating the Extent to Which Historians Can 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. The moral entanglement
resulting from such an approach is not difficult to imagine.
This essay will attempt to examine (some) historian’s views on
objectivity, within these two extremes, but the limited word count
necessitates the exclusion of others (White, Collingwood).
Can objective “facts” exist in history? Even when a historian only
presents the “facts”, would they not reflect their personal
consciousness? Even their personal writing style might mirror this.
Also, historians have been known to be deliberately selective about
which facts they present and which they don’t. It could be argued that
facts in history are never “pure” – they come to us distorted,
refracted by the writers’ own interpretation. This means that the
reader must in turn also be selective, critical and analytical about
the “facts” presented to them. The readers’ own understanding is
formed by their own political, ideological or moral consciousness.
Leopold Von Ranke advocated historical objectivity. His approach was
to avoid applying the spirit, modes of thought, wisdom and beliefs of
the present to the events of the past – this is known as historicism
and was pioneered by Giovanni Battista Vico – by only using
contemporary accounts and records. His tagline became Wei es
eigentlich gewesen (How it actually happened). Ranke distrusted
historical textbooks, and argued that primary rather than secondary
sources should be used. Arthur Marwick has slightly similar views
regarding the nature...