Can History Be Objective?

Sep 2015
1,762
England
"X" political and /or economic control was waxing
they engaged in an affrontment with their neighbor "Y" whose control was waning
this confrontation resulted in a military campaign
the outcome was determined by both sides technology , logistics , the terrain and the ability of their respective commands
more or less
this is pretty solid facts , the motivations and long term results can and are discussed
the objective results are more clear cut
But we can adopt an impartial approach to any question in history.
 
Sep 2015
1,762
England
Approach to history can be objective, but history itself - as a result of that approach - never can be. History is what we see in a mirror, darkly. It is necessarily warped, by a lack of sources, by subjectivity of those same sources... and those holes have to be filled through interpretation. Interpretation is automatically subjective. Of course, that does not mean that objective history, as an ideal, must not be sought; we just have to accept that it can never be achieved, only approached.
Of course it can. If an objective approach is adopted the result de facto is impartial.

Deaing with the subjectivity of sources is one of the skills in jugdement of the historian. The holes might be filled by talking about those holes, about an apparent lack of further evidence, again, especially evident when reading ancient history. Interpretation in this context is automatically an educated guess; which might be presented as an educated guess; which might be left as, as far as we can surmise... etc.

Being objective is being impartial, so it is not beyond the capacity of the human being to be just that, in a piece of writing. We are called upon to be impartial as part of the everyday life of society: jury service, arbitrators, umpires, referees, commentators, teachers dealing with children misbehaving and in dispute shall we say, mothers and fathers between their own children etc etc. Are teachers or professors when writing (or teaching) suddenly, technically, absolutely, genetically, incapable of being impartial?

What would reasonable (and reasonably intelligent) people think, in a reasonable everyday state of mind?
 
Oct 2011
195
Croatia
Of course it can. If an objective approach is adopted the result de facto is impartial.

Deaing with the subjectivity of sources is one of the skills in jugdement of the historian. The holes might be filled by talking about those holes, about an apparent lack of further evidence, again, especially evident when reading ancient history. Interpretation in this context is automatically an educated guess; which might be presented as an educated guess; which might be left as, as far as we can surmise... etc.

Being objective is being impartial, so it is not beyond the capacity of the human being to be just that, in a piece of writing. We are called upon to be impartial as part of the everyday life of society: jury service, arbitrators, umpires, referees, commentators, teachers dealing with children misbehaving and in dispute shall we say, mothers and fathers between their own children etc etc. Are teachers or professors when writing (or teaching) suddenly, technically, absolutely, genetically, incapable of being impartial?

What would reasonable (and reasonably intelligent) people think, in a reasonable everyday state of mind?
Subjectivity =/= impartiality. No matter how much research you do, there will always be things you do not know. Context, how you present things, etc. all influence how history is viewed, and you have to fill in the holes as well - so reading of history is always subjective. Even if you try to be objective... when you make decision on what to focus on, you are being subjective; when interpreting evidence, you are being subjective; when presenting your finds, you are being subjective.
 

AlpinLuke

Ad Honoris
Oct 2011
26,204
Italy, Lago Maggiore
Of course it can. If an objective approach is adopted the result de facto is impartial.

Deaing with the subjectivity of sources is one of the skills in jugdement of the historian. The holes might be filled by talking about those holes, about an apparent lack of further evidence, again, especially evident when reading ancient history. Interpretation in this context is automatically an educated guess; which might be presented as an educated guess; which might be left as, as far as we can surmise... etc.

Being objective is being impartial, so it is not beyond the capacity of the human being to be just that, in a piece of writing. We are called upon to be impartial as part of the everyday life of society: jury service, arbitrators, umpires, referees, commentators, teachers dealing with children misbehaving and in dispute shall we say, mothers and fathers between their own children etc etc. Are teachers or professors when writing (or teaching) suddenly, technically, absolutely, genetically, incapable of being impartial?

What would reasonable (and reasonably intelligent) people think, in a reasonable everyday state of mind?
The point is not about the intentions of the historians.

I don't need to mention semiotics to underline that when we "read" a coded message we can interpret it in a certain measure, understanding something slightly different from the message really issued by the author. You could even write a math formalism like M' = M + (1+I), where M' is the received message, M is the issued message and I is the interpretation of the reader. It's evident that if the interpretation is little the received message will be almost identical to the issued one. Usually this is what happens about texts written in a proper language [good English, just to say]. Thinks become a bit more difficult when the language is no more alive or when there is no language at all. In this case some reading keys can help [we could modify the math formalism into M' = M + (1+l-K) where K is the set of reading keays and [obiously] where K<=I.

Unfortunately historians cannot always enjoy a collection of reading keys suitable to avoid to interpret what they've got, so that, to fill in the blanks, they interpret [I don't say interpolate, let's be clear].

The process of interpretation is subjective. In such a situation a historian has got only two options:

1. to say "I don't know"
2. to interpret to build a plausible reconstruction

In both the cases, the important matter is that the historian has to make it clear which is the level of interpretation in his / her work.
 
Sep 2015
1,762
England
We can say that after an attempt to make rationality win and an attempt to make a more "humanistic" approach win, the present situation is that the two attitudes cohabit. If we want to go bach to post-modernism, we could say that after a modernist period and a post-modernist period, today we live in pseudo-modern societies.

In my opinion also historiograply has followed this evolution. And probably we shouldn't be stunned to see, in academic environment, rational and emotional [let's use these two adjective to make things very clear and simple] historical readings cohabiting.

From this pseudo-modern perspective, to expect history to be impartial and/or objective is a bit optimistic.

@Picard is right, in my opinion, about approach first and then interpretation. And this is why, at the end, I prefer to expect history to be "realistic" [in the sense of pragmatic, not in the sense of objective and impartial], being aware that "reality" depends on our perception of it, so on our awareness.

And about different perspectives, I could remind here a very nice example:

in US they talk about the "American Civil War", in Italy, on history books, it's the "American Secession War".

There is a remarkable difference between the two definitions, with really deep implications about how we read the events.
That ordinary shall we say broadly intelligent people, adopt an approach in trying to understand something/stuff, do so quite naturally in a rational way, but in so doing are reduced to a people with a mere attitude, may one day make sense.

We can also say that modernist and post-modernist thinking has featured, and is featuring in civilisation, but only in that they have their adherents, like a school of thought might have its adherents.

To divide the writing of history into two distinct and separate spheres, between the rational and the emotional is, in my reading of history an error. I have read history books written in the 1950s, the 1940s, the 1920s, the 1910s, and the 1840s, the 1820s, and 1750s (many of us have read something of Gibbon). Here a short exert from the 1840s: 'In 1780 Hyder Ali assembled an army computed to consist of ninety thousand men. The forces had party been disciplined by French officers. He had a more personal quarrel to avenge than his dread of the extension of the English power. The Council of Madras, under sir Thomas Rumbold, had given especial offence to Hyder Ali. His rival in the Carnatic, the nabob of Arcot, was surrounded by English, who were his creditors, and who are accused of having carried on a continued plot in the divan, for the destruction of Hyder Ali. The revenge of the great chief of Mysore has been described in language which makes the soberer colouring of history look pale and ineffective...' And a description of the invasion and advance towards Madras duly follows. It is interesting how the highly emotional state of that description, in fact brings to mind the immediacy and terror (probably) felt by the people who were its victims. The inclusion of my bracket "probably" is also very interesting. It is in one respect somewhat arbitrary, subjective even you might think, but what if we agree to delete it. The sentence now reads a little differently.
 

AlpinLuke

Ad Honoris
Oct 2011
26,204
Italy, Lago Maggiore
That ordinary shall we say broadly intelligent people, adopt an approach in trying to understand something/stuff, do so quite naturally in a rational way, but in so doing are reduced to a people with a mere attitude, may one day make sense.

We can also say that modernist and post-modernist thinking has featured, and is featuring in civilisation, but only in that they have their adherents, like a school of thought might have its adherents.

To divide the writing of history into two distinct and separate spheres, between the rational and the emotional is, in my reading of history an error. I have read history books written in the 1950s, the 1940s, the 1920s, the 1910s, and the 1840s, the 1820s, and 1750s (many of us have read something of Gibbon). Here a short exert from the 1840s: 'In 1780 Hyder Ali assembled an army computed to consist of ninety thousand men. The forces had party been disciplined by French officers. He had a more personal quarrel to avenge than his dread of the extension of the English power. The Council of Madras, under sir Thomas Rumbold, had given especial offence to Hyder Ali. His rival in the Carnatic, the nabob of Arcot, was surrounded by English, who were his creditors, and who are accused of having carried on a continued plot in the divan, for the destruction of Hyder Ali. The revenge of the great chief of Mysore has been described in language which makes the soberer colouring of history look pale and ineffective...' And a description of the invasion and advance towards Madras duly follows. It is interesting how the highly emotional state of that description, in fact brings to mind the immediacy and terror (probably) felt by the people who were its victims. The inclusion of my bracket "probably" is also very interesting. It is in one respect somewhat arbitrary, subjective even you might think, but what if we agree to delete it. The sentence now reads a little differently.
Actually [this is what I'm underlining in this thread] I don't think that today we divide the "writing of history into two distinct and separate spheres, between the rational and the emotional". What I do think is that we have gone beyong modernism and post-modernism entering a realm where the two "attitudes" cohabit: pseudo-modernism.

I do think that the pseudo-modernist approach describes, in the most natural way, what a human perspective is.
 
Sep 2015
1,762
England
Subjectivity =/= impartiality. No matter how much research you do, there will always be things you do not know. Context, how you present things, etc. all influence how history is viewed, and you have to fill in the holes as well - so reading of history is always subjective. Even if you try to be objective... when you make decision on what to focus on, you are being subjective; when interpreting evidence, you are being subjective; when presenting your finds, you are being subjective.
I cannot agree: Dealing with the subjectivity of sources is one of the skills in jugdement of the historian. The holes might be filled by talking about those holes, about an apparent lack of further evidence, again, especially evident when reading ancient history. Interpretation in this context is automatically an educated guess; which might be presented as an educated guess; which might be left as, as far as we can surmise... etc. No, you do not have to fill in those holes. You can talk about them.

In trying to be impartial you are presenting your text as just that, attempting to be impartial. The reading of the same is realised thereby. And in so reading and thinking, an impartial approach has been established.

In a court of law you can interpret evidence with impartiality. Sure there is a defense and a prosecution, but there is also a judge, and a jury... !!! Are they never ever impartial?

Presenting your finds 'in what might appear to be the most innocent of ways is still to privilege that description over another...' (Jenkins 1999). But no, that is just not the case. It is merely a contribution. You may think of it as a candidate or contestant in a contest, and rational argument may follow, unless you are appealing to peoples emotions and prejudices!

Jenkins continues that his book is '...polemical and partisan...'
 
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Sep 2015
1,762
England
The point is not about the intentions of the historians.

I don't need to mention semiotics to underline that when we "read" a coded message we can interpret it in a certain measure, understanding something slightly different from the message really issued by the author. You could even write a math formalism like M' = M + (1+I), where M' is the received message, M is the issued message and I is the interpretation of the reader. It's evident that if the interpretation is little the received message will be almost identical to the issued one. Usually this is what happens about texts written in a proper language [good English, just to say]. Thinks become a bit more difficult when the language is no more alive or when there is no language at all. In this case some reading keys can help [we could modify the math formalism into M' = M + (1+l-K) where K is the set of reading keays and [obiously] where K<=I.

Unfortunately historians cannot always enjoy a collection of reading keys suitable to avoid to interpret what they've got, so that, to fill in the blanks, they interpret [I don't say interpolate, let's be clear].

The process of interpretation is subjective. In such a situation a historian has got only two options:

1. to say "I don't know"
2. to interpret to build a plausible reconstruction

In both the cases, the important matter is that the historian has to make it clear which is the level of interpretation in his / her work.
The key factor in any piece of writing is the impression, in the mind, imparted to the reader.

The quality of an author is a further question, but there are professors extant at the leading universities of the world. If you like, there are none better. And it is an art form.

You appear also to be referring to subliminal messages that exist unnoticed within a text. This is surely highly contentious and very potentially spurious, if anything is.

The equation might read MI = M + (x+I).

Further, to understand something is not necessarily, or by definition, an interpretation; which is evidently a word that has explicitly multiple understandings or difference. And surely chosen "for a reason". In the end all history is a point of reference. This is also reasonable and astute.
 

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