Should historians even strive to be objective?

Jul 2017
201
Srpska
#14
Here is one of the statements:

"Multiple, conflicting perspectives are among the truths of history. Everyone who comes to the study of history brings with them a host of identities, experiences, and interests that cannot help but affect the questions they ask of the past and the sources they consult to answer those questions. No single objective or universal account could ever put an end to this endless creative dialogue within and between the past and the present.
...
Historians celebrate intellectual communities governed by mutual respect and constructive criticism. The preeminent value of such communities is reasoned discourse—the continuous colloquy among historians holding diverse points of view who learn from each other as they pursue topics of mutual interest.
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Historians should practice their craft with integrity. They should honor the historical record. They should document their sources. They should acknowledge their debts to the work of other scholars. They should respect and welcome divergent points of view even as they argue and subject those views to critical scrutiny. They should remember that our collective enterprise depends on mutual trust. And they should never betray that trust."


Key Points: HONOR THE RECORD
On debating: PROCEED WITH MUTUAL RESPECT AND CONSTRUCTIVE CRITICISM.
 
Feb 2011
6,343
#15
A story from the Zuo Zhuan:
The grand scribe wrote, 'Cui Zhu assassinated his ruler.' Cui Zhu put him to death. The scribe's younger brothers continued to write the same thing, and so two more persons were killed. Another younger brother again wrote it, whereupon Cui Zhu desisted. The scribe of the south, having heard that the grand scribes had all died, clutched the bamboo strips and went to court. He heard that the record had already been made and thus returned.
 
Jul 2018
497
Hong Kong
#16
Whether objective or not, one thing is most important : Integrity (do not fabricate something did not happen ; state your opinions based on evidence and facts). If what historians want to write in some parts is lack of source, then some extent of reasonable presumption / assumption could be accepted. One of the most evident examples is the biography of Ona Judge Staines (female slave absconded from US President Washington's Mansion) — information was very limited due to her lowly social status and the age she was in (if not because of her 1845 and 1847 interviews, we know almost nothing about her) — Owing to this, many readers accused Erica Armstrong Dunbar who wrote the biography "did not conduct adequate research" and "did too much assumption" ; I think this is very unfair for her!She did do a lot of extensive research and preparation and had much knowledge specialized in Black American Studies, women's history and US history.
 
Apr 2018
813
Upland, Sweden
#17
This is an interesting question. I think the truth is important, and that historians should strive to always be a respectful of the truth. It is imperative that historians do not to outright lie or try to mislead.

With that being said though, history is not exactly an empirical science. The evidence will always require interpretation one way or another. If one is well read enough and has an agenda, one can find a source to prove literally anything - this is especially true of those who rely too much on secondary sources (I myself do this more than I would like). Everyone has convictions, and these convictions will influence your interpretations of the facts. Ideally these convictions stem from historical truths (or other kinds of truths) rather than just being figments of your imagination, but hey - we're all human beings, so...

I also think there might be a conflict between objectivity and truthfulness. Historians who are able to keep themselves completely dispassionate in the face of truth are somewhat suspicious to me. Just because you have more sources than a reader can verify in a lifetime and the most boring tone in the world does not make your argument convincing, nor what you say more in line with actual historical truth wie es eigentlich gewesen. If you remain emotionally unmoved by the facts, do you really care about them? Skepticism is important, but "if you believe in nothing you can believe anything" as they say. There is also the case that the more complex you make an interpretation, the more disastrous for your reasoning is one logical misstep likely to be. There is no point in making things more nuanced and complicated than you have to, also because simpler narratives are more honest about what they mean and easily grasped by the reader. It is - I like to think - similar to the tax-code, the more you complicate it, the more loopholes and room for manipulation there tends to be.

History is not an exact science, and should not pretend to be. People will draw conclusions from history anyway, and the only thing that happens when historians become overly complicated is that lay-people stop caring about the actual historians. This seems to have happened in the West I think, where historical literacy is perhaps lower than ever (historical or pseudo-historical interest is very high, especially in popular culture) - and the academy has broadly speaking become more and more esoteric, more and more theoretical and more and more removed from the historical issues and questions that most people care about.

A historian who is open about what they like and what they dislike I can respect - even more someone with a sense of irony, and who can communicate to the reader that he or she is aware that his convictions are perhaps too emotional, and is honest with this. I for example, while far from an actual historian have a perhaps too intense irrational dislike of horse archers and various nomadic tribes. I am unlikely to stop having this dislike just because someone brings up a lot of arguments in their favour about how "adaptable" or "close to nature" these cultures were. I still find their style of warfare weak and dishonorable, and their cultures primitive, irritating and deserving of domination.
 
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Apr 2018
813
Upland, Sweden
#18
Either what I said or you could go all out "empirical", and stop trying to create narratives at all. Instead just do your best to chronicle things. There is a certain brutal honesty in that, but I couldn't do it... I think few could. Besides, what should you chronicle? Everything? Events? People? What is an event? Etc. You instantly end up with all sorts of logical problems.

When this approach is possible I suppose it could be quite fruitful however. It would make historians a bit like less mathemtically literate accountants...
 
Feb 2011
6,343
#19
NordicDemosthenes said:
Just because you have more sources than a reader can verify in a lifetime and the most boring tone in the world does not make your argument convincing
Yes it does, especially if they are arguing with those who are full of emotion but no sourcing, ie evidence. Whether the evidence is boring or not is irrelevant, what's relevant is if the evidence is provided. If you want to get to the truth, get the evidence. If you want viewership and sales, go for the emotional appeal.
 
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Apr 2018
813
Upland, Sweden
#20
Yes it does, especially if they are arguing with those who are full of emotion but no sourcing, ie evidence. Whether the evidence is boring or not is irrelevant, what's relevant is if the evidence is provided. If you want to get to the truth, get the evidence. If you want viewership and sales, go for the emotional appeal.
I disagree. Clarity of thought is much more important than the ability to cite everything that was ever written by someone in the field. I think the right approach to these things is to make a bold hypothesis, find out it's wrong - then make another bold hypothesis. Succesively your hypotheses will become less bold, but at least it will be clear to yourself and to others what it is you are actually trying to prove. Also you'll have a lot more fun, at least I think so.

"Evidence" is only evidence up to a point. As I said, if you are well read enough you can prove anything using "evidence" by ignoring things that are obviously true - or perhaps even convincing yourself these obvious truths are not so obvious - and instead throwing up an infinite amount of smokescreens to confuse your reader. It's not the quantity of evidence that matters but the quality of it, and the fact that it is essential. No source is much better than a bad or at best semi-relevant source in my opinion. Of course good sources are essential, but history is not a natural science, and the fact that someone wrote something about a subject matter at some point does not constitute "evidence" in and of itself. Evidence of what? In what way? History is very complicated, and there are few things we can really know, especially if you start making narratives and trying to see causality everywhere. Those few things we can know however I think we should stick to very severely, and try to work our way from there. Sometimes deduction can be a powerful method in and of itself, after all the point of history is not studying sources but rather in studying history. A source is a tool, just like archaeology is a tool, or in the future maybe genetic science or environmental science or data science can be a tool...

Sometimes the truth sells, sometimes it doesn't. There is a middleground here, and I find it very interesting that previous generations of historians often found a much easier time getting popular recognition without that hurting their credentials in the academy or among other "professional" historians. Sure, society has changed as well, but I think modern historical academic scholarship has in some ways painted itself into the corner it now is in today.
 

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