Should historians even strive to be objective?

Feb 2011
6,459
#31
I fully agree with you, HackneyedScribe, but there can be the difficulty (I am not trying to be nit-picking here) of what exactly is meant by "Germany", and what exactly is a "German". In times past, to be a "true" German you had to have a certain ethnic purity. With the continents we can point to the hard natural facts of land masses with sea between them, but all countries are really in the minds of humans (we can decide that certain features such as rivers are borders, but that is essentially arbitrary). Look at how the shape of Germany has changed over the centuries, and how it wasn't properly formed into a single nation that long ago. Not everyone who inhabits Germany is a German, some there have citizenship, some don't. Some people living outside of Germany are nevertheless Germans. Really, people call themselves Germans because they have been told that they are, by an institution called the government that decides who, and who is not, a German.

Again, I am not being argumentative, just pointing out that it takes great care in deciding what are facts and what are human inventions. For example, were the German-speakers in Danzig in 1930, Germans or not?
Whatever definition for "Germany" you are using, evidence is still required to prove or disaprove claims about it. If you find the definition ambivalent, then make clear which definition you are using before providing the evidence which is relevant to that specific definition. The point remains that evidence is needed to draw valid conclusions. Ambivalent definitions only means you require different types of evidence depending on the type of definition you are using, but it doesn't change the fact that valid conclusions require evidence, otherwise the conclusion isn't valid.

Some people do use ambivalent definitions to abuse evidence. As a hypothetical example, showing evidence that Mustang the aircraft could fly, and hence claiming that Mustang the automobile could fly, and using the ambivalent definition to hide the fact that they're two completely different things which shares the same word, and hence what's evidence for the aircraft is completely irrelevant for the automobile. <--- This commits the fallacy of equivocation.
 
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Nov 2016
968
Germany
#32
It's fine for a historian to give both the facts and his opinion, as long as he makes it clear which parts are fact and which parts are opinion. Not everybody does that.
Whether the evidence is boring or not is irrelevant, what's relevant is if the evidence is provided.
Historians should just stick with the facts.
These are not the kind of things I mean by obvious truths.
I believe that the debate, although very interesting in many details, lacks some necessary categories without which the subject of historical science cannot be mastered. These categories are worldview, theory and hypothesis. The theory is based on the one hand on the worldview and operates on the other hand with hypotheses.

A hypothesis, for example, is the assertion mentioned by NordicDemosthenes that anti-Semitism, which was widespread in Germany in the 1920s, made a decisive contribution to Hitler's seizure of power, then he decided that the assertion were not really "obvious". It would have been easier to describe this assertion from the outset as a hypothesis in order to distinguish it from an "obvious evidence", for which he cites the example of the existence of Germany. In the theory of science, a hypothesis is a statement that can be tested by means of experiments or targeted source checks, i.e. in both the natural sciences and the humanities (social sciences, psychology, history, etc.). However, neither experiments in the natural sciences nor tests in the humanities provide the last irrefutable proof of the truth of a hypothesis, but only of the degree of its plausibility or implausibility.

A worldview is philosophical or theological in nature and precedes all research and theory formation. It is impossible for a researcher to carry out his research without any ideological prerequisite, even if he or she is usually unaware of it. A fundamental difference in the approach lies between a theistic-religious and an atheistic view, with which the researcher carries out his research. If, for example, he is a convinced Christian, he will see the Christian sources much more uncritically than many atheistic historians. Examples of such opposing views can be found more than enough in this forum. The same textual sources are interpreted by a Christian as evidence of the historicity of Jesus, which are seen by many (but of course not all) atheists as potential fictions that cannot possibly serve as confirmation of the historicity of Jesus. Another example is the question of what significance the various ancient cults of dying-and-revived gods had for the emergence of the cult of Christ. Christian-oriented researchers will tend to minimize or completely exclude the influence of those cults on the Christian cult, while atheistic historians think they clearly recognize a formative influence.

A very well-known difference in the ideological approach to history is the contrast between the philosophy of history of Hegel and Marx. For Hegel, the world is all spirit and history is the path of his self-recognition. For Marx there is no spirit per se, but only as an effect of the material:

Forms of consciousness no longer retain the appearance of independence. They have no history, they have no development, but the people who develop their material production and their material intercourse change their thinking and the products of their thinking with this reality of their reality. It is not consciousness that determines life, but life that determines consciousness.

Accordingly, Hegel and Marx represent and interpret historical processes quite differently.

Such a contrast in the historical approach is not antiquated and limited to the 19th century, but timeless, even if historians do not always present their views as openly as the two gentlemen mentioned above. Ideological premises of this or other philosophical or political kind determine - consciously or unconsciously - the selection of the material to be presented and interpreted. Marxists attach importance to the elaboration of the class antithesis in societies and to the dynamics of their confrontation, especially in the context of the relations of production. From a Marxist perspective, classes are the protagonists of history. For bourgeois historians, things are more complicated, but this does not necessarily mean that they see things more clearly. As a rule, they have integrated the Marxist perspective into their own inconspicuously, without placing it in the foreground, where they above all place the powerful rulers as actual protagonists of historical processes, in the spirit of bourgeois philosophy, which places the subject at the centre of their ontology.

Another example of contrasting approaches to historical evidence, based on different theoretical or ideological assumptions, can be seen in the exploration of certain phenomena of the Palaeolithic, such as the numerous representations of the vulva in Palaeolithic cave art.

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Researchers who are more conservative and patriarchal see in them mainly sexual motifs, as if they were wall scribbles like in a student toilet. Feminist researchers regard such interpretations as pubertal and contemptuous of women and interpret the representations as symbols of fertility.

The well-known Palaeolithic Venus figurines are interpreted by many conservatives as pleasure objects (for masturbation) or toys for children, while feminist researchers interpret them, like the vulvas, as fertility symbols. Both factions have different theoretical perspectives on the topic: the feminists assume that women in the Palaeolithic were at least equal or even socially superior to men, while the patriarchally oriented researchers consider such a view unrealistic.

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Another reading is that of Lloyd DeMause, who, although a feminist, interprets the Venus figurines in a completely unfeminist negative way:

Indeed, it is likely that most of the misnamed "Venus figurines" found in early caves were in fact raping wands similar to those used in contemporary cults that rape virgins in rituals, with faceless heads shaped like the glans of the penis, bulbous breasts looking just like testicles, a vaginal triangle carefully indicated and covered with red ochre representing the bloody results of the childhood rape.

This extreme negative interpretation results from DeMause's theoretical assumption that children in the Palaeolithic were not only treated very badly after birth, but already suffered bad traumas in the womb and at birth.

We therefore have several very different interpretations of the same evidence, depending on which theoretical preliminary decisions are made.
 
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Aug 2010
16,205
Welsh Marches
#33
Where historians have to rely on archaeological evidence alone, there is relatively free run for speculation with very little control (although one can usually recognize where ideology has got the better of common sense!). But where there is extensive written evidence, the historian's worldview should not normally be the deciding factor in the interpretation of that evidence.
 
Dec 2011
2,348
#35
The point remains that evidence is needed to draw valid conclusions. Ambivalent definitions only means you require different types of evidence depending on the type of definition you are using, but it doesn't change the fact that valid conclusions require evidence, otherwise the conclusion isn't valid.
Yes there are contrasting approaches to historical evidence, but that just means evidence is still required for these approaches. People shouldn't just draw conclusions out of thin air.
Well said HS.