Many nineteenth and early twentieth-century historians have fixated on the idea of objectivity; continually searching for historical truth by seeking out ways to study the past objectively and construct a neutral perception of world’s past. In an attempt to achieve such neutrality, some historians sought out objectivity by trying to fit it into the mold of a science. Particularly during the nineteenth century, “historians had championed an explicitly scientific history, and in doing so they had embarked upon a new and challenging kind of enterprise. Until then, historians chronicled, narrated, and assessed historical events, but they did not cast their methods … in the mold of heroic science”.1 Though some historians still strive to achieve such history, generally historians shifted with “new trends in the writing of history”2 during the 1960s. A time when “social and political transformations dethroned many of the long-standing absolutisms … provided by the heroic model of science”3 and people began to recognize that “even the heroes and geniuses of science had lived lives fully enmeshed in the social and political relations of their time.”4 Historians, modern and ancient, cannot escape their perspective; history will always be seen through the lens of someone in the present, so while there are historical facts, the study of history as a whole cannot be objective.
With history turning away from science, many have started to see it through a different lens: literature. Historians like Dominick LaCapra, Hayden White, and Hans Kellner have suggested “the scientism that legitimated objectivity’s rule must be discarded; history is to be understood as a branch of literature. Historians have to realize how their discourse is inevitably shaped by its own materials. Language does not represent reality so much as constitute it.”5 Crafting historical narratives encompasses so much of what a historian does that it is difficult to discount such a suggestion. However, by accepting it, one has to accept the impossibility of objectivity in history. It is unfeasible to think a historian can compose a historical narrative while simultaneously keeping their own perceptions at bay. Individuals and historians alike see the past through the lens of today, albeit social, political, cultural, or other.
It is these such factors which help distinguish historical fact, from historical interpretation. Narratives are not just a collection of historic facts, but more of a literary work composed of historic interpretation. For example, one would not simply state Hitler was elected as Reich Chancellor in 1933 without including how he came to be chosen. The reasoning for his election is up to historic interpretation and therefore may be described differently in various interpretations. Some historians may credit Hitler’s election to his charismatic character, while others could stress the promises he made to remedy Germany’s economic afflictions. Effectively, “the larger picture that the historian creates is essentially beyond empirical testing”6 therefore supporting the impossibility of objectivity in historical interpretations and/or narratives.
Such objective impossibility can also be attributed to the subjectivity of historians past. Scholars attempting to rewrite a neutral history must learn of such history through the narratives of others. Though consulting a multitude of sources can aid in creating a more objective picture of what took place, all historians, past and present, are bias due to years of social and cultural conditioning. Such bias is then reflected in their own historical narratives making it difficult for scholars to select the most objective sources and compose an impartial narrative. They can create an interpretation of the past, but will be eternally unable to create the actual past. Such narratives become even more convoluted due to the task of selecting what facts to include and what to exclude, what to address in brevity and what to expound upon. In his book History as Literature and Other Essays Theodore Roosevelt addresses this issue in the following quotation:
The great historian of the future … He must use the instruments which the historians of the past did not have ready to hand. Yet even with these instruments he cannot do as good work as the best of the elder historians unless he has vision and imagination, the power to grasp what is essential and to reject the infinitely more numerous nonessentials…. In short he must have the power to take history and turn it into literature.7
While historians will continue to grappled with the idea of historical truth and the role of objectivity within history, it should be accepted that history is not meant to give absolute truths, but rather assert the happenings of the past with confidence. It is the role of historians to present facts and interpret them. While history should never become littered with subjective, blatantly bias narratives, scholars and readers alike should be at and be ok with a lack of objectivity. The diverse interpretations of the past are what makes history such an interesting field of study.
1 Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacob, Telling the Truth about History (New York: Norton, 1995), 52.
2 Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacob, Telling the Truth about History (New York: Norton, 1995), 198.
3 Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacob, Telling the Truth about History (New York: Norton, 1995), 198.
4 Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacob, Telling the Truth about History (New York: Norton, 1995), 198.
5 Kenneth Cmiel, “After Objectivity: What Comes Next in History?” American Literary History 2, no. 1 (1990): 170, doi:10.1093/alh/2.1.170.
6 Kenneth Cmiel, “After Objectivity: What Comes Next in History?” American Literary History 2, no. 1 (1990): 173, doi:10.1093/alh/2.1.170.
7 Roosevelt Theodore, History as Literature and Other Essays (New York, New York: Charles Scribner’s Son, 1913), 15-16.