Is Objectivity Possible?
In his essay That Noble Dream, the historian Charles Beard pursues two lines of reasoning. The first deals with the assertion by another historian, Theodore Clark Smith, that objectivity in writing history is the original and generally agreed-upon basis for inquiry among historians. In the second, which I’ll further analyze here, Beard investigates whether objectivity is a reasonable goal in historical writing.
Beard’s investigation begins by asking if it is possible “for men to divest themselves of all race, sex, class, political, social and regional predilections and tell the truth of history as it actually was”. (Beard) He then derives several assumptions that underly the goal of writing objective history: that an event is objectively knowable, that it is uninfluenced by the historian’s socialization, and that it is possible to discern an existent causality among events.
Historian Richard Blight’s work addresses the first assumption as he undermines the concept of events as objectively knowable in his analysis of Civil War memory as a “reminiscence industry . . . a kind of democratization of memory . . .”. (Blight, Race and Reunion, the Civil War in American Memory) This short passage illustrates that primary sources are not necessarily objective representations of historical events. Those holding power crafted the story of the Civil War and selected primary sources for posterity to tell a particular version of those events.
Thus the historian must evaluate primary sources and assign value to them. Nicholson Baker’s approach in his book Human Smoke illustrates this role. Deliberate selectivity designed to present one side is poor scholarship, but evidence selection is a necessary part of the process and the historian’s role as an active agent – an agent replete with socialized values – cannot be ignored. Ruth Benedict, who argues that “No man ever looks at the world with pristine eyes. He sees it edited by a definite set of customs and institutions and ways of thinking.” (Patterns of Culture) is looking for the historian to be the eye that sees. However, this eye is not value-free.
Through the process of socialization, the individual who becomes the historian creates the lens through which s/he views the events in question. S/he shapes historiography within his or her own paradigm. In other words, the historian converts it from something outside common shared experience, and therefore fitted within a different paradigm from when the events actually occurred, which has the effect of further ‘subjectivising’ the event in question. Such cultural translations are difficult enough among those who participate in a shared spatial-temporal culture; absent that, the level of subjectivity necessitated by the historian’s requirement to make sense of events in light of his own subjective experience of reality becomes ever greater.
Causality is a complex issue. Baker, through selection of primary sources, elicits causality for World War Two. However, where one sees causality, another can see chance, and this is a metaphysical question rather than one of historiography. Do actors have agency? Such a question requires historians to, if not abandon objectivity, at least to include what Andrew White labels “the philosophical”. (Beard) It seems that one of the very assumptions upon which objectivity rests undermines it by requiring a necessary foray into philosophical inquiry, and engenders a metaphysical contradiction between materialism (objectivity) and idealism (subjectivity).
So then Beard’s initial question is answered by examining the assumptions upon which objectivity rests: awareness, and second abeyance, of one’s socialization is alone an insurmountable task. Objectivity as sought by Theodore Clark Smith isn’t really possible.