Was Historical Objectivity Overthrown?

This is an historiographic essay from my graduate program’s History & Theory reading seminar. I centered the paper on Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream: The ‘Objectivity Question’ and the American Historical Profession. This is a great book to read. I wanted to get more grounded in intellectual history as well as get more exposure in American history. I believe objectivity is still an important consideration for historians, through recent debates over the 1619 Project tend to prove most Americans think “revisionist history” is a bad thing; history has to be interpreted and analyzed in new light. More importantly, historians are supposed to further historical understanding and not simply produce historical knowledge (a distinction Novick makes in what I regard as the best part of his book). I think too much history is being written for other historians and not for the general public. While this paper could have been tightened up (I probably spent too much time summarizing Novick’s argument out of respect to his 629-page book), I think this paper offers a useful analysis of notions of historical objectivity–in a span of just over 100 years, the idea went from constructing epistemological “Truth” to standards and norms of historical praxis: professionalism, intellectual fairness, accuracy, and rigor. I especially like the “third way” considerations that allow for an historian to take an ideological position while staying true to historical sources and showing due consideration for the interpretations of other historians.

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We hold the idea of objectivity in high regard. When making an important decision, we think it’s wise to get objective opinions from others. Objectivity is assumed within processes following a “scientific” method. Companies hire management consultants, lawyers, and investment bankers with the expectation their advice will be objective. People want “objective” news or, at least, make the claim they want news delivered free of partisan bias. Describing someone as “objective” signifies professionalism, fair mindedness, self-confidence, and intellectual honesty. Yet, when it comes to historians and the craft of history, objectivity is very complicated. Unknown outside of academia, most of the twentieth century saw considerable debate among American historians as they reconsidered a founding tenet of their profession: the epistemic assumption that history was knowable, verifiable, and scientific. In fact, the “objectivity question” was one of the first professional controversies to take place among American historians. The story of this debate was captured in a singular work by historian Peter Novick entitled That Noble Dream: The ‘Objectivity Question’ and the American Historical Profession. Published in 1988, Novick’s historiography of the historical profession reveals a complex story of epistemic, practical, and political debates around the meaning of “objectivity.”

That Noble Dream reflects over a century of intellectual history analyzed in four distinctive, chronological parts (serving as phases that cut “the continuous thread of time into manageable lengths”). Novick concludes that by the 1980s, the concept of objectivity was overthrown by changes in the profession: myriad approaches, methods and practices; ideological divisions; new fields of history; and multiple theories of history. Stopping short of claiming the historical profession was in state of intellectual anarchy, professional “[s]ensibilities were too diverse to be gathered together under any ecumenical tent.” To be clear, Novick was not a strict “objectivist” (his historiographic point of view is covered in the following section) nor was he making a conservative argument to return to a glorious, scholarly past. Rather, the concept of objectivity offered utility to the historical profession, facilitating a common language and professional standard among historians. It is a topic historians should debate in an effort to find consensus. The inability for the profession to explore objectivity as an intellectual anchor led Novick to conclude the community of scholarship in “the discipline of history had ceased to exist.” Responding to critical reviews and commentaries on his book, Novick attempted to clarify that his position was not meant to sound dire. Even without the “coerced orthodoxy” of objectivism, Novick thought there was “no reason why we cannot peacefully coexist.” Novick believed the profession could continue to work together in good faith, maintaining “tolerant pluralism” as an academic “haven and base for heretics.”[1]

In the wake of That Noble Dream, historians offered differing points of view on Novick’s conclusions. The book was praised, or at least positively considered, as an historiography of the American historical profession. However, there were vigorous debates around Novick’s approach to historicizing the objectivity question (and its intellectual counterpart, historical relativism). Specifically, Novick’s assertion that objectivity was no longer a relevant concern to historians and, even if it was, the profession was too complicated and fragmented to hold an effective discourse on the topic. The reaction to Novick’s book, as well as scholarship on objectivity that followed it, clearly demonstrates historical objectivity is alive and well within the profession. While there are theoretical and practical disagreements among historians, the consensus viewpoint is the general concept of objectivity remains an important consideration to historians. The challenge of defining what is meant by “objectivity” is ongoing, and in all likelihood, will never be a “settled” issue. However, we can distinguish theoretical issues (the province of philosophy of history and epistemology) from considerations relating to professional praxis.[2]

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Novick was a University of Chicago historian and, ironically, was not an Americanist but an historian of Late Modern era France. Given this oddity, we should briefly consider what Novick set forth to accomplish in That Noble Dream. Why did a historian of France write an historiographic study of American historians that explores the objectivity question? Adding to the peculiarity of the undertaking, Novick held no affection for historical objectivity. He describes his personal historiographic approach as primarily focused on “the development of intellectual arguments” in historical work that takes account of “external” factors (political environments, economics of the profession, societal changes). In his introduction to That Noble Dream, Novick describes the idea of historical objectivity as “not just essentially contested, but essentially confused.” Novick argues the standards of objectivity are so philosophically challenging that they make for an impossible ideal.[3] Furthermore, although presenting critique of the profession that happened to align with critiques of postmodern theories by conservative contemporaries,[4] Novick was a self-described leftist. Novick’s assessment of the historical profession centered on its lack of theoretical continuity rather than substantive debates over historical topics that appeared in contemporary historical scholarship.[5]

Despite Novick’s dim view of the historical profession (even with the clarifications provided post-publication), Novick’s stated goal in writing That Noble Dream was quite simple: To re-introduce the topic of the historical objectivity because the concept seemed “more problematic than ever before.” Novick invited others to engage on the topic as his aim was not undertake an “overarching thesis” but rather, in his words:

The book’s aim is to provoke my fellow historians to greater self-consciousness about the nature of our work; to offer those outside the historical profession a greater understanding of what we’re up to, together with some alternative ways of thinking about the products we present to them, and the claims we make on behalf of those products.[6]

The body of That Noble Dream is an historiographic analysis of the American historical profession’s disputes over objectivity and that historicizes the objectivity question. Novick makes two important qualifications in his historiography. First, That Noble Dream is a monograph of intellectual history and not philosophy of history or epistemology—something historians “do worst, or at least badly” according to Novick. Second, given the broad scope of his subject, Novick confesses his approach was not systemic in that it focuses on an assortment of historians, and therefore has an “elite bias” toward well-known, high-profile historians of the twentieth century.[7]

From the 1880s to the years prior to World War I, academic history became a credentialed profession of salaried academics working at colleges and universities (in contrast to untrained predecessors, the “men of letters” who concerned themselves with history). At its founding, for the many German-trained American historians, the profession’s “true north” was Leopold von Ranke’s instruction to capture and reflect the past “wie es eigentlich gewesen” (“as it really was”). As a newly organized guild, academic historians established intellectual objectivity as a principal professional standard. “Objective history” referred to identifying known facts and capturing them in an enduring, unchanging record. Objectivity was a “commitment to the reality of the past, and to truth as correspondence to that reality.” While much of history remained unknown and could remain that way forever, liberal confidence in scientific progress held that newly discovered evidence would always allow for new contributions to the historical record. Historical fact existed independent of an historian’s interpretation, so the quality of an historical analysis was simply a function of how accurately it reflected those historical facts. As to the historian’s personal beliefs, any “particularistic commitments” that could influence the recitation of historical facts were “the enemies of objective truth.” The good historian maintained intellectual detachment from his subject. Moreover, at its founding academic history was a profession for the elite, studying events of past elites of interest to the elites of the present day. The first generations of American historians operated within the predominate political culture of the elite class: Protestantism, patriotism, and belief in American progress. This consensus ideology set the baseline for measuring objectivity; there were no considerations for socialism, anarchism, Catholicism, non-American points of view, etc. In Novick’s telling, at its founding the profession was one of consensus, gentility, and deference.[8]

World War I proved to be a milestone for the American historical profession. Prior to the war, the field of history expanded to include economic history and competed/overlapped with the social sciences. While historians remained predominately establishmentarian, nationalist, and Christian, there was an emergence of a handful of Progressive historians (Frederick Turner, Charles Beard, James Robinson, and Carl Becker) who departed from the orthodox consensus.[9] Reflecting the zeitgeist of the age (especially among Northern elites), the Progressive historians favored historical discontinuity and secularism, and experimented with historical analysis that responded to present-day issues and living conditions (i.e., what other historians criticized as “presentism”). While ideologically heterodox relative to their peers, the Progressives were merely “sufficiently moderate, and limited by social optimism, to pose no major threat to the support for objectivity.” Nonetheless, historians were divided on the war in Europe as the US prepared to enter World War I as a combatant (under President Woodrow Wilson, a former historian). Once war was declared, “doubts about the righteousness of the Allied cause all but disappeared within the profession.” Many historians entered government service. The historian Guy Stanton Ford served as director of the Committee on Public Information which engaged prominent historians (including Beard) to generate quasi-historical studies. If not pure propaganda, these studies were politically useful to the Wilson Administration and defied the profession’s idealized notions of objectivity: Not only nationalist but highly revisionist in order to stake anti-German and pro-Anglo historical positions. At the same time, other historians maintained intellectual detachment from the politics of the war. A minority maintained silent opposition—entirely understandable given the US government’s suppression of civil liberties during World War I. With the war’s end came political debates over the cost of the war in lives and dollars, questioning the logic of America’s entry into the war as well as terms of the Paris Treaties. Novick argued World War I proved to be a milestone in the profession’s maturation, disrupting the prior ideological consensus of progress, nationalism, and statism. The disruption of war opened possibilities of interrogating the concept of historical objectivity:

Prewar confidence in progress generally, and progress in scientific knowledge in particular, was a powerful limitation on the critique of historical objectivity. It blurred the line between those who thought objectivity approachable, though unattainable, and those who came close to questioning it as an ideal. Before the war, optimism was the great solvent of doubt in the epistemological as in the ideological realm.

There was reflection, reconsideration, and disillusionment as historians reflected on the profession’s actions (and inactions) during the war.[10]

Postwar, the general cultural and intellectual climate in the West was highly impactful on American historians. The verification of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity lead to advances in physics, mathematics, and logic that undermined positivist conceptions of knowledge—the epistemic cornerstone of historical objectivism. Cultural relativism in anthropology and Legal Realism in law provided perspective-based thought systems derived from evidence and practice rather than Archimedean points of abstraction. Finally, American pragmatist philosophers Charles Pierce, William James and John Dewey exhibited tremendous influence on historians. The pragmatists questioned fact/value distinctions and undermined the concept of objective truth, emphasizing the constant flux of knowledge and the practical “cash value” of ideas. Historians began to build these ideas into their theories of history, using them to valorize the concept of historical relativism as a means of interpreting (and reinterpreting) history, complicating both professional praxis and the canon of history itself. Objectivity was reconsidered against the concept of historical relativism: “historical interpretations always had been, and for various technical reasons always would be, “relative” to the historian’s time, place, values, and purposes.”[11]

Ideas about historical relativism were circulating just as the profession faced stultifying years in the interwar period. According to Novick, the status of professional historians was diminished by the popularity of histories published by non-historians as well as academics being supplanted by social studies educationalists in determining public school curricula. Meanwhile, historical writing stopped making the rapid progress it had seen prior to the war, as “[t]he scholarly work produced in the twenties and thirties did not live up to expectations, either quantitatively or qualitatively.” Furthermore, the desire for new ideas was fed by the “continuing irritation to younger historians, who wished to see more hard-hitting mutual criticism.” Historical analyses on the causes of World War I (specifically, reaching contradictory conclusions on war guilt which undermined the moral basis for American intervention) brought relativism to the forefront. The “evaluation of the historical account demanded the closest examination of these preconceptions, interests, and intentions” in order to avoid running afoul of “professional demeanor and comity.” Meanwhile, revisionist work on the US Civil War, slavery, and Reconstruction disrupted the prior historiographic consensus so that these histories “became not just divergent, but cacophonic.” These conflicts marked a general trend toward “a split between those who clung to the older orientation, and the growing number of reform-oriented scholars who stressed conflict and discontinuity.”[12]

While there were many strands of historical relativist positions staked out in the twenties, in the early thirties two of the most prominent historians in the profession, Carl Becker and Charles Beard, “publicized major pronouncements…which synthesized much that had gone before, and opened up the issues to general discussion.” “If there are heroes in this coolly critical book, they are Becker and Beard.”[13] Both historians shared the belief that present-day concerns, including political and ethical views, should be made a fundamental part of historiography because “historians had a social as well as scholarly obligation.” Beard and Becker took the point of view that historians produced history because “[t]he selection and organization of facts was an act of purposeful thought by the historian.” This served a higher purpose because, after all, “history existed for man, not man for history.” While historians would always seek new sources of factual evidence, alternative theories and methods could be applied to historical issues once regarded as “settled” from an “objective” point of view. The “cash value” of historical relativism meant history was a discursive, ongoing, endless project—an implication that undermined the contributions of prior generations of historians. Both Beard and Becker summarized their relativist approaches in presidential addresses to the American Historical Association (Becker’s “Everyman His Own Historian” in 1931; Beard’s “Written History as an Act of Faith” in 1933). Carl Becker perhaps best summarized the relativist view in his address:

I do not present this view of history as one that is stable and must prevail. Whatever validity it may claim, it is certain, on its own premises, to be supplanted; for its premises, imposed upon us by the climate of opinion in which we live and think, predispose us to regard all things, and all principles of things, as no more than “inconstant modes or fashions,” as but the “concurrence, renewed from moment to moment, of forces parting sooner or later on their way.” It is the limitation of the genetic approach to human experience that it must be content to transform problems since it can never solve them. However accurately we may determine the “facts” of history, the facts themselves and our interpretations of them, and our interpretation of our own interpretations, will be seen in a different perspective or a less vivid light as mankind moves into the unknown future. Regarded historically, as a process of becoming, man and his world can obviously be understood only tentatively, since it is by definition something still in the making, something as yet unfinished.[14]

While Novick does not attempt to quantify the number of historians who supported or were opposed to the relativist position, there were many critics of Becker, Beard, and the relativists. Historians defending objectivity went farther than intellectual disagreement, chastising the relativists “in a voice of the Church denouncing and excommunicating heretics.” Many historians clung to objectivity, their “the founding myth” in a profession where “the pursuit of the objective truth [was] its sacred mission and raison d’être.” Defenders of objectivity took a common-sense approach defending the knowability of facts, the existence of values, and the twin dangers of presentism and intellectual anarchy. Novick argues the split on the objectivity question tended to be ideological as “establishmentarians” rejected relativism while iconoclasts and leftists tended to adopt it. Nevertheless, debates over new historical theories heightened the profile of the profession in the academy; however, both Becker and Beard lacked the epistemological precision of philosophers and “were often lose and inconsistent–turgid and convoluted in Beard’s case, allusive and aphoristic in Becker’s.”[15]

As historians debated objectivity versus relativism, events began to signal another sea change for the profession. Wars in Europe and Asia sparked new national debates, with historians splitting into interventionist and isolationist camps. Once war was declared, the profession was quick to support American war efforts (with a few passivist and socialist exceptions). In the face of “totalitarianism” the profession had an impetus to unify. Wanting to show resolution, the loose ideology and morality of relativism fell out of favor as Americans aligned with Western Europeans to “rearm the West spiritually for the battle with totalitarians.” American historians largely aligned with nationalist concerns, reflecting broader societal popular opinion, and especially elite opinion, through World War II and into the Cold War. The postwar years saw the profession expand in the number of doctorate degrees, faculty positions, and high-quality scholarship. As Cold War tensions increased, historians moved toward more professional cohesion, tamping down ideological and methodological debate and bringing decades of “synthesis” and “consensus” to the profession. Objectivity remained a professional norm and was not widely debated, though some historians began to avoid using the term while others diluted the meaning of the concept, getting away from its epistemological claims and instead using it to refer to sound methodological approaches (rigorous, opened-minded, and balanced). Yet the challenge from Becker, Beard, and other relativist historians fundamentally expanded the profession’s intellectual boundaries. There was utility in revisionism in that it opened new historical avenues, relating history to present-day concerns. Moreover, the simplistic idea of “objectivity as truth” was exposed: the facts did not speak for themselves and needed interpretation. However, the idiosyncrasies of the historian had to be moderated by critical methods. According to Novick, historians borrowed the concept of an “ideal observer” from moral philosophy. Granted, historical claims could be influenced by an historian’s priors. However, other historians stood by to judge that work against other historical texts. The profession would evaluate competing truth-value claims and decide which historian came closest to the ideal observer. Beard’s and Becker’s relativism was disregarded:

For most historians, it was regarded as useful to be reminded how social circumstances had shaped historical scholarship in the past. Historians then proceeded to revive Hume’s riddle of induction: it was illegitimate to infer present social influence on historical interpretation from the demonstration that it had been ubiquitous in the past.

Novick describes this approach as “practicable objectivity.” Accordingly, historical work in the postwar years often showed the synthesis of this weakened form of objectivity that allowed for limited expressions of perspectivism and ideology.[16]

This tranquil period for American historians came to an end in the 1960s. This period saw, in Novick’s analysis, the beginning of the end of historical objectivity as the profession’s intellectual anchor. In short, rapid societal change and political acrimony in America reflected upon the profession. In response came waves of new scholarship that was far more ideological in nature, marking the rise of “substantial and systematically ‘oppositional’ historiographic tendencies.”[17] The so-called “New Left historians” emerged, a group that departed from the Marxist determinism of the “old left,” advancing a partisan ideological history that rejected relativism as well as liberal notions of “balance.” Historical objectivity, which was always “closely associated with values of civility, moderation, and order” was repurposed by New Left historians to advance a radical historicism. To these historians and their fellow travelers, New Left history was regarded as “objectively truth.” The most well-known and high-profile work done by these historians advanced revisionist diplomatic histories which questioned American foreign policy. In addition, political and economic historians of the New Left confronted Progressive and New Deal narratives to explore how corporate and elite interests were served by liberal reforms and policies, ostensibly offered to “the people” against “the interests.” Conservative and neoconservative historians responded in the seventies and eighties with their own assertions of objective truth, but this work mostly critiqued the New Left and did not advance alternative theoretical frameworks. When it came to objectivity, ideologic polarization created an unbridgeable schism:

On one hand, those committed to ideological postures were the most likely to insist on the objectivity of their findings—that it was they who saw clearly; their antagonists who saw darkly, through ideologically tinted glass. On the other hand, the need to restore comity within a polarized profession could lead to a resigned perspectivism, and abandonment of hope for convergence on unitary truth.

Nevertheless, throughout the sixties and early seventies, Novick believed the majority of historians maintained a “liberal, Whiggish orientation” and kept producing work in their specialty areas, following the practicable objectivity of the postwar period, largely unaffected by the ideological debates of their peers. At the same time, many in the profession were unsure what the future held for their scholarship.[18]

Alongside those growing ideological conflicts, historical scholarship expanded into new specialty areas which quickly became dynamic areas of growth. The sixties and seventies saw far more diversity among historians as more Jews, women, and blacks joined the profession. Perhaps more importantly, contemporary political activism impacted the profession and opened new avenues of inquiry. Feminist historians and black historians emerged as new fields. By definition, Novick argues, these were the “particularistic commitments” eschewed by objectivism.[19] However, the work of intellectuals like Michel Foucault and Edward Said (discussed further below) expanded historical dialogues by connecting state power and predominate culture to the production of knowledge, and “challenged universalist assumptions about cognitive style and modes of discourse” maintained within the profession.[20]

Finally, the sixties and seventies saw “multiple but loosely convergent assaults on received notions of objectivity.” Many of these “assaults” came from other academic disciplines but were highly influential on American historians: Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions asserted that views of objectivity were defined by scientific paradigms; Michel Foucault theorized that truth was a function of “systems of power” enforced through institutions serving a social purpose;  American academic philosophy explored anti-foundationalism, an abandonment of truth claims in favor of pragmatism and situational ethics, and a dismissal of “relativism” as a road to epistemic and moral nihilism (particularly the work of Richard Rorty); literary scholars advanced poststructuralist arguments that representations shaped what was regarded at “truth” (e.g., Edward Said’s Orientalism) and the interpretation of texts trumped any “true meaning” intended by authors (Stanley Fish); Clifford Geertz’s work in anthropology called for immersive, intensive analysis with necessary correction for the observer’s cultural priors; Critical Legal Studies assumed the law was structurally biased against groups lacking political influence; and the continued saturation of postmodernism within academic fields, including deconstructionism. “In virtually every disciplinary realm, very much including the historical, one found either factional, polarization, or fragmented chaos, which made factionalism seem, by comparison, like a kind of order.” Going into the eighties, the general health of the professional appeared questionable as the number of history doctorates increased while open positions on faculties fell; however, there were more historians focusing on a wider array of fields, crossing disciplinary boundaries, publishing more, employing a diversity of methods, and using their work to advance their fields and, in many cases, bolster an ideological cause. However, greater volume did not necessarily mean greater quality. Novick drew a distinction between “historical knowledge” and “historical understanding.” Historical knowledge, “the sort libraries build annexes to house,” is quantifiable as it exists in the material realm (and more so in the digital realm today). There are more books, articles, studies, and lectures than any human mind can “contain, let alone assimilate.” In contrast, “‘historical understanding’ is in the mind of a human being or it is nowhere.”

Up to a point it had been sound doctrine that increased knowledge led to increased understanding. Past that point it was arguable that knowing more could mean understanding less. Orthodox historical method continued to decree that any reputable generalization had to be consonant with all the discoverable evidence. As findings accumulated which pointed in quite opposite directions, it became virtually impossible to make a generalization which was not falsified in advanced by some substantial body of data. In retrospect one could see the extent to which in the past it was precisely lacunae in historical knowledge which had provided imaginative space for the construction of those interpretive patterns which have been the foundation of “historical understanding.”

Novick argued that following the sixties and seventies, history lost “definition” and “any sense of participating in a common venture.” Various disciplines and fields grow each year to further Balkanize the profession.[21] As result, “discourse across the discipline had effectively collapsed” including debates over historical objectivity and other issues of common concern. In this sense, objectivity reached a crisis point as historians seemed to lack both the willingness and common interest to address the question. However, there were some efforts by historians to introduce new theories balancing objectivity with recent scholarship, viz. postmodernism, but according to Novick, “hardly anybody was listening.” [22] Writing about Novick’s conclusion to That Noble Dream, David Hollinger commented “[Novick] leaves the impression that the ideal of objectivity…has been decisively refuted and what is needed is simply the Nietzschean courage to face a relativist abyss.”[23] Nonetheless, American historians were not prepared to let go of the objectivity question.

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Novick’s concern that historians no longer debated the objectivity question was based on more than one liberal historian reacting to a changing profession. Implicit in Novick’s effort was a desire for the profession to be more effective in furthering historical understanding—creating histories that were meaningful, lasting, and impactful. Novick showed how the meaning of objectivity changed over time. The founding myth equated “objectivity” with notions of metaphysical reality or, simply, “Truth.” Arguably, after Becker and Beard introduced relativism, the meaning of objectivity changed: objectivity referred to both truth-value claims as well as an instrumentality—a means to an end. Regarding the former, the “practicable objectivity” of the postwar period meant historians could interpret history with an eye on present-day concerns and with more openness regarding personal positions. Presentism would be corrected through the evaluation of competing truth-value claims by other historians. At the same time, as an instrumentality, objectivity began to imply high professional standards such as rigor, accuracy, fairness, and intellectual honesty. After all, an academic profession needs professional standards in order to ensure it produces historical understanding and not merely historical knowledge. In other words, historians had to adhere to professional standards so that their truth-value claims could be effectively evaluated by their peers.[24]

Novick argues “practicable objectivity” was overthrown by the intellectual currents of the sixties and seventies. Indeed, the panel for the American Historical Review Forum that discussed Novick’s book was unanimous in that the “traditional ideal of objectivity is no longer credible.” However, at the same time, all of the panelists accepted “limited meanings” of historical objectivity. Dorothy Ross believed the differences among the panelists came down to questions of “strategy and emphasis.” Objectivity functioned “to differentiate history from fiction,” “to differentiate historiography from merely subjective opinion,” and “legitimate the particular kind of contextual and genetic analysis” that distinguishes history from social science and literary criticism.[25] Along similar lines, following Novick’s book the historian Alan Brinkley stated he thought there was general consensus among historians on objectivity—an observation David Hollinger only concurred with to the extent “that historians have found other questions more engaging.”[26] Brinkley’s observation may have been offhand, but historical literature suggests a throughline on the objectivity question that starts from modifications to practicable objectivity and runs though posited “third ways” between strict objective truth claims and unbridled relativism. Generally, this scholarship indicates both a consensus on, and a continuing concern for, historical objectivity.

The “practicable objectivity” Novick describes corresponds with E. H. Carr’s thoughts on the subject. Writing at the height of the postwar era, Carr offered ideas about historical objectivity that resembled Novick’s practicable objectivity but allowed for more ideological perspective. Carr argues objectivity in history is not about gathering accurate (or “true”) historical facts. Nor was history supposed to be expressed with viewpoint neutrality. Building on Collingwood and Oakeshott, Carr argues the historian selects, analyzes, and orders historical fact and contributes to human progress by creating an ongoing discourse between the past and the future. Thus, to Carr, historians are “objective” when they have the “capacity to rise above the limited vision of [their] own situation in society and history” by recognizing and overcoming their own biases and preferences, and then offering compelling historical analyses aimed at being persuasive and useful to future generations.[27]

Adding to the canon of knowledge on the objectivity question, a number of historians added compelling contributions following That Noble Dream that posited historical objectivity was worth saving. Thomas L. Haskell and James T. Kloppenberg offered synthesized approaches to historical objectivity that share the idea that “communities of the competent” ensure historians do not lapse into unbridled relativism. Haskell argued historians understood “objectivity” not as simple viewpoint neutrality but as a concept evocative of the ascetic dimension of intellectual pursuits: striving for precision, applying logic, avoiding emotion, suspending self-centeredness, considering alternative arguments, imaging the viewpoints of others—in short, intellectual detachment. Detachment, however, does not mean being free of ideological and moral beliefs, nor does it require separating them from historical work. Powerful arguments in history fulfill the ideal of objectivity. “Powerful arguments are often more faithful to the complexity and fragility of historical interpretation” and are the result of “the highest fruit of the kind of thinking I would call objective, and in it neutrality plays no part.” Political commitments may be part of these arguments, but cannot drive the arguments, or else the historian is just writing “propaganda dressed up as history.” Haskell argues historians have to put ascetic, intellectual values (“respect for logical coherence, fidelity to evidence, detachment, candor, honesty”) ahead of any political commitments because this is how academics and scholarly institutions maintain credibility.[28] Reaching similar destination from a different theoretical position, Kloppenberg offers “pragmatic hermeneutics” as an historicism that escapes the objectivist/relativist dichotomy. Pragmatic hermeneutics offers “an alternative to the gloom that descends over the concluding chapter of That Noble Dream.” Pragmatic hermeneutics describes a process where hypotheses are tested “against all available evidence and subjected to the most rigorous critical test the community of historians can devise.” Kloppenberg describes an ongoing process of discourse within the profession where historical work is subjected to review and argumentation.[29] Finally, Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacob wrote Telling the Truth about History, a monograph which attempted “to carve out a middle way between the skeptical relativism of postmodernists and other cultural constructionists, on one hand, and the outmoded beliefs in the objective pursuit of historical truth, and the other.”[30] Offering a case for “qualified objectivity” the authors departed from the scientific model of objectivity in a move toward a new model for identifying “historical truth.” The approach is similar to both Haskell’s asceticism and Kloppenberg’s pragmatism. In addition, as a starting point the authors grant “the impossibility of any research being neutral.” The primary function of historians is to interpret materials from the past and can avoid the “relativist abyss” through sociological constraints rather than philosophical rubrics:

In this cultural milieu the practitioners of history are constrained by a complex set of rules. Within a society committed to accuracy in representations of the past, the preservation of evidence imposes definite limits to the factual assertions that can be made; it even sets up boundaries around the range of interpretations that can be offered about an event or development.

The authors describe historical objectivity as an interactive relationship between the “inquiring subject and an external object,” i.e., the historian and her subject. The authors emphasize the importance of persuasion but emphasize historical records and artifacts are also essential because “without proof there is no historical writing of any worth.”[31]

Finally, in the late eighties and early nineties, Joan W. Scott offered a refined historiographical approach that addressed objectivity. Scott argued history is constructed by historians, yet “history is what we know about the past, what the rules and conventions are that govern the production and acceptance of the knowledge we designate as history.” Considering Foucault, historical writing “reflects and creates relations of power” so that “standards of inclusion or exclusion, measures of importance, and rules of evaluation are not objective criteria but politically produced conventions.” History is “the fruit of past politics” while present day debates are about “how history will be constituted for the present.” Scott emphasizes history as discourse, as “an interpretive practice, not an objective neutral science.” However,

[t]o maintain this does not signal the abandonment of all standards; acknowledging that history is an interpretive practice does not imply “anything goes.” Rather, it assumes that discursive communities (in this case, historians) share a commitment to accuracy and to procedures verification and documentation.

Politics (referring to Foucauldian systems of power) are an aspect of the “plurality of stories” historians choose to write in a democratic historical discipline. In The Evidence of Experience, Scott builds on the idea of historians furthering historical understanding, offering more than historical knowledge. When historians contribute to the discipline, their writing goes beyond “reproduction and transmission of knowledge said to be arrived at through experience” and becomes “the analysis of the production of that knowledge itself.” Intellectual contributions in this regard “constitute a genuinely nonfoundational history, one that retains its explanatory power and its interest in change but does not stand on or reproduce naturalized categories.”[32]

***

While Novick achieved his goal of getting historians to talk about objectivity, that discourse was short-lived. In retrospect, it seems clear we can disregard Novick’s dire pronouncements on the historical profession. The majority of Novick’s interlocutors thought this was overstatement, and Novick himself backed away from his conclusion. WhileThat Noble Dream continues to be frequently cited and objectivity continues to be a subject in historical theory and the philosophy of history, no historian has returned to update Novick’s historiography for the last thirty years. Perhaps this is because Hollinger was right: Historians had more interesting things to study and debate. Or perhaps Alan Brinkley was right: Historians already reached a consensus on the objectivity question. Either way, historical objectivity was never rejected and remains an important consideration for the profession. There may be some wisdom in Novick’s critique that the American historical profession grew too large, too specialized, too ideologically divided, and too theoretically fragmented for there to be “convergence on anything, let alone a subject is highly charged as ‘the objectivity question.’” However, by and large, this is a straw man argument. Even if it were possible, American historians did not need a top-down pronouncement on the “objectivity question” nor a vote by popular referendum installing “objectivity standards.” Demonstrably, despite Novick’s critique, the historical profession continued (and continues) to show due concern for objectivity and did not allow its intellectual standards to decline.

Haskell observed that objectivity “pervades the world of everyday affairs” including the work of history.[33]While most historians would bristle at the notion, the maintenance and enforcement of professional norms and standards of scholarship within the profession is an example of Hayekian spontaneous order: a decentralized network that sets standards based on the action of its members. Objectivity, in its most basic sense, posits truth-claims and demands academic rigor—the “ascetic” aspects Haskell describes. Objectivity is instilled by professional historical training. Scholarship is submitted for peer review as part of the publishing process. The profession promotes interaction between historians so work can be presented, discussed, and debated. Furthermore, while objectivity standards remain undeclared, that does not mean they are undefined. In fact, That Noble Dream and the historians who debated the book’s issues added to the professional canon of knowledge on the objectivity question. And, perhaps, the thoughtful work of Scott, Haskell, Kloppenberg, Appleby, Hunt, and Jacob offered some guidance to the last two generations of historians. Moreover, objectivity is enforced by the profession. Violating objectivity standards has a cost in terms of reputation, position, and even membership in the profession. For example, the Michael Bellesiles case demonstrates that historians, despite predominate political leanings, will not tolerate fraud.

In conclusion, while American historians do not stare into a “relativist abyss” or face isolation in super-specialized fields, the historical-theoretical output of the last sixty years presents an academic Tower of Babel. A fundamental matter like historical objectivity ought to remain a topic of study, research, and publication. Historical objectivity will never be a “settled” issue—even if there is a consensus on the question, any consensus will end. As Joan Scott wrote, the challenging questions facing the profession can be answered “only if we accept the notion that history itself is a changing discipline—as it surely is and always has been.”[34] 

References

  1. Appleby, Joyce, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret C. Jacob.Telling the Truth About History. New York: Norton, 1994.
  2. Becker, Carl L. “Everyman His Own Historian.” American Historical Association. November 8, 2022. https://www.historians.org/about-aha-and-membership/aha-history-and-archives/presidential-addresses/carl-l-becker.
  3. Carr, Edward Hallett. What is History? New York: Vintage Books, 1961.
  4. Ciel, Kenneth. “After Objectivity: What Comes Next in History?” American Literary History2, no. 1 (1990): 170–181.
  5. Degler, Carl. “Review of That Noble Dream: The ‘Objectivity Question’ and the American Historical Profession by Peter Novick.” The Journal of American History 76, no. 3 (1989): 892-894.
  6. Gordon, Linda. “Comments on That Noble Dream.” The American Historical Review 96, no. 3 (1991): 683–687.
  7. Haskell, Thomas L. “Objectivity Is Not Neutrality: Rhetoric vs. Practice in Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream.” History and Theory: Studies in the Philosophy of History29, no. 2 (1990): 129–157.
  8. Hexler, J. H. “Carl Becker, Professor Novick, and Me; or, Cheer Up, Professor N.” The American Historical Review96, no. 3 (1991): 675–682.
  9. Hollinger, David A. “Postmodernist Theory and WissenschaftlicheThe American Historical Review 96, no. 3 (1991): 688–692.
  10. Kloppenberg, James T. “Objectivity and Historicism: A Century of American Historical Writing.” The American Historical Review 94, no. 4 (1989): 1011–1030.
  11. Maza, Sarah C. Thinking About History.Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2017.
  12. Megill, Allan. “Fragmentation and the Future of Historiography.” The American Historical Review 96, no. 3 (1991): 693–698.
  13. Novick, Peter. “My Correct Views on Everything.” The American Historical Review 96, no. 3 (1991): 699–703.
  14. Novick, Peter. That Noble Dream: The ‘Objectivity Question’ and the American Historical Profession. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.
  15. Ross, Dorothy. “Afterword.” The American Historical Review 96, no. 3 (1991): 704–708.
  16. Scott, Joan W. “History in Crisis: The Others’ Side of the Story.” The American Historical Review 94, no. 3 (1989): 680–692.
  17. Scott, Joan W. “The Evidence of Experience.” Critical Inquiry 17, no. 4 (1991): 773–797.

[1] Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The ‘Objectivity Question’ and the American Historical Profession, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 15-17, 577-629. Peter Novick, “My Correct Views on Everything,” The American Historical Review 96, no. 3 (1991), 702–703. Humorously, Novick compares the state of the historical profession to the Holy Roman Empire: “365 not-quite-sovereign but largely autonomous realms, with various systems of adjudication and measurement, in ever-shifting alliances, ever amalgamating and bifurcating, linked by a progressively weakening allegiance to dimly remembered common values and ideals.”

[2] The following articles offer detailed discussion of Novick’s That Noble Dream: Kenneth Cmiel, “After Objectivity: What Comes Next in History?” American Literary History 2, no. 1 (1990), 170–181; Carl Degler, “Review of That Noble Dream: The ‘Objectivity Question’ and the American Historical Profession by Peter Novick,” The Journal of American History 76, no. 3 (1989), 892-894; Linda Gordon, “Comments on That Noble Dream,” The American Historical Review 96, no. 3 (1991), 683–687; Thomas L. Haskell, “Objectivity Is Not Neutrality: Rhetoric vs. Practice in Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream,” History and Theory: Studies in the Philosophy of History 29, no. 2 (1990), 129–157; J. H. Hexter, “Carl Becker, Professor Novick, and Me; or, Cheer Up, Professor N,” The American Historical Review 96, no. 3 (1991), 675–682; David A. Hollinger, “Postmodernist Theory and Wissenschaftliche Practice,” The American Historical Review 96, no. 3 (1991), 688–692; James T. Kloppenberg, “Objectivity and Historicism: A Century of American Historical Writing,” The American Historical Review 94, no. 4 (1989): 1011–1030; Allan Megill, “Fragmentation and the Future of Historiography,” The American Historical Review 96, no. 3 (1991), 693–698; Dorothy Ross, “Afterword,” The American Historical Review 96, no. 3 (1991), 704–708.

[3] On this point, the historian David A. Hollinger made a biting observation: “[Novick] tells us he has been more persuaded by the critics of the objectivity myth than its defenders, yet he has written a book ideally suited to please the latter.” Hollinger, 691.

[4] See, for example, Gertrude Himmelfarb, The New History and the Old, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987).

[5] Novick, That Noble Dream, 6-13; Novick, “My Correct Views,” 702.

[6] Novick, That Noble Dream, 17.

[7] Novick, That Noble Dream, 7-9, 11-12. Furthermore, James Kloppenberg speculated that Novick’s approach led him to overemphasize historians who advocated “the very hyper-realism [Novick] distrusts.” In Kloppenberg’s opinion, Novick should have incorporated more material from the intellectuals offering “more sophisticated versions of historicism that provide attractive alternatives to objectivism.” Kloppenberg refers to the work of David Hollinger, Thomas Haskell, Gordon Wright, and William McNeill. Kloppenberg, 1016, 1026-1028.

[8] Novick, That Noble Dream, 1-2, 21-85, 469. To illustrate the accommodation and consensus of the founding period, Novick describes how US historians avoided potential regional conflicts over Civil War history by reaching a consensus that reconciled the points of view of Southern and Northern historians. While slavery was immoral and Southern secession violated the Constitution, Northern political elites went too far in the Reconstruction and victimized Southerners.

[9] Note that among the Progressives all expressed a degree of skepticism for objectivity, however, Carl Becker was the first to proffer an historical relativist framework. See Novick, That Noble Dream, 105-107.

[10] Novick, That Noble Dream, 86-132.

[11] Novick, That Noble Dream, 133-167.

[12] Novick, That Noble Dream, 168-249.

[13] Degler, 892.

[14] Carl L. Becker, “Everyman His Own Historian,” American Historical Association, November 8, 2022, https://www.historians.org/about-aha-and-membership/aha-history-and-archives/presidential-addresses/carl-l-becker.

[15] Novick, That Noble Dream, 250-278. At this point Novick introduces relativism as the foil of objectivism and returns to these two antagonizing concepts at many points in the book. Linda Gordon was critical of this approach. Novick’s reified the dichotomy despite the fact that “few historians cling to purely objectivist or relativist positions.” As a result, Novick tended to overlook both moderate approaches and more nuanced theoretical views on relativism and objectivism.

[16] Novick, That Noble Dream, 281-411. One slight criticism of Novick’s history of the profession in the postwar period was the lack of discussion on federal funding to colleges and universities, specifically the “G.I. Bill” (The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944).

[17] On this point it is worth considering Thomas Haskell’s most significant disagreement with Novick’s historiography. In general, argues Haskell, Novick defines objectivity too narrowly and “virtually equates objectivity with neutrality.” Applying Haskell’s general critique to this part of the book, Novick takes “oppositional histories” as a departure from objectivity because “[he] generally construes active political commitment by historians who subscribe to the ideal of objectivity as evidence of personal insecurity or, more often, the incoherence and emptiness of the ideal.” Haskell, 136-140.

[18] Novick, That Noble Dream, 415-468. Note that Linda Gordon argued that Novick underestimated ideological divisions within the profession and how those divisions played into debates over objectivity. “[T]he strongest proclamations of objectivity have been made by center, dominate groups and criticized by marginal groups.” Furthermore, Novick’s conception of “the Left” tended to refer to “Marxist or other anticapitalist views” rather than leftists supporting “greater democracy [and] inclusion and representation of marginalized social groups.” Gordon, 686.

[19] Linda Gordon, an historian of women’s history, commented “Novick’s treatment of women’s history is so scandalously misinformed that it becomes disrespectful. Feminist scholars are treated quite differently from scholars of any other political persuasion: not primarily as scholars or intellectuals at all but as political activists.” Novick did not consider feminist theory’s “critique of claims of objectivity of a specifically political nature: viewing objectivity as a claim created by a male stream of thought.” In other words, Novick ignored “fundamental definitions of what counts as history, not only in history.” Gordon, 687.

[20] Novick, That Noble Dream, 469-521. Regarding the increased specialization of fields within the profession, Allan Megill argued historians departed from “grand narratives” of history and moved toward being intellectually ecumenical, overlapping into sociology, philosophy, economics, etc. While “unity on the methodological level disappears” the tradeoff is greater intellectual diversity within the profession, as “unity on the substantive level…can only serve to exclude.” Megill argued historiographies like That Noble Dream offer historians unity “at a reflective level” by tracing common origins and evolution of the profession, explaining the “impossibility of their union.” Megill, 697-698.

[21] While many reviewers of Novick’s book commented that the conclusion was overly pessimistic, James Kloppenberg argued that American history had reached a new height, “bursting with the new ideas and fresh energy of historians who represent groups previously excluded from academic life.” Kloppenberg, 1026.

[22] Novick briefly discusses the work of Thomas L. Haskell and David A. Hollinger. In addition, a review of That Noble Dream by James T. Kloppenberg offers a theoretical alterative. Both Haskell and Kloppenberg are discussed in the following section.

[23] Novick, That Noble Dream, 522-629. Hollinger, 690. Also note that Novick’s quasi-journalistic account of the David Abraham affair in the final chapter was more distracting than useful. While making for an interesting (but woeful) story, the account did not offer much insight on the objectivity question. Furthermore, Carl Degler commented that Novick “overemphasized the belief in objective history” of the professors involved in the Abraham affair (Degler, 892-894).

[24] Haskell summarizes Novick’s position on objectivity as abandoning the theoretical debate while preserving the praxis. Historians can “cut loose from the ideal, declaring it obsolete…while silently perpetuating many of the practices associated with it.” Haskell, 131.

[25] Ross, 704-705.

[26] Hollinger, 689-690.

[27] Edward Hallett Carr, What is History? (New York: Vintage Books, 1961), 9-35, 162-166.

[28] Haskell, 134-152.

[29] Kloppenberg, 1015, 1017-1018.

[30] Sarah C. Maza, Thinking About History, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2017), 224-225.

[31] Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret C. Jacob, Telling the Truth About History, (New York: Norton, 1994), 251-261.

[32] Joan Wallach Scott, “History in Crisis: The Others’ Side of the Story,” The American Historical Review 94, no. 3 (1989), 680–92. Joan W. Scott, “The Evidence of Experience,” Critical Inquiry 17, no. 4 (1991), 773–797.

[33] Haskell, 142.

[34] Scott, “History in Crisis”, 692.

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