Maintaining Objectivity in History

CivilWarMidstream

The key to overcoming bias is to strive to be objective, understand where biases can exist, understanding why biases exist, and looking at history in through as many different perspectives as possible.  It is only through strenuous work and arduous revision that we can hope to be unbiased, but even in this sense we cannot be completely objective.  We will always be maligned by our own views of the world, we will always be burdened by ethnocentrism, gender and racial attitudes that are not completely unbiased, as well as our approaches to history itself which may be geared towards understanding one thing at the expense of another.

As historians we can attempt to put together as realistic an interpretation as possible, but that does not necessarily mean that this account will be without bias or entirely objective.  We must look at how argument is constructed if we are to understand why this happens.  Lorenz explains that “realistic representation is impossible: when one uses linguistic constructs to represent reality, one at the same time ‘fictionalizes’ reality.[1]”  Writers do add their own interpretation to history, but that is the nature of the writer and of the historian, we are trying to make what is interesting to us interesting to someone else.  It would be counter to the basic ideas of logic to think we would construct history in a totally unbiased way.  Lorenz explains “during the process of linguistic representation something is ‘added’ to reality, namely, the linguistic instruments used to represent it.[2]

We want history to be biased as writers, but at the same time as historians we want to see history represented in as unbiased a manner as possible.  Hayden White said that “historians can therefore be said to fictionalize the past, and history writing is basically an ‘extended metaphor’ and ‘the fiction of ‘factual representation.[3]’”  This creates quite the dilemma for the historian that wishes to remain truly objective.  Analyzing these anomalies we do not necessarily need to come to the same conclusion as Lorenz that “due to radical difference and the unbridgeable gap between language and reality it is impossible to represent reality in language in a truthful manner.[4]

There can be an in-between if we understand that history does not exist purely in the abstract, it exists as something organic, something that grows over time and its’ interpretation is constantly changing.  Understanding history as something that is not always black and white is just as important as understanding that history is biased.  That which leads us to difficult conclusions shouldn’t be discarded because it is difficult to understand, but rather it should be further analyzed so that we can learn the lessons of the argument that is difficult to understand.  We should not analyze it however because it is difficult just as we shouldn’t study something because it is overly simplistic.  So long as we seek a higher understanding we are studying history for the right reasons.

Lorenz makes the point that “if everything is fictional and mythical, fiction and myth become all-encompassing and ultimately empty categories.[5]”  It is here perhaps that Lorenz could look at a methodology like that employed by quantitative historians.  “The historian can compensate for scarce material by using efficient and powerful statistical methods.[6]”  Lorenz may state that statistics can’t counter a problem created by language our the interpretation of language by historians.  Lorenz says that “the crucial fact that reality does not dictate or determine how it is linguistically represented, does not preclude the possibility of multiple representations.[7]

A critical factor in the biases of history is that many arguments in history are made from cultural, ethnic, or gender based perspective.  We don’t look at the elements of ethnocentrism when we look at history painted with a broad-based brush.  Lorenz argues “knowledge and thus truth can never claim to be universally valid because both knowledge and truth are always connected to particular circumstances or interests of some sort such as culture, class or gender.[8]

We can look at methods employed by gender historians and see how this is put into practice.  Gender is, as the co-authors of Houses of History say: “a social construct,” if we view history through that lens, that gender is a construct of the society that interpreted history originally as patriarchial in nature then we can understand how and why truth and knowledge are not as Lorenz notes “universally valid.”  Indeed, how could they be?  Lorenz notes that “the postmodernist critique of objectivity and postmodernism’s cult of diversity, particularity and heterogeneity is often related to the advent of multiculturalism.[9]”  It is true that everything in life is relative, but we don’t allow this relativity to undermine knowledge and truth in the ideal circumstances.

As historians we cannot be perfect, but that does not mean that we should not strive for perfection.  Simply because something is unattainable does not mean that we should not strive to attain it, if anything this acknowledgment that we are human and thus unable to be perfect at all times should serve as a motivating force to push us towards higher achievement.  We are not shackled to the constructs of what we cannot do, we are emboldened by it.  We are not dissuaded from things simply because we know we cannot attain them, where would we be if we did?  If history said there was no precedence for space travel does that mean it ought not to have been attempted?  Of course not, such a premise is ludicrous, but how do we get from the hypothesis that the difficult is worth attaining and that the simple must be subverted if we are to attain a better conceptualization of reality?  History is defined by what we try, there is no history of the untried.

Postmodernist theory is heavily reliant on, even if it does not necessarily always coincide with the empirical construct of history.  Relativism for instance is something that is important in all interpretations of history.  If we do not look at relativism in history we have nothing through which to gauge our understanding.  “Relativism is the belief that absolute truth is unattainable, and that all sstatements about history are connected or relative to the position of those who make them.[10]”  We can also look at empirical study when it comes to the integrity of historical study in the first place.  “Elton argued that the historian should not impose his or her own questions upon the evidence; rather the questions should arise spontaneously out of the material itself.[11]”  This sort of unquestioning view on historical analysis would be incredibly limiting for the historian as we would not make new assumptions, come to new conclusions, or even come up with a new framework within to understand our past if we did not question the content that history has provided us with.

When we look at historiography and in particular the evolution of historiographical analysis we see the dangers inherent in empiricism.  Such a view limits the historian and if we were to continue along that line of thinking we would arguably not get the opportunity to make new, progressive interpretations of history.  Would we necessarily even want to study history if it were not advancing?  Even science, which is something that is always heavily reliant on past analysis, allows for new interpretations of information.  Is history not a science in some respects?

“According to ethnocentrism, we can only interpret the world from our own point of view because that is the only point of view we have.[12]”  This argument isn’t being made to unfairly ridicule the historian, quite the opposite in fact.  This observation  is made so that the historian may understand the constrictive aspects of the profession and overcome the obstacles that come along with it.  We could proceed in a state of absolute naivate, but what would be the point of continuing in this state?  What good could we hope to achieve if we proceeded from within a bubble?  This is why conservative history issues so few positive or progressive results.  It is not seeking a new way of looking at history, it is not seeking a new type of understanding, it does not want to understand that which it does not agree with and therefore conservatism maintains its’ biases when it could be overcoming them.  This doesn’t just hurt the conservative identity, it hurts the cause of all involved in their struggle.  When we don’t seek a better understanding we limit ourselves to the known and the known can only be constructive so long as it remains relevant.

We can look at history through a triangulated view and hope to understand that which we at times overlook.  Lorenz makes the point that “interpretation is always partial – there can be no complete interpretation of anything, perspectival – all interpretation is interpretation from a particular point of view, embedded within a particular tradition – and revisable – all interpretation is open to later revisions.[13]”  We can understand this when we look at historiography.  “Every age has developed its own climate of opinion – or particular view of the world – which, in turn, has partially conditioned the way it looks upon its own past and present.[14]”  When we take a heightened perspective when it comes to historiography we can understand the evolution of historical thought and its’ limitations within its’ particular period of study.

Lorenz makes the point that: “it is impossible to say that one perspective is to be preferred over another, because such a judgment presupposes a meta-perspective, from which particular perspectives can be judged.[15]”  When we presuppose that we know the answers, we are making a judgement on an unfair bias that we believe we know what the answer is and that our answer is correct.

We should always seek to understand things in the most critical and objective manner possible, but sometimes this is not always possible.  Lorenz makes the argument that: “the skeptical argument against the possibility of ‘objective’ representation in history does not stand up to critical analysis.[16]”  This inevitably leads to the question that was raised at the beginning of this paper which was: “is history objective?”  Lorenz argues that even when we understand all biases we cannot be completely without bias.  Lorenz says that: “what is meant by truth is simply independent of the constellation of power in which truth-claims are presented.[17]”  This argument against truth regimes actually holds throughout historical analysis and interpretation.  We can no more connect to causal correlations to one another in the abstract than we can connect truth to power.  Power assumes truth because it is power, not because truth is inherent within power.  The same logic applies to history broadly as we cannot lay claim to the complete understanding of all history, such an assertion would be on its’ head ridiculous and once pontificated it would be exposed for its’ absurdity.

Objectivity is something that should be striven towards, but within the same context as understanding that this cannot be achieved.  A problem that arises when we acknowledge the ends of something is that it can discourage from undertaking the cause in the first place.  This does not need to be so.  Lorenz argues: “objectivity is the collective result of respecting the methodological rules of the discipline, open-mindedness, detachment, mutual criticism and fairness.[18]”  Understanding how objectivity works in the abstract is important if one is to attempt to actually achieve it.  Lorenz says: “respect for the evidence and the methodological rules remains paramount as long as historical representations are presented as claims to knowledge with a universal validity.[19]”  Another historian puts it this way: “the ideal investigator is someone who wants to find the answer, but does not care what the answer is.[20]”  The same is true of the historian.


[1] Chris Lorenz.  “You Got Your History, I Got Mine.” http://www.culturahistorica.es/chris_lorenz/truth_and_objectivity_in_history.pdf, 566.  (Accessed March 3, 2012.)

[2] Chris Lorenz.  “You Got Your History, I Got Mine.” http://www.culturahistorica.es/chris_lorenz/truth_and_objectivity_in_history.pdf, 566.  (Accessed March 3, 2012.)

[3] Chris Lorenz.  “You Got Your History, I Got Mine.” http://www.culturahistorica.es/chris_lorenz/truth_and_objectivity_in_history.pdf, 566.  (Accessed March 3, 2012.)

[4]Chris Lorenz.  “You Got Your History, I Got Mine.” http://www.culturahistorica.es/chris_lorenz/truth_and_objectivity_in_history.pdf, 567.  (Accessed March 3, 2012.)

[5]Chris Lorenz.  “You Got Your History, I Got Mine.” http://www.culturahistorica.es/chris_lorenz/truth_and_objectivity_in_history.pdf, 569.  (Accessed March 3, 2012.)

[6] Anna Green and Kathleen Troup, The Houses of History: a Critical Reader in Twentieth-Century History and Theory (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999), 142.

[7]Chris Lorenz.  “You Got Your History, I Got Mine.” http://www.culturahistorica.es/chris_lorenz/truth_and_objectivity_in_history.pdf, 569.  (Accessed March 3, 2012.)

[8]Chris Lorenz.  “You Got Your History, I Got Mine.” http://www.culturahistorica.es/chris_lorenz/truth_and_objectivity_in_history.pdf, 570.  (Accessed March 3, 2012.)

[9]Chris Lorenz.  “You Got Your History, I Got Mine.” http://www.culturahistorica.es/chris_lorenz/truth_and_objectivity_in_history.pdf, 570.  (Accessed March 3, 2012.)

[10]Anna Green and Kathleen Troup, The Houses of History: a Critical Reader in Twentieth-Century History and Theory (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999), 7.

[11]Anna Green and Kathleen Troup, The Houses of History: a Critical Reader in Twentieth-Century History and Theory (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999), 5.

[12]Chris Lorenz.  “You Got Your History, I Got Mine.” http://www.culturahistorica.es/chris_lorenz/truth_and_objectivity_in_history.pdf, 572.  (Accessed March 3, 2012.)

[13]Chris Lorenz.  “You Got Your History, I Got Mine.” http://www.culturahistorica.es/chris_lorenz/truth_and_objectivity_in_history.pdf, 573.  (Accessed March 3, 2012.)

[14] Intro, 1.

[15]Chris Lorenz.  “You Got Your History, I Got Mine.” http://www.culturahistorica.es/chris_lorenz/truth_and_objectivity_in_history.pdf, 573.  (Accessed March 3, 2012.)

[16] Chris Lorenz.  “You Got Your History, I Got Mine.” http://www.culturahistorica.es/chris_lorenz/truth_and_objectivity_in_history.pdf, 574.  (Accessed March 3, 2012.)

[17] Chris Lorenz.  “You Got Your History, I Got Mine.” http://www.culturahistorica.es/chris_lorenz/truth_and_objectivity_in_history.pdf, 578.  (Accessed March 3, 2012.)

[18] Chris Lorenz.  “You Got Your History, I Got Mine.” http://www.culturahistorica.es/chris_lorenz/truth_and_objectivity_in_history.pdf, 582.  (Accessed March 3, 2012.)

[19]Chris Lorenz.  “You Got Your History, I Got Mine.” http://www.culturahistorica.es/chris_lorenz/truth_and_objectivity_in_history.pdf, 583.  (Accessed March 3, 2012.)

[20] Approaching history bias.

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