Can history ever be truly objective?
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History essay help/opinions watch
- Thread Starter
- 25-08-2015 12:20
- Study Helper
- 29-08-2015 20:15
- 29-08-2015 20:17
If History was objective, we'd be out of a GCSE/A Level subject.
It's all open to interpretation.
Sure we can have facts, such as World War II starting in 1939 and ending in 1945. But we can never be certain as to what the causes of it were, and that's where we analyse sources to credit ideas.
- 29-08-2015 20:27
Well in terms of facts (eg "the battle started on ... date") then perhaps. But even then sources and accounts shouldn't be trusted by themselves, you'd need a whole array of different ones to corroborate the first "fact". This is especially true the further back we get because usually sources are fewer and documentation is scarce.
However, taking my example of a battle earlier, say we had an account of this written down, I do not think it's possible. Or maybe we had an artists impression; not objective either.
I think this is the case for a number of reasons. First, it is in human nature to make assumptions based on the little factual knowledge we have. We take the thirty seconds of something that we saw and instantly make a judgement about other periods in time around that small incident. Second, our perception of that 30 seconds itself may not even be correct. We may have missed something or failed to notice the obvious. Third, memories aren't always correct. If a source was written or painted after something happened then the author or artist has had time to think about what happened and accidentally replace parts of their memory. For this reason, the difference between what someone will explain to you five minutes after an event has happened and two years after is staggering.
I could go on as there are many factors that seem to come into this question but I would say the answer is no.
Posted from TSR Mobile
- 30-08-2015 07:24
Your answer lies in definitions.
A historian's job, like that of any academic, is to ask questions, find ways of answering them and present the answers as an approximation of the truth. Historians, like biologists and mathematicians, need to apply objective methodology in their search for the truth.
Gone are the days when you could just write whatever the hell you like using historical figures as characters in a story and call it history. And history is the better for it. One can make a claim but it needs to be evidence based in order to be taken seriously. This is an exciting time to be a historian as there is so much more evidence available to us now. Heck, we're even revising revisionist history these days. Look at Richard III. For decades, centuries even, the narrative of him as the tyrant, hunchbacked king has been challenged on the grounds of a lack of physical evidence to support it and there is plenty of evidence to support a counter-narrative of him as a retrospectively maligned figure, his portraits being doctored post hoc in the interests of strengthening the Tudor/Lancastrian claim to the throne. The tyrant element lacks evidence as well. He's on the way to being completely rehabilitated and then we find what appears to intents and purposes to be Richard III's body and we realise that actually both narratives have some truth to them.
So History needs to be objective in terms of its underlying principles. That much nobody can deny.
History, however, deals with a largely intangible subject matter: human motivation. One cannot perform an empirical study on the past because it does not exist. Even living observers of the past will not produce identical testimonials and physical relics are not representative sources and don't present a complete picture. The answers we supply to the questions we ask are always going to be subjective to our personal views and experiences.
This is not necessarily bad for the subject and a case can easily be made that human motivation is too complex a thing to be explained by a single narrative or a single reason. Take the question of why Elizabeth I never married. When I studied this at A level, we focused on things such as the diplomatic quandary of a female head of state taking a male consort, whether or not she never truly got over her first love, whether she was infertile, whether there was a financial motive etc. Now though, having had children of my own, I would suggest that a large part of her decision not to marry was probably influenced by a fear of childbirth. Mortality rates of women in childbirth were as high as 50% in some populations in Tudor England. If the queen were to die in childbirth, the country would be thrown into chaos and another civil war would begin. If the Tudor line were to continue through a female route - and the only lines left at this point were via this route - better be it some other woman who had already had children and she enjoy her own life as long as possible. Perhaps this explains her reluctance to do away with Mary, Queen of Scots. After all, it's only when MQS represents a direct threat to Elizabeth's own person that she does away with her. That's a version of the truth that's impossible to verify, and certainly represents an incomplete vision of what happened, but it's something that generates further questions of how women were perceived at the time etc.
I digress slightly; the point is, there is no single truth to be found in history because such a thing doesn't exist and never did. Human movement and motivation is infinitely complex. The questions we ask in uncovering it are being continually shaped by our present experience, too. However, the same can be said even of the purest sciences. Likewise, even the purest sciences are subject to our need to present the facts as a narrative, the effect of which will be to distort and skew the truth.
So whilst history - as a reflexive subject - can never be truly objective, this does not have a negatory effect on its value. The subject is simply another degree of dilution of the notion of absolute truth, if such a thing even exists.
I always think a better version of this question would be to posit the view: A time machine would eliminate most, if not all, of the limitations historians currently endure. Discuss. But that's for another day.