The Objectivity of History
Length: 1294 words (3.7 double-spaced pages)
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The issues that are raised in this source by Marc Trachtenberg are is whether or not objectivity is still a relevant idea, and if it is not then is history in fact dying. Keith Jenkins' "What is History?," Carl Becker's "What are Historical Facts?" and Richard Evans' "In Defence of History" will be used to discuss and examine these issues.
Marc Trachtenberg is questioning if objectivity is possible and desirable in today's society, and this is a question that many historians have pondered. Keith Jenkins and Richard Evans are the two historians that will be used in relation to this debate. Trachtenberg believes that history should be ultimately obtainable however, he is worried that the way in which society is heading that it will soon become an obsolete ideology. His believes that history's ultimate goal is to discover the truth. Trachtenberg believes that you should "put your political beliefs aside and frame questions in such a way that the answers turned on what the evidence showed." He realizes that this may be a slightly naïve idea however he still stands by this belief even when others such as Keith Jenkins have totally given up on objectivity.
Keith Jenkins in his article "What is history" sets outs his opinion on why objectivity is in fact impossible to achieve in the study of history. His perception is that that "actual past has gone" and in its place we have created history in the present and that the "content is as much invented as found." His theory is that a historian cannot escape his or her own preconceived ideas and personal motives to the extent that history could be written in an objective way. He goes as far to set out the steps and within the reasons why historians write the way they do. He says that through the selection of evidence the historian's prejudices are at work, disregarding pieces that do not fit in with their own ideologies. Jenkins was a post modernist historian and his context is important in why he thought they way he did. The post modernist movement was one that believed that historical objectivity was an oxymoron and that history was more of an entertainment than an arm of academic study. The post modernism movement was established after the confusion of the World Wars. This explains why their notions on history because scientific history had been the prevailing idea in history until this occurred.
However, after the world wars people like Keith Jenkins had seen historians who were supposedly unbiased rush to justify their country and demonize the enemy and thus destroying the current ideas of historical objectivity. Jenkins believes that history has no real relevance to the society of the day because he believes "That past, appropriated by historians, is never the past itself..." This is in direct conflict with Marc Trachtenberg, as he believes that history is in fact of "profound importance to society at large" and thus believes that objectivity has to be the ultimate goal of historians.
Richard Evans agrees with Trachtenberg's idea that history is important to society and that objectivity is obtainable in his article "In Defence of History." In this article he is trying to rebut the claims of post-modernists including Keith Jenkins' claims that his is insignificant and objectivity is a farce. He says that "The truth about patterns and linkages of facts in history is in the end discovered not invented, found not made..." Evans believes like Allan Bullock that if historians realize that he may have prejudices and then takes steps to counterbalance these then the history he or she writes will be historical accurate. He also believes that if a historian is open to other people's points of view then there should be no reason why objectivity would not occur. However, Evans does not believe that objectivity should be taken to the level in which it lacks imagination and character, as the past was a colorful and interesting time. In the last paragraph of this article Evans shows us how passionately he believes this, "I will look humbly at the past and say despite it them all: it really happened, and we really can... find out how it happened..." Evans view seems to be shaped by a more traditional view of history. This makes him similar to Marc Trachtenberg who also appears to value the older styles of history. This would of course influence their notions of objectivity, as throughout the history of history, scientific history has been the prevailing movement. Evans shows us this by dedicating most of his article to a history of historian's views on scientific methods. Trachtenberg by declaring he preferred "diplomatic" history to "feminist studies," one traditional and the other a distinctly modern phenomenon.
The second issue in need of discussion is the point that if history moves away form it's traditional roots then it will move away from objectivity and accuracy. Marc Trachtenberg in this source states that this is happening at the moment as we are now becoming more interested in political history and this by its very definition is a subjective history. He believes that when you step into the realm of political history you in fact step into the world of the "privileged." This term is meant to mean the group of people who are in control, in other words it is the victors history. His example of this phenomenon is "feminist studies," a branch of history that has only been around since after the women's liberation movement in the late 1960's and 1970's. This would cause problems to him because he has already let us now that he values diplomatic history and traditional history over the more diverse modern histories. Richard Evans has the same concerns when it comes to political history he writes "Politically committed history only damages itself if it distorts, manipulates or obscures historical fact in interests of the cause it claims to represent." Both men believe that politics can be a dangerous factor when it comes to history because it would be so easy to let their political ambitions or ideologies influence their writings. Becker believes that new generations and waves of history are not a new phenomenon and that they do not take away from the importance of history.
Carl Becker tells us in "What are historical facts?" that he believes that "it is well known that every generation writes the same history in a new way, and puts upon it a new construction." Becker goes on to say, "We build our conceptions of history partly out of our present needs and purposes." This means that he believes that each new generation writes history in a way that is relevant to them. This explains the new movements of things such as "feminist studies" because this is the major events that has happened in the current generation of writers. In this period, diplomatic history is less relevant because the western world has not known massive conflict in over 50 years. Context also helps to explain why Trachtenberg may see the importance of diplomatic history over that of political movements, as he was most likely largely influenced in his schooling by the experiences of World War II. Becker's purpose is to show us that history is important because it shows us the societies present values however Trachtenberg and Evans believe that the past is the foundations of society, as we know it today.
Through the discussion of these historians and their works in relation to historical objectivity, it is easy to see how the historian's purposes and contexts shaped their viewpoints. All of these historians are products of their times and this is shown through their stances on the debates and issues of historiography.