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When E.H. Carr’s asserted that “belief in a hard core of historical facts existing objectively and independently of the interpretation of the historians is a preposterous fallacy, but one which it is very hard to eradicate”, he points to a prevalent argument that still undergoes today. Historians have contested with each other for years on the possibility of neutrality in history and history as an empirical science.
In my view, I agree with Carr that it is entirely impossible that our historical facts achieve absolute objectiveness “untainted” by the interpretations and evaluations of historians. This is based on the fact that knowledge of the past will inevitably be processed by human minds, going through the process of selection, evaluation and interpretations which will always contain personal elements of prejudices and preconception.
In the first instance, historians decide what is to be known about the past. As Babara W. Tuchman aptly explains Carr’s argument, “historical events are akin to a fallen tree in a forest, whereby if there was no one to hear the sound of its crash, who would have known that it happened?” Carr draws a comparison between Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon which is studied as an historical event, compared to the millions of other people who crossed the Rubicon as well but never gets their account told. Ultimately, historians decides what constituted as a major historical event to be studied, whereas other past events deemed insignificant may never get to speak its voice. Historical facts therefore cannot exist independently of the interpretation of historians as they decide in what gets to be told as a historical fact.
As Carr’s argues, “History is always necessarily selective.”
Evidences left behind are often preselected and predetermined by dominant power structures, leading us to believe what they wished us to. Even if we were to assume all evidences are untainted by the past, they are still chosen by historians from a myriad of documents of the past to surface as an ascertained historical fact. In Croce’s words, “if historians does not evaluate, how can he know what is worth recording?”
Historian themselves selects what is to be preserved and discarded in order to establish an intelligible account or answer to their question. Historian’s interest and judgement plays a part in deciding which evidences gets to be directed more attention than others. As a result, objectivity of historical facts is compromised as it will already have been influenced by historian’s preference on what is to be deemed significant to be on record, which does not constitute the whole truth. Quoting Carr, “The facts, speak only when the historian calls on them: it is he who decides to which facts to give the door and in what order or context.”
Still, positivists questions Carr’s view and believes that historians can and have a duty to consider most documents left behind, maintaining no biasness in selection, and present the historical facts as plainly as the evidences suggest. Leopold von Ranke wanted history to be shown how it really was and Lord Acton wanted it served plain. In supporting this ideal, empiricist such as Sir George Clark argues that objective historical facts can be extracted from artifacts from the past as long as we detached ourselves from it, maintain neutrality and pay strict attention to the facts.
However, this is not possible as evidences left behind do not instantly form a transparent window to the past. As Dominick LaCapra remark, “documents are texts that supplement or rework reality and not mere sources that divulge facts about reality.” Historical evidences are always shaped by the social institutions and cultural belief of its time. Artifacts left behind will therefore, never be in its purest form, requiring historians to evaluate and decipher them in order to give it meaning and credibility. As historians cannot take evidences at face value, it becomes unavoidable that historians bring their own thoughts on the documents on how it should be read.
In this process of evaluation, historians will inescapably be influenced by their personal prejudices and preconception. They will also certainly be influenced by pre-existing principles and belief held by themselves and the cultural milieu of his time. As historians see the past through present eyes, he is bounded by present day concepts and social environment, which renders him unable to correspond exactly to the past and becomes subjective in his evaluation.
Michel Foucault is indeed correct to say that individual interests together with social and cultural context plays an important role in determining which the interpretations of past that historian promote. There is also certain truth in R.G. Collingwood’s remark that, “All history is the history of thoughts.” Historians’ accounts of the past will be what they thought of the past to be, by deriving it from their beliefs and point of views. Historical facts cannot simply be served plain in the manner proposed by Lord Acton.
Historical facts therefore are always subjective to the interpretations of historians and cannot be independent of it. They are always processed by historians based on their selection and evaluation of evidences, which can be influenced by their social environment, cultural context as well as personal prejudices and preconception.
However, are we to denounce historical facts as simply mere fabrications of historians? In my view, Keith Jenkins has gone too far when he argues that “when we study history, we are not studying the past but what historians have constructed about the past.” Positivists do have valid reasons for believing in the objectivity of historical facts.
First of all, historians do not and cannot simply interpret historical events and facts they way they imagine it; historical facts are based on evidences and rationality. Even as a historian is influenced by their personal prejudices, preconceptions and social context, he is constrained by his profession to provide a rational and justified explanation that concurs as much as possible with most available evidences.
A historian’s interacts with available materials in his disposal to form a coherent as well as logical reasoning and interpretation of the past. While evidences and documents themselves do not tell the whole truth, they are genuine relics of the past and not mere creations of the historians. However, we are generally unaware of how process of selections and evaluation can influence and distort a historical truth.
Historical synthesis is also not simply a matter of selection and interpretation according to the way a historian desire, for he is restricted by a code of conduct to produce a fair and comprehensive presentation of the subject. Historians are to follow these rules, or face the consequences of being criticized and condemned by fellow academics of the discipline.
The history profession is ultimately, characterized by its critical evaluation of facts, cross-inference skills and rigorous procedures of historical inquiry. It is the discipline’s extensive requirement in rigor and credibility that gets us closer to understanding the past. Absolute objective history we cannot have, but it does not mean that historians do not work towards relative objectivity.
Yet, it is these requirements and characteristics that mislead some historians to think that they are able to detach themselves as a third party to present an objective and true account of the past. Historian’s commitment to truth does not render them objective, as they will forever be influenced by the preconceptions and prejudices as discussed earlier. Being critical in evaluation and aware of existence of biasness also does not automatically remove these influences.
Abundance of evidence coupled with rational and critical evaluation by historians might not point to absolute truth, but positivist argues that if there is a generally consented among academics as probably what happened, it should be fairly credible. Unless new evidences are discovered or better explanations are formed, existing interpretations should act as our basis to understand the past.
However, we should not mistake the most rational or dominant interpretation as the historical truth and renders it being objective. Generally accepted consensus does not change interpretations to become reality and we do have to remain critical of what is presented as facts.
Nonetheless, it is extremely hard to eradicate belief of historical facts existing objectivity and independently of the historian. History is still and continue for a long time, be seen as a discipline which provides absolute truth about the past. Historical facts are especially viewed as the absolute truth when narrated in textbooks and studied in educational institutions.
The question on objectivity of historical facts is a complex issue that historians today still find it hard to grapple with. It will continue to be debated as some will persist on the notion of absolute objectivity as they cling on to their responsibility as historians to maintain fidelity to the notion historical truth. As Housman remarked, accuracy is a duty and not a virtue of historians.
However, it is only when historians come to term that historical facts will always be subjective to the interpretation of historian, that we come closer to the truth.
It is only when we are aware that there can never be absolute objectivity in historical facts that we become more critical of its flaws and strive to eliminate the existing prejudices and subjectivity of accepted historical facts. As Milton Lomask advised, “The damage that, ingrained attitude can do to your perception, diminish in proportion to your awareness of them.”
It is exactly the awareness of its subjectivity, that historians’ progress further to improve on the standards of historical inquiry and research and achieve greater accuracy in historical accounts.
Historians must be willing to come to terms that historical facts are always subjective and dependent on interpretations of historians, in order to open up new perspective and acceptance counter views to postulate new interpretations.
As Carr rightly said, “History is a continuous dialogue with the past”. We should continue to engage in such a dialogue with the past, revisiting and revising accepted historical facts by accepting there is no such a thing as absolute truth; and ultimately, achieve greater relative objectivity, aiding us to understand the past better for the purpose of the present.
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