Sometimes I feel the need to mount my white charger, pick up my sturdy lance, and ride off in defense of some poor, abused word. Often, it is a word that has been mugged and robbed of its precision, like hopefully. Sometimes, it is a word that has been enslaved and required to labor under a burden of meaning it was never meant to carry, like, relationship. The fact that these one-man campaigns are hopeless does nothing to discourage me; on the contrary, it just makes me feel more heroic, noble, and self-sacrificing. Please do not disabuse me of this illusion; my self-love might not be able to stand the truth.
Today, we fight for the defense of a word that has been framed for a crime it didn’t commit. I refer, as you are already aware from the title, to the word objectivity. Somewhere along the line, objectivity, particularly in discussions of history, came to be used by some to mean something like, not having an agenda, or, not being a part of what one is examining, or, pretending to have a perspective that is uninfluenced by one’s knowledge or experience. Naturally, with definitions such as this, poor objectivity finds itself convicted of uselessness without due process, and ends up in solitary confinement in some ideological prison where it must endure of hours of people taunting it with comments like, “there is no such thing as objectivity in history.” Cruel and unusual, I say. We will call this the casual definition, because calling it sloppy is a bit more confrontational than I’m ready for just yet. Now, where did I put that lance?
Let us begin with the dictionary, because I like to know dictionary definitions
before I ignore them. The American Heritage Dictionary, 1981, has this for definition 1 of objective: “Of or having to do with a material object as distinguished from a mental concept, idea, or belief. Compare subjective.” Definition 2 goes on, “Having actual existence or reality.” It is not until we get to definition 3a that we find, “Uninfluenced by emotion, surmise, or personal prejudice,” which at least waves at the definition to which I refer in the previous paragraph. And then 3b merrily goes on, “Based on observable phenomena; presented factually: an objective appraisal.”
We often hear, “No one can be objective regarding history.” I beg to submit the following: 1. Generally, when someone says that, it is the casual definition that is being used. 2. By the casual definition, not only can no one be objective, but those who claim to be are usually being disingenuous, and working very hard to conceal their agenda. 3. Using the casual definition, objectivity is not only impossible, but also unnecessary, and not even a goal worth striving for; on the contrary, a good historian makes not the least effort to be objective in that sense, knowing that such an effort can only lead to distortion.
But when we go with the dictionary definition, we have an entirely different approach and result. When I say a work of history is objective, I mean that it bases itself on real, material events and relationships. Right now, I’m studying the history of Kansas, 1856-60, and the formation of the Republican Party. I neither expect nor desire the historian to pretend to display events as if devoid of prejudice, belief, or agenda. What I do demand is that conclusions be based on facts that are clearly laid out, that the historian’s beliefs and programs be either clearly stated or easily deduced, that “inconvenient facts” not be omitted, and that the internal consistency of the narrative, built on verifiable facts, be laid out. In other words, “show your work.”
My two favorite historical works are James M. McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom and Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution. McPherson makes no secret of his antipathy for the slave power, and Trotsky, of course, is quite clear and open about his support for the insurrection of which he was one of the principal architects and the primary organizer. What makes these works so profoundly convincing is the revelations of the general historical laws at work effectively explain the events; the logic holds together. In both cases, it becomes very difficult to dispute the conclusions without taking the position that the author is out-and-out lying about facts (which is problematic in both cases, given how easily verifiable the facts are).
When I refer to a work or a method as subjective, I mean that it bases itself on the particular, individual, personal. A work is subjective insofar as “I feel” is the starting point, as opposed to, “this happened.” Even more so if, “this is how you should feel about it,” as opposed to, “this is why it happened,” comes slithering through the subtext. Individual, personal experience can be vital in helping us empathize with another human being, but it is not how we come to a scientific understanding of the processes of history which, though inevitably happening to individuals, are nevertheless fundamentally impersonal: they are what happened whether I like it or not.
To be sure, no one can have a complete, perfect, total understanding of an historical event any more than one can have a complete, perfect, total understanding of, for example, the formation of Earth’s crust. But we do not find hoards of pseudo-intellectuals telling us how geology cannot be studied objectively. To achieve a scientific understanding of the formation of the Earth’s crust, a geologist does not base his work on how he feels about it, but rather endeavors, as well as possible, to determine what really happened and why. And then we test that understanding by making predictions, and so modify our theories as needed. To apply this same method to the study of history is, without doubt, more difficult: the effects of prejudice and social pressures generated by class society are much more immediate. But that is no excuse for applying different standards. So, yes, I reject the notion that there can be no objectivity in historical studies. Those who support this notion are, in my opinion, abusing the poor word, and ought to stop.