Carter Man: Objectivity in History

The author (Mark Bevir) attempts to explain how historians can uncover an objective understanding of history. In doing so, he refutes others who suggest such objectivity is impossible to obtain or requires the elimination of human interpretation from the analysis of history. Bevir’s main argument is that an objective account of history can be obtained by comparing various interpretations of a historical event. From there, historians can determine the shared facts these various perspectives agree upon and then begin to craft an interpretation of that history. Instead of necessarily having a historical theory that is “correct,” historians should gather the shared facts from various rival interpretations to compose the most accurate history they can given such facts. From there, the best possible theory can be developed, then expanded upon or replaced depending on other facts later discovered. The author has more faith in humanity to objectively study history than do others. Bevir acknowledges the difficulties involved objectively studying history, not just because of our generation’s prejudices, but because of the prejudices of the people we study as well. But unlike others, Bevir doesn’t see the solution to subjectivity in removing human perspective from history’s study; he does not even believe this is possible. By following a set of standards in studying history and opening up historical theories to criticism from others, Bevir believes in the power of human rationality to create an objective history. Even if humans can never produce a one hundred percent correct and objective history, humans are still very capable of producing relatively objective histories, even in the presence of natural human biases.

The author tries to take an objective approach to history by examining the various interpretations of an historical event and uncovering the common facts from these competing accounts. He’s not necessarily using a historiographical approach so much as he is trying to encourage his readers to use the one described above. Style wise, Bevir approached this article by detailing why his approach to history is most effective in producing an objective history as well as explaining where other approaches fall short in doing so.

Bevir’s argument is well detailed and his logic is sound. Still, he uses more words than necessary to get his point across. His writing is also somewhat difficult to follow in some places. Though his writing style is likely the product of writing to a limited audience of historians, his writing would be much easier to follow if it were compacted.

Regarding more general questions of objectivity and subjectivity, we can never really obtain a 100% objective history. As the article I read hits on, all humans have opinions and worldviews. No human can study history in a completely impartial manner. But with that said, humans are the only ones who can study history to this point. Even if, say, computers were able to study history and historical artifacts for us, how should they take into account the inherent biases in the historical accounts of past generations? Humans can’t take the bias out of history, but they can take the steps to produce a relatively objective history. As Bevir points out, the best ways to limit subjectivity in history include observing the viewpoints of many different historical sources, piecing together common facts or details both sides agree happened, and trying to piece together the rest of the story, kind of like a puzzle. While history cannot produce the cold, hard true or false answers that the sciences can, humans can piece together a general picture of the past.

As history often resembles an incomplete picture, using different methodologies can prove useful. Looking at history from one angle or through a certain lens might uncover part of the history of that event. But since history isn’t quite absolute, observing history through other means and perspectives can reveal aspects of the historical event that may not have been evident otherwise.

Bevir, Mark. “Objectivity in History.” History and Theory 33, no. 3 (October
1994): 328-44. Accessed September 1, 2017.
http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.lib.vt.edu/stable/pdf/
2505477.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3A78cd3710bca6fdc7a65d5b11de87d1d6.

Word Count: 648

  2 comments for “Carter Man: Objectivity in History

  1. blogrh
    September 4, 2017 at 12:39 pm

    This summary and critique is nicely done, Carter. I like your criticism about the author’s wordiness. (Clearly, the author didn’t take Hirsh’s HIST 2004, right?) And I appreciate how you extrapolated from the author’s argument to suggest that even computers (if properly trained) couldn’t do history properly. Yes, doing history remains a human activity, which is probably a good thing, even if we never quite get history “correct.”
    Nice job. RHirsh

  2. March 25, 2020 at 3:29 am

    in tema di rettifica ed eventuale cancellazione dei contenuti on line.

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