Delanie Tarvin: A Look at “What are Historical Facts?”

(Note: this article was split between three students. This blog post covers the last third of the article or pages 336-340.)

In “What are Historical Facts?” Carl L. Becker argues that complete historical objectivity is impossible, claiming that “the world of history is an intangible world, re-created imaginatively, and present in our minds.”[1] Specifically looking at the last third of this paper, Becker outlines five implications of this claim. First, he says that a historian can never completely cover a historical event, so each individual historian chooses which facts to focus on. With this, Becker describes the historian as an instrument. Second, Becker asserts that “the historian cannot eliminate the personal equation.”[2] As historians deal with imperfect and incomplete records of the past rather than dealing directly with the external world, each one will interpret each event differently. It is because of this, Becker stresses, that historiography is so important. Third, Becker states that a person must do his own historical research (in addition to studying that of others) to really gain a significant understanding of the past. Fourth, he states that everyone knows some level of history, but this common history is each individual’s personal history. Formal history allows the individual to understand aspects of the world outside of himself, showing him different perspectives and allowing him to understand his place within his community, nation, and world. Finally, Becker states that the history that common people have in their heads daily is the most influential kind of history, and this kind of history is often not scholarly historical research. In explaining this, Becker compares the societal influence of historical research and scientific research in the 19th to 20th centuries, ending his paper with the claim that World War I happened because historical research had no significant impact on society while scientific research had a huge impact.

In Becker’s perspective, complete historical objectivity does not exist. Becker does not necessarily use a historiographical approach; but, in explaining the implications above, he stresses the importance of historiography. Becker argues that “it is impossible to understand the history of certain great events without knowing what the actors in those events themselves thought about history.”[3] He uses historical examples like the idolization of Greek republicanism by leaders of the American Revolution in to explain this.

Becker’s writing style is easy to follow, enabling the reader to better understand his arguments. He makes claims and immediately explains his reasoning before moving on to another claim. In the last few paragraphs, however, his discussion of the World War does seem to be a sudden shift from the point of the paper. His use of the World War does coincide with his point (that formal history has not been utilized enough to prevent the war), but this section seems much more opinionated than the rest of the article. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is interesting to note the contrast. Besides this, Becker’s article flowed nicely, and he provided ample explanations for his claims.

Footnotes:

[1] Carl L. Becker, “What are Historical Facts?” The Western Political Quarterly, 8, no. 3 (Sep., 1955): p. 333.

[2] “What are Historical Facts?” p. 335.

[3] “What are Historical Facts?” p. 336.

Source:

Carl L. Becker, “What are Historical Facts?” The Western Political Quarterly, 8, no. 3 (Sep., 1955): p. 333-340. Published by the University of Utah.

Word Count: 484

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