Historical Objectivity: Does it exist?

Is history objective or subjective? The answer is both. While every historian strives to eradicate personal bias and subjectivity from their research, it is impossible to do so completely. Niall Ferguson, history professor at Harvard University, explores this idea in a short video entitled “Is there such a thing as historical objectivity?”. Ferguson attributes historical writing’s inherent subjectivity to the author’s interpretation and inference. As we discussed in class, we are not only susceptible to our own unique perspective and experiences but we are a product of our own time and no other. While this is an obvious notion it is nonetheless an interesting one. When you consider that as the world changes so does our interpretation of it, history can be seen as more conversational than it is factual. In the video, Ferguson contrasts history to science in terms of how it is conducted. He posits that while science can be proven through a repetition of non-subjective experiments, history can only be proven through the study of sources selected at the researcher’s own discretion. While this difference is true, history and science are in many ways similar. History’s “truths” are grounded in theories the same way as scientific ones are. Ferguson states that “History aspires to truth but will never attain it” as “there is no definitive, objective truth on which all historians will one day agree.”  The same interpretation and inference that keeps a historian from total objectivity is also his greatest asset. These are the tools that allow us to conduct original research and help further the understanding of the historical narrative.

 

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