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Objectivity and Subjectivity in History

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Autor:   •  February 20, 2011  •  Research Paper  •  1,571 Words (7 Pages)  •  1,433 Views

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According to Benny Morris, historical truth is a Ð''truth about a historical event that exists independently of, and can be detached from, the subjectivities of scholars' . Hence, is Morris implying that historical truths are objective? If they are indeed objective, why are historians constantly rewriting history books? Although the objectivity of some historical truths is indisputable, one must realise that most truths in history are influenced by the historian's biases, limitations and his subjection to external influences. In other words, subjective elements (as mentioned above) undermine the objective interpretations of historical events. Thus, using Morris's definition of historical truth, this essay aims to marshal the argument that to a large extent, most historical truths (or historical understandings) are not objective but subjective in nature.

First and foremost, most historical truths are subjective due to the Ð''biased' approach the historian takes when selecting sources to interpret historical events. Given the fact that the modern historian has access to numerous sources, there is the tendency for him to only select sources which echo his personal Ð''prejudices' on the historical event concerned. This is because, due to the huge quantity of sources available, the historian will never be able to use all the sources for his interpretations of historical events. Thus, since he is in a position where he cannot use all sources (which have different interpretations for the same historical event), the historian would find it convenient to use sources which go along with his personal Ð''prejudices'. For example, due to the large number of sources available on the Nanking massacres, many modern Chinese historians, unable to use each and every source (due to the various forms of interpretations presented by these sources), tend to only select sources which claim that the massacres took place. This is because, these historians are Ð''prejudiced' against the Japanese who had brought great destruction to China during WW II. Similarly, since there are numerous sources which give different reasons for the destruction of African kingdoms, many African historians tend to select sources which state that Africa's former colonial masters were responsible for the extinction of African kingdoms. This is because, these African historians are Ð''prejudiced' against the Europeans for the latter had left their colonies in a state of abject poverty.

Thus, through a critical analysis of the examples mentioned above, one can see that historical truths cannot be objective but subjective for historians, due to their inability to use all the sources at their disposal, are led by their personal Ð''prejudices' when choosing both primary and secondary sources to interpret events of the past.

Michael Bentley says that Ð''a historian's historiography cannot be free from prejudice as the historian is already moulded by the external influences of his time' . One cannot but agree with him for historians are also human beings who are subjected to external influences of their time such as the political system, social norms or religious beliefs. Thus, these historians, when interpreting historical events, would have the tendency to give interpretations which are subject to the above mentioned influences. For example, during the early nineties, when India was ruled by the Bharathiya Janata Party (which was under the heavy influence of the Hindutva Ð'-an extremist Hindu group which advocated a pan- Hindu identity), many Indian Hindu historians through their works accused the Muslims (both in India and Pakistan) for the partition of India in 1947 even though the majority of Muslims had demonstrated actively against partition. This was because, many of these historians, who were Hindus, were influenced by the political system of the day which had been tarnished by fanatical Hindu ideologies (Bose, 2004). Similarly, many Sinhalese historians, up till today, continue to accuse the Jaffna Tamil community for igniting the civil war in 1983 and portray the Tamils as aggressors in Sri Lankan history text books. Just like the Indian historians, these Sinhalese historians have been influenced by the anti-Tamil governments in power and thus, having been subject to the influences of such governments, Sinhalese historians continue to ostracise the Tamils even though there is significant evidence that the Jaffna Tamil Community is not at fault (Spencer, 1990).

Thus, with historians being victims to political, social and religious influences, the historical interpretations made by these historians would always be shrouded with subjectivity. In all, historical truths will always be subjective for they are eclipsed by external influences which dominate a historian's interpretation towards historical events.

Lastly, to echo the views of Edward Hallett Carr, historical truths can never be objective because of Ð''the historian's need for imaginative understanding of the minds of the people with whom he is dealing, for the thought behind their acts' . Historians have always been limited in the sense that unless they imagine as to what went in the minds of historical figures, they will never be able to interpret most, if not all historical events. In all, historical truths can never be objective for as Robin George Collingwood asserts, Ð''in historical enquiry, the object to be discovered is not the mere event, but the thought expressed in it' For example, nineteenth century historical works (by British historians) on British medieval society are generally weak in nature. This is because, many nineteenth century British historians felt that the nineteenth century was the age of modernism and thus, had a strong repulsion for the superstitions and barbarities which were characteristic of the British medieval society. Hence, this repulsion inevitably hampered the imaginative understanding of the historians with regards to British society during the medieval era.

So far, this essay, through the various arguments and examples mentioned above, has advocated the view that historical truths are subjective and not objective in nature. However, as mentioned in the introduction, it would be delusive for one to claim that all historical truths are subjective for the objectivity of some historical truths is indisputable. A good example would actually be the Holocaust. The Holocaust is a historical event which is detached from the subjectivities of scholars for no historian can dispute as to whether the holocaust took place or not, due to the availability of immense evidence. On the other hand, although this essay accepts


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