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That Noble Dream: The 'Objectivity Question' and the American Historical Profession (Ideas in Context)

That Noble Dream: The 'Objectivity Question' and the American Historical Profession (Ideas in Context) - Peter Novick Novick provides an insider’s view, through correspondence and personal papers, as well as published material, of the development of history as an American academic profession. This is very helpful to me right now, as I’m working out a historiography for my oral exam fields. He also addresses the issues of professionalism, audience, the historian’s role in society, and (of course) objectivity, in ways that are very interesting and seem quite fresh, even two decades after the book’s publication.Novick begins his introduction (aptly titled “Nailing jelly to the wall”) by saying “Historical objectivity” is a “sprawling collection of assumptions, attitudes, aspirations, and antipathies.” (1) Following philosopher W. B. Gallie, Novick calls objectivity an “essentially contested concept,” and the same might be said for the other concepts he explores. The interesting thing about these controversial concepts, though, is that the fact they are contested isn’t an unfortunate effect of change, or a flaw in our understanding. These concepts exist to be contested. They aren’t answers, they’re questions. Novick describes a myth of objectivity, which he says includes assumptions about the “reality of the past...a sharp separation between the knower and known, between fact and value, and , above all, between history and fiction.” (1-2) Truth, according to this “objectivist” point of view, is “not perspectival. Whatever patterns exist in history are ‘found,’ not ‘made.’” (2) This mythical objectivity is important, he says, not only because “it has served in sustaining the professional historical venture” (3), but also because of the “numerous...assertions by historians that without such faith they would see no point in scholarship, and would abandon it.” The main issue here, for me at least, is that when you really follow this trail all the way to its source, you end up in a religious universe where there are patterns in history because there is a divine plan. I’m not saying it’s impossible to call yourself an atheist and believe in materialist determinism. I’m saying that Marxist teleology is religion too.“The e pluribus unum in the myth of historical objectivity,” Novick says, “promised to resolve the contradiction [between many points of view and “reality”], through a unitary convergent history which would correspond to a unitary past.” (5) I don’t see why we can’t agree that there’s a single reality, though, and also accept the proposition that it’s unknowable -- both because of its ridiculous complexity and because our own consciousnesses are limited by our experience, environment, and (yes) language. And I don’t think you would have to be brought up with quantum mechanics or postmodernism to “get” this -- it seems like David Hume would be all you’d need. Novick quotes Isaiah Berlin, who he says follows Hegel in describing the history of thought and culture as “a changing pattern of great liberating ideas which inevitably turn into suffocating straitjackets.” (quoting Concepts and Categories, 7) But while this may be true in the overall history of ideas, in historiography (and to some extent in Novick’s story) it frequently seems that differences of emphasis are mistaken for disagreement. Or that people motivated by the requirements of the profession magnify small differences in order to make space for themselves in an ongoing historiographical dialogue. “There appears to be a residual great man theory of historiography,” Novick says. (9) He later adds to this, that there’s also a residual Whig Interpretation in historiography. While this may be true, it also seems clear that relatively few people in the history of the profession have attempted grand syntheses or new overarching interpretations, and have been noticed and read by many people. So these historians deserve a featured place on the “family tree.” In fact, part of my job, I think, is understanding the slight difference between the list of historians who were read by lots of people, and the ones now believed significant by historiographers. Luckily, Novick points out many of the popular “amateurs” in each period. In his introduction, Novick mentions the choices he had to make in writing, to balance accurate representation of historians‘ positions with a more generalized discussion of their place. He suggests that “what one loses in the ability to unpack the nuances and complexities of individuals‘ thought, in ‘doing them justice,‘ one may gain in the validity of generalizations, and appreciation of the variety of contradictory currents within the profession, and their interaction.” (9) It might also be true that, since many of the historiographical arguments involve the selective misinterpretation of historians‘ positions and the setting up of straw men, a less deep approach to their ideas might be entirely appropriate. But then, at what point does historiography devolve into Peyton Place? Novick seems aware of this issue at some level. He claims that “the philosophical stakes are very high” for historians (especially on the objectivity issue); and yet he acknowledges that as historians we are aware that “protagonists are in fact often disingenuous in their arguments, are following hidden agendas, and are expressing views shaped by ‘extra rational’ factors.” (11-12) The question he raises, of course is, do we apply this same close criticism to ourselves? I’d suggest that in several areas, including overstating changes, imposing periodization, and reintroducing substantially similar interpretations using arcane new vocabulary, historians bow to the demands of professionalism in ways their (amateur) predecessors never needed to do.So is historiography, then, an artifact of professionalism? Would the tree be simpler if we tried to strip away the artificial arguments, and focused on really substantial changes in interpretation? Would this be a worthwhile task?Novick begins his story in 1884, with the founding of the American Historical Association , and the “amateur historians whom the professionals sought to replace.” (21) It’s interesting that George Bancroft, who is normally grouped with the amateurs, was in Berlin in 1867 (25). And Novick’s claim that Americans completely misunderstood Leopold von Ranke, is a hoot. Far from being an objectivist, Novick says, Ranke “was a thoroughgoing philosophical idealist, at one with Hegel in believing the world divinely ordered.” (27) Even Ranke’s famous dictum, that history should be written wie es eigentlich gewesen, is complicated by the fact that at the time Ranke wrote that, eigentlich “also meant ‘essentially,’ and it was in this sense that Ranke characteristically used it.” (28) And in any case, by the time the Americans arrived in Germany, Ranke had retired, “and no American had sustained firsthand contact with him.” (29) So much for the solid origins of the objectivity myth.Novick makes a strong case that it is not often a complete idea that drives debate, but what he calls “dominant vulgarizations” of important ideas. (34) As an example, he points out that although Darwin believed (at least privately) that “all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service!” (in a 1861 letter to Henry Fawcett)Darwin dissembled in “the very first paragraph of On the Origin of Species,” and “As Darwin triumphed, so did crude reductionism--the doctrine that Darwin, privately, mocked.” (35-6) These ideas entered history through men like Albert Bushnell Hart, who “like most other readers of Darwin, accepted at face value Darwin’s claim to have ‘worked on true Baconian principles’ and, in his AHA presidential address, urged historians to follow his example.” (38) To some extent, Novick shows that the transition from amateur to professional historians was facilitated by a change in literary tastes narrative styles. “Sir Walter Scott,” Novick says, “was, by a wide margin, the most popular an imitated author in early nineteenth-century America.” (45) By the 1850s and 1860s, Flaubert and Zola had “introduced the objective, the omniscient, the impersonal, and the self-effacing narrator.” (40) “Bancroft, Prescott, Motley, and Parkman each...employed the organization of the stage play” in one of their works. (45) The older historians’ “combination of the ‘intrusive’ authorial presence, the explicit moralizing, and overt partisanship, made their work unacceptable to the historical scientists.” (46) The question is, were these really significant differences in content? Substantial changes in interpretation, or just a change in the fashion of forms? The “criteria of a profession,” Novick says, are “institutional apparatus (an association, a learned journal), standardized training in esoteric skills, leading to certification and controlled access to practice;” in other words, a monopoly. (48) But in spite of the historical profession’s attempts to institute a monopoly, “much of the most distinguished historical work continued to be produced by those without Ph.D.’s or professorships.” (49) Examples include J.B. McMaster, History of the People of the United States; Ellis Oberholtzer, History of the United States Since the Civil War; James Schouler, History of the United States Under the Constitution; James Ford Rhodes, History of the United States from the Compromise of 1850. The “Pre-professional historians,” Novick says, “had offered their wares in a classically free market.” (53) Professionalism’s “visible hand” not only directed historians toward more inward-focused and specialist writing, it also made “provision for those of mediocre talents.” (54) The professionalization of history not only shifted power from the reading public to the “bureaucratic organization” (63), it also promoted the idea of historians “bringing their stones to one great building and piling them on and cementing them together” (quoting Karl Pearson, 56) “Almost anyone, properly trained, could mold a brick,” Novick says. “If the maxim of the free market is caveat emptor, the slogan of the profession is credat emptor.” (57) I think I remember Arthur Marwick using almost those exact words in a passage designed to inspire young historians; so I guess these issues are still alive.Cf. Robinson’s “History for the Common Man” Novick also calls attention to how much historiography owes to current events. “Prewar [WWI] confidence in progress generally,” he says, “and progress in scientific knowledge in particular, was a powerful limitation on the critique of historical objectivity.” (105) The disillusionment the Great War caused “was particularly acute for historians, since it was ‘their’ man in the White House, one of Herbert Baxter Adams’ s first Ph.D.’s, who had betrayed their hopes.” (130) As the story continues, writers outside of professional history continue to be important. “A survey of professional historians conducted shortly after World War II solicited opinions on the best interwar historical work. Of those most often named, a number were by non-historians (e.g., Perry Miller, Vernon Parrington, Van Wyck Brooks).” (178) In contrast, Schlesinger and Fox’s twelve-volume History of American Life was considered “a stillbirth...history with the politics left out.” But a “substantial popular market for historical writing” emerged during the interwar period, served by “amateurs” like Frederick Lewis Allen, Claude G. Bowers, Matthew Josephson (who were journalists), Albert J. Beveridge (a politician), Carl Sandburg (a poet), James Truslow Adams, and Van Wyck Brooks...H.G. Wells’s Outline of History sold more than a million and a half copies in the United States,” against AHR editor J. Franklin Jameson’s American Revolution Considered as a Social Movement (less than a thousand) and John D. Hicks’s Populist Revolt, which “took seventeen years to sell fifteen hundred copies.” (193) Cf. Becker, “Every Man his Own Historian,” 1931Cf. Beard, “Written History as an Act of Faith,” 1933 (both AHA presidential addresses) Cf. Nevins, The Gateway to History, 1938, attacking Beard, and Beard’s response in review of Nevins’ book.Cf. Nevins, “What’s the Matter with History?” Saturday Review, 4 Feb 1939.The Beards’ Rise of American Civilization, 1927, sold over 130,000 copies. (240)Re: approaching the past without preconceptions: “Hoping to find something without looking for it, expecting to find final answers to life’s riddle by resolutely refusing to ask questions--it was surely the most romantic species of realism yet invented, the oddest attempt ever made to get something for nothing.” (quoting Becker, 1921, 254) Novick calls attention to the “conservatism inherent in unadorned factualism. ‘The mere fact,’ Becker had written...’if you allow the wretched creature to open its mouth, will say only one thing: I am, therefore I am right.’” In the Cold War, the story just gets so nasty and spiteful that it’s difficult to find any real historiographical issues at stake. The public apparently didn’t sympathize, and “best-sellerdom in history was preserved for amateurs like Walter Lord, Cornelius Ryan, William L. Shirer, John Toland, and Barbara Tuchman,” all of whom the professionals despised. (372) Cf. Bulletin 54 of the Social Science Research Council: Theory and Practice in Historical Study: A Report of the Committee on Historiography.In the end, I’m not convinced that the Objectivity Question is the most pressing one for historians, or even the central issue of That Noble Dream. The relevance question, which Novick also substantially deals with, seems to be a stronger through-line for this history of History in America. There’s a lot of great material in here -- much of it comes in the form of behind the scenes looks at the personalities, animosities, and occasionally friendships of historians, as shown in their letters and private writings. From time to time these revealing moments are seen in articles or AHA presidential addresses, but most of them are private. Once or twice I wondered whether a particularly racist or otherwise obnoxious personal aside was necessary to my understanding of the issues, but on the whole it’s a very useful insider’s view of the profession.Novick’s close attention to these personal details went a long way to impress on me the relative smallness of the historical community (at least in terms of its “players”), and of the short duration of American historiography. The profession only really got going at the beginning of the twentieth century. So I’m a fourth generation American and a fourth-generation historian.