Ever since the renaissance, the practice of writing history has been relentlessly scrutinised for its subjective nature. In order to counter such scrutiny, historians have continually modified the way they study and record history with the intent of making their work as objective as possible. Whilst almost all academics would agree that achieving complete objectivity is an unbelievably difficult task, getting as close as possible to this ideal is one every true historian strives towards. However, in aiming to achieve this ideal, numerous debates have been sparked including whether an historian can write about something they feel personally committed to. Due to inherent beliefs, background and other connections, some argue that those who have a commitment to a certain part of history are less likely to be objective when writing about it. An example of such a debate is one between historians Simon Skinner and Eamon Duffy. This debate was triggered by Frank Turner’s work on the late John Henry Newman and stimulates the argument as to whether Catholics can objectively study Catholic history. What this essay looks to do, with the help of said example, is to see if historians can be objective in writing history they are personally committed to, whilst also addressing how and to what degree they can do so. The essay will be split into three sections. The first will look at objectivity in history and its inherent limitations. The second shall address the reasons that suggest personally committed historians cannot study certain parts of history. Whilst the third will provide a counter argument to the second.

Many historians would agree that objective writing in history can be achieved. After all they continue to study, write and record history, even though they know it may not be entirely true. What gives them confidence in their work is the way in which the practice of writing history has changed in order to limit the inaccuracy of historical work. Hundreds of years of practice have created ‘rule of thumb’ criteria in which modern historians work with. As stated by Mark Bevir, ‘Objective interpretations are those which best meet rational criteria of accuracy, comprehensiveness, consistency, progressiveness, fruitfulness, and openness.’ He goes on further to say that an ‘objective interpretation is one we select in a process of comparison with other interpretations using rational criteria’.[1] What this emphasizes is that by using rational criteria when practising history, and then comparing and criticising rival interpretations in terms of factual information, an objective piece of work can be obtained. Facts in this case would be defined as a piece of evidence which almost everyone in a set community would agree was true. So, a comparison of rival views can be made because both historians agree on a number of relative facts which have a suitable overlap which in turn allows them to debate their respective views. These facts are the authority each historian can refer to in their attempt to justify their views and compare their differing interpretations.[2]

With this platform set, historians can attain a greater level objectivity in their work. Where this goes wrong comes down to the historians’ intellectual dishonesty and there are a few rules that have an impact on objective behaviour. One rule is that the historian must be willing to take criticism seriously. Using the example of Skinner and Duffy, if Skinner does not take Duffy’s criticisms of his work seriously, Skinner would be considered biased. Nonetheless Skinner could reply to an argument or fact rivalling his work by denying said argument or fact, or by employing a speculative theory to reconcile the argument or fact with his interpretation.[3] This would undoubtedly effect the objectivity of his response. To counter that, another rule states that objective behaviour implies a liking for established standards of evidence backed by a liking for challenges to said standards which themselves lie on consistent and impersonal criteria of evidence. What this limits is the occasions historians can reject an argument or fact which contradicts their views. This factor establishes a presumption against exceptions, making historians respond to uncomfortable arguments or facts even if they wish to avoid them by declaring them to be exemptions. Instead historians should modify their interpretations to tackle such troublesome cases.[4] A final rule is that objective behaviour implies a liking for positive speculative theories. These are theories that postulate new predictions rather than merely blocking off criticisms of the historian’s existing interpretations. This rule insists the historian does not simply respond to criticism for the sake of saving face. Historians should try avoid meeting criticism by using fancy word play or be personalizing the issue. This definition and these rules can all be linked to whether a personally committed historian can study certain areas of history as will be shown in the second and third sections.

Intellectual honesty from personally committed historians is something that some argue as unobtainable, due to inherent beliefs, their back ground, and perspective. They argue that there are numerous ways in which historians can knowingly or unknowingly be intellectually dishonest. This argument holds considerable weight and must be considered when addressing this particular essay question. Inherent beliefs are a huge part of everyone and this is no different for historians. Anything from your religious beliefs to your political views can in some way have an effect on the way you perceive life. The same can be argued for the way you perceive and write history. In the Skinner and Duffy debate, it is religious beliefs that are at the forefront, so this essay will use this particular example. Skinner argues that Frank Turner’s work is unfairly criticised by Catholics due to Turner’s suggestion that the late John Henry Newman had homosexual tendencies. Due to their commitment to the church, these Catholic reviewers will not believe Turner is correct as it would go against their view and so they create unjust criticisms and counter arguments to defend their beliefs. After all, going against the word of god is not something many Catholics would dare do. In another part of his argument, Skinner explains how only thirty pages of the seven hundred and forty actually talk of Newman’s sexual orientation. He questions why the Catholic reviewer focus only on this minor section of the book in their reviews saying ‘it provoked an almost comical symphony of protests from his Catholic reviewers.’[5] Perhaps this stimulates the argument that these Catholics are only interested in critiquing Turner’s work as it effects their inherent views, rather than their interest in making the work more objective. This is reiterated in Skinner’s work where he quotes John T. Ford who stated that Ian Ker’s biography painted a ‘portrait of Newman he would have wanted to be painted.’[6] What Skinner is trying to emphasize here is the argument that Ker would show Newman in a good light due to his inherent beliefs as a Catholic. That his beliefs have had an effect on the objectivity of his biography. What it also argues is that Catholics are choosing to avoid Turner’s work for a more pleasing historical work such as Ker’s. This would undoubtedly have an effect on their objectivity as they are refusing to respond to the uncomfortable question Turner is asking.  In this particular case, it’s difficult to see a Catholic preferring the Catholic biography over Turner’s as a coincidence. There is therefore a strong argument that would suggest inherent beliefs can affect the writing of some historians.

An historian’s background is another factor that can affect their objectivity. Where they grew up, their family, and their experiences in life can all have an effect on the way they write history. Growing up in a Catholic family, within a Catholic community, could have an effect on the way an historian writes about religious history. An example of this background would be Eamon Duffy who refers to himself as a ‘cradle Catholic.’[7] If a piece of work, for example Turner’s was to slander, as some Catholics saw it, John Henry Newman who was a potential Catholic saint, then they may likely defend said man in order to please their family or community. An historian’s background can have an effect on your writing that they may not even notice, for example if their family and community told them that to go against the word of god is a sin, and if this was instilled at a young age, it could have a significant impact on how they write history in the future. In the back of their mind they could potentially deny some facts out of loyalty to their faith rather than to objectivity in their writing. Political background can also impact the way historians write history. For example, a Labour supporter writing about Margaret Thatcher’s years in office is unlikely to write kindly when addressing her role in reducing the powers of trade unions. Whilst this may be an extreme example, historians no matter who they are will be influenced by their experiences. When this mixes with what they are personally committed to, it can have an effect on the objectivity of their writing. For example, a Catholic growing up through the troubles would likely be effected by the negative images of Protestants that they would just as likely experience on a day to day basis, whether it be first hand or through the media. Prejudice can knowingly or unknowingly effect the way historians write or review history.

Perspective is an intrinsic part of writing history. What one historian sees when examining a source another may see as something completely different, and this can be the result of personal commitment to certain areas. Where it effects objectivity is when an historian chooses to see what they wish to see. As mentioned previously, Catholic reviewer Ford preferred Ker’s biography over Turner’s as it painted the portrait most fitting to the Catholic ideal. By picking to see in this perspective, the objectivity of his historical review could be questionable. In the final part of Skinner’s argument, he quotes Herbert Butterfield who states ‘the study of the past with one eye, so to speak, upon the present is the source of all sins and sophistries in history.’[8] This is arguing that in order to be objective in history one must be open to the whole picture. Selecting history on the basis that it fits better with their ideologies, as Skinner implies with the Catholic reviewers, is hardly a way in which historians can achieve objectivity in their writing.

Skinner’s argument ends with the quote, ‘what is at stake (in the debate over Turner’s Newman) is the legitimacy and remit of historical inquiry itself, when confronted with a vocal interest group whose principles and prejudices are seldom acknowledged.’[9] He believes that the objectivity of historical writing is at risk when personally committed groups do not adhere to criteria when writing or reviewing work, and this is something I personally agree with. However, I do not agree that this has to be the case as this will be explained in the third section of this essay. As stated earlier complete objectivity is an incredibly complex task, but also as mentioned, there are numerous ways in which historians are able to get close to said ideal. Obviously, this is more difficult when personally committed to certain parts of history but not as difficult or impossible as some historians believe. Every historian has inherent commitments to areas of history. They have their own beliefs and have experienced different things, each of which can have an effect on their writing. I do not believe that this should affect whether they choose to study history they feel committed to. Being as objective as possible is a choice that every historian can make. Choosing to be objective as possible is the first step for a personally committed historian and any historian in general for that matter. Once one accepts that their natural commitment may affect the way they write history, one can learn to address it.

How they address it relates back to section one. Practicing history has allowed historians to learn the most effective ways of dealing with subjectivity. Through critique of each other’s work, historians can stimulate valid and rational debate in order to come to as objective a conclusion as possible. This relates to almost all types of writing for example in journalism, where peer review is vital in gaining the truth. The vast web of interpretations can each be compared to one another in order to come to the most objective truth. If we go back to the three rules we can see how any historian can make their work more objective. If we take the first, if a personally committed historian is able to take criticism seriously and refuses to deny contradictory facts, they can be just as objective as an uncommitted historian. Looking at the second, if committed historians are willing to respond to uncomfortable questions, then they are just as likely to come to an objective outcome as those uncommitted. Similarly, with the third rule, if a committed historian is willing to respond correctly, resisting to respond crudely to save face, then they too can be more accurate when reassessing their potential inaccuracies.

To conclude, by addressing the question of whether an historian can write about something they feel personally committed to, the first step, as shown in the first section, is to address the issue of objectivity. As stated by J. A. Passmore, the level of objectivity expected ‘all depends on high you set your standards.’[10] If we assume that an uncommitted historian can reach the highest standards of objectivity, it must then be asked what limits a committed historian faces that hinders their possibility of achieving such standards. These limits, explained in section two, show where a committed historian is liable to go wrong. Whilst this has been the case in many a committed historian’s work, I believe it is unfair to condemn the work of all others committed. The reason behind this is due to the distinct difference between can and will. I truly believe that historians can write history in areas they are personally committed to, when and only when they follow the necessary rules and criteria whilst they write. Whether they will do this is ultimately their choice.


[1] M. Bevir, ‘Objectivity in History’, History and Theory, 33 (1994), 329-332.

[2] Ibid., 334.

[3] Ibid., 335.

[4] Ibid., 335.

[5] S. Skinner, ‘History versus Hagiography’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 61 (2010), 771.

[6] Ibid., 775.

[7] E. Duffy, Faith of our fathers: reflections on Catholic tradition, (London, 2004), 11-19.

[8] H. Butterfield, The Whig Interpretation of History, (London, 1931), 31–2.

[9] S. Skinner, ‘History vs Hagiography’, 781.

[10] J. A. Passmore, ‘The Objectivity of History’, The Journal of the Royal Institute of Philosophy, (1958), 98.


Bibliography

Secondary Sources:

Bevir, M., ‘Objectivity in History’, History and Theory, 33 (1994), 329-332.

Butterfield, H., The Whig Interpretation of History, (London, 1931), 31–2.

Duffy, E., Faith of our fathers: reflections on Catholic tradition, (London, 2004), 11-19.

Passmore, J. A., ‘The Objectivity of History’, The Journal of the Royal Institute of Philosophy, (1958), 98.

Skinner, S., ‘History versus Hagiography’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 61 (2010), 771.