Blogs > HNN > Historical Objectivity, Partisanship, and Fairness

Oct 11, 2005 9:35 am

Historical Objectivity, Partisanship, and Fairness

Despite new developments and trends in historical theory during the past three decades, David Hackett Fischer’s 1971 book, Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought, is still an instructive corrective to erroneous past and present modes of historical inquiry, explanation, and argument. Most of his last chapter, “Fallacies of Substantive Distortion,” was about some of the many varieties of the fallacy of argument ad hominem, which, Fischer wrote, historians “exchanged as regularly as a ball in a tennis match.” He complained that “an ad hominem debate is unlike tennis in one respect: it is a match which everybody loses—players, referees, spectators, and all” (293).

Even as now, one of the most popular varieties of ad hominem debate when Fischer was writing was the argument ad idéologie (although he didn’t call it that), in which at least one of the debaters accuses the other of arguing from his or her ideological bias. Thus, Historical Debater A tells Historical Debater B, “I am objective, you are ideological; therefore, I am fair-minded, moderate, and correct, you are close-minded and partisan.”

Now, in some debates, it may be the case that A really is more neutral, logical, and reliant on evidence than B; in other cases, the reverse may be true. The point, however, is that a debate in which two parties have different conclusions or interpretations cannot advance toward historical truth if either A or B, or both, choose to accuse the other of partisanship. Argument ad idéologie can be effective for Fox News or academic relativists in appealing to their constituents, but it is not, methodologically speaking, an effective approach in getting at historical truth.

Drawing upon my reading of history and theory, my archival research, my interviews of historians, and my statistical surveys of historians’ theories and ideologies spanning at least three decades, I submit these observations:

1. There was an objective past; i.e., a past that truly existed and can be discovered.

2. Every human being, including every historian, possesses an “ideology” and is “partisan” to one degree or another.

3. Historical training and methodology, however, are supposed provide us with an awareness of this attribute of the human condition and a means of muting it; viz, a methodology with which the historian asks significant historical questions, researches relevant evidence, and applies valid historical logic to produce a reasonably truthful or accurate narrative, theory, conclusion, reconstruction, or interpretation of a part of the objective human past.

4. A truthful interpretation is not to be confused with “moderation” or “fairness,” if those two words simply mean presenting “both sides of the story” (of course, historians should be fair-minded or open-minded in considering evidence and in changing his or her mind). In reality—in truth—“both sides” are not usually equally truthful or accurate. Indeed, one side, or one interpretation, may be completely false according to historical logic, evidence, observation, and experience; e.g., Nazi Germany invaded Poland; Poland did not invade Germany, no matter how many times the Third Reich accused Poland of aggression.

5. Controversial conclusions or interpretations can be truthful or correct even if they are controversial—or revisionist, orthodox, partisan, and dissenting, and even if they imply criticism of a sitting president, Democratic or Republican.

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Jeffrey P. Kimball - 10/27/2005

Yes, "there was an objective past; i.e., a past that truly existed and can be discovered." That is, again, a past that truly or objectively existed, which is what we historians have always said we want to discover--the past, the one that really existed. We can discover part of that past, as I said, if we ask valid questions, have enough evidence, and apply proper logical methodology. It goes without saying, but I'll say it and carry this discussion further, that we historians will often disagree about the logic, evidence, etc., in part because we historians aren't objective in the pure sense (there are other reasons for disagreement). The past objectively existed; we aren't objective in our interpretations.

I do go further in my writings on the subject, e.g., "The Influence of Ideology on Interpretive Disagreement: A Report on a Survey of Diplomatic, Military and Peace Historians on the Causes of 20th Century U.S. Wars," The History Teacher 17 (May 1984): 356-384. But please be specific about where you are going or want to go further with the discussion. Then I can respond.

Jonathan Dresner - 10/25/2005

"There was an objective past; i.e., a past that truly existed and can be discovered."

Yes, I've read Fischer. That's why I expected this discussion to go a bit further.

You can call me anything you want to, if it's based on the evidence available, and it's not a fallacy; that's my point. I'm more sympathetic to post-modern relativism than you, apparently, but I'm really just grappling with the complexity of interpretation and discourse at a level this post apparently doesn't aspire to.

Charles V. Mutschler - 10/16/2005

Actually, I thought David Hackett Fischer's _Historian's Falacies_ was one of the better books I read in historiography. I do think there has been a tendency by some historians toward over acceptance of the theoretical notion that there is no objective reality. While it is true that we all observe the world and write history in ways shaped by our life experiences, there is a reality, and it is, however imperfectly, knowable to some degree.

During a graduate seminar a few years ago one of our class made much of the idea that there was no objective reality. Finally, I pointed out that we were in a room on the third floor of the building. Then I asked my classmate not to attempt to disprove the objective, observable reality of gravity by exiting from the room via the window instead of the door. I drew a door on the chalkboard, and told him to leave using the new door at the end of the class, but not to use an axe or crowbar, "Just turn the doorknob." He used the same door as the rest of us, and still argued that the door was a social construct.

Fischer gave us a lot of good suggestions for ways to be more thoughtful in our examination of the evidence we use to write history. I found it a very useful book.

Charles V. Mutschler

Jeffrey P. Kimball - 10/12/2005

I didn't say anything in my blog or my follow-up comments that contradicts the observations you make in your first paragraph.

And as for your claim of my "assuming that the 'truth' of a matter is determinable," I said no such thing in the form you phrased it and in the absolute sense you seem to imply. Finding "truth" depends on the question asked and the evidence available. By “truth,” I mean the property of being in accord with fact, reality, or the state of affairs. I do not mean “truth” with a capital “T”; that is, Truth in the sense of a transcendent or spiritual reality that explains the “meaning” of existence--or even in the sense of normative values (e.g., beauty, morals, cultural norms, etc.). I do claim that one can determine facts (true descriptive statements) and present accurate hypotheses, theories, theses, generalizations, narratives, or interpretations---depending on the historical question at issue and the evidence available (especially regarding why, what, when, who, and how questions). I think you should encourage students to find such truth rather than discourage them. Should I use an ad hominem argument here and suggest that you are a postmodern relativist? Would that be fair and effective?

The topics you raise are related to what I wrote, but keep in mind that I wrote a brief blog on the logical fallacy of ad hominem argument, not a tome on the philosophy of history. Other questions you are raising of course need more discussion. Plus, you seem to change the subject each time we exchange comments; Fischer discusses this as a fallacy somewhere in his book, which I recommend you examine (I can also recommend a larger bibliography). He mentions another fallacy: the fallacy of quibbling.

Jonathan Dresner - 10/12/2005

You're not distinguishing between the fallacy of dismissing an argument before evaluating it and the entirely reasonable decision to label an argument or interlocutor with a partisan designation after evaluating the argument.

You're also assuming that the "truth" of a matter is determinable, even straightfoward, which is not something I let my students get away with. The fact that an argument supports and is consistent with an ideological stance should evince some suspicion if that stance has produced flawed arguments and conclusions in the past.

Jeffrey P. Kimball - 10/11/2005

Argument ad hominem ad ideology is a logical fallacy. Yes, of course, the ideology of one who makes an argument does, as I briefly wrote or implied, influence his or her perspective, question-framing, research, and argument. But one can't disprove that person's argument by name-calling or political labeling---unless one has first or simultaneously refuted the opponent's logic and/or evidence. Only in that way can one show how the opponent's ideological partisanship has contributed to his or her flawed argument.

Let's take the opposite case: A partisan happens to put together an argument that turns out ultimately to be true or accurate despite his or her partisanship. Another person, whether partisan or not, doesn't like or believe the argument at first, and attacks the partisan for his/her partisanship, showing how the latter's argument is connected to his/her partisanship. My point: What matters is the logic and evidence as applied to valid or answerable questions.

Brian R Robertson - 10/11/2005

thanks. I am definitely going to check out the Fischer book.

Jonathan Dresner - 10/11/2005

Not everything that looks like a fallacy is one: the ideological/bias charge may well be entirely justified by the evidence. It doesn't necessarily release you from dealing with legitimate historical issues, but the evidence within an historical argument sometimes is partisan, sometimes is biased, sometimes shows an ideological twist which, when properly labelled, identifies the errors and fallacies of that argument.

In fact, I would argue that your "five point plan" implicitly acknowledges this by focusing on training the bias out of historians and deemphasizing partisan conclusions.

Jeffrey P. Kimball - 10/11/2005

I don't remember every citation of Hersh and Shawcross, but (some of) my personal rules of citation are:
-cite a source if it has factual information thought to be correct.
-cite and comment upon a source if it is necessary to correct a source's error or there is a need to revise the source's interpretation.
-cite a source as a courtesy when commenting on the historiography of a topic or issue.

In other words, a writer doesn't always have to agree with a source to cite the source, and what matters about the citation is how and why it is cited.

Jeffrey P. Kimball - 10/11/2005

The strong correlations between so-called ideological tenets and theoretical propositions may better be thought of as representing "styles of thinking." Thus, what we call conservative, liberal, socialist, anarchist, fascist, communist, or reactionary ideologies may simply be different ways of thinking, which follow patterns found in Western or other cultures, and which consist of normative values, emotional states, empirical theses, and logical processes. The whole point of scholarship and science, however, is that through their methods we can remove ourselves a little from our material conditions and our culture, understand external reality, and alter our style of thinking if it is found wanting, especially if it is done within the context of theory building and constructive debate.

Jeffrey P. Kimball - 10/11/2005

Thanks for your observations and probing questions. I'll respond to them in reverse order.

Re "valid historical logic." What I had in mind was what Fischer was writing about; viz, logic that is free of fallacy. I don't claim that I always use or know what is valid or correct logic; I was just saying that historians should strive to avoid logical fallacies when asking questions and compiling and analyzing evidence.

Re shared assumptions: I agree with your point completely--logical and theoretical assumptions underlying arguments must be mutually understood, if not shared. In the end, logic and evidence should rule.

Re what is "ideology": I share your view about "worldview" and "assumptions." Let me add this:

Even as a pejorative term, ideology has different meanings for different people; that is, the word describes different things. But all the meanings have in common the notion that ideology and science, or ideology and scholarship, are antithetical and work at cross purposes. In its different meanings ideology is:
1. A political persuasion or creed, often consisting of dogmatic, and thus unpragmatic, principles and beliefs.
2. A false, illusory interpretation of reality, reflecting class or group consciousness, interest, myopia, or self-deception.
3. An explicit, conscious system of ideas that explains socio-political-economic life, reflects aspirations, and calls for action.
4. A set of underlying, unanalyzed, unsubstantiated, perhaps subconscious, beliefs, assumptions, preconceptions, and ideas that guide behavior and thought–as distinguished from formal theories based on observation, experimentation, and fact.

Finally, in my 1980s' survey of 180 historian respondents, statistically significant correlations existed between historians' "ideologies" and their "theories" or "interpretations." Even those who said they had "no ideology" matched up with "conservative-leaning" theories.

Brian R Robertson - 10/11/2005

Comment removed at request of poster.

Ed Schmitt - 10/10/2005

This is a most interesting post, and I find several of Prof. Kimball's observations right on target. One I'd like to probe a bit, however, is #2. I'm not sure all historians have an ideology in the sense that we can delineate clearly what the principles of a Marxist understanding of the way the world works, or similarly of classical liberalism or orthodox Judaism. Ideology to me suggests a ready-made package of well-defined principles that are intelligible as being part of one school of thought or political perspective. I'm not sure that that is what Prof. Kimball meant, but I would submit that all historians do have a "worldview," a set of assumptions (a working model) about the way human nature and societies move. The problem is that historians rarely make these manifest, referring instead cryptically to "natural" motives of historical actors which often match their worldview. Perhaps they don't even know their underlying assumptions themselves. When I teach historical methods, we do an exercise where students are asked to get into groups and come to a consensus about big, human questions such as "Can human beings really be selfless?" and "which of these - money, power, community, or sex - drives human motive"? It really seems to bring the point home. The problem in many arguments, it seems, is that if assumptions are not shared, people talk past one another and use the incidentals of history as tools to bolster their deeper assumptions, without even realizing that this is going on. That is why this rigorous questioning that you call for in point #3 - coming at the historical problem from different angles and even trying on different "lenses" - is so important. One final question I have is what exactly you mean by "valid historical logic" in point #3? Thanks for a most thought-provoking post.