Peter Novick (1934–2012) was an American intellectual historian who is probably best remembered today for That Noble Dream: The Objectivity Question and the American Historical Profession (1988.) Though controversial (then and now), it is a standard text for American graduate students in history, and is therefore worth spending some time with, both for its history and its implicit philosophy.
Novick defined “objectivity in the historical profession” as "a commitment to the reality of the past, and to its truth as correspondence to that reality; a sharp separation between knower and known, between fact and value, and above all, between history and fiction." This, the common sense of the profession, he argued had passed through four successive stages in the century (give or take) since the founding of the AHA, and thus the profession, in 1884. Prior to this time American historical writing was, as it generally had been throughout history, the exclusive concern of wealthy individuals. That is, one had to be wealthy in order to write history, because no one else had the time. Such pre-professional historians, such as John Adams, Francis Parkman, and William Prescott, like Tacitus and Gibbon before them, wrote to please themselves and a small and generally admiring audience. They did not usually worry about the philosophical foundations of their work, but wrote to drive home what they considered necessary and obvious truths. Although they considered their work history indeed, they are usually categorized as literature by professional historians today.
The profession proper emerged in the decades after the American Civil War, when a booming industrial economy, which required vast numbers of professionals and bureaucrats to manage its operations, sponsored a wave of university-building across the country. Most of its graduates of course went on to become lawyers, doctors, engineers, middle managers, and so on, but a very few of them chose to study more esoteric subjects, and in their labors lay the origins of the American traditions of anthropology, sociology, literary criticism, and history. The AHA elected Leopold von Ranke as its first honorary member, in recognition of the fact that most of its members had been trained by him, or by his students, in Germany, which at that time led the world in historical research.
What these historians, the Scientific School, thought they had learned from Ranke was that their job was to “only say how it really was.” In other words, they were simply to describe what had happened, not to embellish, philosophize, speculate, entertain, teach a moral, serve a purpose, or in any other way pander to the present. History was a technical, positivist, empirical science based on the analysis of documents, and it was to discover truths as certain and timeless as those of physics. One simply had to extract facts from the documents, as the physicist does from experiments, and, just as he eventually arrives at an explanation that explains those facts, so too will the historians. But first, one must have facts, and in order to appreciate the necessity one must bear in mind how little about the past was actually known at the time. Archives were scattered across continents and poorly organized, most of their contents had received no serious or critical scrutiny, and most of the intellectual tools with which a historian would now scrutinize them had not yet been developed. All of this had to be collected, organized, analyzed, and in general made sense of. Hence the Scientific School focused its attention on archival research, technical analysis, and narrow, scholarly monographs. These historians were not, as a rule, interested in “what it all meant,” because they weren’t sure they even knew what “it” was yet.
We must note before moving on that later research has shown that Ranke’s American students badly misunderstood him; partially because they had no real tradition of scholarship behind them (one of the hazards of being a pioneer), and partially because the German language, with which they were not very familiar, does not distinguish between “science” and “scholarship” in the way that English does. In German there is no presumption that technical knowledge has anything to do with the methods of physics or biology. A “scientist” and a “scholar” both produce “knowledge” (wissenschaft) and are both “knowledge-people” (wissenschaftler.) Ranke certainly wanted his students to get their facts right, to stick to them, and to avoid philosophical speculation, but he was not a positivist, and indeed, as we have seen, his project took shape in opposition to, not as a continuation of, the universalism and rationalism of the Enlightenment.
The Scientific School had an understanding of “objective historical knowledge” that most of us would probably consider very biased. It was based, Novick argued, on the desire to establish history as a legitimate profession (i.e., not “just” literature), on the need for sectional reconciliation after the American Civil War, and on the desire to keep “undesirable elements” (Jews, Catholics, immigrants, etc.) out of the profession. The first objective was accomplished largely by employing a particular style of rhetoric—one which stressed the objective character of historical research—by denying legitimate use of the word “historian” to anyone who has not a part of their guild (i.e., an employee of a university), and by bringing the findings of historical research into line with the scientific racism of the time. So Herbert Baxter Adams, for instance, argued, in The Germanic Origins of New England Towns (1884) that “the Anglo-Saxon race” was characterized by its superior political and military ability, that these in turn rested on a biological foundation, and that this was the best explanation for the then-current political success of the United States and the German and British Empires.
The second objective was accomplished by finding as many points of mutual agreement as possible between Northern and Southern partisans, namely: the desirability of a weak federal government, the illegality of secession, and the biological (and hence economic, social, and legal) inferiority of African-Americans. The principle representative of this strand of historical writing was William A. Dunning, whose Reconstruction, Political and Economic (1907), established what was for generations the standard account of the American Civil War. In his telling the war had been foisted on the nation by crazed abolitionists, the South had fought gallantly if hopelessly for its freedoms, and reconstruction had been a brutal tyranny that only the righteous anger of the “redeemers” (KKK) had ended.
The third objective was established in a similar way; history, to be scientific, had to be brought into line with the findings of science, and these were, in the “Anglo-Saxon” countries, unabashedly racist. It followed as a matter of course that southern Europeans (immigrants) could not be trusted to be objective, while Protestant parochialism worked in a similar fashion to exclude Jews and Catholics. To sum up, the rise of the historical profession tracked, in the United States, the rise of an industrialized society and its attendant middle class of managers and professionals, and tended to legitimate its scientific, protestant, nationalist, and racist assumptions.
The implicit point of all of this research and writing, Novick argued, was to use the language of science and objectivity to consolidate the profession and exclude “undesirable elements.” Needless to say, these findings did not have much to do with the past “as it really was,” but hardly anybody at the time saw things that way. They said, and believed, they were being objective. What really did in the Scientific School, however, was not the unscientific character of its findings, but the collapse of liberalism, which we discussed in an earlier article. During the First World War, many prominent historians produced propaganda that vilified the Germans as “the Huns,” and, through many specious and convenient arguments, demonstrated that they had always been the enemies of civilization, and that it was “just in their nature.” In short, the language of scientific and biological objectivity that had been used to deny equal rights and opportunities to African-Americans was turned on the Germans and used to justify what would today be regarded as war crimes. This faux pas, combined with the destabilizing effects of the Great Depression, the demolition of the Newtonian order by Einstein, Heisenberg, Bohr, and the rest, and the tremendously influential (but now largely forgotten) philosophy of Benedetto Croce and the sociology of Karl Mannheim—all of these factors worked together to seriously undermine the common belief in the scientific orthodoxy of historical methods.
This challenge was met by the New Historians, or The Progressive School, and may be considered through the views of two representative and closely allied historians: Carl Becker and Charles Beard. Becker’s major theoretical statement was “Everyman His Own Historian” (1931). Its central argument was that the past “as it really was” was both unknowable and irrelevant; what mattered was the utility of the past as we really thought of it in the present. Historians were thus professional mythmakers (in the most charitable sense of that term.) We may give as a further example of his approach The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth Century Philosophers (1932), which argued that the Enlightenment values that we discussed in an earlier article were actually a form of secularized Christianity.
The reputation of Charles Beard, whom we have not been able to discuss, rested on An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (1913), in which he argued (as you’ve probably guessed), that their own financial interests were the principle things on the Founder’s minds when they wrote that document. His major theoretical statements were “Written History as an Act of Faith” and “That Noble Dream” (whence Novick’s title; both in 1935). In these he argued, contra the Scientific School, that the facts do not “speak for themselves,” but must be spoken for—by the historian. It is he who selects, arranges, and interprets them, and, indeed, what counts as a “fact” changes from historian to historian. For instance, in determining which interpretation of the origins of the Constitution is correct, there are so many competing explanations to choose from, and so many plausible arguments that can be made for them, that it is very difficult to tell which one, or which combination, should be preferred. Historical explanations are, in other words, overdetermined. Thus any work of history is “an act of faith,” as is any belief one might care to entertain about the past. “That Noble Dream,” (i.e., of objectivity) may indeed have been noble, but it was in any case a dream, and, like any dream, one eventually had to wake up.
During these decades the fortunes of the historical profession sank, as the newly professionalized educational establishment took control of the history curriculum in primary and secondary schools out of their hands, the market for popular histories was snatched up by engaging but technically suspect authors, as controversy and mutual recrimination became endemic behind the scenes, and as the official publications occurred behind the scenes, and as the official publications of the profession became an intellectually desiccated mutual admiration society. In short, attacks on the central creed of the profession were symptomatic of the declining prestige of the profession as well as of the intellectual currents of the time.
Thus objectivity had been enthroned in the first generation, and dethroned in the second. However, as we shall see in the continuation of this discussion next week, “Objectivity in the Historical Profession” was not by any means abolished by the Progressive attack….
Daniel Halverson is a graduate student studying the History of Science and Technology of nineteenth-century Germany. He is also a regular contributor to the PEL Facebook page.