This article continues an earlier discussion of Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream: The Objectivity Question in the American Historical Profession.
If the collapse of liberalism and the Great Depression provided powerful motivations for insurgent historians to question the time-honored ideals of the profession, the moral certainty of the Second World War, and then by (the early stages of) the Cold War, provided similar motivations for rebuilding the consensus. The West (NATO) was, it was argued, characterized by adherence to the eminently scientific norms of objectivity, rational inquiry, freedom, and so on, all of which were contrasted to the unscientific, relativist, oppressive, irrational ideology of totalitarianism (fascism and totalitarianism considered as more or less the same thing.) The prestige of the historical profession recovered as the utility of history for nationalist and political purposes was rediscovered, and as many historians returned from their wartime experience in the Office of Strategic Services with practical experience of intelligence, strategy, and diplomacy, and also a conviction that active political involvement, objectivity, and morality were compatible and indeed complementary goals.
The consensus that characterized the Consensus School, then, was on the moral and scientific superiority of the West as contrasted to the evils of totalitarianism, much as the consensus of the Scientific School had been on the inferiority of African-Americans. Relativism was denounced as the handmaiden of totalitarianism, and objectivity defended on the relativist grounds that if Americans did not believe in it, the Communists would win. A “new, somewhat chastened, objectivist synthesis” was reestablished, which “trivializ[ed] the relativist critique by partially incorporating it.” Historians found new opportunities for employment, the ethnic and religious exclusivity of the field in earlier generations was relaxed, and the work became both more accessible and of a higher quality. Secondary history education emphasized the moral and objective desirability of the rise of American power in particular, and that of European power across the world in general.
Historians characteristic of this period included Daniel J Boorstin, Richard Hofstadter, and Louis Hartz. In The Genius of American Politics (1953) Boorstin argued that said genius consisted of the absence of ideology. On his account Americans were instinctively pragmatic, and their no-nonsense brand of politics excluded the theorizing that characterized the European tradition of bloody revolutionary politics. Americans could talk things out; Europeans would kill you for an idea. Witness, for example, the ideologically driven brutality of the Third Reich and the Soviet Union. Richard Hofstadter’s The Progressive Historians (1968) expressed the general feeling among Consensus historians by politely but firmly rejecting their Progressive predecessors. Hofstadter handed out consolation prizes to the vanquished with magnanimity, but the general thrust of the argument was that a pathological age had produced pathological historians. In The Liberal Tradition in American Politics (1963) Louis Hartz argued that when a new society is founded the intellectual and cultural climate of that moment becomes embedded in the consciousness of subsequent generations. So, for instance, the political theory of John Locke had influenced the founders, the founders had written the constitution, and in this way Locke’s ideals had become the plain common sense of a dozen or more generations of Americans. But where Boorstin was grateful that Americans had been saved from the scourge of ideological politics, Hartz thought the consensus prevented people from adapting creatively to new challenges, on the implicit assumption that everything worth knowing about politics had been known by the founders.
In the ’70s the consensus began to falter, largely because the profession was opened to a more diverse body of practitioners. It’s one thing to get several hundred WASP historians to all agree on the same story of American exceptionalism, and quite another to secure agreement when the podium has to be shared with atheists, Jews, Catholics, immigrants, women, Africa-Americans, homosexuals—in short, with a more representative sample of the actual American population. And it wasn’t just that there was a more diverse body of historians practicing—there were also thousands, where in the Consensus era and earlier there had been hundreds. With so many more voices speaking, it proved impossible to keep them speaking in roughly the same way about the same topics. While there were voices within the New Left who, following Derrida and Foucault, thought the entire idea of objectivity was bunk, there were plenty of others, such as Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, who absolutely believed in the objective truth of what they had to say, and criticized (in Chomsky’s case, is still criticizing) postmodernists for “corroding the moral foundations of civilization.” The problem was that the spectacle of so many objective truths clashing with each other tended to throw the limitations of the idea into stark relief. The idea of objectivity rests on a bare minimum of agreement about what the objective truth is, and the maintenance of this agreement rests, in the final resort, on the ability of the practitioners to exclude people who do not share it. Neither of these situations pertaining, belief in objectivity tended to suffer. And as historians’ belief in objectivity declined, so too did the belief of other people in the objective truth (i.e., the value) of their work, and thus their ability to project power across disciplines and, indeed, across society as a whole; hence the declining prestige of the profession and diminishing opportunities for employment.
Representative historians of the New Left School (Novick disparaged the term, but there does not seem to be a better one available) include Thomas Kuhn, Howard Zinn, and Hayden White. Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) is technically more of a precursor than a genuine member of this movement, but its arguments were (and are) central to debates about objectivity in the academy. Kuhn took the fight against objectivity right to the citadel—physics—and argued that it “progressed,” if at all, through a series of paradigm shifts and alternating patterns of “normal” and “revolutionary” science, all of which were socially conditioned. In A People’s History of the United States (1980), Howard Zinn took the traditional version of American history, with its top-down focus on great men, war, and high politics, and stood it on its head. His history was bottom-up: the history of “Indians,” workers, slaves, immigrants, and in general of the people the history books leave out, or in other words, of The People. In Metahistory (1973) Hayden White subjected the work of eight nineteenth-century historians to structural and linguistic analysis, which, he argued, demonstrated that they were a form of literature and therefore principally of imagination and creativity as opposed to an objective account of “how it really was.” Following Nietzsche, and echoing Beard, he argued that historians should look at this as an opportunity to serve the present rather than an expulsion from the lofty ranks of science to the literary ghetto. Although White was technically not a postmodernist (he did not admit that his own work could be deconstructed in the way he had deconstructed that of other scholars—the essential difference between a structuralist and a post-structuralist), the difference was, from the point of view of historians committed to the idea of objectivity, trivial.
The historical profession, Novick argued, never really absorbed the challenge that these new voices presented. Rather than thinking of themselves, and of their project, as a common endeavor working toward common goals, and toward one unitary truth, the historians began to work within ever narrowing sub-specialties. Social history, women’s history, queer history, world history, immigrant’s history, diplomatic history, intellectual history, economic history, and on and on. The price of this “lateral expansion” was a concomitant loss of ability to communicate across sub-disciplines, as their assumptions and explanatory goals diverged. “In those days there was no king in Israel, and every man did what was right in his own eyes” he lamented, quoting the Book of Judges. The result has been “a circumstance of chaos, confusion, and crisis, in which everyone has a strong suspicion that conventional norms are no longer viable, but no one has a clear sense of what is in the making.”
Novick’s assessment of “the idea of objectivity in the American Historical Profession” was, needless to say, negative. Adhering to a pragmatic view of truth such as that advanced by Richard Rorty, and a historicist view of knowledge such as we have encountered before in Vico and Ranke, Novick undertook to show that there were so many ideas about what counted as objective truth, and those ideas were so visibly tied to the social and political circumstances of the time, as well as the fortunes of the historical profession, that the idea was “psychologically and sociologically naive.” Does this mean that Novick was a relativist? He denied the charge, and that the charge meant anything: objectivity/relativity is a false dichotomy, and the terms not so much wrong as cognitively empty. People who think in these terms, Novick argued, simply do not have coherent ideas about truth and knowledge.
The coherent view on these matters had, he held, been given in the general instance by Richard Rorty, and in the specific instance by Hayden White, whose arguments we discussed in an earlier article. History was, on this account, a body of literature, and its truths, like all truths, matters of interpretation rooted in the perspective of the individual, rather than of correspondence to pre-existing facts. Applied to history, this meant that the historian’s principle obligation was to the present, not to the past, and that his function was not to discover “how it had really been,” but to impart meaning and coherence to a body of evidence that was open, in principle, to a tremendous variety of interpretations. Since such meaning and coherence could only come from the present, it could only serve the present, thus the historian was authorized to offer the interpretations of the past that he thought salutary to the needs of the moment.
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.