Historians And The Problem Of Objectivity: A Review Essay

There is no doubt that the problem of objectivity has always been at the center-piece of historical scholarship since the emergence of history as distinct academic discipline. In fact Herodotus, the acclaimed “father of history,” had to grapple with the problem in his HISTORIES. While writing on the history of the Graeco-Peloponnesian conflict, he strongly advised the practitioners of history to record faithfully all existing accounts on any historical events. Even when Herodotus chose, in Histories, to support a particular view point he did not only adduce reasons for such a position, he also documented the other versions as they were narrated to him.
In fact, since the Herodotian period there has been a great deal of arguments among historians on what constitutes historical objectivity, and whether objectivity is attainable at all. In the 19th century, the fountain-head of the German historical school, Leopold von Ranke, blazed the trail in the quest for historical objectivity.

In the 1830s, to be precise, Leopold Von Ranke protested vehemently against moralizing history and remarked that the proper task of the historian was “simply to show how it really was” (wie es eigentlich gewesen). Since that time successive generations of historians seem to have been filled with a burning zeal for objectivity. There is no doubt today that all historians of any persuasions – conservative, liberal or radical – agree that the proper end of any historical research should be objectivity.
However, in order to do thorough justice to the concept of objectivity in history is necessary to review the positions of the major schools on the concept and the arguments which they have advanced either for or against it. Basically, the following major schools can be identified: One, those who use science paradigms to evaluate historical works. This school believes that since history cannot issue out general or absolute truths like the pure science, history is subjective through and through. Exponents of this view are William Dray, W. H. Walsh, Sir Isaiah Berlin, and Karl Popper.
The second school is represented by the positivists who, in their anxiety to remove interpretations from history equate history with facts in documents. According to this school, the historian in his quest for objectivity should faithfully stick to facts in documents because “fact speak for themselves”.
The third position is represented by R. G. Collingwood. In his The Idea of History, Collingwood seems to have ruled out any objective history at all. According to him, history cannot but be written from a point of view and precisely that history is what the historian makes of it. In his unpublished work, Collingwood’s editor reported him to have written thus:
St. Augustine looked at history from the point of view of the early Christian, Till amount from that of Seventeenth-century Frenchman; Gibbon, from that of an eighteenth-century English man; Momnsen from that of a nineteenth century German….
The forth school is represented by Dr. Leroy Johnson of the University Pennsylvania. According to Johnson, the concept of objectivity in history is a myth, an unattainable ideal and a western subterfuge to prevent African historians from creating and developing a truly Afro-centric historical methodology. Leroy Johnson rules out objectivity from history completely because “historians are all irremediably the products of their own background, their training, their personality and social role, and structural pressure within which they operate.”
The fifth school is represented by such regular historians as Jeremy White, R. S. Smith, Robin Law, J. A. Atanda, J. F. Ade Ajayi, among others. This school believes that objectivity, though difficult, is possible. This school holds the traditional view that the objective historian is one who form judgement on the basis of the evidence available to him despite his own preconceptions.
The sixth position is represented by E. H. Carr who, in What is history?, argues that while no historian can claim for his own values an objectivity beyond history, the “objective” historian can be said to be one “with a capacity to rise above the limited vision of his situation in society and in history”, and with “capacity to project his vision into the future in such a way to give him a more profound and more lasting insight into the past”.
Another position is that of the conservative school which reject “contemporary history” as a viable field of scholarship. According to this school, the historian cannot engage in any meaningful discussion of recent history because of the problem of censorship of documents and the problem of detachment. The argument here is that there is always a tendency for the historian to take side in the events which he witnessed or participated in. It is also argued that a contemporary historian, often times, is denied advantage of hindsight. P. O. Esdebe of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka is an eloquent exponent of this view.
Finally, the orthodox Marxists school, represented by Temu and Swai, posits that any field of scholarship, history inclusive, is necessarily subjective because the researcher is committed already before embarking on any research, to a particular world view and ideology. They contend that even a scholar who claims to be neutral on the question of methodology is already committed by that neutrality to a particular system.
Ranke is generally regarded as the “father of objective history” because he pointed out at the right time what should be the proper ends of historical scholarship. Although, he is not accorded any significant respect today because the fallacy of his methodology has been thoroughly exposed, his most bitter critics would admit that he was genuinely motivated by the quest for objectivity. Indeed Von Ranke and the positivists contributed greatly to the cult of facts in the 19th century. They believe, though erroneously, that the historian would be objective when he ascertains his facts and then draws conclusions from them. This position, however faulty it might be, is understandable, given the prevailing empirical tradition which constituted the core of British philosophy from John Locke to Bertrand Russel. Ranke and the posivists believed that there is objective existence of facts and that these facts are always available to the historians in documents and inscriptions, etc. However, the weakness of this position has been exposed by the distinguished British historian and philosopher of history, E. H. Carr, who argues that facts do not speak for themselves. According to Carr “the facts speaks only when the historian calls on them. It is he who decides to which fact to give the floor, and in what order or context”. In other words, the “facts” of history are simply those which historians have selected for scrutiny. As a buttress to this view, he adds that although millions have crossed the Rubicons, it was Caesar’s crossing that was significant. In sum, the historian discriminates between sources that are available and between sources that are relevant to his research; not all the facts of the past are historical facts. In spite of severe criticism  which had attended Ranke’s position, his status/place as the fountain head of historical objectivity remains inviolate.
The most serious objections raised during the course of the 19th century against historical objectivity is that history is not scientific and therefore cannot be objective. This objection is often canvassed by natural scientists and some philosophers. W. H. Walsh in his book An Introduction To the Philosophy of History while not denying that historical knowledge is methodologically arrived at and systematically related, categorically denies that history could make successful predictions and that the historian’s evidence is always coloured by “his personal predilections and private circumstances”. For a proper evaluation of Walsh position, it is important to comment on three salient issues contained in his assertion. First, W. H. Walsh was reacting to the school of history, ably represented by J. B. Bury, that posits that “History is science, no more, no less” Second, he admits that the methods of historical research are akin to that of the physical scientists in the sense that the historian appeals to and scrutinizes his evidence and his evidence is also open to scholars who might wish to know how such a historian arrived at his position. Thirdly, Walsh’s claim that historical evidence may taint the conclusion of the historian contains some justification and, therefore, needs to be closely examined.
There is no gainsaying that the historical or social reality is quite distinct from the world of nature which is the subject matter of the natural scientist. While nature is amenable to persistent and repeated observation, historical events are highly volatile and enacted once and for all. For instance, it is not possible for scholars of history to recall historical actors for conversation or for cross-examination. In effect, while the natural scientist, whenever he is in doubt of any research findings, can always repeat his experiment, the historian would have to be content with second-hand accounts. Beside this, the historian is a participant-observer in the historical process. In other words, the historian participates in the events that he is observing and he is also being observed. This is what E. H. Carr means when he characterizes the historical process as a moving procession meaning that the historian cannot give a totalizing view of the social reality and neither can he maintain a moral and emotional aloofness from his object of study. In sum, the historical evidence is already processed and is quite distinct from the type of raw materials which the natural scientist is working with. Moreover, it is also acknowledged by practitioners of history that though the physical scientist do not, today, dwell in exactitudes, the predictions of the historians can still not match those of the physical scientist in precision. Indeed, the world of man is not similar to the world of nature and zoologists have amply demonstrated that human beings are too various complex and spiritual for any scientific analysis. The point being stressed here is that while it is possible for the zoologist to research on Agama-Agama lizard and generalize about what is true of one in respect of others of the same specie, it is not possible to infer the life history of thousands of men from the history of one man.
More importantly, the facts still remain that the proper business of the historian is not prediction but retrodiction into the past on the basis of the evidence available in the present. Finally, while the object of study of the physical scientist is distinct and separate, in history the object and the subject belong to the same category. Thus, historical conclusions cannot but be affected by the point of view of the historian. For instance, a medical scientist investigating into the outbreak of typhoid epidemic among LASU students would be concerned with the causes, the course and the consequences in a purely objective manner. On the other hand, some historians of Yoruba history, for instance, reflect their personal and group biases in their works. This is particularly revealing in I. A. Akinjogbin’s analysis of  Ife relationship with Oyo, J. A. Atanda’s analysis of Oyo relationship with Ife and S. A. Akitoye’s treatment of Ekiti-relations with Ibadan in the 19th century. In short, the natural scientist, quite unlike the historian, is free from his own “predilections” or “private circumstances”.
The thrust of Collingwood’s  position is that history is necessarily written from the “point of view” of the historian and the age he lives in. By this  position, he seems to have ruled out any objective history. In the words of E. H. Carr, “because a mountain appears to take on different shapes” from different angles of vision does not mean that it has objectively either no shape at all or an affinity of shapes. In other words, there is no primacy of facts or the age or generation of the historian over interpretation. Interpretation is the life blood of history.
The  position of Leroy Johnson is that historical objectivity is utopian and unattainable. He premises his arguments on the position that historical interpretation, the hallmark of history, is entirely dependent on the historian’s background, precisely nationality, religions, social class and, lastly, race. He further posits that the concept of objectivity is Western and since Western theories of history and some western scholars such as Harry Johnson, G. Seligman, L. H. Gann, P. Duignan and Trevor-Ropper have never been “objective” in their treatment of the African past, the concept should be discarded. However, it is his claim that objectivity in history is a myth (that it services the interest of different classes) that is most germane to this discussion.
Apart from the historian’s background, Johnson raises more fundamental question as regards ‘historical truths”. According to him, “truth’ changes because society changes. And since the historian is a member of social classes which are often antagonistic, his position at a given point in time has often been modified by his membership of a particular class, training, personality and social role. Thus, the historian is compelled to choose models within the framework of his commitment. In short, Leroy Johnson contends that since the orientation of research and the conceptual tools of the historian are functions of the social present, it is sheer dishonesty to claim any objective status for history. History, to him, is subjective through and through. He even rejects relative objectivity which liberal historians often recommend for the practitioners of history.
The regular historians vehemently disagree with Leroy Johnson’s perspective of objectivity that “historians are all irremedially products of their own background”, they contend that by Johnson’s own and mission and logic of invariably means that he must be writing some queer history or propaganda. This school counters Johnson’s position that the Western theorists of history and philosophers he invoked to back up his argument are not representative enough. Granted that some pseudo-western philosophers and historians are guilty of Johnson’s claim, why did he refuse to examine the works of such objective and outstanding historians of Africa like R. S. Smith, Michael Crowder, Jan Vansina, J. D. Fage, Robin Law, Roland Oliver, among others?
Jeremy White, an exponent of this position, believes that Johnson has carried his skepticism too far and contends that the fact that objectivity is difficult to achieve does not necessarily mean that it is impossible. All the historian needs to do is to be very meticulous in his search for evidence, to be very alert to detect falsehood in his accounts and to exercise maturity in his interpretation. According to him, the dilemma facing historical researcher is the same as one which confronts us in our day to day activities whenever we want to make decisions about the import of any given event. He surmises that it is the exercise of maturied of judgement that distinguishes a good historian from a bad historian; a good administrator from a bad administrator, etc.
Finally, the school rejects Leroy Johnson’s thesis that having a particular view point necessary implies subjectivity. According to them, having a particular view point implies a certain focus which the historian can change any time he realises that it is not giving him any fruitful conclusions about his enquiry. It is possible, so the argument runs, to have ten different versions of a political biography all of which might be true but with none giving the whole truth. In fact, Michael Polanyi has thoroughly discredited the attempt of the behaviouralists to create a “value-free” science.
… as human beings, we must inevitably see the universe from a centre lying within ourselves and speak about it in terms of human language shaped by exigencies of human intercourse. Any attempt to eliminate our human perspective from our picture of the world must lead to absurdity.
Dr. S. O. Osoba, though a radical scholar, has also affirmed that all historians use value judgement and that what the historians need to do is to make their criteria explicit to enable the readers separate historical judgements from pure factual statements.
Apart from the problems highlighted above, regular historians have also acknowledged that there are several factors that impede historical objectivity. The first of such factors is the nature of topic that the historian chooses to write on. The moment he picks on and not the other, he has started to show his “bias” or preference” for certain issues.”
For instance, the research efforts of most Nigerian historians during the heydays of colonialism were dictated by the facts of colonial rule and its denial of history to the colonized peoples. In fact, a cursory look at the Ibadan History School right from the pioneering works of K O. Dike and S. O. Biobaku to such distinguished scholars as J. F. Ade Ajayi, J. A. Atanda , E. A. Ayandele, S. A. Akintoye, R. A. Adeleye, Adiel Afigbo and Obaro Ikime will reflect two issues: one, an overall commitment to demonstrate that Nigeria had a worthy historical past before the European contact. Second, there is an obsessive concern with the understanding of the machinery of colonial rule and the reactions of the people to colonial policies. Indeed, Bernard Lewis was right when the opines that the question which an historian raises are those suggested to him by the events of his own time. In a situation like this, what really matters is the quality of the mind of the researcher and his commitment to historical research. He has to choose a topic. History thrives in specialization as the historian is incapable of reducing the whole historical experience to a symmetrical order. He also has a defined length of  time within which the research must the conducted and completed.
Another hindrance to historical objectivity which scholars have identified related to the nature of evidence which the historian has to work with and the selectivity with which he will have to handle such materials. Historical evidence are necessarily fragmentary because the facts of history do not come to the historian in a pure form. G. R. C. Hon. has rightly contended that the historian cannot probe into that aspect of the past for which there is no evidence. Even when such evidence are available, they have been pre-selected for the historian by those who are imbued with a particular world view. Besides, not all available evidence will be relevant to the historian in his choice of topic.
In other words, he still has to discriminate or select between those facts that are available and those that are relevant to his study. The implication here is that the historical evidence becomes more and more fragmentary and this poses some problems to the construction, of “historical reality”.
While some historians and philosophers are even ready to accept that some level of objectivity is possible for a researcher of ancient reality, others are not willing to grant such to scholars of contemporary history. They contend that writers of contemporary history can, at best, be a propagandist or a staunch defender of the status quo. This is exactly P. O. Esedebe’s reaction to E.A. Ayandele’s published lectures The Education Elites in Nigeria. Objections to contemporary history often center around three issues: First, it is argued that a meaningful and incisive analysis of recent history is impossible because of the problem of censorship of documents since it is practice of the ruling elites of all societies to keep some materials classified over a particular period time. The implication of this assertion is that the historians’ efforts at interpreting the contemporary society is doomed to failure but the position ignores E. H. Carr’s observation that “no document can tell us more that what the author the document thought.” Siyan Oyeweso has also argued that for the historian of any persuasion, access is only possible to those materials that have been pre-programmed and pre-selected for us. In other words, the medieval and contemporary historians suffer from similar, if not the same limitation.
Another impediment to contemporary history concerns the ability of the historians to raises issues which authorities might consider as subversive. It is true that some scholars engage in defensive penmanship in the guise of academic history but there are also historians of courage whose business is to write and “be damned”. For instance, Nigeria has produced such historians as Bala Usman and Segun Osoba who, in the pursuit of historical scholarship, had several brushes with the upholders of the status quo. Both even jointly authored the minority report on the 1979 constitution. Bala Usman’s For the Liberation of Nigeria and Segun Osoba’s published works on contemporary Nigerian history are illustrative of the facts that “contemporary history” is a legitimate field of inquiry.
However, the most serious objection to contemporary history by its antagonists relates to the problem of detachment and denial of the advantage of his insight. It is argued that detachment is impossible for the historian especially in his analysis of the events he witnessed or participated in and that he has moral responsibility to those who  have helped him along the line. This problem, as observed earlier on, is not peculiar to contemporary history but common to any form of history. In fact, detachment cannot be a serious objection as these critics would want us to believe. In sum, we submit that while absolute objectivity is alien to the world of history relative objectivity is within the reach of any historian that is committed scholarship for its own sake.
Our thesis is that it is unhistorical to deter the historian from looking at his own time since it constitutes a dereliction or denial of his social responsibilities. The words of Stuart Hughes are apt here: “The historian is obliged to reckon with his time. He cannot escape from it: its pressure are all around him.”
It is even gratifying to note that the relevance of and the need for contemporary history has bee well articulated by Barraclough in Introduction To Contemporary History while J. F. Ade Ajayi in his paper presented during the silver jubilee celebration of the Historical Society of Nigeria in 1980 admonished Nigerian historians to stop thinking that all valid historical topics must end with 1914.
From our review of literature on historical objectivity, it is clear that the concept is a problematic one which cannot command unanimity of scholars. Despite the argument for and against the concept, it is also evident that the quest of objectivity remains at the center-piece of historical research. It is an ideal which all historians strive for and which they struggle to achieve. Similarly, we have also shown that the dichotomy often drawn between medieval and contemporary history is a false once. All that the contemporary historian needs to do is to be more rigorous in his analysis and restrain himself from making assertions too strongly in contradistinction with the medieval historian. This is because of the awareness that the events of today can only be perceived dimly, and that the events of tomorrow may greatly modify the conclusions he might have come to.
Finally, it is noted that the problem of objectivity is not peculiar to history but one that is shared by disciplines in humanities. In all these disciplines, “man is observing himself” and an abandonment of historical activity would definitely mean that all these disciplines are subjective through and through.
The most befitting conclusion is provided by Bernard Lewis: “The essential and distinctive feature of scholarly research is, or should be, that it is not directed to pre-determined results. The historian does not set out to prove a thesis or select materials to establish some point, but follows the evidence wherever it leads…”
…The essence of critical scholarly historian is that he is aware of this fact and instead of indulging his prejudices, seeks to identify and correct them.”