Is there such a thing as historical objectivity?

Niall Ferguson is a Scottish-born historian, political commentator, and public intellectual. He is also the Lawrence Tisch Professor of History at Harvard.  Ferguson graduated from Magdalen College and studied for two years as a Hanseatic Scholar in Hamburg and Berlin. Before joining the Harvard faculty, Ferguson taught at Oxford University and New York University.

A prolific commentator on contemporary politics and economics—he came out in favor of the Iraq War in 2003—Ferguson is a contributing editor for the Financial Times and publishes regularly elsewhere in the British and American press. In 2004, Time magazine named him one of the world's hundred most influential people. Ferguson is the bestselling author of the popular histories The Pity of War: Explaining World War One, Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire, and The War of the World. Ferguson splits his time between the United Kingdom and the United States.

  • Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

Question: Is there such a thing as historical objectivity? 

Niall Ferguson: There isn’t, but there ought to be.  That’s to say, that in practice all the historian is doing is taking such past thought as he can retrieve, and trying to order it in some way that is meaningful.  Now there cannot be an objective truth at the end of that process, much as the historian wishes he could say, “I found it.  Here it is.” 

We perform a kind of confidence trick because we write as if we are unveiling truth, and we want our readers to feel that this is indeed what they are seeing, what they’re reading.  But of course there is no definitive objective truth on which all historians will one day agree.  And no matter how well I write, no matter how persuasively I reconstruct the evidence, it won’t be the last word because of the issue of interpretation and inference.  In the end, one is drawing inferences from a one time experiment. The past can’t be recreated.  We can’t rerun World War II to see if Hitler really might have won had he acted differently.  There’s only one run, and we can only infer as best we can motives from documents which may not themselves be truthful. 

And so it’s an extremely delicate process, quite unlike the scientific enterprise which can involve experimentation and verification through the repetition of experiment. 

That isn’t what history can do. So it aspires to truth, but it never attains it.

 

Recorded on: Oct 31 2007

 


×