Is there such a thing as historical objectivity?
Niall Ferguson, MA, D.Phil., is the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and a senior fellow of the Center for European Studies, Harvard, where he served for 12 years as the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History. He is also a visiting professor at Tsinghua University, Beijing, and the Diller-von Furstenberg Family Foundation Distinguished Scholar at the Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC.
He is the author of 14 books. His first, Paper and Iron: Hamburg Business and German Politics in the Era of Inflation 1897-1927, was short-listed for the History Today Book of the Year award, while the collection of essays he edited, Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals, was a UK bestseller. In 1998 he published to international critical acclaim The Pity of War: Explaining World War One and The World’s Banker: The History of the House of Rothschild. The latter won the Wadsworth Prize for Business History and was also short-listed for the Jewish Quarterly/Wingate Literary Award and the American National Jewish Book Award.
His latest book is The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power, from the Freemasons to Facebook (2017).
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
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