That Noble Dream The 'Objectivity uestion' and the

That Noble Dream The 'Objectivity uestion' and the American Historical Profession Ideas in Context The aspiration to relate the past as it really happened has been the central goal of American professional historians since the late 19th century In this remarkable history of the profession Peter Novick shows how the idea and ideal of objectivity were elaborated challenged modified and defended over the last centuryDrawing on the unpublished correspondence as well as the published writings of hundreds of American historians from J Franklin Jameson and Charles Beard to Arthur Schlesinger Jr and Eugene Genovese That Nobel Dream is a richly textured account of what American historians have thought they were doing or ought to be doing when they wrote history how their principles influenced their practice and practical exigencies influenced their principles An astute and provocative account of how the historical profession in American has dealt with its founding myth and central norm the ideal of objectivity Dorothy Ross


10 thoughts on “That Noble Dream The 'Objectivity uestion' and the American Historical Profession Ideas in Context

  1. Matt Matt says:

    Novick gives a fantastic analysis of the changing views on the uestions of objectivity and subjectivity in American historiography How Novick a European historian could write so comprehensively and with such depth and for almost 650 pages is amazingHe is admittedly a historicist which he says means simply that thinking about anything in the past is primarily shaped by my understanding of its role within a particular historical context and in the stream of history 7 I was glad to hear him define it that way because historicism usually means that history is to be explained solely in terms of naturalistic historical causation which is a sophisticated way of saying that the historian has an anti supernatural bias But that doesn't come into play so much on the uestion of what American historians think about the objectivity uestionNovick begins with the original objectivity project of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries when historians thought they were following Leopold von Ranke's dictum of telling history wie es eigentlich gewesen as it really was Turns out that Ranke wasn't a pure objectivist who was only trying to be empirically faithful to his sources Ranke meant telling history not so much as it really was but as it essentially eigentlich was This meant that through history we access the essences of things which is a Romantic than scientific viewRegardless the pure objectivist school thought that the purpose of historiography was the scinetific sel elimination of the historian from the task of researching and presenting history The historian went into the library the way the scientist enters the laboratory He collected the facts which spoke through the historian who was merely a kind of secretary taking dictation Studies would proceed until all texts and artifacts would have interpreted themselves and historians would have put themselves out of a job Hard to believe but Novick painstaking documents itThen come the new historians Fredrick Jackson Turner Carl Becker and Charles Beard whose work spanned pre and post WWI They hit a nerve when they pointed out that WWI exposed the fact that the Enlightenment victory of Reason didn't happen They also revealed that far from being objective most historians had been involved in WWI propaganda pretending that the allies were good little boys on the way to Sunday school when the evil German bullies picked a fightBecker and Beard made it impossible for historians to to go back to their pre war confidence in objectivity Then came the expansion of professional history where objectivity was a function of academic PhD programs whose graduates went on to work for the Allies of World War II Once again American historians aligned themselves with their national power which didn't encourage their critical faculties Speaking the truth to power only meant providing sobering military intelligence and lessons from the past not necessarily telling the truth to power about power In other words historians knew who buttered their bread After the war historians tended to succumb to the temptation to justify Allied actions which sometimes meant concealing the whole story or unrealistic appraisals of FDR and Churchill The new objectivity was not about personal detachment but about being on the right side the side of the West which now included America This is also when the Western Civ class was bornNovick points out that Christian historians like Kenneth Scott Latourette acknowledged their Christian view of history and defended it as superior to naturalistic and relativistic notions from historicism Novick points out that they were better than most who tried to keep their ideological commitments a secret This was also the age of purportedly objective journalism which Novick explodes with admissions from the journalists themselves Other historians like Karl Popper and Richard Hofstader abandoned old objectivist notions of detachment and self elimination for much honest self examination and historical complexity They argued that historiography was objective and scientific in so far as its claims were falsifiable positing a kind of normed objectivism With the advent of the sixties every group became their own historians as black and feminist historiography privileged the newly liberated perspectives of those who had suffered as part of their social group Partisan scholarship proudly dealt objectivity another blowChapter fifteen tells the story of the postmodern resurrection of subjectivity and the demise of almost any meaningful notion of objectivity Historicism and relativism had taught historians to bracket moral uestions and merely be faithful to the sources but Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions 1962 took the issue of subjectivity even further Kuhn following Michael Polanyi argued that science doesn't take place in the abstract but within a paradigm A paradigm is an accepted model that is by its very nature freighted with worldview commitments promoted by the current scientific orthodoxy Polanyi argued that science and dogma are not antithetical but are in the experience of the scientist wed together in a committed relationship The scientific community enforces the paradigm to control dissent and promote indoctrination Thus science is no cure for subjectivity a lesson that the current crop of new atheists like R Dawkins hasn't learned According to Kuhn however scientific revolutions can and do take place suddenly when the old paradigm like Newtonian physics is overthrown by a new paradigm like Einsteinian physics which accounts for the problems encountered under of previous paradigmMichel Foucault expanded the idea of the paradigm to the episteme which included relationships between the sciences and between the sciences and the culture at large Together they enforce an oppressive regime of truth in societyRichard Rorty argued in unison with the new paradigm against stable foundations of any kind With that foundation suarely in place his antifoundationalism left us only with a common solidarity in an ongoing conversation Rorty said What matters is our loyalty to other human beings clinging together against the dark not our hope of getting things right Our glory is in our participation in fallible and transitory human projects not in our obedience to permanent nonhuman constraints 541 I wonder if he was attempting to get things right? Novick points out that Rorty urged the substitution of 'solidarity' for 'objectivity' 571 So I guess we have solidarity in our subjectivity by which we may say a fond farewell to our former illusions of objectivity I guess the rest of us must obey this permanent nonhuman constraintJacues Derrida chimed in arguing that the relationship between the sign and the thing signified was arbitrary This means that words and the concepts they signify are not dictated by the words themselves but by their authors and the readers who play with words and concepts Thus words aren't transparent windows on history but opaue symbols revealing nothing outside the text Words also subvert their authors by revealing the power play the author is trying to put over on his readers Isn't the power play signified by the words in the author and thus outside the text? Maybe I don't understand Derrida but regardless this pointed the way to new hermeneutic of Deconstruction or reducing texts to powerFor literary critic Stanley Fish it is the community that teaches interpretation and the interpreter doesn’t discover but makes “ ‘texts facts authors and intentions’” Standards of right and wrong exist not in the text but within the community Fish said this is why we can’t agree on an interp of a Shakespearean sonnet though it’s only fourteen lines Rational debate is always possible he hoped not however because it is anchored in a reality outside it but bc it occurs in a history a history in the course of which realities and anchors have been established although they will have to be est again 544 If our debates aren't anchored in reality itself but only in a history of literary study then literary history must transcend reality? But if literary history is part of reality then he hasn't really helped us has he? Also if there's no reality outside the community then what do separate communities appeal to when the debate one another? Other communities themselves or what? And how if right and wrong exists only in communities does anyone ever change communities? Novick doesn't critiue these guys like I've been doing but only concludes that the center does not hold adding that In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did that which was right in his own eyes Thank goodness the post modern community isn't the true Israel Thank God that the sacred text of the true Israel doesn't end with the book of Judges The Christian meta narrative doesn't end in self defeating despair It doesn't end in the cynical resignation to power plays and apathy toward meaning The relativism of Becker and Beard and the postmodernism of Derrida and Fish have done us a great service by making us aware of how our preconceptions affect our interpretations and how words get out of our control and reveal our self centered power plays Peter Leithart in Solomon Among the Postmoderns has argued that Postmodernism reveals that everything under the sun is mere vanity and chasing after the wind which is the point of Ecclesiastes But unlike Ecclesiastes Postmodernism ends in the despair of futility because it rejects God as the basis of knowledge It rejects his normative interpretation of the world that is revealed in nature Scripture and ultimately in the final judgment I would give Novick five stars if he would have taken a sane position on the issue and not written in academia ese He once refers to something inconsistent as problematically consistent My students choked on this kind of stuff One student said he tried to understand Novick and another that he tried to slit his wrists with NovickMark Noll's Christianity and the Possibility of Historical Knowledge responds well to Novick Noll argues that only the Christian view of knowledge can restore our confidence in reliable knowledge of any kind This is because God created the world and us in his image so that we can know his world We can trust our senses and our reason because God created them to receive and unlock nature and Scripture The world can be penetrated by our minds because they are made like God's mind which knows his world perfectly The correspondence of our minds to the creation is finite and fallible especially because of sin but can also be reliable The link between the something in my head and the something outside it is established at creation and sustained by God's power upholding his creation Thus I would argue that objectivity is seeing and knowing the world and God as God sees and knows the world and himself This is humanly possible because we are made in his image and he has revealed himself in the world but preeminently in the Word made flesh and made text RC Sproul said We can grasp the infinite but we cannot hold the infinite within our grasp Thus scientific and historical knowledge as well as personal knowledge of ourselves and each other can correspond to objective reality or Truth But Noll also points out that knowledge is a product of our individual points of view and thus no two people will ever come to exactly the same perspective Noll also notes that the Christian view of the fall into sin resonates with relativism I would argue that what postmoderns call power Christians call the sin of ambition and pride These prejudice our perceptions of the world but the only response left is not power to my power play The Christian response is I repent of my grabbing for power and I die to self in order to seek God's revelation In this way we may like Noll steer a course between Scylla of scientific objectivity and the Charybdis of relativism without falling into the trap of either


  2. Cat Cat says:

    I actually enjoyed this book Which further proves I'm a dork


  3. Mike Mike says:

    Peter Novick's only stated goal in That Noble Dream is to simply raise uestions and provoke a deep level of introspection among American historians about what they are doing and how they are doing it To that end he traces the evolution of American historiographic thought beginning in the late nineteenth century as history became a “professional” field through the time of the book's publication in the mid 1980s Novick asserts that objectivity – notoriously difficult to define – is the founding myth of professional history and various historians have dealt with the issue of objectivity in distinct ways which Novick splits into four roughly chronological periods His point in all of this is not to advocate a specific school of thought or show that historians have fallen away or moved toward some ideal but rather to simply spur conscious thought about dealing with objectivity and the assumptions that lay beneath the methodologies of professional historiansThe first period of Novick's analysis begins in the late nineteenth century when the creation of the American Historical Association marked the professionalization of historians This era was defined by what Novick deems a misinterpretation of Leopold von Ranke Historians believed that a final objective fact based “truth” existed and eventually historians would study each period of history and arrive at the definitive truth of the events of that period Thus a complete and total conceptualization of history was like building a house each historian providing one brick of knowledge at a time After World War I some began to doubt this view and these “relativists” offered reinterpretations of historical events The most prominent was the Marxist school which emphasized economic structures and class conflict Part of this relativism came from a misunderstanding of scientific developments uantum theory and relativity seemed to demonstrate that reality was not as solid as once believed and this doubt about the true structure of nature influenced these historians who began to uestion the total objectivity of truth that the historical community previously assumed The post World War II period experienced somewhat of a resurgence of a belief in absolute truth although this was often viewed through the lens of a dichotomy between liberty and totalitarianism Historians in this period walked a tightrope between detached objectivity and advocation of ideology The pendulum swung sharply the opposite direction as the turbulent 1960s ushered in a diverse almost chaotic set of competing conceptions Some radical groups outright rejected any pretense of objectivity and strove for political advocacy or simply denied that any such thing as objective truth was possible Increased specification and diversification became common as racial and gender studies grew Historians began expanding their fields into and subfields while also embracing methodologies of other social sciences Throughout these fields Novick notes the split between professional and amateur historians observing that in the 1970s and 1980s this divide was blurred as the shrinking job market forced many trained historians into “public history” by working for government institutions or businesses Novick does not over simplify his narrative but continually reminds us that these periods all contained a mixture of these views and divisions between each main historiographical period were uite blurry By examining the academic output and personal papers of prominent historians Novick creates a complete picture of the diverse American historical community Even so “schools of thought” are notoriously hard to identify and define – so since most historians do not directly state their epistemological views nor do they often devote serious consideration to such mattersThat as Novick states was his ultimate reason for writing this book He offers no answers to the deep epistemological uestions he raises He does not assert that any of the views he describes are right or wrong or even appropriate or inappropriate His goal was simply to spur thought on these matters to get historians to consider the deeper uestions and assumptions that underpin their work In that effort he succeeds brilliantly


  4. John John says:

    I really hope the earning of a masters in history is not dependent on understanding andor enjoying this bookYikes Run out and find me a four year old child I can't make head or tail of this Perhaps once I've gone further towards becoming a master this will make sense I had to give up seven months laterWell I am further towards becoming a master but I really think that the reason I hated this so much last summer was that I was bogged down in the beginning of the book I've read than half of it now but starting in the 20th Century and it becomes much interesting I don't think this is a book you sit down and read this is really a reference; a reader can pick this book up to examine particular eras in American historiography If you are wondering hey what were the Progressive historians all about again? or what was the deal with the Consensus historians of the 50s? this is the place to turn Novick has a nice dry sense of humor and he really combed the archives to find personal correspondence to liven up his story and ground everything in real people and their relationships I do not think any non historian would ever have any desire to read this and that's fine It is intended to help historians understand other historians


  5. Brandy Brandy says:

    Read this for grad class on theory much like most of the other reviewers on here I wholeheartedly agree with most of the previous reviewers that no one in their right mind read not in a history grad program should have any inclination or desire to pick this up Now I personally detest theory my soul dies a little every time I go to my class dedicated to it but I enjoyed this book This may be the first theory centric book that I did not daydream about torching While I struggle to see how much of the theory we study influences or fits into my own work Novick's in depth discussion of the objectivity uestion is highly relevant I think to all historians regardless of specialization or focus Maybe particularly because we insist on having specialization and focus It's a history of historians thinking about history and that's just so rarely exciting but Novick does a good job of examining the idea of objectivity from all angles something that historians really do need to think about A good short companion piece to this is Thomas Haskill's wonderful review After reading Novick Haskill puts into words exactly what about Novick's argument makes you uncomfortable but then shows why that's kind of okay


  6. Seán Kane Seán Kane says:

    A bit long winded but Peter Novick gives a good description of the history of the history profession in the United States


  7. Zach Hedges Zach Hedges says:

    A fascinating exposition of the rise and fall of objectivism as the governing norm of historical practice divided into four movements the establishment of the ideal with historical professionalization 1880 1915 the challenge from early relativism in the Progressive era 1915 1940 the attempted revision in postwar consensus history 1940 1960 and the final collapse during the counterculture movement and postmodern turn 1960 1988 Insisting that his aim is not to defend a thesis but simply to make fellow historians self conscious about their enterprise Novick writing in 1988 offers no prospects for the future of the discipline in fact such a thing has ceased to exist though given the premise this neutral posture seems at best curious and at worst inconsistent or at least a missed opportunity for what would surely be some insightful constructive suggestions


  8. Mike Clinton Mike Clinton says:

    I read this book for the first time some thirty years ago as a graduate history student I decided to return to it in preparation for an historiography class with a couple of talented students as well as the personal curiosity of reassessing it as a senior history professor It's just as thought provoking and engaging even many of the footnotes make worthwhile reading as I recall it being decades ago My favorite part is still the same as it was the first time that I read it too an account of a PhD oral exam at Columbia that took part in the midst of the 1968 strike there pp428 9


  9. Jordan Larsen Jordan Larsen says:

    This one took me a while to finish reading considering how many times I went back through it but it is very interesting if you wonder what some of the happenings behind the historical profession are Outside of it being analytical and factual there is no real narrative in this book so it isn't a good pick for those looking for creative narration on historical events or historical fiction


  10. Molly Molly says:

    First book I read for grad school Very informative overview of American historiography; sheds a great deal of light while posing some intriguing uestions about history and the historian


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