Objectivism is Subjective

by Marc Geddes

I want to take a different path in my blog today. I want to look at the profession of History, and its evolving nature as a discipline. It seeks to answer questions most pertinent to the present; an attempt to obtain knowledge. Yet what knowledge? Different historiographical approaches have attempted to provide answers to different questions – historicism focuses on the state, political history on institutions, social history on the individual and cliometric history on the dominance of economics. However, none of these really penetrate the true nature of history – discovering and understanding the way that the people of our past lived. They have missed the point, by looking at how people lived through the medium of one theory or another, instead of looking at the culture of the people in and of itself. The past two decades has seen many historians overcome such criticism through adopting the New Cultural Turn and the linguistic turn in the field. This is something I wish to explore further, in order to suggest a well-rounded defence of a new turn in historical theory.

The most important change over the past 20 years has been the new emphasis on meaning and interpretations, rather than the application of unquestioned concepts. The New Cultural History has questioned the way that other historical approaches have attempted to view history itself. Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886), for example, tried to ‘extinguish [his] own self… to let the past speak’. The inherent problems here are obvious, and have been acknowledged throughout the continual professionalisation in the twentieth century. Bias and partiality were in all likelihood the most common problems to face von Ranke, of which he could not have been aware. It would be impossible for him to let the past speak, because he himself had his own conceptualisations of the past, preconceptions of the basis of society, and other normative, value-laden ideas – not to mention the types of sources he selected for investigation in the first place! No approach has attempted to address this issue directly – political history, for example, assumes that the nation is governed by the state and political leaders; economists argue that the economic process determines social structures; and social history attempts to show the gulf between the poor and the rich. Crucial questions remain unanswered – who are the leaders of a nation, what is the meaning of social structure and who is neglected in what sense and why? It is axiomatic that historical approaches pose more questions than history itself can ever answer. And whilst the new cultural approach cannot give comprehensive answers to such problems, it opens up the floor for debate and further examination of the concept. New Cultural historians have offered interpretations on these discussions without the teleological implications that social history or economic history imply.

The basic issue is that historians of other approaches do not question their own definitions and concepts; they fail to explore the nature of their subject in any depth. There are those who will go no further in trying to expand the constructed meaning of social class. Many professions accepted the term and applied it copiously to their discussions in political science, economic explanations, sociological phenomena, and many more. Yet this idea of “social class” did not exist in, for example, Elizabethan England, and social strata were not divided in such way. So why would should we thrust this term on a group of people who identify themselves entirely differently? Where is the social construction when discussing Indian history or when looking at the development of the Qing Dynasty in China? An explanation or discussion of the term outside European history in nineteenth and early twentieth century history is impossible, rendering its “universal” appeal useless. Only if a culture and a people view themselves coherently as “working class” or “middle class” could it make sense to stress the term in historical understanding. However, most individuals’ lives went far beyond this, for a human culture is far more diverse and complex than the straightjacket of a single dominant concept.

Such a harsh foundational problem for historical approaches has had profound ramifications for the methodology used in history. Clifford Geertz has underpinned this change of cultural analysis through the use of anthropology and the ambivalent idea of ‘thick description’. Historical approaches have been unable to seriously interpret deeper cultural phenomena, other than the value-laden concept of social class. History is dependent on the interpretation of meaning and symbols, rather than “scientific” discoveries of social explanations. It is axiomatic that anthropology has its own limitations, namely that it too suffers from subjective dilemmas and preconceptions of cultural “phenomena”. However, New Cultural historians are aware of this issue. Historians such as Hayden White have claimed that we must stop writing a ‘disinterested’ history, and write the history we want to write. Render explicit your intentions, your opinions and your sources! The New Cultural History has offered us new insights in terms of a dialectical interplay of numerous factors which allow for a greater, more comprehensive understanding of the past. The “bipolar” viewpoint between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat is slowly being eradicated – it can be witnessed, for example, in the studies of the middle class and its influence on the lower and higher strata of society in Imperial German historical studies.

The historical profession has, over the past twenty to thirty years, witnessed insurmountable change. New insights into the way we understand the past have come to light. Previous approaches have failed to overcome very basic epistemological and methodological problems. Whilst the New Cultural History offers an alternative that must be approved, a more radical approach towards truth-telling must be proposed, and something I have studied for four months in-depth: Veridiction.