Read this article to learn about the objectivity and bias in history:
Historical knowledge is not purely intuitive because it is derived from a critical examination of source material and is checked by further reference to the source. Historical objectivity is closely related to value-judgment.
By objectivity, we mean dispassionate, disinterested and scientific treatment of all events which would be depicted by a historian as if he was a judge pronouncing his verdict in the most impartial way without any fear or favour.
Knowing as we do human nature, prejudice to a certain extent is a built in complex in man. With confidence a historian declares the fact is……………… but many of these alleged facts are better than his own observation, remarks and opinion. They are the result of judgments not necessarily compelled by the facts but flowing from the mental make-up of the historian.
It is because this historian cannot back up the statements he makes with scientific proof that many people feel that historical knowledge is subjective rather than objective. The very subject matter of history being reflective thought such subjectivity become inevitable.
Voltaire pointed out that history is a pack of tricks we play upon the dead. An element of subjectivity enters at every step in the process of investigation; the present can and does influence our knowledge of the past.
Every historian has his own likes, tastes, aptitude and preferences. He may choose either political or social or economic or military or constitutional or art-history and because he or she is specially inclined towards that particular subject, he or she is likely to be affected by it. Froude’s history gives us an impression of the course of events that is entirely different. Karl Marx would pick only the class struggle, Hegel would concentrate on human spirit. Acton on freedom.
The problem of selection such that the history of Europe from 1861 A.D. to 1890 A.D. is only the history of either unification of Germany or expansion of Prussian kingdom or its leader Bismark. Imagine the events of 1857 A.D. in India.
The English historian think that it was the first war of Indian independence and the historian, either from Russia or America would not agree with either of these views.
An element of subjectivity enters at every step in the process of investigation; the present can and does influence our knowledge of the past because past events do not any longer exist anywhere except in mind of the historian, who has now become both subject and object. He reconstructs or reenacts the past in his own mind and in doing so super imposes at least some of his ideas on past events.
Talking about the Asoka’s renunciation of war, the historian cannot resist the temptation of evaluating Ashoka in the light of present potential danger to peace because of nuclear weapons. The historian would fail to achieve his main goal of narrating an event as it really happened.
Historical objectivity is not attainable because of three factors such as- the nature of historical events, the selection of historical events and the personality of the author, his motives intentions and temperament.
Historian works under certain limitations. All the facts or events are not well preserved or stored for him. The source material or evidence that might have contained facts might have been destroyed, or those who recorded the events might not have observed very well or even if they observed, they might have, deliberately omitted to record them.
The historian himself be a victim of ideological considerations, political thoughts and commitment, group prejudice, national feelings, patriotic zeal and partisan attitude. Ideological considerations such as theological, philosophical, materialistic or any other intellectual bias might distort his vision. He is not free from his own viewpoint.
When Barani or Abul Fazl wrote their “Tarikh-i-Ferozshahi” and “Akbarnama” respectively, they were not free from their political considerations or loyalty to their master. The whole ranges of medieval chronicles have a direct impact of political prejudice.
The historical material of medieval Empire contains lot of distorted material. Religious superiority, racial prejudice, group affiliations, national pride, party inclination and connection, social inhibition, linguistic inclinations have influenced the historical writings.
The racial complexion also mars the objectivity of the history such as English vs. Indian historians. The exponents of the philosophy of history have generally followed such a selective approach as to establish that history has worked along a set pattern.
Certain other factors too might stand in the way of objectivity such as political pressure, party loyalties, religious fanaticism etc. To allow the full scope for imagination would be to reduce history to the level of fiction.
To reconcile ourselves to the presence of subjectivity, which enters at every step in the process of investigation; the present can and does influence our knowledge of the past. Some people have gone so far as to say that the closest we can get to what actually happened is to believe what the records say actually happened. Historical thought about the past and all history, consequently, is the history of thought.
But surely this is to over emphasis the element of subjectivity. It is impossible for us to know something about the world outside the human mind even if our knowledge of it cannot be absolute. Therefore, the historian should consciously make every effort to be objective as far as possible. He should aim at presenting facts with as much accuracy and faithfulness as possible.
He should exhaust all available sources on the subject and should not confines himself to the limited number of sources. The criticism of our sources will enable us to obtain reasonably accurate idea of which state men they make about events and changes can be accepted as valid and which cannot. We can also check one person’s version of what actually happened by comparing it with that of another person or by examining all the relevant sources ourselves.
Historical knowledge is not knowledge of certainties, except perhaps with reference to what did not happen, but of varying degrees of probability. History is not a branch of literature, it is a science.
It must be liberated from rhetoric. Excessive nationalism and a highly philosophic tone would distort history. After we have gone through the steps of historical enquiry ourselves, we will know just how much confidence we can place in our knowledge of a particular set of events and changes.
The conversation which is history does lead to further conversation. The enquiry continues to go on because at no point we can say that we have arrived at the absolute truth. The evidence and our understanding of what comprises sound historical methodology are there as a court of higher appeal.