Is History subjective?

Discussion in 'The Time Lords' started by Ancalagon, Jan 19, 2003.

  1. Ancalagon

    Ancalagon Quality, not Quantity!

    While contemplating an answer to another thread, I was struck by the age old question about the subjectivity of recorded History. It seems apparent that History is written by the victors thus the retelling is of a particular perspective.

    This then begs the question; Is History trustworthy?
  2. Morwen

    Morwen Daughter of the Dark

    Good question, Anc.

    It happens that just the other day we(my peers and I) were discussing Metacomb's war with the English, and our illustrious American History honors teacher (deciding that she was again going to show us the limitlessness of her vast knowledge) points out that there happens to be two different acounts of the same story. The first account, the one we read in our 2000 history book, recounts that Metacomb was finally killed when the Englishmen shot him through the heart. However, she then produced an older history book published in 1995, which states that Metacomb's limbs were severed and then carried back to the town to be displayed at a thankgiving feast. The latter of which I just recounted is the correct story.

    So yes, I do believe history isn't always trustworthy. It can almost never be, for we cannot analyze the different perspectives of the situations and people. We only go off of what was recorded, set in some kind of lasting case. And there have been things never recorded, still lost somewhere in the mist of history.
  3. Turgon

    Turgon Ghost-King of Gondolin

    While it is true that our written historical records do lean towards subjectivism, I think that true History, History as science, cannot but be objective. It's the role of the historian, to look at all the facts, consider all the evidence, both written and physical and come up with a definitive and objective case study.

    Unfortunately - It doesn't always work that like - especially when evidence is scarce or one sided, and of course all the best history books are full of falsehoods - it makes for better reading - Herodotus 'Histories' one of the most interesting books ever written, but verging on fantasy in parts, Thucydides 'History of the Peloponnesian War' very objective for its time, but dry as dust.

    But History is trustworthy, as long as you yourself are objective about what you are reading...
  4. Anduril

    Anduril Nil desperandum!

    This is a philosophical

    Yes, History has many "subjective" episodes since the very fact that is talking about the most unpredictable element:'s not about equations or mathematics...

    Many facts can be deformed through years and for many historians as well...or by interpretations of the readers...

    Tremendous responsibility of historians.

    History is objective, under the idea that the forthcoming new facts or discovers "undogmatize" the previous reference the meantime, we have to trust what we read...

    Our responsability is to go "...where no man has gone before..." and compare the ideas of a specific historical event to have our own interpretation...c'est la vie...

  5. Niniel

    Niniel Random Quoter

    I think history is often biased, but that this is more the result of the individual researcher's ideas than of his or her culture. Many historians want to find particular results, because they have an idea in their head and they consider only the evidence that supports their view. They want to prove their own theories and any sorces that suggest it was not as they think, they leave aside as being untrustworthy or false.
    I think it is the duty of the historian to describe what the world looked like in earlier times and how people lived. The only objective way to do that is to take all the sources into consideration and based on that make a description of what is most likely to have happened. But this is not always possible, because of the lack of sources or the sources being biased, leading to endless discussion among historians and no more certainty of what happened in the past. This is often frustrating, eg. I'm a history student and most of the times the results of my research are 'it is likely to have been like this, but it could also have been like that, considering the sources you use.' Still the only thing the historian can do is to be as objective as possible, but that is very hard.
  6. Húrin Thalion

    Húrin Thalion King of Crisps

    Since nothing can be absolutely proved, yes history is always subjective. I cannot say that I just wrote this post and then prove it surely, only beyond doubt. Only the now is definite and still that can be seen subjectively. You can trust history but let your own critical judgement carefully decide what is right or not. For those that wish not to see the truth this could be made into making history fit themselves, and those have left the historians' way. If you choose to see something as history it is not that but instead your version of history which can be close or far from reality. All our world is only what our brain tells us what it is, history is what someone else tells oru brains. I say that all that can be proved beyond doubt is history, the rest is just specualtions. If you regard to historical writers then they are subjective, just as the media is today. Thukydides was objective but subjective because he was a man and men are coloured by their backgrounds and all that they write and say is influenced by themselves. This is in the ebnd a personal matter, but the real historian trusts only what can be proved beyond doubt.

    Húrin Thalion
  7. Arvedui

    Arvedui Stargazer

    How trustworthy it is would IMO depend on how many historians have looked into the matter. The more it has been viewed and reviewed, the more accurate it is I think. there is however a difference between ancient history, and recent history, depending of course on the availability of written records.
    Those written records are in my belief the main sources of making history subjective, when talking about ancient history.
    If we consider more recent history, time and acces to various archives will "change history". I believe that in the years to come, historians views on WWII, Vietnam and Desert Storm will change because details that were previously unknown, will come to the surface as time goes by, and the various governments chage their security views.
  8. Lhunithiliel

    Lhunithiliel Fëanorean

    History SHOULD be objective but unfortunately, it IS very often subjective. And for many reasons.....
    I guess, the best example I can give is how my generation used to be taught history in the years of the ruling communists. It is a long story to tell you how some historical events were submitted totally twisted in order to "fit" the then ruling ideology! And we have become aware of all this only now...

    However, I think, that if one is trully interested in finding the historical truth, one should turn to official documents and material evidences only. Only these are free of any subjective comments that could influence one's assessment of the events.

    And I guess the other good way to escape being subjective about history is to compare various sources of information. Thus, one can surely find out the truth somewhere inbetween the opposing opinions.
  9. Scatha

    Scatha The dragon of wrath

    That mainly depends on who made the documents, since (as pointed out earlier) every civilization has their own view on a subject. If you have more then one document, from different origin, that state the same, then you may assume the fact written in there are correct. Should this not be the case, then the outcome is mostly always 'colored' the way the historian interpreted the documents, or the way the author saw things.

    Sad but true.
  10. Lhunithiliel

    Lhunithiliel Fëanorean

    When I say documents, I MEAN documents.
    Something like... a birth certificate, or some paper stating someone had lived on that address from....until......., marriage certificates, notes and receipts from public or/and financial authorities.... There have always been such administrative units in the organized societies and therefore, there must have always been records of a similar type as those I mention... It doesn't matter whether they were carved on stone plates, or written on paper... These documents ARE true....becuase they are impersonal and just stating a simple fact... Out of a chain of simple facts, one can find proof "for" of "against" smth. stated by historians.
  11. Scatha

    Scatha The dragon of wrath

    I see your point, but doesn't that rely on the era you are looking for, as most of the really old (ancient) documents have been lost or simply not readable anymore.

    Even the 'dead sea scrolls', which are a major source of information, are decaying as we speak. Even though the scientists are working hard to preserve them.
  12. Anduril

    Anduril Nil desperandum!

    Yes, written or graphic documents help a lot when you're describing one's personal life, or even, infering the costumes or an era or epoch, but many of these documents can not be saved for destruction or degradation...

    In fact, many civilizations don't have written records, they're just trusting in the memoirs of their ancient members, and even with this methods, they can filter only the facts that they think are relevant, not those that can be "historically or politically correct"
  13. Lhunithiliel

    Lhunithiliel Fëanorean

    Objective "documents" I'd also call the THINGS people of any historic time make and leave.
    Even if a civilization had no a system for recording in writing, they still made things and these things could not be ALL destroyed through time (the legendary Atlantis - not taken into consideration ;) ). Pieces of them can be found centuries and millenia later and they "speak" of the truth....
    And the little truth they speak of, compared to those ancient legends, plus what historians say........ the "picture" could be drawn clearly.... I guess. :rolleyes:
    Just an example - some time ago they found the most ancient golden treasure on this planet. Schollars date it back to about 5000 years.(if I'm not wrong :eek: ; but I can easily go to the museum they have it in and check once again). Those things are amazing and no matter what histroy tells about it all , I can see and judge for myself. I have, thus seen and understood that those ancient people were much smaller in body... I saw needles made of bones and gold, I saw pots and bowls richly decorated, I saw face masks made of gold and golden earring and ... things like that you know.... Those people had no writing records to leave to us and tell who they were...but now the historians are thoroughly studying all the documents available concerning those ancient times in order to understand more about them...

    Another method I'd call objective is comparing. When sources of information are compared one could find the truth somewhere between even completely contradicting data.

    And if speaking about events from very very early ages, I could consider wall paintings as evidences. At that stage of psychological development of the homo sapiens, he did not have much of imagination which could "twist" the truth. So, it was the need of communicating to others about the events, that made a caveman draw. I ' d call that an objective "document".
  14. Ravenna

    Ravenna Registered User

    The problem as I see it is not just the point of view of the historical evidence itself, but our own. As has been stated earlier, any artifact or record found must, in one way or another, be interpreted, and many historians and archaeologists will only admit to something if it suits their own preconceptions.
    Even going back to the documents themselves, we would probably put something of our own interpretation to it.

    If you go to items or paintings, most people will see what they want to see, we do it all the time.

    For example as an exercise in a class I took some years ago, we were shown a photo of a small girl, and asked to say what we thought she was feeling, the answers ranged from fear, to anger, sadness, excitement and happiness, to name a few, so if you look at a cave painting, you may see a slightly different picture to me.

    To sum up, whilst the data we are viewing may be wholly objective, it is human nature to be somewhat subjective in the viewing, no matter how hard we try not to be. I'n not talking here about basic things like seeing a mummified body and realising that it is small, but say, looking at a cup, you may see an ordinary drinking vessel, but I might see it as a religious artifact.

    Not sure this entirely makes sense, but it's late and I can't do any better right now.
  15. Eriol

    Eriol Estel



    So you think there is a truth to be twisted, Lhun? An objective truth? I'm glad to know that.


    However, and though it will perhaps surprise you, I don't quite agree with what you said. What is this history we are discussing here? The history of human beings. A history of human beings simply can't be objective, in my opinion; no matter how many documents and evidence we have.

    We can't even be "objective" with living people, whom we can talk with; or does anyone think that the way to understand a person is to be "objective" , to study it detachedly as a scientist would study mice? I don't think that is the way to go, and I think many people would agree with me. When dealing with human beings, we don't want data, we want to understand; this is a completely different goal, as the example of a living person shows.

    If we want to understand, for instance, the events leading to Caesar's murder, we must understand the circumstances and motives of all participants, as well as the culture and the political climate; and how in the world are we going to do that without putting our own beliefs and interpretation into the process? A list of documents and evidence can't help us there; even if we had an online TV coverage, we would have to interpret the data ourselves. As Ravenna's post shows.

    I think history can try to be "impartial", perhaps, but never "objective". And even the impartiality of history will always remain doubtful, no matter how hard we try.
  16. Arebeth

    Arebeth Registered User

    Sincerely, do you think objectivity actually exists? That's... an utopia. Of course the winners are deciding who's Evil and who's nice. Poor job. Conscience is the worst gift men ever received. And anyway, I think most of the bad guys where just ambitious men who wanted to write their names in the books and in the "mythic History", that makes of them something like obscure icons. But that's not politically correct, is it? I'd like to do the same...

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