Objectivity and Subjectivity in History

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According to Benny Morris, historical truth is a ‘truth about a historical event that exists independently of, and can be detached from, the subjectivities of scholars' . Hence, is Morris implying that historical truths are objective? If they are indeed objective, why are historians constantly rewriting history books? Although the objectivity of some historical truths is indisputable, one must realise that most truths in history are influenced by the historian's biases, limitations and his subjection to external influences. In other words, subjective elements (as mentioned above) undermine the objective interpretations of historical events. Thus, using Morris's definition of historical truth, this essay aims to marshal the argument that to a large extent, most historical truths (or historical understandings) are not objective but subjective in nature.

First and foremost, most historical truths are subjective due to the ‘biased' approach the historian takes when selecting sources to interpret historical events. Given the fact that the modern historian has access to numerous sources, there is the tendency for him to only select sources which echo his personal ‘prejudices' on the historical event concerned. This is because, due to the huge quantity of sources available, the historian will never be able to use all the sources for his interpretations of historical events. Thus, since he is in a position where he cannot use all sources (which have different interpretations for the same historical event), the historian would find it convenient to use sources which go along with his personal ‘prejudices'. For example, due to the large number of sources available on the Nanking massacres, many modern Chinese historians, unable to use each and every source (due to the various forms of interpretations presented by these sources), tend to only select sources which claim that the massacres took place. This is because, these historians are ‘prejudiced' against the Japanese who had brought great destruction to China during WW II. Similarly, since there are numerous sources which give different reasons for the destruction of African kingdoms, many African historians tend to select sources which state that Africa's former colonial masters were responsible for the extinction of African kingdoms. This is because, these African historians are ‘prejudiced' against the Europeans for the latter had left their colonies in a state of abject poverty.

Thus, through a critical analysis of the examples mentioned above, one can see that historical truths cannot be objective but subjective for historians, due to their inability to use all the sources at their disposal, are led by their personal ‘prejudices' when choosing both primary and secondary sources to interpret events of the past.

Michael Bentley says that ‘a historian's historiography cannot be free from prejudice as the historian is already moulded by the external influences of his time' . One cannot but agree with him for historians are also human beings who are subjected to external influences of their time such as the political system, social norms or religious beliefs. Thus, these historians, when interpreting historical events, would have the tendency to give interpretations which are subject to the above mentioned influences. For example, during the early nineties, when India was ruled by the Bharathiya Janata Party (which was under the heavy influence of the Hindutva –an extremist Hindu group which advocated a pan- Hindu identity), many Indian Hindu historians through their works accused the Muslims (both in India and Pakistan) for the partition of India in 1947 even though the majority of Muslims had demonstrated actively against partition. This was because, many of these historians, who were Hindus, were influenced by the political system of the day which had been tarnished by fanatical Hindu ideologies (Bose, 2004). Similarly, many Sinhalese historians, up till today,...
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