Objectivity and Subjectivity in History

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Objectivity and Subjectivity in History

By | November 2006
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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...

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