Objective discovery, subjective interpretation?

My latest read was Michael Shermer and Alex Grobman’s Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do They Say It? (University of California Press, 2000). They counter the falsehoods of Holocaust deniers.

(I’ve written one, two, three, four prior posts for this blog about conspiracy theories.)

I picked up Denying History because I’d read some comments by Michael Shermer on an entirely different topic and I disagreed with him strongly on that other topic, and I wanted to learn more about what else has interested him over his career. So, although you should not understand me as endorsing anything in particular that Shermer has recently said on any of a number of topics, nevertheless I do want to point out a helpful framework within this 22-year-old book Denying History.

Historical objectivity

The 19th-century German historian Leopold von Ranke explained this approach.

History is outside our minds; we discover the past and discern its causal structure; we can know the past; we can become objective; we should describe what really happened.

The hardest part of this approach is denying how we are influenced by our own standpoints. How can we pretend to be objective, when it’s obvious that we have biases?

Historical relativism

In the early 20th century, thinkers like Friedrich Meinecke, Benedetto Croce, Carl Becker, and Charles A. Beard took a more relativist approach.

History is inside our minds; we construct the past and assign it causal structure; we can know the past only through what’s documented; we’re always biased; we should present our own interpretation.

The hardest part of this approach is maintaining that nothing can be known. If that’s the case, then why attempt to present history at all?

Historical science

The authors believe that this approach, having evolved from and beyond the former two approaches, is the correct one:

History is both outside and inside our minds; the past has a causal structure, which we discover objectively and describe subjectively; our knowledge is bounded by the data available to us; we should examine our biases; our interpretations are provisional.

They note that James Kloppenberg (American Historical Review, 1989) has called it “pragmatic hermeneutics.”

I like the simplicity of the breakdown between objectivity and relativism and the presentation of a third approach that bridges them. I also like that they’re talking specifically about writing history.

I don’t necessarily agree, though, that the third approach is correct. The discussion is too short to persuade me (Chapter 2, pp. 19–35). From my own lifetime of thought, for my own reasons, I tend to come down more strongly on the relativist side. But I think it may be a fine place for someone to start exploring the question, and there’s room for discussion here.