Objectivists and relativists continually argue over the connection between history and value judgments.  Every historian uses value judgments when writing history.  Objectivists believe that historians can still present history as it really happened because they can explain facts and show the necessary or sufficient conditions despite value judgments.  Relativists say that objectivity is impossible because historians impose a structure on the past through their own personalities and values.

Value-free judgment is desirable, but impossible because of selection, language, history itself, and historical documents.  Every historian picks and chooses what he needs to tell his story, and normally he only picks what is important to himself.  History is a reflection of values because human activity is value-charged.  Moral value judgments are more present in history because historians use ordinary English to write history, and English does not have a specialized non-value-laden set of terms.  English words carry value judgments because they are used in so many contexts.  Even primary documents have value-laden language. 

Since the historian knows he cannot be value-free, he must defend his selection of materials and inform the reader that he will try to be objective in his writing.  Each historian should start with the values of the period under study, but since every generation rewrites history, the values will change over time.  If the historian believes that the contemporary values are wrong, then he should clarify the situation with his present knowledge.  Historians should not understand in the past only because they want to fit it in with the present.  In the end, historians can write good history with value judgments.  Historians can know history because the people at the time tell the truth as they knew it.

– Hannah S. Bowers

Advertisements