Objectivity and neutrality are very controversial topics in historiography. There has been lot of acrimonious debate about how the preconceptions we bring to history affect what we write, and whether it’s possible or desirable to leave those preconceptions behind. This is what I had to say on the issue when I wrote the introduction to my PhD thesis in 2001:
Having studied the supply of horses and tack to the armies of Essex, Manchester and Fairfax in equal detail, I am in a position to present a more balanced case study of the development of parliamentarian supply systems and show to what extent there was any continuity between the old armies and the New Model Army. In fact, the development of the New Model Army and its supply and administration has become a central theme of this thesis. This was not necessarily intended from the outset. Like every PhD student, my research project has undergone significant changes over the years. I had originally planned to cover local forces in several counties as well as the parliamentarian field armies, but this fell by the wayside. I did not set out to prove or disprove anything and brought no preconceptions with me. There was never meant to be any “big idea” which would tie the whole thesis together. I merely set out to see what was there, but as my research progressed, certain ideas grew out of the evidence which I found. Having originally believed that Ian Gentles had well and truly had the last word on the origins and development of the New Model Army, I now believe that there is more to be said.
I now find it hard to believe that I wrote something so naive, and that the examiners let me get away with it. Was I deluded or dishonest? And can I be any more honest now? That one paragraph contains enough incriminating evidence to put me alongside post-structuralism’s favourite scapegoats, Elton and Ranke. So obviously I’m going to disown it. If I still believed that stuff then I might not see any need to deny it, because I wouldn’t want to appease theorists whom I considered to be wrong. But I was able to write something like that because I was completely unaware of theory. I was also completely unaware of Ranke. I’d heard of Geoffrey Elton, but to me he was just someone who wrote some dull books about Tudor government which Ralph Houlbrooke made me read when I was an undergraduate. Although I developed advanced research and analytical skills through years of practical experience, I learnt almost nothing about historiography.
My PhD coincided with what I now call my “stuckist” phase, in honour of Billy Childish (who I also knew nothing about back then). I was determined to ignore trends and fashions, and single-mindedly plough my own furrow. The things I valued were precision, authenticity, integrity, purity, originality, objectivity, neutrality, hard work, and (ironically) honesty. The things I hated were cliches, fashion, superficiality, gimmicks, pretension, vagueness, bias, nepotism, laziness, and (even more ironically considering what hate is) emotion. Blandness was part of my dogme. I wrote in an anti-style which aimed at nothing more than conveying information and analysis as clearly and neutrally as possible. I disapproved of bad puns and incomprehensible quotes in the titles of articles and papers. My papers all had dull descriptive titles, and were weighed down with masses of tedious facts. Pity anyone who had to listen to them. Most of all, I was opposed to exciting conclusions. I was very suspicious of historians who had big ideas and straightforward explanations. Although I didn’t know the word “dialectic”, I found the way historians tended to divide into opposite camps pointless and irritating. During my viva, Martyn Bennett accused me of sitting on the fence over the issue of continuity or change, and was probably quite frustrated by my refusal to retract my assertion that Mark Kishlansky and Ian Gentles were “extreme”.
Strangely, these attitudes weren’t something that I brought into my work fully formed. They seemed to develop over time, getting more explicit and more deeply entrenched the further I got with my work (I could blame spending too much time alone in archives, but that’s something that all historians have to deal with). I did have some big ideas when I started, otherwise how could I have decided what to research and how to research it? And how could I have won the funding? The biggest idea was showing how logistical factors influenced the outcome of the First Civil War more than battles (what Malcolm Wanklyn more recently dismissed as the “determinist case”). That would involve comparing the royalists and parliamentarians. As it turned out, doing that was more difficult than I imagined because there are so few surviving records for the royalist administration, and the records that do survive are more difficult to find and use than the parliamentarian ones (which bring the opposite problem: too much information). I still tried to do the royalists (partly because I’d made a lot of comparing both sides when I applied for funding), but I could only manage one chapter on them and it wasn’t very good. In spite of that, and my protestations in the introduction, my conclusion asserted that the royalists lost the war because parliament had more resources and more efficient systems for extracting them. So much for no big ideas.
The other big idea was whether the creation of the New Model Army represented continuity or change. It’s true that I wasn’t initially expecting this to be such a major part of my conclusion (although that’s partly down to thinking that comparing both sides would be the big thing) but it hardly jumped out of the records of its own accord. Before I started my research, Frank Tallett encouraged me to make a list of questions that I wanted to answer, and this list did feature “continuity or change”. It was surprising to discover so much continuity between the Earl of Essex’s army and the New Model, but this would not have been particularly meaningful or interesting if it hadn’t been for the context provided by the dialectic between Kishlansky and Gentles.
Despite (or perhaps because of) my stuckism, I produced some very solid empirical work. Although I’m beating myself up over some dubious assumptions and theoretical ignorance, I still think a lot of my thesis stands up well today. Some chapters are weak, but I knew they were weak when I wrote them, and they turned out to be good enough for a pass. I now have doubts about the relationship between text and reality, which I had viewed as unproblematic simply by not thinking about it too much, but my work is a very accurate analysis of the information contained within the sources. Whether or not that information means anything, I developed some very valuable skills which are more relevant than ever thanks to the increasing importance of digitization projects.
I did go through some research training and at least thought a little bit about what I now know is called “epistemology”. If pressed on the issue, my answer would have been that absolute truth is unattainable, but we still have to try and get as close to it as possible. Back then, striving for the unattainable seemed like a good way to live. Reading Camus and Nietzche during my career break didn’t necessarily do much to put me off that idea (although having tried to apply them to a very tedious job in the VAT office, I really can’t imagine Sisyphus happy!). I occasionally had some vaguely Buddhist ideas about achieving a state of perfect objectivity and neutrality by erasing the self. When objectivist historians talk about extinguishing the self, it comes across as being naively unproblematic. To “step outside” seems no more difficult, threatening, or permanent than going into the garden or down to the shops. These days I’d prefer to call it “stepping across”, because like Raskolnikov we might find the process terrifying, counterproductive, and difficult to reverse. Would abandoning our morality and humanity make it easier or harder to understand other humans? Samuel Beckett’s The Unnamable suggests the cosmic horror of a consciousness without any context, floating free of all assumptions and preconceptions (incidentally this book made me particularly receptive to post-structuralism).
Neutrality is really a non-starter whichever way you look at it. History is all about having opinions, but to be truly neutral is to have no opinions. Unless you are even more ignorant and dogmatic than I was six years ago (in which case you probably write for The Daily Telegraph— miaow!), it’s difficult to pretend that any facts are self-evident absolute truths. Empiricists have to make subjective decisions about which facts they consider to be true. If you can’t have opinions, then you can’t evaluate these epistemic probabilities (and rational deduction won’t get you anywhere either, because you won’t be able to decide whether to accept any premises). John Childs (how often does he get mentioned alongside Beckett, Camus, and Nietzche?) said that everything is attritional. I’ve come to see empirical truth as attritional. In practice, the epistemic probability is high enough when you’ve had enough of repeating the experiment, or run out of time or money. Does putting more effort into my research make it more valid than anyone else’s if we still reach the same conclusions? If it’s good enough for most people, and if perfection is unattainable, is it worth trying to make it any better?
Since I started writing this William J. Turkel has also posted about the difficult question of when to stop researching. He sides with the pragmatic view that you can stop when having more information won’t change your conclusions. My first reaction was “how do you know whether information will change your interpretation without reading it?”, but in practice there will often be situations where the likelihood of any amount of information changing your conclusions is small. Like facts, it all comes down to probabilities. You can’t be certain of exactly what information is contained in a document or archive, but you can narrow down the uncertainty and make an educated guess about whether it’s worth looking at. Ultimately every research project has to be carried out within arbitrary limits and brought to an arbitrary end. You can never have complete information.
Anyway, enough of the mea culpa and sixth-form philosophy. I used to have some strange ideas but I got over them (trying to be boring is self-defeating, because I inevitably got bored with it!). These days I’m more interested in getting ahead of fashion than ignoring it, which threatens to lead me into some equally strange ideas. That reminds me, I ought to post more about women having sex with animals, as that seems to be what most of my hits from Google are interested in. Especially the ones from Alabama…