How The Historians Do It

The Canadian Political Science Association’s Committee on Professional Ethics, now pondering the regulation of  members’ conduct, has turned up this statement  from the American Historical Association (AHA).

“Among the core principles of the historical profession that can seem counterintuitive to non-historians is the conviction, very widely if not universally shared among historians since the nineteenth century, that practicing history with integrity does not mean being neutral or having no point of view. Every work of history articulates a particular, limited perspective on the past. Historians hold this view not because they believe that all interpretations are equally valid, or that nothing can ever be known about the past, or that facts do not matter. Quite the contrary. History would be pointless if such claims were true, since its most basic premise is that within certain limits we can indeed know and make sense of past worlds and former times that now exist only as remembered traces in the present…

“Multiple conflicting perspectives are among the truths of history. No single objective or universal account could ever put an end to this endless creative dialogue within and between the past and the present …

“What is true of history is also true of historians. Everyone who comes to the study of history brings with them a host of identities, experiences, and interests that cannot help but affect the questions they ask of the past and the answers they wish to know. When applied with integrity and self-critical fair-mindedness, the political, social, and religious beliefs of historians can appropriately inform their historical practice. Because the questions we ask profoundly shape everything we do – the topics we investigate, the evidence we gather, the arguments we construct, the stories we tell – it is inevitable that different historians will produce different histories. …

“Frustrating as these disagreements and uncertainties may be even for historians, they are an irreducible feature of the discipline. In contesting each other’s interpretations, professional historians recognize that the resulting disagreements can deepen and enrich historical understanding by generating new questions, new arguments, and new lines of investigation. This crucial insight underpins some of the most important shared values that define the professional conduct of historians. They believe in vigorous debate, but they also believe in civility. They rely on their own perspectives as they probe the past for meaning, but they also subject those perspectives to critical scrutiny by testing them against the views of others.

“Historians celebrate intellectual communities governed by mutual respect and constructive criticism. The preeminent value of such communities is reasoned discourse – the continuous colloquy among historians holding diverse points of view who learn from each other as they pursue topics of mutual interest. A commitment to such discourse – balancing fair and honest criticism with tolerance and openness to different ideas – makes possible the fruitful exchange of views, opinions, and knowledge.”

A thoughtful assertion, beautifully expressed. It appears on page 18 of the Report of the CPSA Committee on Professional Ethics, which is available on the CPSA web site.

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