Modern Historical Ethics

A great “historian” once wrote these words:

To give a general picture of human nature and its rational functions will be the task of the following books. The truth of a description which must be largely historical may not be indifferent to the reader, and I shall study to avoid bias in the presentation, in so far as is compatible with frankness and brevity; yet even if some bias should manifest itself and if the picture were historically false, the rational principles we shall be trying to illustrate will not thereby be invalidated.

Yes, here we have the foundational ethic for modern historians, teachers, journalists, and scientists:

Even if bias is obvious in your narrative and it is historically false, it doesn’t matter, since that would not invalidate the principles illustrated by the narrative.

If you think that is true, then you should consider teaching history in public school.

[Quotation is from p. 290-291 of the first edition of Reason in Common Sense (1905), volume 1 of The Life of Reason.]

Furthermore . . .

By the way, this is not the only place where we find this sentiment expressed by this author. It is also in Dominations and Powers on pages 194-195, and Scepticism and Animal Faith on page 253 (page numbers are for the first editions).

It is not as unusual as one might expect. Among historians and history professors, there is a certain disrespect for those who merely work with historical documents, transcribing or editing the text:  They are “just editors” and therefore unworthy because they don’t use their “historical imagination” to create a compelling narrative.

Likewise, literature professors despise the pedantry of “cubbyhole editors” because they focus on silly things like accurate quotations, correct grammar, and consistent usage of terms, instead of looking beyond the sloppy writing and affirming the author’s “voice” and “unique self-expression.”

I have seen a similar condescension from theoretical physicists and evolutionary biologists toward scientists who concentrate on observation and data collection, without extrapolating broad unsupportable generalizations. Such science is sneeringly called “stamp collecting” because it deals only with observable facts. When such science leads to useful technological advances, it is even less respected, because it is only fit for “technicians.”

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7 thoughts on “Modern Historical Ethics

  1. Well, he was actually a philosopher, so we would expect him to end up focusing on his own thought process. The problem is with all the amateur philosophers posing as historians, teachers, journalists, and scientists.

  2. Hello Dave. I hoped you had a great Thanksgiving. I’m sorry I haven’t kept in touch with your posts lately; a lot of other things have demanded my attention. But I promise to read!

    I also wanted to let you know that the theme for FFQF this month is “authority for virtue.” In other words, we will be looking at the Founders’ words on what is the authority that tells us what is right and wrong. To clarify, quotes that have a bearing on the following questions would fit under this theme: Is it (moral authority) reason? Is it religion, and if so, which one? Is it philosophy? Or do absolutes even exist?

    I know this last month’s theme was a bit difficult, but I hope that this one will not be so difficult, and that you will have the opportunity to join us!

    ~Hercules Mulligan

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