Reading response rotation
January 23, February 6, February 20
Rachel, Travis, Tim, Erik, Shoguna

January 30, February 13, February 27
Philip, Keith, Andrew, Tom, Jonathan
Philosophy 465, Winter 2007


If history is, as many claim, "rewritten by every generation of historians," what sort of understanding does it provide of the past? What constitutes historical evidence and how does it constrain historical understanding? Do historians seek "explanations" of the past or are their aims different from those of the sciences? If their accounts take a distinctively narrative form, how does historical narrative differ from fictional narrative? These are some of the questions that animate philosophical debate about history. Underlying them is a perennial anxiety that has been as much a concern for practicing historians as for philosophers: a concern about whether, or in what sense, claims about the historical past can be considered "objective." Questions of objectivity in history are the focus of this seminar.

In this seminar we will consider these questions from two perspectives: that of historians themselves, as they debate methodological issues and disagreements about the aim(s) of their discipline, and that of philosophical analysts whose interest in history typically focuses on its relationship to the sciences. The central text in the first half of the quarter is That Noble Dream (1988), Peter Novick's history of objectivist ideals as they have been embraced and contested by practicing historians since the turn of the century. We juxtapose selections from That Noble Dream with examples of philosophical analyses of historical explanation and narrative that illustrate how philosophers have responded to the debates about objectivity documented by Novick.

In the second half of the quarter we consider a range of responses to what Novick describes as "the objectivity crisis" in history. The problem with which both historians and philosophers now grapple is that of making sense of the situated, standpoint-specific nature of historical claims and narratives without losing sight of the empirical constraints imposed by systematic historical inquiry. Schama's Dead Certainties is a deliberately provocative history that transgresses the boundaries between historical and fictional narrative. Trouillot responds to the challenge posed by an uncompromising constructionism in Silencing the Past in a way that brings back into focus the strategies of evidiential reasoning that historians use to construct and to adjudicate historical claims; we consider his recommendations in relation to Collingwood's influential account of historical evidence as outlined in The Idea of History and in his discussion of the "logic of question and answer". We close the quarter with a chapter from Hacking's The Social Construction of What? (1999) that provides a philosophical rationale for reframing the stark oppositions—constructionist and objectivist—that dominate debate about the status of historical knowledge.


The following texts have been ordered through the Unviersity bookstore. Assigned readings not drawn from these texts are available electronically; check the "Readings" folder (top left).

  • Novick, Peter. That Noble Dream: The 'Objectivity Question' and the American Historical Profession. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.
  • Schama, Simon. Dead Certainties (Uwarranted Speculations). New York: Random House, 1991.
  • Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. Boston: Beacon Press, 1995.


January 16: "Nailing Jelly to the Wall": Disambiguating objectivity
  • Novick, Peter. 1988. That Noble Dream. "Introduction" and Part I, Ch. 1 (pp. 1-46).
  • Daston, Lorraine. 1992. Objectivity and the Escape from Perspective. Social Studies of Science 22:597-618.
  • Megill, Allan. 1994. Four Senses of Objectivity. In Rethinking Objectivity. A. Megill, ed. Pp. 1-20. Durham NC: Duke University Press.

January 23: Historical ideals of objectivity in formation
  • Novick, Peter. 1988. That Noble Dream. Part I, Ch. 4; Part II, Ch. 5, 6, and 9 (pp. 86-110; 111-168, 250-280).
  • Becker, Carl L. 1931. Everyman His Own Historian. The American Historical Review 37(2):22-236.
  • Beard, Charles A. 1935. Written History as an Act of Faith. The American Historical Reivew 39(2):219-229.
  • Recommended: Dray, William. 1980. Charles Beard and the Search for the Past as it Actually Was. In Perspectives on History. W. Dray, ed. Pp. 27-46. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
  • Beard, Charles A. 1935. That Noble Dream. The American Historical Review 41(1):74-87.
  • Becker, Carl L. 1958. What are Historical Facts? In Detachment and the Writing of History. Pp. 41-64. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

January 30: Objectivity in question
  • Novick, Peter. 1988. That Noble Dream. Part III, Ch. 10 and 12, sections III-IV (pp. 281-319, 387-411).
  • A selection from the following:
  • Hempel, C. G. 1942. The Function of General Laws in History. Journal of Philosophy 39:35-48.
  • White, Morton. 1963. The Logic of Historical Narration. In Philosophy and History: A Symposium. S. Hook, ed. Pp. 3-31. New York: New York University Press.
  • Mandelbaum, Maurice. 1963. Objectivism in History. In Philosophy and History: A Symposium. S. Hook, ed. Pp. 43-56. New York: New York University.
  • White, Morton. 1949. Can History be Objective? In Social Thought in America: The Revolt Against Formalism. M. G. White, ed. Pp. 220-235. New York: Viking Press.

February 6: Interpretative pluralism
  • Novick, Peter. 1988. That Noble Dream. Part IV, Ch. 15 sections I-III, and 16, section III (pp. 522-563, 593-629).
  • A selection from the following:
  • White, Hayden. 1986. Historical Pluralism. Critical Inquiry 12(3):480-493.
  • -----. 1972. Interpretation in History. New Literary History 4(2): 281-314.
  • Rorty, Richard. 1985. Solidarity or Objectivity? In Post-Analytic Philosophy. J. Rajchman and C. West, eds. Pp. 3-19. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Goodman, Nelson. 1988. 'Just the Facts, Ma'am!' In Relativism: Interpretation and Confrontation. Pp. 80-85. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.
  • Nagel, Thomas. 1979. Subjective and Objective. Mortal Questions. Pp. 196-213. Cambridge University Press.

February 13: Fact and fiction
  • Schama, Simon. 1991. Dead Certainties (Unwarranted Speculations). Part I, The Many Deaths of General Wolfe; Afterword (pp. 3-70, 319-326).
  • Stout, Cushing. 1992. Border Crossings: History, Fiction, and Dead Certainties. History and Theory 31:153-162.

February 20: Evidential reasoning
  • Carr, Edward Hallett. 1961. The Historian and His Facts. In What Is History? Pp. 3-35. New York: Random House.
  • Collingwood, R. G. 1939. Question and Answer. In An Autobiography. Pp. 29-42. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • ----. 1946. Historical Evidence. In The Idea of History. Pp. 249-280. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Recommended: Lowenthal, David. 1985. How We Know the Past. In The Past is a Foreign Country. Pp. 185-260. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

February 27:
  • Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. 1995 Silencing the Past. Ch. 1, 2, and 3 (pp. 1-106).
  • Recommended: Lowenthal, David. 1985. How We Know the Past. In The Past is a Foreign Country. Pp. 185-260. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

March 6:
  • Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. 1995 Silencing the Past. Ch. 5 and Epilogue. (pp. 141-155).
  • Hacking, Ian. 1999. Why Ask What? In The Social Construction of What? Pp. 1-34. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.


Seminar participation and presentations
(15% of the final grade)
  • Active participation in seminar discussion is required.
  • Come each week with two focused questions on issues raised by the assigned readings; in weeks when you have a reading response due your comments and questions will be the point of departure for seminar discussion.
Reading Response Papers (25% of the final grade)
Every second week prepare a 1-2 page response paper on one of the assigned readings (bring enough copies to class to circulate to everyone); these reading responses will be the basis for seminar discussion.

(60% of the final grade)
Your major assignment is a 3000 word (approximately 12 page) term paper in which you develop a carefully argued position on one of the issues raised by the assigned readings and discussed in the course of the semester. Here is the timetable for developing this paper:
  • identify a topic and be prepared to describe it in the seminar meeting of January 30;
  • draft a 1-2 page abstract that includes an outline of your argument and an annotated bibliography for February 13;
  • finalize your paper for submission at the end of classes, on Friday, March 9.
General guidelines
  • Essays should be submitted in hard copy to the Philosophy office by 5:00 on the date they are due.
  • Late assignments will be accepted only in cases of medical emergency or personal/family crisis.
  • Incompletes will be granted in accordance with UW policy: you are eligible for an incomplete in cases of medical emergency or personal/family crisis; you must request an incomplete two weeks before the end of the quarter, and you must have completed all assignments that have come due up to that point.