Objectivity and the First Law of History Writing

In: Journal of the Philosophy of History
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  • 1 University of Brasília

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Cicero once stressed as the first law of history that “the historian must not dare to tell any falsehood.” This precept entails a minimal ethical requirement that remains unscathed by the whirlpools of epistemic relativism that have called many other aspects of professional historians’ practice into question in the last century or so. No commendable scholar seems willing to invalidate Cicero’s first law, and dependable scholarship—whether relying on objectivity-friendly or objectivity-hostile theoretical assumptions—follows shared standards of integrity and accuracy with which someone from Cicero’s time, for instance, would never be able to comply. In this essay, I suggest that those two circumstances should dispose us more favorably toward a refreshed notion of historical objectivity pointing not only to epistemology but also to professional ethics. I address the condemnation of lying and, more generally, historians’ commitment to sincerity as a way to highlight the ethical dimension of history writing. By focusing on the deep but underexplored moral roots of objectivity, I argue that this concept is still very useful as both an analytical tool and a normative ideal. Objectivity, in the sense I underline here, does not stand in opposition to subjectivity—on the contrary, it is actually tied up with subjective dispositions, virtues, and skills that help shape responsible historiography.