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Mark Noll



The prominence of history in the twentieth century's shooting wars, as well as in its culture wars, is indisputable. To be sure, it is good to remember that conflict over the meaning of the past usually does not lead directly to armed battle. Yet it is also important to recognize that historical arguments help sustain most of the modern world's major conflicts, armed or not. To whom does Palestine (or the Sudatenland or Kashmir or Mongolia or Kosovo or the Falkland Islands) really belong? What did the Founding Fathers intend as the criterion for impeachment? Was the United States once more moral than it is now? Were women better off before the pill (or World War II or the vote or the Industrial Revolution)?

While contending parties in these and many other arguments offer claims and counterclaims based on historical evidence, radical postmodernist critics have called into question the very belief that history can ever resolve important problems of the present. History, in a radical view, is just window dressing to mask the means by which the powerful hold power. It is no more than human creative imagination exercised upon the miscellaneous detritus surviving from prior generations as supposed "facts."

For the most part, practicing historians possess neither the patience nor the philosophical acumen to take up such global challenges to their discipline. One historian who does possess those virtues, however, is Thomas Haskell of Rice University. His book Objectivity Is Not Neutrality deserves special attention, for it is the most sophisticated contribution by a historian to the contemporary debate over the nature of historical knowledge. At bottom, that debate persistently circles the questions "Did it really happen?" and "Did it really mean something?" The other books examined in this essay all defend in one way or another the possibility of answering those questions in the affirmative. Christian believers have as much to learn from Haskell's careful pragmatism as they do from the surprising religious conclusions of those who defend objective historical knowledge.


Haskell describes himself as a pragmatist along the lines of Charles Sanders Peirce, who at the beginning of the twentieth century outlined procedures by which properly trained communities of acknowledged experts might, through a progress of mutual debate, make genuine progress toward discovering real knowledge in the spheres of their expertise. Haskell identifies his position as being less secure (that is, more pragmatic) than one championing knowledge as a reflection of necessary truths of reason, which he identifies with Plato and the modern savant Leo Strauss. But on the other side, Haskell is very keen to distinguish his "moderate historicism" from what he describes as the radical historicism of Nietzsche, Richard Rorty, and Stanley Fish, where "truth" in principle can be no more than what I and my friends can accept.

Haskell's assessment of the Realist (Platonic) and Anti-Realist (Nietzsche an) alternatives to his position are bracing because of the scrupulous care he takes in outlining his opponents' positions, the cautious claims he makes for his own views, and, not least, his willingness to concede that the polar positions he rejects solve some problems his own position cannot fully handle. Haskell's mediating view rests on his belief that certain kinds of well-de bated "conventions" provide enough stability for moral practice and his confidence that "communities of the competent" do in fact make progress through their internal arguments to ward a genuine but never fully realized truth.

Haskell's two primary case studies for presenting this opinion are in his titles, "The Curious Persistence of Rights Talk in an Age of Interpretation" and "Justifying Academic Freedom in the Era of Power/Knowledge." In both cases, Haskell defends nonuniversal, pragmatic standards of truth and morality as a way of maintaining liberal standards of "right" and unfettered academic inquiry. This defense involves response to what he treats as a rear-guard action and a frontal assault. The rear-guard action is the claim of moral absolutists like Strauss that any concession to historicism is fatal to real truth and genuine morality. The frontal assault, to which Haskell devotes his greatest energy, comes from the postmodernisms represented in various forms by Rorty, Fish, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Hans Kellner, and the like. From Foucault, Haskell draws the neologism "Power/Knowledge" to de fine what he considers the profoundly menacing assault on academic freedom mounted by constructivist ideology.

Haskell brought his moderate historicism to bear most directly on history-writing in the essay for which the book is titled, a lengthy assessment of Peter Novick's volume from 1988, That Noble Dream: The "Objectivity Question" in the American Historical Profession. In this remarkable book, Novick painstakingly exposed what he regarded as a devastating contradiction between statements made by the founders and major figures of professional historical study in the United States in praise of "objectivity," and their ongoing, persistent, and even duplicitous advocacy on behalf of all sorts of political, ethnic, ideological, and institutional causes. Novick's own conclusions moved in a postmodernist direction by asserting that such a massive contradiction showed how self-deluding high ideals of objective historical truth actually were.

In response, Haskell tries to show that Novick's own work in researching and narrating the contradiction was the best possible proof, not for Novick's stated skepticism, but for Haskell's own "moderate historicism." In other words, even if famous historians have been swayed by their interests, that means only that the search for historical truth in which they are engaged is always in need of reform, improvement, and clarification. It does not mean that if historians fall short of "neutrality," they cannot still pursue "objectivity." Haskell describes quite clearly the kind of objectivity that he feels does, and must, survive: "that vital minimum of ascetic self-discipline that enables a person to do such things as abandon wishful thinking, assimilate bad news, discard pleasing interpretations that cannot pass elementary tests of evidence and logic, and, most important of all, suspend or bracket one's own perceptions long enough to enter sympathetically into the alien and possibly repugnant perspectives of rival thinkers." It is indeed a noble ideal.

But does it really work? Haskell's arguments in Objectivity Is Not Neutrality are a direct stimulus for Christian reflection. He has given up on the notion of Truth arising from permanent Reality. Although he does not bother to argue the case explicitly here, the notion of a divinely revealed standard of Truth equally applicable in all times and places would almost certainly be just as unacceptable to Haskell as the Platonic or Straussian Realism he respectfully rejects. At the same time, he makes a heroic effort to show that giving up such foundations does not necessarily mean an embrace of postmodernist relativism. Christian believers who think that doing away with such foundations leads irresistibly to the abyss will almost certainly have as much to ponder from Haskell, who thinks one can maintain morality and the rule of law pragmatically, without metaphysical foundations, as from Haskell's Nietzschean opponents, who—at least when framing this issue—agree with the Christian absolutists. Except, of course, that what Christian absolutists read as "descending into the abyss" becomes for the Nietzscheans "emerging into a mature human condition."

Haskell's pragmatic arguments for moral stability and his pragmatic defense of reliable historical knowledge are superlative statements. They present secular, but traditional, reasons for continuing with the ordinary aspirations of professional historians to get the story straight and to construct narratives with enough self-disclosure about personal biases and standpoints so that critical exchange can continue at two levels—over whether what historians assert to be facts really are facts, and over whether properly ascertained facts really do support the larger narrative conclusions for which historians put them to use.

Serious questions nevertheless remain. To his great credit, Haskell understands and is willing to state frankly the most serious objection to his own project. That objection is Haskell's inability to demonstrate the validity of his kind of moderate historicism. Rather, "the plain truth is that no one at present can offer any entirely satisfactory justification for the idea of a right, or for the larger and even more vital notion on which it depends, the idea of objective moral obligation."

Still, the best Haskell can do is not too bad. Dialogue among certified experts—"convergence-oriented confrontation," in Haskell's phrase—yields ever more precise knowledge, and for working on problems like setting a broken bone, fixing a balky carburetor, or making sure your company's UNIX will fire up on January 1, 2000, "communities of the competent" have proven their worth many times over.

Haskell's moderate historicism also works well in the harder sciences, though this is a more controversial assertion. He is almost certainly correct in arguing that Thomas Kuhn regarded his own depiction of "paradigms" and "scientific revolution" as a "moderate historicist" analysis rather than the radical proposal that others have taken Kuhn to advocate. Haskell quotes to good effect an unpublished rejoinder of Kuhn to Richard Rorty in which Kuhn defends a properly humble notion of scientific "objectivity." Kuhn summed up his objection to Rorty in words that showed how clearly he linked the retention of epistemological realism to moral realism: "What I fear are at tempts to separate language or discourse from the real and to do so in the name of freedom." For his part, Haskell seems on pretty secure ground in aligning him self with the moderate, instead of the radical, Kuhn, at least when it comes to the questions in physics and chemistry that Kuhn's influential book set out to address.

Yet on other—what might be called "softer" but also "deeper"—problems, it is not as clear that "communities of the competent" deserve to be accorded the expertise they claim, nor is it clear that their confrontations with each other converge on anything but a figment of academic imaginations. As a historian, I do better with examples than principles, so consider these cases.

In the mid-1980s, I met a Romanian Baptist who, after having been expelled from his country, was occupying his time in the United States raising money. The money was going toward the translation of English-language theological books into Romanian. What, I asked innocently, are the chances of ever getting to distribute these books in Romania, which at the time was locked up even tighter than the Soviet Union against such religious contraband. The reply was ebullient: "Communism is dead! Ceausescu is history! The collapse could happen any day!"

I thought my friend was mad. And the reason I thought he was mad paralleled exactly the reasons Haskell sets out for believing the theory of evolution. He explains that his belief "in evolution rests on no firmer basis than deference to expert authority." Haskell admits that, like most of the rest of us, he has no firsthand knowledge of the fossil record or of biologists' debates leading to modern evolutionary theory. He is then entirely candid about why he believes the theory:

Many imagine that the story of divine creation is intrinsically less plausible than evolution. … I am not persuaded. The compelling quality they attribute to the idea of natural selection itself, I would attribute instead to the institutional arrangements that have succeeded in making belief in evolution a recognized badge of intelligence and educational attainment in our culture . …We believe because we trust biologists.

In my case, I thought the Romanian was mad, not because I had been to Eastern Europe and knew the situation firsthand, but because I regularly read what widely recognized representatives of "communities of the competent" wrote in the New York Review of Books, the New York Times, and other middle-brow popularizations about the stability of the Soviet system and how many decades it would take for European communist regimes to evolve toward democracy. In this case, however, the madman was converging on the truth like a bullet, while the "communities of the competent" didn't have a clue. Someone totally excluded from the ranks of "the competent" got right what almost all of "the competent" got wrong.

What I take from this incident is the fact that "communities of the competent" sometimes do not deserve the deference they are accorded, and that the confident assertions of Sovietologists concern a different and much more complex level of reality than assertions by biologists about alterations over time in patterns of DNA (I don't raise here what strikes me as Haskell's false disjunction between evolution and divine Creation.) For issues like understanding the deep inner working of human societies—is sues, that is, coming closer to potential moral norms—self-ascribed "competence" is not necessarily as impressive as it is among physicists and astronomers.

Then there are issues affecting human existence at its most profound levels that everyone recognizes as moral, but also as not unconnected to realms of more prosaic fact. Is homosexual practice in some cases natural and beneficial for human flourishing or not? Is abortion part of a universal right of women to control their own bodies or not? (Haskell's brief discussion of abortion, which he calls "the most tragic collision of rights in our era," is subtle and filled with painful wisdom.) Does greater involvement by the federal government in the running of local schools help students? help society? promote fairness, or not?

On such questions, it is not clear to me that Haskell's pragmatic recourse to "convergence-oriented confrontation" within "communities of the competent" is a helpful strategy for getting at the truth, however modestly defined. For such issues, different communities de fine "competence" in very different ways. In debate over such issues, "competence" becomes a partisan, parochial, self-congratulating designation rather than a widely shared recognition of expertise. (In my case, for example, I am a member of a community that automatically considers someone in competent as an authority on abortion who does not accord human rights to the unborn child, described eloquently by Haskell as "a being unquestionably on the path to personhood.")

In these instances, the only confrontation aimed at finding out the truth is between antagonistically defined communities of the competent. Moreover, this heightened competition does not converge on truth; in fact, it often moves in the other direction. Because of antagonism between communities, confrontation within communities is stifled rather than encouraged, as anyone knows who wants to promote the pro-life stance at the Democratic National Convention or speak up for abortion as a regrettably worst-choice alternative at a meeting of the Christian Coalition. Competition over such issues leads only to conquest of one community by the other or, at best, a truce where the search for a generally accepted truth is abandoned in order to preserve civil peace.

Pragmatic trust in what communities of the competent discover about some historical questions seems fully justified. Questions like why the patriots won the Revolution, why the North won the Civil War, or why the Serbs attacked Kosovo all yield answers converging on the truth, as diligent researchers share their conclusions with others who have read a lot of books and visited the archives, and then refine their views in open debate with each other. That process will not yield absolute, complete truth, but it can certainly clarify the actual effects on historically verifiable events of realities like the length of supply lines, morale at the home front, the goals combatants were seeking in taking up arms, and so on.

The potentially truthful results of investigating such questions, however, remain at a middle level. Once moving on to questions of a different, but no less important, sort, the pragmatic approach does not seem as helpful. For example, was the American Revolution a just war? Did Lincoln's end (to win the war) justify his means (suspending habeas corpus)? Is Milosevic a butcher in attempting to cleanse Kosovo of the Kosovars? On such questions, "community," "competence," and "convergence" once again fail. While pragmatic answers might have something to offer such "higher" questions, answering these questions fully requires metaphysical commitments. What is needed, along with competent procedures for gathering factual data, are metaphysical positions concerning notions of justice, the well-being of constitutional societies, or ethnic solidarity.

These questions lead into the realm that postmodernist critics call the en tire "historical text" or "narrative substance." In the face of radical arguments directed against Haskell's notion of pragmatic truth—and especially in light of how clearly good historians like Peter Novick have documented the stunning, long-enduring self-deceptions of "communities of the competent"—Haskell's kind of pragmatic truth does not seem to have much staying force. Haskell tellingly criticizes Richard Rorty's willingness to base epistemology on what Rorty and the "we" of his particular circle will allow themselves to maintain. It is hard to see, however, how Haskell's communities of the competent, at least when working on basic, morally laden questions, are more than a minimal expansion of the select circle of Rorty's self-designated arbiters of what is true.

Despite Haskell's diligent effort to define a "moderate historicism" distinguished clearly from the radical historicism of postmodernism, the actual choices, at least for many important historical as well as moral questions, may genuinely lie between the uncompromising absolutists and the uncompromising relativists. A believer committed to the moral and historical realism of classical Christian tradition might at this point wish to employ Haskell's categories and urge him to give Plato another look. For such a believer, especially one who thinks the current history wars are important, that wish leads naturally to the authors who wish to conquer rather than just deflect the postmodernist hordes.


It is not surprising that vigorous, well-publicized, and pyrotechnically spectacular assertions of avant-garde theorists have engendered a whole literature of rebuttal. That literature now includes responses firing away at many of the salients in the postmodernist line, including the books by historians reviewed in the previous article in this series. Other warriors, however, have been busy in the bomb factory of argument. They are the ones whom traditional Christians will probably read with greatest anticipation, since the Christian stake would seem to be best served by compelling defenses of a robust realism, both moral and historical, that goes like this: because we can know the past reliably and because the postmodernist positions are simply wrong, we can be assured that divine revelation has really occurred and that we may live confidently today because we have certain knowledge about the ongoing effects of that revelation.

Three books do not a universe make, but the works by Gross and Levitt, Murphey, and Mohanty did come in over the transom, as it were, without conscious preselection on my part. For Christians who desire sturdy defenses of historical certainty, the striking similarity of main points in these three books may be an eye-opener:

  • All three offer a vigorous response to postmodernist challenges.
  • All three mount a vigorous reassertion of the possibilities of objective knowledge and certain truth in traditional senses of those terms.
  • All three present a vigorous, if also very casual, dismissal of anything even vaguely reminiscent of historical Christianity.

Gross, a former director of the Woods Hole Marine Biology Lab, and Levitt, a math professor from Rutgers, wade in with a blunderbuss as they blast away at Foucault, radical feminists, AIDS activists, everyone in the cultural-studies crowd who was taken in by the Great Sokal Hoax, and others identified as part of the "academic Left." A special target is Thomas Kuhn and those who use Kuhn to depict the results of scientific research as no more than relativistic reflections of the social or ideological assumptions of a particular time and place.

In one of their most interesting arguments, Gross and Levitt contend that the widely praised volume on seventeenth-century science, Leviathan and the Air Pump (1985), by Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer, does not deserve its high reputation. Through careful research into the social connections of the main players in the emergence of early modern science, that book highlighted the social and cultural reasons why a system of mathematics proposed by Thomas Hobbes never caught on and why the mechanics of Sir Isaac Newton did. In reality, Gross and Levitt suggest, Hobbes's math lost out because it was crummy math, not because he was an atheist whose atheism made the powers-that-be nervous. Likewise, Newton's science gained acceptance not because he was a member of the elite Royal Society or be cause his cosmology reinforced the ruling aspirations of the Anglican clergy, but because it actually provided a much more accurate account of how the physical world really worked than any other theories on offer at the time.

Higher Superstition moves rapidly from theme to theme, taking no prisoners and leaving no doubt about the authors' thesis—science deserves the respect it once enjoyed universally, not because it is ever perfect or complete, but because it genuinely advances human knowledge about a world that is really out there. Historians who have been discombobulated by losing the anchor of scientific certitude may, it seems, breathe easily once again.

The goals of Murray G. Murphey, a distinguished historian of American philosophy as well as a consequential philosopher in his own right, are much less swashbuckling. His arguments are rifle shots aimed at analytical philosophers who call into question the possibility of reliable scientific knowledge, historical knowledge, or both. They are directed in large part against W. V. Quine's assertion about the impossibility of executing satisfying translations between human languages and against Quine's "Underdetermination Thesis" (an argument that there is no necessary connection between supposedly well-developed scientific statements and a corresponding real world). With great care and unusually clear reasoning, Murphey defends "our current notion of human history," which he spells out helpfully as made up of the following propositions:

(1) There is a real world of which true knowledge is possible.

(2) There are other persons who have minds.

(3) It is possible for one person to know what another person thinks.

(4) A language spoken by one person can be correctly interpreted by someone from outside that linguistic community, and a text in one language can be translated into an approximately equivalent text in another language of comparable resources.

(5) There exists a past in which human beings lived and acted.

(6) We can have some accurate knowledge of the past.

(7) Members of one culture can understand members of other cultures, including members of antecedent states of their own culture.

(8) Human action is causally explainable.

In company with most other historians, I am not competent to judge Murphey's closely reasoned analytical defense of these propositions. But he does seem to make trenchant responses to Quine's skeptical assertions about scientific knowledge. In addition, if Murphey does not develop reasons for why renewed confidence in the reliability of scientific knowledge should transfer automatically into providing the same kind of confidence for historical knowledge, he does nevertheless rebut many skeptical assertions about both kinds of knowledge. If he is correct, Murphey's book (like Gross and Levitt's) should restore confidence that what historians provide are potentially true accounts of how evidence currently at hand provides reliable knowledge about past situations (including cause and effect relations) that really did take place.

Satya Mohanty's defense of historical realism ends in the same place, but by traversing a very different route. Mohanty, an Indian-born professor of English at Cornell University, is distressed by the postmodernist challenges, not because they are too radical in principle, but because they abandon what Mohanty considers the necessary goals of a genuine multiculturalism. As Mohanty sees the problem, "this skeptical stance and the constructivist theoretical view that underlies or accompanies it are no longer adequate for progressive politics." Mohanty has no difficulty conceding that knowledge is socially constructed. But, in a rough summary of his complex argument, he holds that rational human agency exists in all cultures and can therefore be used as the foundation of truly objective knowledge and of universal moral truths. The result is a postpositivist, theory-dependent notion of potentially universal truth.

All three books, thus, promote realistic theories about the relationship of human minds to external realities, including realities testified to by the kind of evidence that historians commonly exploit. They are agreed that, at the end of the day, we do not construct knowledge (or at least, only construct knowledge), we discover it (or, at least, decisive portions of it). Humans do not fabricate moral universals that may be relevant to historical knowledge; instead, they discover them.

It is not difficult to provide a Christian spin to the conclusions of these three books. For Gross and Levitt, since God created the physical world and God created the human mind, it is God who guarantees that our minds may successfully learn about the physical world through scientific means. For Murphey, since the real world of human interaction originated in the creative acts of God, and since God has shared some of his own capacity for comprehension with humanity, historical knowledge is at least possible. For Mohanty, since God made all the peoples on the face of the earth, apprehending their wide diversity will not run out into situational relativism, but will reveal something essential (be cause God-given) about all humanity and likewise provide a moral course of action in order to bestow on all humans the dignity they deserve as God's creatures.

Unfortunately, these authors would find such Christian spinning patronizingly offensive. Gross and Levitt, for example, go out of their way to sneer at thinkers like Phillip Johnson and Michael Behe, who promote the idea of Intelligent Design. To Gross and Levitt, the "pseudo-scholarly" opinions of the Intelligent Design theorists are just another case of special pleading, on a par with the extreme ideological postmodernism their book attacks so enthusiastically. For his part, Murphey asserts that while Thomas Kuhn's notion of culturally constructed paradigms does not really work with respect to science, which after all does concern a domain that really exists, culturally determined paradigms in fact describe very well the realm of theology, where "one finds … a constant proliferation of empirically equivalent but incompatible and irreconcilable theories—an evolution characterized by ever-diverging and exclusive research traditions." In other words, as Murphey sees it, theology is all over the place because there is no external reality to govern the speculations of the theologians. Mohanty is less directly dismissive of Christianity, but only because it falls so far beneath his intellectual horizon. For his goal of constructing "an adequate materialist epistemology" and showing "how the oppressed may have epistemic privilege," theisms of any sort are simply irrelevant.

If these vigorous defenses of objective truth and the reliability of historical knowledge also include vigorous rejections of classical Christianity, it does not necessarily mean that Christians err in trying to shore up what postmodernists undermine. Nonetheless, the frank antitheism of some capable defenders of objective truth does perhaps suggest that Christian efforts at assessing the various forms of postmodernism should be drawn from inner resources of the Christian faith more than from the battle plans of potential allies. Such battle plans include the sort of land mines that might do as much damage to friendlies as to foes.

An offhand comment from the postmodernist critic Frank Ankersmit contains chilling implications for believers who cannot imagine a sturdy Christian faith without the traditional foundations of Western objective certitude:

I have never been able to worry seriously about relativism or subjectivism. As [Richard] Bernstein, in my view, convincingly demonstrated in his Beyond Objectivism and Relativism [1983] relativism is a spin-off of positivism in each of its many variants. So if you have no positivist aspirations, then relativism is a nonproblem for you.1

My own conviction is that Christianity definitely does entail a realistic stance toward the world. But if Ankersmit's assertion is true, it may be that responsible Christian realism should not be tied as closely to modern forms of positivist argument for such realism as Christian defenders of objectivity sometimes assume.

1. In Eva Domanska, ed., Encounters: Philosophy of History After Postmodernism (Univ. Press of Virginia, 1998), p. 95.

In the November/December issue: the next, and last, installment of this series seeks a "Truce of God" for modern history wars.

Mark Noll is McManis Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College.


Thomas L. Haskell, Objectivity Is Not Neutrality: Explanatory Schemes in History (Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1998); 426 pp., $35.95.

Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt, Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science (Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2nd ed., 1998); 328 pp., $16.95, paper.

Murray G. Murphey, Philosophical Foundations of Historical Knowledge (State Univ. of New York Press, 1994); 344 pp., $74.50, hardcover; $24.95, paper.

Satya P. Mohanty, Literary Theory and the Claims of History: Postmodernism, Objectivity, Multicultural Politics (Cornell Univ. Press, 1997); 260 pp., $39.95, hardcover; $15.95, paper.

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