From Thomas L. Haskell, “Objectivity Is Not Neutrality: Rhetoric Vs. Practice In Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream“
I regard Nietzsche‘s attack on asceticism as a cultural calamity, all the more regrettable because of his high seriousness and the brilliance of the assault. Had he directed his wrath merely against Victorian passionlessness there would be no room for complaint, but his ridicule of ascetic values and practices became reckless and indiscriminate, reaching far beyond the foibles of a generation to renunciation itself. Morality is what suffers most from the devaluation of ascetic practices, but such practices are also indispensable to the pursuit of truth. The very possibility of historical scholarship as an enterprise distinct from propaganda requires of its practitioners 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. All of these mental acts – especially coming to grips with a rival’s perspective – require detachment, an undeniably ascetic capacity to achieve some distance from one’s own spontaneous perceptions and convictions, to imagine how the world appears in another’s eyes, to experimentally adopt perspectives that do not come naturally – in the last analysis, to develop, as Thomas Nagel would say, a view of the world in which one’s own self stands not at the center, but appears merely as one object among many.” To be dissatisfied with the view of the world as it initially appears to us, and to struggle to formulate a superior, more inclusive, less self-centered alternative, is to strive for detachment and aim at objectivity. And to turn thus against one’s most natural self- to engage in “this uncanny, dreadfully joyous labor of a soul voluntarily at odds with itself” – is to commit that very sin against the will to power that Nietzsche so irresponsibly comdemned.” Detachment does not promise access to any transcendental realm and always remains, as Nagel says, “under the shadow” of skepticism.” Although it is an ideal and holds out a standard higher than any of us routinely achieve, acceptable performance under its regulative influence does not require superhuman effort. It is that frail and limited but perfectly real power which, for example, permits conscientious scholars to referee one another’s work fairly, to acknowledge merit even in the writings of one’s critics, and successfully to “bend over backwards” when grading students so as not to penalize those holding antagonistic political convictions. We try to exercise this capacity every day; sometimes we succeed, sometimes we fail, and we assign praise and blame to ourselves and others accordingly. It is of course true that we sometimes delude ourselves, developing a pseudo-objective standpoint that functions mainly to obscure choice, shifting responsibility for what we want to do to a seemingly impersonal state of affairs. But to shrug off the capacity for detachment as entirely illusory – to claim that since none of the standpoints the self is capable of imagining are really that of “the other,” but are self-produced (as is certainly the case), and to argue that all viewpoints therefore are indistinguishably contaminated by selfishness or group interest or the omnipresent Nietzschean will- is to turn a blind eye to distinctions that all of us routinely make and confidently act upon, and thereby to blur all that distinguishes villainy from decency, veracity from mendacity, in everyday affairs. Not to mince words, it is to defame the species. Fairness and honesty are qualities we can rightfully demand of human beings, and those qualities require a very substantial measure of self-overcoming – more than could exist if Nietzsche’s hyperbolic and indiscriminate war on asceticism were permitted to triumph. Objectivity is not something entirely distinct from detachment, fairness, and honesty, but the product of extending and elaborating these priceless and fundamentally ascetic virtues.’
If I am correct in thinking that these virtues of self-overcoming already rank high in historians’ practice, that should suffice to show that my strategy of keeping alive the term “objectivity” while ridding it of unwanted connotations is not a matter of appropriating a traditional name as a dignified cover for new practices. The tendency of past generations to associate objectivity with “selflessness,” and to think of truth-seeking as a matter of emptying oneself of passion and preconception, so as to become a perfectly passive and receptive mirror of external reality, has, for good reason, become notorious.” But in valuing (as even Nietzsche did, in his calmer moments) the elementary capacity for self-overcoming, we need not aspire to the unrealistic and undesirable extreme of extinguishing the self or denying that its situation in time and space limits the perspectives available to it.” Likewise, in making detachment a vital criterion of objective thinking, we need not make the still greater error of confusing objectivity with neutrality.
I see nothing to admire in neutrality. My conception of objectivity (which I believe is widely, if tacitly, shared by historians today) is compatible with strong political commitment. It pays no premium for standing in the middle of the road and it recognizes that scholars are as passionate and as likely to be driven by interest as those they write about. It does not value even detachment as an end in itself, but only as an indispensable prelude or preparation for the achievement of higher levels of understanding – higher not in the sense of ascending to a more spiritual plane, where the concerns of the soul displace those of the body, as an earlier generation might have understood it, but higher in Nagel’s sense of being more complete, more cognizant of that most powerful of all the world’s illusory appearances, which is that the world centers on me (or those with whom I choose to identify) and that what matters to me (or us) is paramount.