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Haskell 1990 – history professor at Rice University (May, Thomas, History and Theory, 29.2, “Objectivity is Not Neutrality: Rhetoric vs. Practice in Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream”, p. 129-157)
Detachment functions in this manner not by draining us of passion, but by helping to channel our intellectual passions in such a way as to insure collision with rival perspectives. In that collision, if anywhere, our thinking transcends both the idiosyncratic and the conventional. Detachment both socializes and deparochializes the work of intellect; it is the quality that fits an individual to participate fruitfully in what is essentially a communal enterprise. Objectivity is so much a product of social arrangements that individuals and particular opinions scarcely deserve to be called objective, yet the social arrangements that foster objectivity have no basis for existence apart from individual striving for detachment. Only insofar as the members of the community are disposed to set aside the perspective that comes most spontaneously to them, and strive to see things in a detached light, is there any likelihood that they will engage with one another mentally and provoke one another through mutual criticism to the most complete, least idiosyncratic, view that humans are capable of. When the ascetic effort at detachment fails, as it often does, we "talk past one another," producing nothing but discordant soliloquies, each fancying itself the voice of reason. The kind of thinking I would call objective leads only a fugitive existence outside of communities that enjoy a high degree of independence from the state and other external powers, and which are dedicated internally not only to detachment, but also to intense mutual criticism and to the protection of dissenting positions against the perpetual threat of majority tyranny. Some hypothetical examples may clarify what I mean by objective thinking and show how remote it is from neutrality. Consider an extreme case: the person who, although capable of detachment, suspends his or her own perceptions of the world not in the expectation of gaining a broader perspective, but only in order to learn how opponents think so as to demolish their arguments more effectively - who is, in* short, a polemicist, deeply and fixedly committed as a lifelong project to a particular political or cultural or moral program. Anyone choosing such a life obviously risks being thought boorish or provincial, but insofar as such a person successfully enters into the thinking of his or her rivals and produces arguments potentially compelling not only to those who already share the same views, but to outsiders as well, I see no reason to withhold the laurel of objectivity. 10 There is nothing objective about hurling imprecations at apostates or catechizing the faithful, but as long as the polemicist truly engages the thinking of the enemy he or she is being as objective as anyone. In contrast, the person too enamored of his or her own interpretation of things seriously and sympathetically to entertain alternatives, even for the sake of learning how best to defeat them, fails my test of objectivity, no matter how serene and even tempered. The most common failure of objectivity is preaching to the converted, proceeding in a manner that complacently presupposes the pieties of one's own coterie and makes no effort to appreciate or appeal to the perspectives of outsiders. In contrast, the most commonly observed fulfillment of the ideal of objectivity in the historical profession is simply the powerful argument-the text that reveals by its every twist and turn its respectful appreciation of the alternatives it rejects. Such a text attains power precisely because its author has managed to suspend momentarily his or her own perceptions so as to anticipate and take account of objections and alternative constructions -not those of some straw man, but those that truly issue from the rival's position, understood as sensitively and stated as eloquently as the rival him- or herself could desire. Nothing is rhetorically more powerful than this, and nothing, not even capitulation to the rival, could acknowledge any more vividly the force and respectability of the rival's perspective. To mount a telling attack on a position, one must first inhabit it. Those so habituated to their customary intellectual abode that they cannot even explore others can never be persuasive to anyone but fellow habitues. That is why powerful arguments are often more faithful to the complexity and fragility of historical interpretation - more faithful even to the irreducible plurality of human perspectives, when that is, in fact, the case -than texts that abjure position-taking altogether and ostentatiously wallow in displays of "reflexivity" and "undecidability." The powerful argument is the highest fruit of the kind of thinking I would call objective, and in it neutrality plays no part. Authentic objectivity has simply nothing to do with the television newscaster's mechanical gesture of allocating the same number of seconds to both sides of a question, or editorially splitting the difference between them, irrespective of their perceived merits


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