Introduction: Scientific History

Abstract

In his inaugural lecture at Cambridge as Regius Professor of Modern History in 1895, Lord Acton urged that the historian deliver moral judgments on the figures of his research. Acton declaimed: I exhort you never to debase the moral currency or to lower the standard of rectitude, but to try others by the final maxim that governs your own lives and to suffer no man and no cause to escape the undying penalty which history has the power to inflict on wrong.1 In 1902, the year after Acton died, the president of the American Historical Association, Henry Lea, in dubious celebration of his British colleague, responded to the exordium with a contrary claim about the historian’s obligation, namely to render the facts of history objectively without subjective moralizing. Referring to Acton’s lecture, Lea declared: I must confess that to me all this seems to be based on false premises and to lead to unfortunate conclusions as to the objects and purposes of history, however much it may serve to give point and piquancy to a narrative, to stimulate the interests of the casual reader by heightening lights and deepening shadows, and to subserve the purpose of propagating the opinions of the writer.2 As our colleague Peter Novick has detailed in his great account of the American historical profession, by the turn of the century historians in the United States had begun their quest for scientific status, which for most seemed to preclude the leakage of moral opinion into the objective recovery of the past—at least in an overt way. Peter also catalogues the stumbling failures of this noble dream, when political partisanship and rampant nationalism sullied the ideal.3 Historians in our own time continue to be wary of rendering explicit moral pronouncements, thinking it a derogation of their obligations. On occasion, some historians have been moved to embrace the opposite attitude, especially when considering the horrendous events of the twentieth century—the Holocaust, for instance..

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Robert Pippin
University of Chicago

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