Skip to content

Peter Novick, That Noble Dream

Novick breaks up the book into four periods: the 1880s through 1910s,
WWI and the interwar period, the mid-40s through the mid-60s, and
finally, the 60s into the 80s. The “narrative” is that of, in the
corresponding time periods, the rise of “scientific” objectivist
history, followed by the ascendancy of challengers to these claims of
objectivity, most famously with the speeches of Becker and Beard at the
AHA, the incorporation of some of this group’s criticisms during WWII
and the early years of the Cold War to remodel and reconfigure what
“objectivity” meant, while at the same time putting it back at the fore,
and finally, with the social unrest of the 60s, the loss of the goal of
objectivity to specialization. The sometimes rather passionate critical
responses to this book that I have found make me ask if the objectivity
question is as settled as he makes it out to be.

Novick’s periodization is rather essentializing, and I have to question
to what extent it creates a sort of “cherry picking” effect, not
allowing for the voices of historians who may have been out of step with
their historiographical period.

Likewise, his fourth section was somewhat difficult for me to grasp. I’m
not sure I agree with or even understand how historians no longer trying
to produce work that is catholic, all-inclusive, generalized actually
means that there is a breakdown of the myth of objectivity. Couldn’t one
be objective and still specialized? Are ichthyologists not being
objective by studying fish, instead of all of biology? Also, using the
brick metaphor from the first section, couldn’t the compartmentalism of
post-60s historians be looked at as just “making smaller bricks?”

In his introduction, Novick explains his view of history, and espouses
the view that historic events tend to be the effects of
“overdetermination.” The only time I’ve encountered this term used with
reference to historical events is usually in work drawing on the Marxist
theory of Louis Althusser. This leads me to believe that in certain
respects, Novick is essentially a structuralist. His quoting Emile
Durkheim in the same introduction would reinforce such a view.

Which makes me ask, where’s the Poststructuralist History? Shouldn’t
there be, couldn’t there be, a real movement challenging the myth of
objectivity by using Derridian techniques of deconstruction on the
truth-claims of history?  The closest I’ve heard of to this is the late
Jean Baudrillard’s work on the Gulf War, but I haven’t read it yet. Did
the book come out too early for Novick to witness Poststructuralist
History’s moment, or has it not materialized? It seems to me that it
would be a worthwhile project, if only because it might be a useful
technique to put aside the objectivity question once and for all.