The Relations between the Epistemic Virtues of Impartiality and Objectivity in French Nineteenth-Century Historiography

The Relations between the Epistemic Virtues of Impartiality and Objectivity in French Nineteenth-Century Historiography

Camille Creyghton

The starting point of this research project is the recent work on the role of epistemic virtues in science practices and the formation of scientific or scholarly persona, such as by Lorraine Daston (2003 and 2007), Conal Condren (2006), and Ian Hunter (2007). This now established approach in the history of science recently became extended to the field of the history of the humanities—the history of history writing in particular. It already proved especially fruitful for the nineteenth century, the period in which history writing established itself as an academic discipline with a corresponding persona of the historian (Paul, 2014; Tollebeek, 2011; Eskildsen, 2013). During her PhD research, from which the present project began, Camille Creyghton took great advantage of this approach towards understanding the doubly political and scholarly positions of French nineteenth-century historians. This project therefore aims to contribute to this extension of the research on epistemic virtues and scholarly persona to the history of the humanities.

In a recent article, Daston (2014) distinguished objectivity from impartiality as two different and sometimes even conflicting epistemic virtues in nineteenth-century historical scholarship. Whereas impartiality would be the capacity of the historian to pass a righteous judgment on the past by taking stance “above the parties,” objectivity would be warranted by the practice of methodological techniques, the possible political prejudices that could guide the historian notwithstanding.

However, while researching for an article on virtue language in historical scholarship, written with Herman Paul and other colleagues, it struck Creyghton that the words “objectivity” and “impartiality” in her source material are much less clearly defined, and that they sometimes can be used interchangeably (Creyghton et al. 2016). For example, in his 1876 manifesto for the Revue historique, Gabriel Monod presents impartiality and political neutrality as the most important requirement for scientific history writing, but states that this impartiality would be realized by the rigorous employment of a critical method, which Daston connected by contrast to the virtue of objectivity. In the context of Monod’s engagement  in  the  Dreyfus  Affair,  this  conflation  of  impartiality  and  objectivity  becomes problematic, leading to a serious rethinking of the principles and methods of historical scholarship in the years afterwards (see also Duclert 1998; Dumoulin, 2002; Joly, 1989; Rebérioux, 1976).

The questions that will guide Camille Creyghton's research are therefore: To what extent can the epistemic virtues of impartiality and objectivity be distinguished (or not) in French late nineteenth-century historical scholarship? In which contexts are they conflated, and why? And how did the Dreyfus Affair lead to a critical examination and reformulation  of  historiographical  principles? In  asking these questions,  her research  discusses  the  (heuristic) fruitfulness of Daston’s distinction between the two virtues.

In addition, as part of this research Camille Creyghton plans to complete an article on the intellectual relations between Gabriel Monod and Lucien Febvre, and their respective uses of the concept of “imagination historique,” which both derive from Michelet. The project will also involve some preliminary source research for a future postdoctoral research project on European networks of intellectuals in exile in the period 1815–1848.