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Facts and Values in History


by Sidney Ratner - 1955

The historianís task of understanding the nature of events in space-time is never finished. There is an interaction between theories and data that leads to fresh formulations and new factual discoveries as long as there is life in those who inquire.

IN discussing methods of inquiry and systems of value, I find myself as a historian trying to think of specific embodiments of these methods and systems.1 For example, I think of the American people as I know them from personal experience and historical study as possessing certain beliefs and practices about what they consider desirable or valuable. As I study what the great majority of the American people do, in contrast with what they say, I discover that they profess adherence to the Judaeo-Christian doctrines of asceticism, other-worldliness, and supernaturalism, but in practice they strive to attain as high a standard of living and enjoyment of the good things on earth as they can. They also apply and extend the techniques and theory of science to many realms of life that they would not so treat if they took supernaturalism seriously. Although they assert the importance of loyalty to party principles and display great intensity of feeling before and on Election Day, they prove by their acceptance of the election and its results that victory of their party principles has to be attained within the framework of free speech and the ballot box rather than through the suppression of opponents and the use of bullets. In other words, Americans, except for some deviant minority groups, place a supreme value upon the democratic system and method of settling differences.


Similarly, the high regard that most Americans feel for private property and the right of the individual to use it as he wishes has never been unaffected by considerations of community or social welfare. For example, dangers arising from the possibility of fire or of pollution of water have been curbed or eliminated whenever proof has been advanced concerning the harm that has been or would be done if certain conditions of unrestricted individual enterprise were permitted. Here we have evidence that the presentation of facts can influence people's judgment of what is valuable. Or as Dewey would have put it, things desired are considered desirable only when analysis demonstrates that the consequences of satisfying the desire are beneficial.


On the other hand, I believe that the values held by different individuals and groups affect greatly what most people believe to be the facts. Some scholars argue strongly that values and facts should be sharply separated. This counsel seems sound, but is unwise, as I shall try to show. Forty-one years ago that gallant historian Charles Beard was inspired in part by his sympathies for the Progressive Movement and democratic socialism to write his noted volume, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution. The facts which he presented concerning the economic interests of the Fathers of the Constitution were a bombshell to the great American public.2 The reason was that conservatives and those influenced by them had not been inspired to look for certain facts about the background of the Constitution which Charles Beard, with his radical social values, felt were worth finding out and making known to others. Ironically enough, about twenty years after his facts became accepted, a crisis arose in the American economy during the 1930*5 which made a new group of scholars feel that the New Deal needed the support of evidence concerning wide-sweeping powers over the economy granted by the Fathers of the Constitution to the national government. Hence, Irving Brant, Edward S. Corwin, Walton H. Hamilton, and other scholars dug up and presented relevant facts that had been ignored or minimized earlier.


Other examples can be given in which different individuals and groups were led to discover new facts or facets of a complex historical situation through the inspiration given to their research by a certain sense or set of values. Often, too, claims had been made that certain assertions were facts when they were not supported by adequate evidence, but mainly by prejudice or bias. One striking case is the reconstruction period in American history. The conservative Southern white historians dominated the general public's interpretation between 1890 and 1940. Their view was that the attempt to raise the position of the Negro in the South was a great error and that the South's repudiation of the Radical Republican measures was justified. Then came the depression of 1929 and the New Deal and the Nazi threat to democracy. Thereupon such historians as W. E. B. Du Bois and H. K. Beale proceeded to show that the democratic movement of their day—the struggle against the doctrine of Ayran supremacy and the narrow social policies of big business groups—could find precedents in and justification for many of the hitherto scorned efforts to rebuild the South upon a basis of racial equality and political participation for the Southern Negroes. The revisionists only lamented that the economic aspects of the reconstruction problem had not been taken sufficiently into account at the close of the Civil War.3 The important lesson I would draw from the various structures of fact and theory that have been built up over the years concerning any historical movement or period is that the way to advance knowledge is not to expel or abstain from holding value-judgments. Rather one should state his value-judgments as postulates and try to see what other value-systems can be applied to interpreting the particular events or situation under investigation. By considering alternative value-judgments and systems one is saved from provincialism and arbitrary selection of facts. One learns that different historical truths or warranted assertions come successively to the forefront of attention as each system of values leads to the discovery and accumulation of historical truths, even though any one system becomes discredited or modified. Then one can emerge from the inferno of partisan history and attain, if not the paradise, then the limbo, of a relatively balanced and impartial presentation of as much of the whole truth about any situation as is humanly possible. The brilliant explorations into the psychology of perception initiated by Adelbert Ames, Jr., at Dartmouth College and now being carried on by Hadley Cantril and his associates at Princeton University have demonstrated how much of what we see depends upon our assumptions and anticipations about what we expect to see.4 The examples and arguments I have given above show that a parallel truth holds for historical inquiry.5


To the historian who tries to be aware of his presuppositions, Dewey's teachings offer priceless counsel and guidance. Out of the wealth of insights and formulations to be found in Dewey's writings, I think historians have much to gain from Dewey's stress on two ideas. The first is the interdependence of ends and means and, as a corollary, his insistence upon our judging people by what they do rather than by what they say. The second is his exploration of the meaning of value as a term to be applied only to those objects of desire which are judged desirable in the light of their consequences. The reasonable goods of life are the fruit of intelligently directed activity, of intelligent choice or harmonization among conflicting impulses. Dewey has developed in his own distinctive and profound way the insight first stated by Aristotle and then restated by Santayana: that everything ideal has a natural basis and everything natural an ideal development.6


I have tried to show the fruitful interplay in historical inquiry between what are conventionally called facts and values. Now I wish to set forth some considerations of especial interest to historians on the relation between ethical judgments and scientific judgments. Most historians regard these two types to be completely divorced from and opposed to each other. So great a historical authority as Lord Acton had explicitly urged historians to make ethical judgments upon the events and persons they portrayed. But twentieth century historians have disregarded this advice because the prevailing philosophical opinion among historians was that making such judgments would prevent them from writing scientific history. Support to this belief has been given by the assertions of positivistic philosophers from Karl Pearson to Bertrand Russell and A. J. Ayer.


But historians need not have a guilt complex about making ethical judgments in history. As long ago as 1903, Dewey tells us that he became more and more troubled by the intellectual scandal that seemed to him involved in the current and traditional dualism in logical standpoint and method between something called "science" on the one hand and something called "morals" on the other. In an important but neglected essay, "The Logical Conditions of a Scientific Treatment of Morality,"7 Dewey set forth the thesis that one and the same logical method is used in the determination of value-judgments and judgments or conclusions reached in the natural and social sciences. I wish to present an analysis that will show in some detail how all scientific judgments, whether in history, natural sciences, or the social sciences, are related to and depend upon ethical and moral judgments.8


The traditional dichotomy between the moral and scientific spheres is open to attack once we question, as Dewey does, the artificial separation between the universal and the individual, the intellectual and the practical, which lies at the basis of the accepted dualism. Laws of modern experimental science—for example, Newton's law of gravitation, Boyle's law of gases—originate out of and find their test and practical application in the concrete experiences of individuals in specific cases or situations. It is true that a primary aim of scientists is to construct in each field a theory or system in which all propositions of that field are logically or mathematically connected by laws or principles, as Pierre Duhem has argued most persuasively. These laws of nature, however, do not by themselves constitute the whole of science. They are the instruments of scientists, the bridges by which they pass from one particular experience to another.


Most modern logicians have laid stress on the contents of scientific judgments, but every scientific judgment is also an act of judging. This embodies an act of attention by an individual with a special interest or set of interests. He is impelled to observe and experiment in order to satisfy that interest or set of interests. Every scientific judgment involves action in (1) the selection of the subject out of the indefinite number of objects within the individual's field of perception; (2) the determination of the relevant predicate from the host of possible predicates; (3) the choice and use of the copula—the entire process of the experimental joining of the predicate and subject that have been tentatively selected for assertion in the judgment. Each scientist is constantly checking the validity, truth, or falsity of any judgment through the use to which he and others put it in the specific situations where the need for the scientific statement had arisen or exists.


Each scientist has been, or is, stimulated to making a specific inquiry and judgment by the whole scheme of his interests. Moreover, he has to use all his available resources and cautions to achieve the maximum probability of truth. Hence, the intellectual contents of any scientific judgment or system achieve a logical status of function only through a specific motive which is outside them as contents but is inseparable from them in logical function. The generic propositions or universals of science are discovered, tested, and applied only through the medium of the habits and drives or values of those who make scientific judgments. As Dewey put it, the universals of science have no modus operandi of their own. In this position he, like Charles Sanders Peirce9 who inspired him, was far removed from the rationalistic philosophers of that and this day, be they idealists, realists, or logical empiricists.


The problem we have been considering may be restated and developed as follows: What relation has science to ethics? In mathematics it is considered permissible to point out the applicability of some new discovery to physics—for example, non-Euclidian geometry and vector analysis. Similarly, no one denies the relevance of physics to engineering, of chemistry to medicine, of economics to government. The justification for such application lies in the harmony or interdependence of most human desires. The demand that no one science shall aid another, that any human endeavor be pursued in isolation, is not only impossible to realize in practice, but is suicidal in theory. Ethics is relevant to science because science, in the last analysis, is a human activity and is pursued because it satisfies the desire for knowledge for its own sake, and the desire to use knowledge as a means of satisfying other desires. History, like the natural and social sciences, therefore cannot escape critical evaluation in terms of its contribution to human good.


But granted that the pursuit of history, like that of art and science, depends upon the varying goods it makes available to different individuals and groups in society, why should history, any more than mathematics, physics, or chemistry, admit ethical judgments upon purely factual or analytical questions? The obvious reply is that ethics does not enter into the determination of any purely factual question such as, Did Columbus exist? but does enter when any problem affects the interests and conduct of an individual, a group, or society as a whole. Physicists consider the atom bomb both a physical and an ethical problem. If physicists were to ignore the ethical implications of their activities, they would destroy the foundation upon which their pursuit rests: harmony with other human activities. It is impossible for students of human history to do otherwise.


History for history's sake expresses an admirable love of truth as an end in itself. Like the doctrine of art for art's sake, it represents a refusal to distort its vision of the good for partisan ends. Yet, paradoxically enough, if historians were to practice their theories about the irrelevance of ethics to history, no adequate histories about human beings would be written. The problem is inescapable in human history because the historian has to describe and to analyze human desires, motives, and ideals. Some historians think they can save their "objectivity" by recording the values held by others without giving their only valuations. But these same historians usually will pass judgment on military science, economics, and diplomacy, if not on literature, art, and music. If judgments on any of these subjects are valid, ethical judgments are also valid. Ethics, although some are unaware of it, is as much a normative science as economics or logic. Hence, ethical and moral judgments in history need not be the expression of pure bias and prejudices, but may be based on rational grounds.


Objection may be made that the above argument is inconclusive. Historians who admit judgments on economics, military science, politics, and aesthetics are equally at fault with those who utter moral dicta. Granted; but if no evaluation is permitted in terms of norms or values, how can humanly significant history be written? All events cannot be described. The historian must employ some principle of significance in deciding both what to investigate and what to emphasize in his narrative. The historian can and should be scrupulously objective in stating the evidence about events and issues. Such freedom from bias does not preclude his having a system of values. His ethics will not be the better for being implicit rather than explicit; it may in fact be worse.


All progress in science, as was stated earlier in this discussion, has resulted from the explicit formulation of postulates and the consideration of alternative systems—for example, in mathematics, non-Euclidian geometry and "non-Pythagorean" arithmetic; in physics, non-Newtonian mechanics. The path to progress in history, as well in the social sciences, lies in the same direction. Once we critically formulate our presuppositions and prejudices, a basis of comparison, an opportunity for revision and balance arises.


The historian, like the natural and social scientists, will use these formulated principles or generalizations as hypotheses, as intellectual instruments, for gaining insight into the complex situations he is studying. But his task of understanding the nature of events in space-time is never finished. There is an interaction between theories and data that leads to fresh formulations and new factual discoveries as long as there is life in those who inquire. With Dewey, we may rejoice in the fact that there are no absolutes, no values or facts outside space and time, only those ends in view and facts that we help to discover or create.













1 Professor Ratner has written extensively on historical method, on pragmatism, and on American and recent European economic history. His paper was read at the afternoon session of the John Dewey Memorial Program held at Teachers College on October 20, 1954. (See note, p. 421.)

2 Sidney Ratner, "The Historian's Approach to Psychology," Journal of the History of Ideas, 2: 95-109 (January, 1941).

3 H. K. Beale, "On Rewriting Reconstruction History," American Historical Review, 45: 807-27 (July, 1940).

4 Adelbert Ames, Jr., "Reconsideration of the Origin and Nature of Perception," in Sidney Ratner, ed., Vision and Action; Essays in Honor of Horace M. Kallen (New Brunswick, N. J., 1953), pp. 251-74; H. M. Kallen, Human Beings and Psychological Systems (Princeton, N. J. 1954).

5 Sidney Ratner, "Presupposition and Objectivity in History," Philosophy of Science, 7: 499-505 (October, 1940).

6 Dewey had a high appreciation of Santayana's The Life of Reason, although he disagreed with and criticized Santayana's epistemology and metaphysics. The differences between the two philosophers have caused many to miss the way in which Dewey's and Santayana's naturalistic humanism complement and strengthen one another. See Dewey's little-known review of The Life of Reason in Educational Review, 34:116-29, (September, 1907), in which he wrote that Santayana had given us "the most adequate contribution America has yet made—always excepting Emerson—to moral philosophy" (p. 128). "A survey by intelligence of the past struggles, failures, and successes of intelligence with a view to directing its own further endeavors, emphasizing and safe-guarding its achievements, stimulating it to greater patience and courage—this, indeed, is a conception of philosophy fit to rescue it from the slough of disrespect and despondency into which it has fallen in evil days" (p. 120).

7 The Decennial Publications of the University of Chicago, First Series (Chicago, 1903), 3:113-39. Also in John Dewey, Problems of Men (New York, 1946), pp. 211-49.

8 Cf. Sidney Hook, "The Desirable and Emotive in Dewey's Ethics," in S. Hook, ed., John Dewey (New York, 1950), pp. 194-216; Gail Kennedy, "Science and the Transformation of Common Sense," Journal of Philosophy, 51: 313-24 (May 27, 1954).

9 Since the influence of Peirce upon Dewey before 1930 has been minimized or denied by some writers, it is worth quoting the following statement by Dewey in 1903 in a footnote to the above passage in the text: "So far as I know, MR. CHARLES S. PEIRCE was the first to call attention to this principle, and to insist upon its fundamental logical import (see Monist, Vol. ii, pp. 534-36, 549-56). Mr. Peirce states it as the principle of continuity: A past idea can operate only so far as it is psychically continuous with that upon which it operates. A general idea is simply a living and expanding feeling, and habit is a statement of the specific mode of operation of a given psychological continuum. I have reached the above conclusion along such diverse lines that, without in any way minimizing the priority of Mr. Peirce's statement, or its more generalized logical character, I feel that my own statement has something of the value of an independent confirmation. Ibid., p. 126, n. 7 (Capitals in original). Peirce's July, 1892, Monist essay, "The Law of Mind," is reprinted in Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss, eds. 6 vols. (Cambridge, Mass., 1931-35), 5: 86-113.



Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 56 Number 8, 1955, p. 429-434
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 4722, Date Accessed: 1/21/2022 9:57:27 PM

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