"A pair of white gloves': Historians and ethics

Foe historians ethical involvement is not an optional extra, it lies as an essential core of their work. It's easy to see how, for Julien Benda in the 1920s, the conscious adoption of any ideological standpoint seemed nothing less than a betrayal of all that intellectuals had stoodfor. Great War historians had been deliberately partisan in their claims to truth, renouncing any aspiration to detachment or to any absolutes, and conscripting their subject in the service of nationalistic purposes. In order to regain the credibility of those engaged in supposedly scientific pursuits, it was necessary to repudiate such locallsed commitments, and to be seen once more as in disinterested pursuit of the Holy Grail of truth-as doing history for nothing other than its own sake. That own-sakism remained in fashion through much of the 20th century: historians took the utmost care to be seen to be refraining from any overt involvement in ideology or moral judgment. But their much acclaimed detachment has more recently been revealed as spurious: it's now clear that, no less than any others, historians cannot avoid the intrusion of their selves and the necessity of choice. Rather than simply finding, they choose that narrative thread which leads from past to present, and which has such profound implications for our future. Indeed, it's in the light of their preferred future that historians have to make such choices: theirs is thus an essentially ethical activity.