Szyzygy's Blog

Can history be truly NPOV?

The following article  is largely derived from one I wrote in the early days of Wikipedia, at a time in which debates as to exactly how history as a topic was to be articulated, and its relationship with a central tenet of Wikipedia, that of the Neutral Point of View (NPOV). During the course of its lifespan, it has undergone little subsequent emendation other than the correction of a few minor typographical errors and was added to WikiMedia in 2004 after being “lost” in one of the many housekeeping moves which occurred at or around this point in time. I have made a copy of this article here since it still, I think, reflects largely what I think about the way in which history as a subject should be treated.

The point and ideal of Wikipedia is to create an encyclopedic body of knowledge which is both comprehensive and written from the Neutral point of view or NPOV. Subjects, however, such as politics, religion and philosophy are problematic in this respect; to a greater extent in this respect than any of these is the subject of history.

History deals extensively (both on the macro and micro level) with conflict and upheaval of one sort or another; it tends not to overly concern itself (rightly or wrongly) with societies and states which are in a state of balance or inertia. For a take on this, the immortal line spoken by Orson Welles in the persona of Harry Lime in the film version of The Third Man speaks volumes: “In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock…”. Considerably more history has been written and produced on the subject of a few of the major players in Renaissance Italy alone than the entirety of Swiss history.

This manifest and constant focus in particular areas is itself unbalanced and inherently non-neutral in its nature. Is this imbalance rectifiable within the context of Wikipedia? Probably not. If anything, Wikipedia tends to attract as contributors particular individuals who write from a perspective which they would like to think is NPOV; the reality is of course that one writes entirely from within one’s own perspective and mindset of social context and references.

A writer on the subject of as outwardly uncontroversial a subject as the history of English place names is adding weight and significance to the primacy of English language; a writer on the subject of English kings and queens adds weight to a traditionalist view of the monarchy and credence to a particular form of history. If history is to be neutral in this respect, and to be written from a neutral point of view, the argumentum ad absurdem is that everybody who ever lived deserves an article. This of course is frankly unfeasible and unrealistic.

Social historians are sadly and inevitably always outnumbered by historians of facts, dates and battles. This is a direct consequence of the fact that looking up dates is a comparatively simple task relative to the monumental effort which is required to unearth even the vestiges of the ostensibly mundane lives of the off-stage and undocumented behaviour of a disparate group of individuals. We have therefore to accept that content-wise and contextually much of the history to be found herein is explicitly non-NPOV from the very simplest of outsets.

Without labouring a point, history deals with conflicts between sides in which propaganda and ideological manipulation are inextricably a part of the process of the conflict. In these situations even the basics of semantics are problematic, and a sea of shifting sands on which the historian treads ever at peril. During the establishment of the state of Israel, for example, the Jewish settlers were depicted as the terrorists; now it is the erstwhile and formerly indigenous population to whom the term is applied, when some atrocity is committed. Over the period of fifty years the term has turned full circle.

Articles on history will also be thoroughly revealing of nationalistic preference or bias. How possible is it really to write a NPOV article about the Battle of Waterloo, which really was one of the principal crossroads (or had Napoleon prevailed, carrefours) of modern European history? For the English writer of history, it will be a glorious triumph of Wellington’s superior tactics, roast beef and two vegetables; for a French writer of history, it will be a depressing defeat engendered by the incompetence of Napoleon and his chosen generals in the field in not pressing home the advantage. Is there a middle NPOV to be drawn between these extremes? To say that it was neither one thing nor the other is to miss the central salient point of history: that history is written by the victors at the expense of the vanquished. In this respect, history is never, ever, neutral.

If we are indeed to write history in a direction more compatible with NPOV we need to address these central areas of deficit with rigour. We need fewer kings and queens and dates and more detailed social history; accounts of battles should be written from the perspective of both sides where practicable; both content and semantics and language of articles should be written with a due care and caution for ethnocentric, sexual and social bias.

A healthy contribution to history studies would be an approach that looks less at the destination or conclusions in history, but the journey or method of history. A fresh exploration of the process of formulating history would illuminate the challenges that POV presents to a truer representation of the past.

What we need is a discovery of the philosophy of history.

Rather than discuss “he said this” it might be interesting to really examine how we come to accept as truth (see epistemology) that he really said it. How do we authenticate and verify something that has happened in the past? What makes us assume that history and truth are synonymous?

Judgment (see axiology) has also played a role in how histories have been passed down. Especially when we are looking at a history that is more social than natural, “good guys and bad guys” tend to vie for sympathies. If even perhaps as an extension of biological “survival of the fittest” where one side wins the fight and therefore win the right to preserve “our story” while destroying “their story,” history is very often more a product of propaganda, disseminating an ideological view to the discredit of any competing views. But, surely we can appreciate that, while “we” feel we are the good guys, “they” feel they are the good guys, too. Hence we might be uncovering a tendency to appeal to some higher moral compass to observe a universal right, and naturally write our story in alignment with that observation.

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