Clearly, the historian is not concerned with all men, circumstances and events; he has to pick and choose. And what is his criterion of choice? However warily the answer is formulated, it will trap the mind in a vicious circle. For it is the historian's view of what is historical that determines his selection. The 'historical' facts are singled out from the inarticulate mass of facts that constitute 'the past'. These selected facts must then be recorded in a coherent manner: in words, and with a view to plausible causal connections. Having been unavoidably biased in his selection of facts, either by the socially predominant or by his personal view of what is 'historical', now, at least, the good historian may hope to be 'objective' or 'purely technical'. But by describing in words men, human actions and human motives, he implicitly conveys and evokes emotions and passes moral judgments. If he is wise and subtle, the emotions evoked will be complex, the moral judgments fine and just. Yet they will be there, for they are in the words themselves and in our responses to human behavior.
The goal of objectivity proves still more unattainable as soon as we are faced with the problem of establishing causal connections. For history is, of course, not concerned with physical pulls and pushes, or chemical reactions, which can be reproduced in the laboratory for experimental purposes. The stuff of history is made of unique situations, singular and complex because they are brought about not by scientifically ascertainable cause but by human motives. And however many 'facts' the searching scholar may unearth to support his conclusions, these must finally be reached through the full exercise of his imaginative sympathy. Thus, in every single case, the historical picture is established by the historical imagination, not by scientific reason, and proved not by objective experiment, but by the persuasiveness of the historian's vision. This vision, to be persuasive, must have force; and its force lies in the quality of its order or pattern. In this last respect history is like a work of art, and what has happened in recent historiography has happened time and again in the history of art: a nervous quest for a constant, or a centre, capable of imposing order and pattern on the confusing wealth of sensations and impressions.
- Erich Heller, in The Disinherited Mind