Object 3: An essay on Universal History, the Manners, and Spirit of Nations

May 28, 2021

Object 3: An essay on Universal History, the Manners, and Spirit of Nations

For my third object I am using Voltaire’s essay called “Essai sur les mœurs et l’esprit des nations6”. This object is of interest because Voltaire is credited as approaching history from a different perspective, focusing on customs, social history and achievements in arts and sciences as opposed to narrating diplomatic events in an attempt to eliminate the bias stemming from a historian’s personal beliefs. This focus is now partially used in the contemporary historical method.

This object enriches this exhibition because it demonstrates how bias depends upon the producer of knowledge. In his essay, Voltaire traced the progress of world civilization from a universal perspective, rejecting the nationalistic attitude of historians in an attempt to eliminate bias stemming from personal beliefs. One may argue that historians are biased because they may interpret primary sources according to their own beliefs. Despite trying to eliminate bias, Voltaire expressed bias towards France, stating in his essay that “France is the only place where people respect individuals, the nobility and the clergy7”. This demonstrates that bias, while historians can limit it by being aware of it, is inevitable as these beliefs are often ingrained.

This object refers to the argument that bias is inevitable in the production of knowledge since a lack of diverse sources used by a historian may influence the conclusions reached. Voltaire’s essay identified the lack of non-Eurocentric historical sources. Despite this, here is a limited number of perspectives to present an all-encompassing argument. Although Voltaire was aware of potential bias, the knowledge is biased because of the lack of diverse sources. An imbalance in accounts from historians of various backgrounds can lead to partisan knowledge, which results in the inevitable production of biased knowledge.

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