E.H. Carr’s What Is History?

What is HistoryE.H. Carr’s 1961 book What is History? offers an excellent introduction to the philosophy of history, outlining some of its central debates and concerns. The method Carr deployed takes the reader through a series of trends in the writing of history and engages with the key intellectual exponents of these various schools of thought with the ultimate aim of arriving, through a process of negation, at a synthesis to the beguilingly simple question: What is history?

Carr’s first interlocutor, the German historian Leopold von Ranke, enjoined other scholars to “simply to show how it really was.” Responding to the moralizing trend of medieval and Enlightenment histories, Ranke developed a scientific approach to historical scholarship based on the careful study of primary documents and a focus on understanding events in the past as the people who lived in those times might have made sense of them. More importantly, Ranke’s true claim to renown rests on establishing history as a discipline separate from literature and philosophy.[1] Carr argued against Ranke’s conception of history on the grounds that historians work within a definite social context from which they cannot extricate themselves as they please and become mere value-free compilers in the Positivist “cult of facts.”[2] The answer historians give to –what is history? — “consciously or unconsciously, reflects our own position in time, and forms part of our answers to the broader question, what view we take of the society in which we live.”[3] Neither the historian nor the subjects of her investigation can stand outside history, or what’s more, apart from the society in which men and women make their mark on the historical unfolding of human experience.[4]

Carr rejected the separation of subject and object in the empiricist tradition of his own country. He argued instead that facts gain their meaning from the interpretation historians develop and shape from the careful “processing” of the available evidence. “The facts speak only when the historian calls on them: it is he who decides to which facts to give the floor, and in what order or context.”[5] Writing history involves selecting the facts and organizing them in a cogent fashion and thereby rendering a judgment that can pass muster as a sound interpretation.[6] History is not the belief that “facts speak for themselves” unmediated by a human consciousness. [7]

History, although written on the empirical evidence at hand, is “always refracted” through the mind of the historian and therefore its meanings never come to readers as “pure,” “self-evident” or “implicit.”[8] To drive home the point, Carr used the intellectual formation of the Whig historian George Macaulay Trevelyan as evidence of an inescapable general truth: a historian’s political disposition or standpoint leaves an indelible mark on the historical narrative that emerges through the drafting process and sifting of evidence. In what is one the most memorable an d quotable passages in the book, Carr wrote, “Study the historian before you begin to study the facts […] The facts are really not at all like fish in the fishmonger’s slab. They are like fish swimming about in a vast and sometimes inaccessible ocean; and what the historian catches will depend partly on chance, but mainly on what part of the ocean he chooses to fish in and what tackle he chooses to use–these two factors being, of course, determined by the kind of fish he wants to catch. By and large, the historian will get the kind of facts he wants. History means interpretation.”[9] Carr elaborated on this claim further in chapter two, “Society and the Individual,” in which he provided compelling examples to support the claim that depending on where the historian finds herself in the course of history will “determine” her “angel of vision over the past.”[10]

Arguing that through the interpretation of the sources, the historian brings her intellectual and political disposition to bear on her subject, Carr made the first of three claims drawing on both Benedetto Croce’s work and R.G. Collingwood’s The Idea of History. In the second claim, Carr argued that the historian must possess an “imaginative understanding” for the social agents she is analyzing in her work, and in the third, that she can only come to comprehend the past through the eyes of the present.[11] For the second claim, Carr offered as examples the difficulty of reading historians on Soviet Russia and Medieval Europe because of their inability to practice an “imaginative understanding” of the people they studied; and for the third, he provided the examples of the German historian Theodor Mommsen, who, according to Carr, writing about ancient Rome in the wake of the failed revolutions of 1848, longed for a modern-day Julius Caesar, “the strong man to save Germany from ruin.”[12] Along with Trevelyan, he also included the renown Polish-born historian Sir Lewis Namier, who, similarly frightened by 1848, retreated to study the accession of George III, during an age before the French Revolution when the world was “immune from the fanaticism of ideas, and of that passionate belief in progress.”[13]

After outlining these three propositions, Carr qualified them in two regards for fear that they might give credence to total skepticism and subjectivity on the one hand and a vulgar pragmatism on the other. In response to the dangers of complete skepticism and subjectivity, Carr recognized that if history has an “infinity of meanings, none more right than any other,” then it follows that there couldn’t be any objective history whatsoever.[14] The second danger, because of the emphasis Collingwood placed on the present, rendered historical inquiry a pragmatic enterprise veering towards presentism by making the criterion for a valid interpretation its utility to the current social moment. To reconcile the contradiction of either giving too much weight to “the theory of history as a compilation of facts” or “the theory of history as the subjective product” of the historian’s mind, Carr offered his writing process as a solution, which he characterized as “reciprocal action” “between the historian and his facts” and “between the present and the past.”[15] More concretely, Carr shared that he read and wrote simultaneously when he worked on a project to do otherwise made one liable to run into one of two problems: copy-and-paste history or propaganda.[16]

As we began, we end: What is history? Carr’s answer: history “is a continuous process of interaction between the historian and his facts, an unending dialogue between the present and the past.”[17] I can’t think of a better way to describe what historians do.

[1] Richard J. Evans, In Defense of History (W.W. Norton & Company: New York, 1999), ch.1, esp., 14-15.

[2] E.H. Carr, What is History? (Vintage Books: New York, 1961), 5, 18, 20. The historian Richard J. Evans translates the German phrase Ranke used –wie es eigentlich gewesen–as “how it essentially was.” Evans offers a fuller explanation of Ranke’s contribution to history as a discipline, by for example clarifying the religious dimension behind the German historian’s thinking. Carr states that Ranke believed that all the historian had to do was compile the facts and “divine providence” would take care of the meaning behind these facts. Evans, however, argues that Ranke’s contribution to history as a field lay in universalizing all states, not just Prussia, as “spiritual substances…thoughts of God” and thereby “stripp[ing] away the veneer of posthumous condescension applied to the past.” See Richard J. Evans, In Defense of History, 14-15.

[3] Carr, What is History?, 5.

[4] Ibid., 36-37. Throughout the book, Carr referred exclusively to historians using masculine pronouns. As a corrective to unacceptable bias of his generation, I will refer to historians using the feminine pronouns. I also find it stylistically ugly to use he/she.

[5] Ibid., 9, 16.

[6] Ibid., 13.

[7] Ibid.,15.

[8] Ibid., 21 and 24.

[9] Ibid., 26.

[10] Ibid., 43

[11] Ibid., 26.

[12] Ibid., 43-4.

[13] Ibid., 46.

[14] Ibid., 39

[15] Ibid., 34-35

[16] Ibid., 33.

[17] Ibid., 35.

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