E.H Carr – What is History?

Book Analysis.

Carr focusses on the idea of objectivity and whether it is possible for an historian to achieve it. He argues that historians select their facts to support their own perspective; immediately making their work subjective. They will deliberately omit information that discredits their argument and instead put emphasis on that which strengthens it. The historian has a purpose to substantiate his opinion and is therefore unable to be objective in his research. Carr also comments on the role of the historian in making a fact historical. Facts don’t have meanings, they are given them by those who study them. It is argued that the facts should be allowed to speak for themselves, however most often this is not the case. As stated earlier, the historian wants to use facts to support his argument and he therefore will give a meaning which best suits his purpose. This leads us to question whether there can be such thing as a true historical fact or do facts have no meaning aside from that which the historian tells us? We are only made aware of facts that are deemed historically significant by those researching and Carr highlights how this again limits our knowledge of historical truth. He takes a post modernist approach to History and in doing so he successfully teaches us the importance of interpretation. However, this does not mean that he believes there is no use to be made of History.

Carr later addresses and compares the importance of both society and the individual in History.  He immediately establishes that society is of higher importance. This is because all choices are driven by context and it is easier to discover the context of a society rather than an individual. There has always been morality within society and this is indispensable in allowing the historian to connect with and understand the past. Actions that have happened in the past will easily be condemned in the present. However, a good historian will be able to distinguish between what was acceptable then and what is now. When evaluating the role of the individual, Carr uses the example that ” Hitler was a bad man ”. This is a quick dismissal which would be made by those who have no understanding of the context of the time. Carr then goes on to explain that this is of limited utility because it doesn’t allow historians to make generalisations. Historians are concerned with the general rather than the unique because general events repeat themselves whereas the unique do not. So in terms of this example, it is most important to discover in which conditions Hitler rose to power and why his extremism was deemed acceptable.

The most common debate seen in historical theory is that which questions whether History is a Science or an Art. One of the key principles in Science is evolution and Carr argues that this shows progress in History, subsequently linking the two. Both historians and scientists also work with a hypothesis which they go on to prove with evidence. However there are many limitations that prevent History from being classified as a Science. Firstly, Carr states that although not necessarily in a negative way, bias affects the historian’s work greatly – this is not the case in Science. Also, one of the main purposes of Science is to develop a deep enough understanding of why things are the way they are to predict the future. Historians are unable to do so with such certainty due to the differing opinions of individuals. Science is a subject which is concerned mainly with the facts, whereas art involves both interpretation and imagination. History is a combination of both and can therefore only be viewed as a social science; supported by the historians interest in human behaviour. Now progressing to the idea of morality and religion, two ideas which have no role in Science. Carr is quick to explain that he feels they should also have no role in History. This is because morality of the present cannot be used to successfully judge that of the past.

Carr addresses Historical determinism and how certain causes make the consequences inevitable. Any good historian will usually produce a hierarchy of causes. This is necessary because most frequently events such as an outbreak of war are the culmination of many factors. When these factors interact the outcome becomes predictable; meaning that historians can use causes to predict future consequences. Accidents in History should always be placed at the bottom of the causal hierarchy. This is because they have less of an impact in determining the results. As mentioned in an earlier chapter, generalisations are vital in studying History. Accidents can not be used to make generalisations because they are unique and will most likely not be repeated. Although they can not be entirely dismissed by historians as they have the ability to alter the process of Historical determinism. Carr himself did not believe in accidents instead he felt that everything occurred due to prior happenings. For him, cause and effect are of major importance for all those studying History. It was more important to understand why things happened rather than attempting to justify them. He was not a fan of counterfactual history as he was only concerned with what had happened rather than what could have.

Carr discusses why people may study History and indeed what is its purpose, if anything. He describes History to be an ever progressing subject with no end or beginning. It is impossible for historians to agree on when History began to progress and indeed what it is moving toward. As time goes on change occurs and this will continue to occur indefinitely. However, Carr suggests that History can only by written by those who have a sense of direction, they must feel as if they are advancing toward an end goal in order to piece evidence together convincingly. History stands to progress and allow stronger links to be formed between the past, present and future.The overarching argument made is that historians can only be objective when reviewing from the eyes of the future. This is because there would be no present day motive and no argument to support with readily selected historical facts. Instead, historians would look back with no other intention than to see the past for what it is. The Whig interpretation states that History is an inevitable progression towards liberty. It allows people to reshape society to best fit its purpose. Carr believes in this, particularly that man moves within History himself and indeed, progresses.

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5 thoughts on “E.H Carr – What is History?

  1. There was a very interesting article on the subject of passion in academia (in general, not specific to history) today in the guardian (http://www.theguardian.com/women-in-leadership/2015/jul/23/why-academia-needs-emotional-passionate-women?CMP=share_btn_fb). You may want to read it – it discusses some of the same problems with subjectivity, and argues that we should all be more passionate about our research. I know you’re a way off that, if you do intend to head in that direction, but worth reading, I think. 🙂 I can recommend some more authors that may be worth reading, if you would like to engage more with the philosophy of history.

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    1. Thanks very much for your comment and I will be sure to read the article. Please do recommend some authors, I would greatly appreciate it. I Love your blog and of course your passion for History!! 🙂

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  2. Hi Melissa, my apologies for the delay in getting back to you! You may want to follow up reading Carr’s work with Geoffrey Elton’s work that was written in direct answer to it, ‘The Practice of History’, and then Richard Evan’s ‘In Defence of History’. If you plan to take History at University, then your course will almost certainly include a module on historiography, and will include many of these texts as the standard reading. ‘The Houses of History’ by Anna Green and Kathleen Troup, and ‘Studying History’ by Jeremy Black & Donald M. Macraild are two books that remain on my bookshelf from the time I studied it, and you could do a lot worse than to have a go at either of those. If you are intending to do history at uni, then you might also want to take a look at either John Tosh, ‘The Pursuit of History’, or Claus M. Marriott, ‘History: An Introduction to theory, method and practice’, either of which will give you a bit of an introduction to the methodology, the basic theories in history, and give you a good grounding before you get to uni, so that you can hit the ground running. You don’t need to read all of them though – I’m just trying to give you alternatives, hopefully it increases the chances of one of these being available in your local library.

    Finally, and re-reading your analysis on ‘What is History’ and the importance of generalisation, I’d like to leave you with a quote that I’ve always liked and which is on a post-it note above my desk: ‘The historian’s task is to discern the general in the unique, and the unique in the general, and to use one to help explain the other’ – Edward Royle, ‘Issues of Regional Identity: Essays in honour of John Marshall’ (Manchester, 1998), p. 4. Royle was approaching history from a different perspective – that of the local, regional, rather than the national, that Carr worked in – and that drives his interpretation of ‘unique’. But it also shows that Royle sees the unique, the accident, as an opportunity to help explain the general – this is something that Carr clearly disagrees with. Something to think about… 🙂

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    1. Hello again! No worries, thank you for all of these suggestions. I do intend to study history at univeristy of course 🙂 I will buy some of these books and get started. I have read R.J Evans in defence of history and that was also amazing. I look forward to reading more historical theory – it is so interesting. A great quote to consider, thank you so much 🙂

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