Hereditas Historiae

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E.H. Carr - What is History? (1961)


‘What is history? Lest anyone think the question meaningless or superfluous, I will take as my text two passages relating respectively to the first and second incarnations of the Cambridge Modern History. Here is Acton in his report of October 1896 to the Syndics of the Cambridge University Press on the work which he had undertaken to edit: “It is a unique opportunity of recording, in the way most useful to the greatest number, the fullness of the knowledge which the nineteenth century is about to bequeath….  By the judicious division of labour we should be able to do it, and to bring home to every man the last document, and the ripest conclusions of international research. Ultimate history we cannot have in this generation; but we can dispose of conventional history, and show the point we have reached on the road from one to the other, now that all information is within reach, and every problem has become capable of solution.”

And almost exactly sixty years later Professor Sir George Clark, in his general introduction to the second Cambridge Modern History, commented on this belief of Acton and his collaborators that it would one day be possible to produce “ultimate history”, and went on: “Historians of a later generation do not look forward to any such prospect. They expect their work to be superseded again and again. They consider that knowledge of the past has come down through one or more human minds, has been “processed” by them, and therefore cannot consist of elemental and impersonal atoms which nothing can alter…. The exploration seems to be endless, and some impatient scholars take refuge in scepticism, or at least in the doctrine that, since all historical judgments involve persons and points of view, one is as good as another and there is no “objective” historical truth.

Where the pundits contradict each other so flagrantly, the field is open to enquiry. I hope that I am sufficiently up-to­date to recognize that anything written in the 1890s must be nonsense. But I am not yet advanced enough to be committed to the view that anything written in the 1950s necessarily makes sense. (…) The clash between Acton and Sir George Clark is a reflection of the change in our total outlook on society over the interval between these two pronouncements. Acton speaks out of the positive belief, the clear-eyed self-confidence, of the later Victorian age, Sir George Clark echoes the bewilderment and distracted scepticism of the beat generation. When we attempt to answer the question, What is History?, our answer, consciously or unconsciously, reflects our own position in time, and forms part of our answer to the broader question what view we take of the society in which we live. I have no fear that my subject may, on closer inspection, seem trivial. I am afraid only that I may seem presumptuous to have broached a question so vast and so important.

The nineteenth century was a great age for facts. “What I want” said Mr. Gradgrind in Hard Times, “is Facts … Facts alone are wanted in life.” Nineteenth-century historians on the whole agreed with him. When Ranke in the 1830s, in legitimate protest against moralizing history, remarked that the task of the historian was “simply to show how it really was (wie es eigentlich gewesen)”, this not very profound aphorism had an astonishing success. Three generations of German, British and even French historians marched into battle intoning the magic words “Wie es eigentlich gewesen” like an incantation - designed, like most incantations, to save them from the tiresome obligation to think for themselves. (….) Even Sir George Clark, critical as he was of Acton's attitude, himself contrasted the “hard core of facts” in history with the “surrounding pulp of disputable interpretation” -  forgetting perhaps that the pulpy part of the fruit is more rewarding than the hard core. First get your facts

straight, then plunge at your peril into the shifting sands of interpretation - that is the ultimate wisdom of the empirical, common-sense school of history. It recalls the favourite dictum of the great liberal journalist C.P. Scott: “Facts are sacred, opinion is free”.

Now this clearly will not do. I shall not embark on a philosophical discussion of the nature of our knowledge of the past. Let us assume for present purposes that the fact that Caesar crossed the Rubicon and the fact there is a table in the middle of the room are facts of the same or of a comparable order, that both these facts enter our consciousness in the same or in a comparable manner, and that both have the same objective character in relation to the person who knows them. But, even on this bold and not very plausible assumption, our argument at once runs into the difficulty that not all facts about the past are historical facts, or are treated as such by the historian. What is the criterion which distinguishes the facts of history from other facts about the past?

What is a historical fact? This is a crucial question into which we must look a little more closely. According to the common-sense view, there are certain basic facts which are the same for all historians and which form, so to speak, the backbone of history - the fact, for example, that the Battle of Hastings was fought in 1066. But this view calls for two observations. In the first place, it is not with facts like these that the historian is primarily concerned. It is no doubt important to know that the great battle was fought in 1066 and not in 1065 or 1067, and that it was fought at Hastings and not at Eastbourne or Brighton. The historian must not get these things wrong. But when points of this kind are raised, I am reminded of Housman’s remark that “accuracy is a duty, not a virtue”. To praise a historian for his accuracy is like praising an architect for using well seasoned timber or properly mixed concrete in his building. It is a necessary condition of his work, but not his essential function. It is precisely for matters of this kind that the historian is entitled to rely on what have been called the “auxiliary sciences” of history - archaeology, epigraphy, numismatics, chronology, and so forth. (…) The second observation is that the necessity to establish these basic facts rests not on any quality in the facts themselves, but on an a priori decision of the historian. In spite of C.P. Scott’s motto, every journalist knows today that the most effective way to influence opinion is by the selection and arrangement of the appropriate facts. It used to be said that facts speak for themselves. This is, of course, untrue. 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. (….) The only reason why we are interested to know that the battle was fought at Hastings in 1066 is that historians regard it as a major historical event. It is the historian who has decided for his own reasons that Caesar’s crossing of that petty stream, the Rubicon, is a fact of history, whereas the crossing of the Rubicon by millions of other people before or since interests nobody at all. (….) The historian is necessarily selective. The belief in a hard core of historical facts existing objectively and independently of the interpretation of the historian is a preposterous fallacy, but one which it is very hard to eradicate. (….)

History has been called an enormous jig-saw with a lot of missing parts. But the main trouble does not consist in the lacunae. (….) What we know as the facts of mediaeval history have almost all been selected for us by generations of chroniclers who were professionally occupied in the theory and practice of religion, and who therefore thought it supremely important, and recorded everything relating to it, and not much else. (…)

The reconstitution of the past in the historian’s mind is dependent on empirical evidence. But it is not in itself an empirical process, and cannot consist in a mere recital of facts. On the contrary, the process of reconstitution governs the selection and interpretation of the facts: this, indeed, is what makes them historical facts. (….)

Our examination of the relation of the historian to the facts of history finds us, therefore, in an apparently precarious situation, navigating delicately between the Scylla of an untenable theory of history as an objective compilation of facts, of the unqualified primacy of fact over interpretation, and the Charybdis of an equally untenable theory of history as the subjective product of the mind of the historian who establishes the facts of history and masters them through the process of interpretation, between a view of history having the centre of gravity in the past and a view having the centre of gravity in the present. (….) The relation between the historian and his facts is one of equality, of give-and-take. As any working historian knows, if he stops to reflect what he is doing as he thinks and writes, the historian is engaged on a continuous process of moulding his facts to his interpretation and his interpretation to his facts. It is impossible to assign primacy to one over the other.

The historian starts with a provisional selection of facts and a provisional interpretation in the light of which what selection has been made - by others as well as by himself. As he works, both the interpretation and the selection and ordering of facts undergo subtle and perhaps partly unconscious changes through the reciprocal action of one or the other. And this reciprocal action also involves reciprocity between present and past, since the historian is part of the present and the facts belong to the past. The historian and the facts of history are necessary to one another. The historian without his facts is rootless and futile; the facts without their historian are dead and meaningless. My first answer therefore to the question, What is History?, is that it is a continuous process of interaction between the historian and his facts, an unending dialogue between the present and the past.’

All Quotations  are taken from: E.H. Carr, “What is History?”. It is an abridged version of the first chapter, “The Historian and His Facts”.  

From the “Introduction” by Richard J. Evans, published to celebrate the 40 th edition of What is History? (2001)

‘E. H. Carr (1892-1982) was not a professional historian in any sense of the term that would be acceptable today. He did not have a degree in History. He never taught in a History Department at a University. At Cambridge before the First World War he studied Classics. He later confessed that he had no interest in history at the time. He did not take a Ph.D., nowadays the conventional route into the academic profession. On graduating in 1916, he went straight into the Foreign Office, where he remained for the next twenty years. During this time, he occupied his leisure, of which he seems to have had a great deal more than would be allowable nowadays, in writing biographical studies of nineteenth-century Russian writers and thinkers. (…) When in 1936 he resigned from the Foreign Office to take up a Chair at Aberystwyth University, it was to become Professor not of History but of International Relations. (…) Just as he had spent increasing amounts of time writing books while employed by the Foreign Office, however, so he now spent increasing amounts of time practising journalism while employed by the University. He became Assistant Editor of The Times in 1941 and wrote many leading articles for the newspaper until leaving his post in 1946. (…)  After a period of earning his living as a freelance journalist, lecturer and broadcaster, he obtained a Tutorship in Polities at Balliol College, Oxford, in 1953, before moving in 1955 to his final post, a Senior Research Fellowship at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he remained until his death in 1982 at the age of 90.

Carr thus approached history from the angle of someone who had spent his life working for the Foreign Office and for a national newspaper. These influences and experiences strongly coloured his views about history and how it should be studied. He came to this subject relatively late in life. He embarked on his only major historical work, a History of Soviet Russia, published in fourteen volumes between 1950 and 1978, when he was in his fifties, and by the time he came to write What is History? he was already well past retirement age. He later claimed that his interest in history originated in the Russian Revolution itself, which he had viewed from afar as a junior clerk in the British Foreign Office in 1917. But it lay dormant for many years, until it was finally and decisively reawakened during the Second World War, when, like many others in Britain, though more thoroughly and permanently than most, he was converted to an admiration of - and preoccupation with - Soviet Russia on the entry of that country into the war as an ally of Britain in June 1941.

Working on his History of Soviet Russia confronted Carr, as he said, with key questions such as “Causation and Chance, Free Will and Determinism, the lndividual and Society, Subjectivity and Objectivity” in what was to him a new field of intellectual endeavour. (…)

Carr’s History of Soviet Russia was a pioneering attempt to reconstruct in detail what happened, in Russia between 1917 and 1933 from the available sources. It was also a serious attempt at steering a course between the opposite poles of Cold War polemics and delivering an account that could be regarded as scholarly and objective. (….)

Carr’s argument in What is History? that the only causes that were of interest to the historian were the causes which could be of use in formulating policy for the future was one of the weakest in the book. Historians investigate causes in order to explain what happened, and while Carr was surely right to maintain that wider causes and contexts are essential to such an explanation, there was no intellectual justification for his suggestion that any causes, wider or not, that were of no use as a guide to future action should be ignored: that was the way to precisely the kind of manipulation of history in the interests of polities that he so roundly condemned in Stalin and his followers. As a participant in the negotiation of the 1919 Peace Settlement, one of the most disastrous international agreements of modern times, Carr might also have realized that when people do learn lessons from history, they often learn the wrong ones. History is a very poor predictor of future developments and future events. In attempting to rescue the notion of history’s predictive capabilities from its detractors, Carr confused historical laws with historical generalizations. (….) Moreover, the larger the generalization, the more exceptions there are likely to be. Historians use hypotheses, as Carr agreed, such as Max Weber’s famous idea that there was a connection between Protestantism and the rise of capitalism; but they never expect them to be wholly confirmed when they pit them against the historical evidence. Thus they can never be laws. (….)

In some key respects, therefore, Carr’s views have not stood the test of time. His teleologically instrumentalized concept of objectivity, his policy-oriented theory of causation, his Olympian disdain for the history of ordinary people, his unconscious identification with the governing rather than the governed, his sweeping and cavalier rejection of the role of the accidental and the contingent, his confusion of historical laws with historical generalizations, his dogmatic rejection of any element of moral judgment in history at all, his insistence that history had a meaning and a direction - none of these aspects of Carr’s argument in What is History? has found much favour with subsequent historians. (….)

Yet for all its flaws, its inner contradictions and its outdated approach to many aspects of the study of history, What is History? remains a classic. It has, after all, sold over a quarter of a million copies since its first publication, and with good reason. Like many books that were written quickly and originated in lectures, it has a fluent and pungent style that is often missing in more considered works. Unlike many books on the theory and practice of history, it contains numerous concrete examples of real historians and real history books to illustrate the more abstract argument it is propounding. In contrast to the majority of history primers and introductions to history of various kinds, it does not talk down to its readers but addresses them as equals. It is witty, amusing and entertaining even when it tackles the most recondite and intractable theoretical problems. It still retains after forty years its power to provoke. It tackles fundamental questions not just of history but also of politics and ethics. It deals with big topics and deals with them in a masterly fashion. lts range of reference, to historians, philosophers, writers and thinkers, is little short of astonishing. Carr knew a great deal and was a very clever man, and part of the seductive attraction of What is History? lies in the effortless display of learning and intelligence that it presents.

For the historian, What is History? is important for many reasons, not least for its insistence on the fact that, as Carr said, “History is a process, and you cannot isolate a bit of process and study it on its own ... everything is completely interconnected.”  Carr thought, rightly, that it was the job of historians to study whatever part of the past they chose to examine in the context of both what came before and after it, and the interconnections between their subject and its wider context. Above all, however, his book makes clear again and again that, whether we like it not, there is always a subjective element in historical writing, for historians are individuals, people of their time, with views and assumptions about the world that they cannot eliminate from their writing and research, even if they can hope to restrain them, subordinate them to the intractabilities of the material with which they are working, and enable readers to study their work critically by making these views and assumptions explicit. It is in this respect that Carr has been most influential, and his views most widely accepted by historians; and for this reason more than any other that his work will endure.’  

Postscript by Irène Diependaal, written for Hereditas Historiae 

E.H. Carr was referring to two Cambridge series: (1) The Cambridge Modern History. 14 volumes, 1902-1912; (2) The New Cambridge Modern History. 14 volumes, 1957-1979.

According to The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004): Carr worked full-time on his historical research and the writing of his massively detailed fourteen-tome History of Soviet Russia (1950-1978. ‘The premiss for the work was that the Soviet Union was as legitimate a subject of study as England under Henry VIII; that the Soviet experience had something to teach mankind; and that the system in some form was here to stay. As time went on, the first assumption took hold and opened up a field of research to many scholars who had had no idea that such work was practicable; the second assumption gradually fell away or was subsumed under lessons for less developed countries which have now largely been discarded; and the final assumption collapsed with the downfall of the Soviet Union in August 1991. By then, however, Carr had died, leaving behind him a partially completed history of the Communist International—Twilight of Comintern (1982) and The Comintern and the Spanish Civil War (1984). The latter was pulled together for publication by Tamara Deutscher.’ (written by Jonathan Haslam for ODNB: ‘Carr, Edward Hallett (1892–1982)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004)