What is history?

What is history? Is the question posed by EH Carr in the 1961 text book based on a lecture series delivered at Cambridge University. I remember my parents having in on their shelves as a set book from their time studying history.

The first chapter tackles the very  Victorian (and non-historian’s) view that history is about “facts”. Carr argues that history is in fact a dialogue between the historian and the available evidence. Although Carr doesn’t say so explicitly this feels influenced by Marx. History is a dialectic between the present and the past. Evidence is always seen both through the lends of the present, but also from the perspective of the actor.

The second chapter talks about the historian in society. Carr refutes use of a human ‘state of nature’. The individual is inseparable from the society in which he lives, and it is not possible to talk about an individual’s actions unless you understand the social context in which they happen. Therefore in order to understand history as written by historians you need to understand the social context in which that history was written. Carr therefore denies any variation of history as the acts of ‘great men’. If great men exist at all, they are people who recognise and facilitate the flow of change in society. History is therefore not simply an “unending conversation between the present and the past”, but in fact a conversation between present and past societies. History becomes a lens through which we increase our understanding of our own society.

In the third chapter Carr draws parallels between history and science. After sending to move closer together during the nineteenth century, the two disciplines seemed to move further apart in the modern era with less mechanistic views of human society. Carr argues that on fact science has moved closer to history. It is not correct that “science deals with the general while history deals with the particular”. History is full of generalisation – from how periods are divided onward – while science is far less certain that it has established “fact”. Yes, man is both the subject and object of history – but science is also about our understanding of the world. There is less objectivity on science than might be supposed.

Carr also suggests that history should not comment on the “morality” of individuals. This falsely pushes our own standards back into history. But history does presuppose interpretation, in other words judgements. But the essence lies in comparison, and qualities such as “progressive” or “reactionary” may help. Perhaps again this is a dialectic approach?

In short, history and science stand close together as part of human understanding of the world around us.

In the fourth chapter Carr discusses causation and takes on Berlin and Popper, from what seems to me a distinctly Marxist point of view. The historian weighs up the data and assigns causes, but in the knowledge that life is complex and so there will be a number of factors which are sorted and prioritised by the historian. History advances through a dual and contradictory process of simplification and multiplication.

Opposition to Berlin and Popper falls into two categories – determinism and accident.

Historians say ‘inevitable’ when they mean ‘extremely probable’. all human action is both free and determined. History has causes which are ascertainable. At root history is about examining and investigating these causes, and is otherwise barren. Accepting that humans have free will should not mean refusing to accept that actions have causes.

On accidents in history, clearly it would be foolish to deny they happen. However history is the process of sifting through the causes to discern which are historically significant. The early death of Lenin may well have influenced history, but we can draw no lessons from it. Anything which fails to promote our understanding of the past in light of the the present and the present in light of the past is barren from the point of view of the historian.

I find Carr’s argument for progress in history on chapter 5 less convincing. He refutes that we can discern an end point to history, but argues that there is progression although he accepts that this is not always in a straight line. In particular he cautions against viewing progress from a western and Eurocentric viewpoint. Seen from the perspective of Africa or Latin America it is easier to make the case for progress on history.

Again, in some ways he presents the Marxist point that history charts humanity’s control of its environment and surroundings – the development of human potential. This is the marker for progress on history.

Having a theory for the direction of history is important though, because only in this way can we judge different interpretations of history. Our view evolves with time, but there is no true ‘objectivity’. Nor is everything relative – all interpretations are not born equal. It is only a sense of the direction of history which allows us to order and interpret the events of the past, in a process which is essentially dynamic. Objectivity if it means anything means choosing the right level of significance of facts to be considered.

There is a short segment on ‘great’ figures from history. It strikes me that this also affirms a Marxist view that people are considered ‘great’ when they are swimming with the tide of history.

At root though, history is not theology dependent on changes outside history, nor is it a collection of stories with no theory of cause and effect. It is, rather, closely linked to change and motion – or in other words, progress.

In the final chapter, Carr works through the advance of reason in very positive terms with emphasis on the growing capacity of humans to grasp and understand the movement of their societies. The final key point is about movement and motion. Revolutionary change continues and history should not deny it happens nor try to hold it back, but seek to understand.


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