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What Is History? by Edward Hallet Carr

What Is History? (1961)

by Edward Hallet Carr

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Going back to re-read old university textbooks for fun must be a sign of incipient nostalgia for the lost days of youth. That or masochism. I didn’t get a nostalgic buzz (possibly as I was young and foolish enough to think I could get away by essentially skimming it) but reading it with age and experience was far more rewarding than giving it to an intellectually arrogant 19 year old.

Carr’s initial question is the springboard for six essays, transcribed from a series of lectures. It’s a musing on what history is and the role it has in our society – how it actually fits neatly in with sciences, how objective a historian can be and how history tells us as much about the time it’s written in as it does about the time itself. It’s actually aged very well, being prescient on a number of issues and forcefully making a point of how history should be a positive force. Still, one thing is concerning– if Carr’s thesis that a nation in decline harks back to golden ages and nostalgia and turns inward on itself then the UK is in a ‘sick’ state indeed. A fascinating starting point for anyone looking at history and historiography. ( )
  JonArnold | Jun 9, 2015 |
I had wanted to read more about historiography and the theory of history since I'll be writing history myself, but it had been difficult to find books that were interesting and accessible without being aimed at undergraduates. I'm not looking for advice on how to write a course paper, but I also didn't want something overly dense that name-drops modern theorists without explanation of their ideas.

This was recommended by one of my supervisors, and it was exactly what I was looking for. Carr has written a very readable account of what he thinks history is and how ideas about history have developed over time, without talking down to the reader. This is a book about theory that's actually entertaining to read, thanks in large part to Carr's vivid and memorable metaphors. For example, he describes the naive writing of history without theory as a sort of Garden of Eden:

"This was the age of innocence, and historians walked in the Garden of Eden, without a scrap of philosophy to cover them, naked and unashamed before the god of history. Since then, we have known Sin and experienced a Fall; and those historians who today pretend to dispense with a philosophy of history are merely trying, vainly and self-consciously, like members of a nudist colony, to recreate the Garden of Eden in their garden suburb."

This follows a discussion of nineteenth-century historiography, with its focus on facts that could really be known. The key phrase is Ranke's, that "the task of the historian was 'simply to show how it really was (wie es eigentlich gewesen)'." Positivists and empiricists thought that history could be carried out like science, and was just a matter of gathering the facts.

I have to include another of Carr's comparisons here, because I just find them so entertaining:

"The facts are available to the historian in documents, inscriptions, and so on, like fish on the fishmonger's slab. The historian collects them, takes them home, and cooks and serves them in whatever style appeals to him. Acton, whose culinary tastes were austere, wanted them served plain...."

And then he resumes 20 pages later:

"The facts are really not at all like fish on 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."

The basic idea is that history isn't simply a matter of presenting the facts in some pure form; instead, it's about the interaction of the historian and the facts. The "facts" are what the historian makes of them. At the beginning of the first chapter, Carr answers the title question as follows: History is "a continuous process of interaction between the historian and his facts, an unending dialogue between the present and the past."

The next chapter follows in the same vein: he brings in society, arguing that people don't exist in isolation. This leads to the conclusion that history "is a dialogue not between abstract and isolated individuals, but between the society of today and the society of yesterday."

Much of what Carr says is reasonable and helpful (I particularly appreciated one point about just writing, when you reach the point where you have to set down your ideas on paper, even if it's in the middle of an idea—I've been struggling lately with the fact that my writing style does not match the extremely systematic approach promoted by one of my supervisors, so it was nice to see that in reality people don't all write like that). I found myself agreeing with a lot of what he said. But of course, there are some ideas that I'm less persuaded by. I'm not sure quite where I stand on the idea that there's not much difference between history and science because both ask the question "why". I know that the newest theories say that we can't really know anything as certainly as we think, and yet even as I accept that history is a discourse dependent for meaning on the historian and the reader and all sorts of external factors, rather than reflecting some absolute certainty in itself, I still believe in the objectivity of science in a different way. Carr acknowledges that there is a difference between physical science and history, but goes on to try to close the gap between them: "My principal objection to the refusal to call history a science is that it justifies and perpetuates the rift between the so-called 'two cultures'." Carr relates this to class prejudice ("the humanities were supposed to represent the broad culture of the ruling class, and science the skills of the technicians who served it"), and ultimately is "not convinced that the chasm which separates the historian from the geologist is any deeper or more unbridgeable than the chasm which separates the geologist from the physicist". These are interesting ideas, but not ones that I ultimately find very persuasive.

The other key point where I differ from Carr is on the idea of history as progress, and I think this is one place where I actually fall more on the side of the postmodernists, whom I usually find frustratingly negative and destructive (although I actually found it very fruitful to read a book on postmodern theory of history, which I'll review next). Basically, Carr acknowledges that "the hypothesis of progress has been refuted. The decline of the West has become so familiar a phrase that quotation marks are no longer required." But he goes on to assert that he still really believes in progress after all, because societies are always working toward improvement. In his view, "Every civilized society imposes sacrifices on the living generation for the sake of generations yet unborn." This was published in the early 60s, and it sounded almost ridiculously quaint and outdated to me when I read it in the present: my impression of the world is that people as a whole look primarily to their own immediate benefit, and leave the problems of debt/environmental degradation/various unsustainable practices for future generations to worry about. Apparently I've become sort of cynical. But I still think there's a *possibility* for progress, I just don't see it as a given for any "civilized society".

But despite these disagreements, or maybe even because of them, I found this a very rewarding read. There's lots to think about, and it's presented in a clear and accessible style that doesn't hide behind jargon. I'd definitely recommend it to anyone interested in the broader concept of history. ( )
  _Zoe_ | Mar 28, 2014 |
This book is not actually a book on history per se but rather an exploration of the discipline of history. This is the main reason that I consider it philosophy as it is not looking at a specific historical event, or looking at the history of civilisation but rather taking a step back and exploring what it is that historians do. This is something that many of us generally take foregranted when we look and an historical event. Many of us will discuss the reasons behind the event and the results of what happened from the event, but we generally do not look at what goes into our thought patterns when we discuss these things. This, though, I believe is important because by understanding the background to the discipline helps us interpret the events and come to better conclusions as to the events that we are looking at.
There are a few things that I wish to outline with regards to Carr's philosophy (this book is actually a series of lectures that Carr delivered, and then published in book form). First of all we need to consider the context of the event. Carr indicates that history does not occur in a vacuum. Once again, we generally know and accept this, but do not really think too deeply about what it means. Carr does discuss causation, and this is an important aspect of history, but before we come to causation, we must understand the concept of a fact in history.
We generally understand that history is made up of facts. It was a fact that Rome dominated the Mediterranean region during the late classical period, just as it is a fact that Hitler invaded Poland. These are things that we generally do not dispute, but the question that is raised is how we come about those facts. In the case of Hitler there are a lot of sources that we can turn to to confirm this fact and also assist us in making sure that the event of him invading Poland is a clear as possible. In a recent event this is easy, however when we are looking back at events that occurred in Ancient Rome, then our sources are much more limited. For instance, there are only two sources that deal with Hannibul's invasion of the Italian Peninsula, and both of these sources were written by Romans at least a hundred years after the events. As such the telling of this tale is clouded by the opinions of the writers and the societies in which these writers were writing. Then we have sources such as Plutarch, who wrote even later, and wrote from a number of sources. However, Plutarch's telling of the story is going to be coloured by the sources that he chose, and the selections that he took from his sources. Plutarch has a purpose in writing his history, and his use of sources are going to be coloured by his own thoughts and opinions.
As can be seen, the sources that we rely on to obtain facts will be coloured by the writer and the society in which that writer was writing. However there is be a further twist to this in that our interpretation of these sources are going to be further coloured not only by the society in which we live, but also since many of the sources, at least for the ancient world, are not written in our language, we must also go through the process of either interpreting the documents ourselves, or relying upon somebody else's translation. This is probably why Carr indicated that any historian that is worth their salt should be able to read and understand at least one other language (mine are Ancient Greek and German).
As mentioned our context is going to colour the way we interpret history, particularly when it comes to the concept of cause and effect. In the Early Modern Era, historical movements and changes were seen as the actions of single men. Therefore an event would occur because a single person chose a course of action and pursued it. Take for instance Hannibul's invasion of Italy. Earlier Carthage and Rome had gone to war over possession of the island of Sicily, and Carthage had lost the war. As a result, Carthage was forced to hand over colonies and pay tribute to Rome. This had left a bitter taste in the mouths of the Carthaginians, and it was going to happen, sooner or later, that one person was going to want revenge, and that person turned out to be Hannibul.
However, as society changed, we came to understand the causes of events differently, particularly as the French Revolution rocked the continent. There was no specific person that could be seen as starting the French Revolution, but rather it was a general social movement that precipitated the event, and these ideas had filtered into the French Nation due to their participation in the American War of Independence. This explanation can also be used with regards to Hannibal. First of all, causes in themselves have causes, and these causes also have causes. As indicated above, it was the Cartheginian defeat in the first Punic War that resulted in Hannibul arising, however, the social movement theory suggests that if it was not Hannibul, it would have been somebody else. Further, it was a social event that brought about the first Punic War: two empires that were growing were bound to come into conflict with each other, and the defeat in the war did not just effect one person, but a whole range of people. In a strange way, history repeated itself in the first half of the 20th century.
However, come the late 19th Century, the concept of causes changed again and now many of us look at economic causes as being the reason behind many historical events. With the French revolution is was the fact that the French Government was bankrupt and attempted to increase an already crippling tax rate upon the commoners that was the spark that resulted in the French Revolution. In the same way the first Punic War could be considered a trade war as Rome and Carthage came to blows over trade routes and colonies, in particular Sicily (which was the staging ground for much of the first war). However, this is not purely economic as also strategic for whoever gained control of Sicily would have the upper hand, which suggests that it arose out of a clash of Empires.
I don't necessarily agree entirely with Carr's exposition of history, but that is because we tend to approach history from different angles. I tend to had a teleological view of history, meaning that history moves from a beginning to an end and history is relentlessly moving towards that end, even though we may only have a vague understanding of what that end will be and when it will occur. This has come out of my Christian upbringing. Also there is the debate over divine intervention. Carr does not accept this, however I do, though will admit that it is subtle at best. This comes out in the doctrine of accident in history. Some suggest that there is no such thing as an accident, but I say rubbish. It was an accident that enabled the Americans to defeat the Japanese at the battle of Midway (where it was Hitler's insanity that resulted in him invading Russia). The further back in history we go, the more distinct the causes, the turning points, and indeed the accidents, become. Take for instance the defeat of Senaccerib at the gates of Jerusalem. The Bible (one of our sources) says that at night the Angel of Death came down and slaughtered the Assyrian army. Modern historians suggest that it was a disease. Either way, my position is that this single, accidental (or divine) event pretty much changed the course of history.
I mentioned above that if Hannibul didn't rise up, somebody else would have. While that may be true, it was Hannibul, with all of his strengths and his weaknesses, that rose up. It was Hannibul that came up with the plan to march over the Alps, and the tactics he used to defeat the Romans at Cannae. Even though the Romans were defeated, it was Hannibul that hesitated for too long when deciding his next move that resulted in Scipio Africanus being able to launch a counter attack against Carthage. Further, it was Hitler who decided to attack Russia instead of Turkey, and it was also Hitler who decided to change course and move away from Moscow and instead attack Stalingrad. It was these characters, with their specific decisions and flaws that resulted in the history as we know it, and it is my position that it was God who raised these people up (or arranging other accidents) to set the course of history as it happens.
Obviously this then raises the question of free will verses determination. Do we have free will, or are we just prisoners of a relentless history that moves forward. While I may have argued on determinism above, we have to remember that it was the choices that people made, and their desire to see through to the end their plans, that turned history the way it went. While God may have raised up Hannibul to attack Rome, it was Hannibul's choice to do something about the defeat his people had suffered, just as it was Hannibul's choice not to march on Rome after defeating the Romans at Cannae. In the same vein, it was Hitler's choice to invade Soviet Russia instead on Turkey (the reason I use that is that if he had invaded Turkey, he could have then moved into the Fertile Crescent and captured the oil fields of the Middle East rather than wasting his resources in a fruitless campaign against Russia). In the same sense (though this is controversial in and of itself) it was Franklin Delanore Roosevelt's decision not to act against the Japanese Fleet that turned the war in the Allies' favour, just as it was the Japanese's leadership's decision to attempt to take out the American Pacific Fleet to attempt to prevent them from entering the war.
This is a short book, and while I would suggest that we don't need to agree with everything Carr writes in his book, I believe this is a good book for the serious student of history. Carr assists us in understanding the discipline and also the controversies that arise in the way we interpret it: do we look at single people, accidents, social movements, or economic forces. Carr suggests, and I agree, that we must look at all of these factors, as all of these factors, particularly when we are looking at modern events (such as World War II, which ironically Carr does not even mention) in trying to understand the context, the reasons behind, and the effects, of these events. ( )
  David.Alfred.Sarkies | Mar 23, 2014 |
In the 1960s, EH Carr delivered lectures at Cambridge about what is history and about being a historian, which were then published as this book; this 1980s text, published after Carr's death, contain an introduction and a final chapter discussing Carr's notes for a second edition that he never had time to write. I found all the chapters interesting and Carr's ideas about history being context-bound in many ways very sensible and understandable. ( )
  mari_reads | Aug 4, 2013 |
A classic, and must-read for anyone who is a student of history. And anyone who confuses political ideology for history, so speaks in intelligible-seeming gibberish having only accidental foundation, if any.

Essentially a guide explaiing "How to Read history" so one doesn't confuse popular cutlural myths and or one's own projections for objective fact and actual history, simply because one has heard them countless times thus unquestioningly assumed them true. ( )
  JNagarya | Mar 17, 2012 |
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"I often think it odd that it should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention."
Catherine Morland on History
(Northanger Abbey, Ch. XIV)
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«Spesso mi stupisco che debba essere così noiosa, che in gran parte è frutto d'invenzione» CATHERINE MORLAND, a proposito della storia (Northanger Abbey, cap. XIV)
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Focuses on the lives and legacies of historical figures who have influenced the world in significant and lasting ways, including politics, social action and the arts and sciences.

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Penguin Australia

2 editions of this book were published by Penguin Australia.

Editions: 0140135847, 0141037733

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