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Thread: What is History?-Notes on Carr's Thesis

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    Default What is History?-Notes on Carr's Thesis

    Unsurprisingly, this thread concerns itself with Edward Hallett Carr's iconoclastic historiography, expounded through the famous text "What is History?" This was itself predicated on a series of Trevelyan Lectures delivered by Carr at Cambridge University during 1961. It is truly essential reading for those interested in history, its philosophy or indeed anyone with an intellectual bent.

    Preamble aside, having recently completed the book, I've decided to take notes on it, in the hope that I can better retain its content; chapter 1, entitled "The Historian and His Facts" was finished for the second time today. Furthermore, in order to help the information solidify, entertain perusers of this forum and engender discussion, I've decided to share these notes.

    The following are rudimentary and largely unedited, and are not presented as an alternative to a thorough introduction to the book or, of course, reading the book itself (apologies in advance for errors):

    What is History?

    1896-Acton-believed that we could arrive at an “ultimate history”- all information learned, and every problem solved.

    1957-Sir George Clark-commented that this was no longer in vogue-historians had become aware that their work may well be superceded-were also aware that historical facts are not impersonal- passed down by people who 'process' the information.

    The 19th Century

    Focused on facts- Empiricism- "wie es eigentlich gewesen"(simply to show how it really was)- Ranke.

    Fitted the Empiricist tradition of Locke to Russell; also endorsed by the Positivists-as in Empiricist philosophy, complete separation of subject and object (e.g. sense-impression;pain), the latter impinging on the former's consciousness, and the former acting upon them.

    In historiography, this was a distinction between "fact" and “interpretation”- "Hard core of facts" and "surrounding pulp of disputable interpretation"- Sir George Clark. The facts were the 'object', impinging on the historian.

    Carr's analogy of the fishmonger-the fish are the 'facts' (e.g. documents) that are then prepared and cooked, etc. according to the historian's fancy (interpretation).

    The 19th century approach to modern history, rather than involving the selection of significant facts, attempted to “select” all facts.

    Thus Acton was threatened by modern history; "from a man of letters into the compiler of an encylopedia".


    Carr's Contention

    According to the above view, an historical fact is something which constitutes the backbone of history; same for all historians e.g. the Battle of Hastings was fought in 1066.


    Facts like this are not the primary concern of the historian; they must be correct, but are expected of the historian-"accuracy is a duty, not a virtue"-Housman. Praising an historian for getting these facts correct is akin to praising an architect for using proper building materials in his buildings.

    Duty of other disciplines to arrive at them( e.g. archaeology, numismatics, epigraphy).


    The historian selects the historical facts-the core corpus of historical facts are arbitrarily selected.

    "It is he (the historian) who decides to which facts he gives the floor, and in what order or context"-Carr

    Battle of Hastings in 1066- we are interested in this only because historians regard it as important.

    Caesar crossing Rubicon- millions of other did the same- people only interested in the former.

    '"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."-Carr

    Which “facts” are handed down to us by the composers of documents is affected by a process of selection by said composers e.g. we are often told that the people of the Middle Ages were devoutly religious, yet the only sources we have to document this were themselves men preoccupied with religion- other facts that may have provided evidence to the contrary are forever lost, as they would simply have never been recorded.

    The “Distilling” Process of Selection-Gustav Stresemann:

    1)Stresemann died in 1929- left behind 300 boxes full of various types of documentation relating to his tenure as foreign minister.

    2)His secretary, Bernhard, published Stresemanns Vermachtnis- a three volume work of selected documents from the 300 boxes.

    - Bernhard selected documents that portrayed Stresemann positively- Locarno, Dawes and Young Plans, et al.; underrepresented less impressive documents, viz. those dealing with his interactions with the Soviets( largely unsuccessful)

    3)In 1935, an English translation (Sutton) of Stresemanns... was published, though the translation was abridged- certain parts of the original work omitted.

    -Stresemann's interactions with the Soviets further receded from view.

    -The original of Stresemanns..., and the 300 boxes, were almost lost in the grip of Nazi Germany, leaving us with Sutton's English edition; the "truth almost being lost for good".

    In addition, many of the 300 boxes of documents are records by Stresemann himself, and frequently portray him very favourably, and his interlocutor negatively-'what Stresemann thought had happened, or what he wanted others to think, or perhaps what he wanted himself to think, had happened'-Carr.

    19th century- little/no interest in the 'philosophy of history', in an age of optimism and self-confidence, where the answer to 'What is History?' was taken to be self-evident and implicit; laissez-faire economic policies were an expression of the same optimism- everything “would take care of itself”.

    Historiography proper began with the Germans in the very late 19th century, which inspired Croce, in the early 20th century, to declare that all history is "contemporary history", making clear the inseparable relationship between History and bias.

    Also, Carl Becker, "the facts of history do not exist for any historian till he creates them" (1910)

    Only in the 1920s, after WW1, were these sentiments appreciated- the onset of pessimism, and the exhausting of 19th century optimism.


    The historian must employ an 'imaginative understanding' for the minds of the people he is writing about.

    He must also 'sympathise'(N.B. Not synonymous with "agree") with his dramatis pesonae- understand what occurred in their minds.


    The historian must recognise that his interpretation of the past is affected by his present experience and context e.g. French historians , writing about the French revolution, have had their work profoundly affected by the Russian Revolution of 1917.

    The “Dangers” of the Foregoing Observations

    Collingwood devolved into 'relativism'; "There is no point in asking which (interpretation) was the right point of view. Each was the only one possible for the man who adopted it."

    Froude- history like "a child's box of letters with which we can spell any word we please".

    Carr rejected this 'relativism'; "It does not follow interpretation is as good as another, and the facts of history are in principle not amenable to objective interpretation."

    Selection of facts: must present all facts which are relevant; also ensure facts are accurate.

    Danger of the historian becoming preoccupied with the present-pragmatism- Nietzsche- what is 'life-furthering, life-preserving, species-preserving, perhaps species-creating'?

    Necessary to maintain a balance between the 19th century hoarding and worship of facts, and the equal failure of ignorance of the facts and an over-emphasis on interpretation(historical fiction).

    The middle-ground of reciprocity: beginning with a provisional interpretation, on which a corpus of facts is, in part, selected- the facts then alter the interpretation, and this subsequently affects the ordering and selection of the original and 'novel' facts, ad infinitum.

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