After the resounding success of the previous thread on this topic, I have again decided to post my notes on an aspect of Edward Hallett Carr's historiography, namely the second chapter of What is History?, entitled Society and the Individual(all quotations are from Carr unless otherwise stated):
History previously described as a dialogue between past and present. Here, we "inquire into the relative weight of the individual and social elements on both sides of the equation."
How far are historians single individuals, and how far products of their society and period?
How far are the facts of history facts about single individuals and how far social facts?
The historian is part of society, and the society to which she belongs influences her view of the past; the historian is herself part of history. This is true even when the period studied by the historian is distant from her own time.
Two important truths:
"You cannot fully understand or appreciate the work of the historian unless you have first grasped the standpoint from which he himself approached it; secondly, that that standpoint is itself rooted in a social and historical background."
This background sometimes radically alters in the historian's lifetime e.g. there is great social, political or economical change.
For example, H.Butterfield, and his The Whig Interpretation of History.
Denounced the Whig interpretation, criticising in particular its study of the past "with reference to the present".
"The study of the past with one eye, so to speak, upon the present is the source of all sins and sophistries in history...It is the essence of what we mean by 'unhistorical'"-(Butterfield)
This was stated in the context of the 'iconoclastic 1930s'. Later, however, Butterfield altered his position:
"Professor Butterfield not only decided that the Whig interpretation of history was the "English" interpretation, but spoke enthusiastically of the 'Englishman's alliance with this history' and of the 'marriage between the present and the past'-(Carr, quoting Butterfield from The Englishman and his History)
This was published in 1944, where iconoclasm was no longer in vogue, Britain was "engaged in a war often said to be fought in defence of the constitutional liberties embodied in the Whig tradition", and the Prime Minister, Churchill, constantly talked about the past with reference to the present.
"My purpose is merely to show how closely the work of the historian mirrors the society in which he works. It is not merely the events that are in flux. The historian himself is in flux."
Broad trends in historical writing also demonstrate the extent to which the historian is the product of her society.
For example, the trend of the British historians:
In the 19th century, history was "full of meaning" for British historians, and the course of history was a demonstration of "progress".
After World War I, this attitude became "heretical"; British historians rejected their previous attitude, believing that there was no general pattern in history at all.
"Is the object of the historian's enquiry the behaviour of individuals or the action of social forces?"
"Bad King John theory of history-the view that what matters in history is the character and behaviour of individuals-has a long pedigree."
Popular with the ancient Greeks and during the Renaissance; not suitable for complex societies, even if it was suitable for primitive ones.
In the beginning of the 20th century, 'history is the biography of great men' was a reputable aphorism.
Exemplified by the perception that Communism is the product of Karl Marx, as opposed to analysing "its origin or character", or that the Bolshevik revolution was the result of the stupidity of Nicholas II, as opposed to "profound social causes."
Moreover, on this view, both world wars are seen as the result of individual wickedness, rather than the product of "some deep seated breakdown in the system of international relations".
1)"The first is that history is to a considerable extent a matter of numbers."
Millions of individuals(albeit anonymous) can provoke great change(e.g. revolution); they constitute a 'social force'.
"Numbers count in history."
2)"...the actions of individual human beings often have results which were not intended or desired by the actors or indeed by any other individual."
e.g. Since 1914, there have been two major, world wars, after 100 years of local, minor wars. It is not a satisfactory explanation of this phenomenon to say that more people wanted war in the beginning of the 20th century than they did in the preceding 75 years of the 19th.
e.g. Great Depression-brought about by individuals pursuing different aims, though none wanted a depression.