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Edward Hallet Carrs Arguments In What Is History?

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Philosophy
Wordcount: 2881 words Published: 2nd May 2017

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This essay attempts to review Edward Hallet Carr’s (1892-1982) arguments in his book What is History?

According to Carr, history is a continual process of interaction; a dialogue between the historian in the present and the facts of the past and the relative weight of individuals and social elements on both sides of the equation. Advocating the adoption of a suitable philosophy to the approach of writing history, in terms of selecting, distinguishing and interpreting historical fact, Carr elucidates that great history is written when the historian’s view of the past is illuminated by insights into the conditions of the present. In addition to continually asking why, the historian also needs to project into the future.

This essay attempts to understand Carr’s views on objectivity, truth and narrative in the arguments put forth in his book ‘What is History?’ and the assessment of his arguments by other historians.

H.E. Carr’s Arguments on What is History

In his arguments on What is History? Carr sets out the following premise. History is a continual dialogue between the past and the present; an interaction between the historian and his facts. Establishing the criteria for selecting historical fact, Carr argues that fact itself is insufficient and must be correctly and truthfully interpreted. To arrive at a correct interpretation and factual account of history, a historian must continually question why and whither, as history in essence is change. Carr also underlines the fact that historians, as individuals, cannot be divested from the society they live in. A proper philosophy to the approach of history is thus essential for the historian.

Each era or century has its own interpretation of what history is. As a social process, history is an interaction between the past and the present and between the society of today and yesterday.

History according to Carr contains a corpus of ascertained facts and these are available to the historian in documents. He however asserts that fact without accurate interpretation is ineffectual. To understand this, one has to first distinguish historical fact from other facts in the past.

Carr discusses historical fact in light of the Empirical or Common Sense View of History. There are certain basic facts that are the same for all historians and which form the backbone of history. These facts, however, form the raw material for the historian, rather than history itself. The necessity to verify the truth of these basic facts rests on a priori decision by the historian.

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Whilst accuracy of such facts is a necessary, a historian must also rely on the ‘auxiliary sciences’ of history – archaeology, epigraphy, numismatics, chronology amongst others. A historian like any other scientist must continually ask the question why. The question whither also assumes importance, since the line of demarcation between pre-historic and historical times is eclipsed when people cease to live only in the present and become consciously interested in their past and future.

However, Carr also reveals that as a social being the historian is naturally and inclined to be selective of the facts he chooses. Our picture of the past has been preselected and predetermined for us by people who consciously or unconsciously imbued a particular view and saw those facts as worthy of preserving. Carr likens history to an enormous jigsaw puzzle with many missing parts. A lacunae in the historical facts of 5th century Greece B.C has arisen due to one sided view of Greece from the Athenian citizen. Hardly any information is available on how it looked to other citizens like the Spartan, Corinthian, Theban or even a slave. The 19th century fetishism of facts was complemented by an equal fetishism for documents. However, none of this means anything unless the author has actually deciphered and processed the facts found in these documents before making use of them. Carr defines the method the historian makes use of facts as the processing process. The Stresemanns Vermächtnis volume is one such illustration of the selectiveness of historians.

Sometimes mere fact about the past is transformed into history. For example while the Battle of Hastings 1066 is an important historical event, it is the historian who decides the whether the inclusion of Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon is a relevant historical fact. Or the mention of the murder of a ginger bread vendor at Stalybridge Wakes in 1850 is equally relevant. Their status as historical facts will depend on their interpretation.

Correct and truthful interpretation of historical fact is equally important stresses Carr. Facts are like fish swimming about in a vast and sometimes inaccessible ocean. What the historian catches will depend largely on which part of the ocean he is fishing and what fish he intends to catch. The ancient or mediaeval historian may be grateful for the large winnowing process which has over the years put a manageable corpus of facts at their disposal. The modern historian on the other hand has the dual task of discovering a few significant facts and discarding the insignificant ones as unhistorical.

Each historian belongs to his own age and is bound to it by the conditions of human existence. An understanding of the past can be achieved by an insight into present conditions. The choice of words for example democracy, empire or war, are connotations linked to the historian’s specific time in history. Similarly, over the years, a change in the balance of power, world wars and other movements have also influenced historical writing. French history in the latter twentieth century was deeply affected by the Russian Revolution of 1917. Carr advises historians that equal importance should be given to the date and publication of writing as the name of the author when commencing on a study.

Carr states it is imperative that the author should neither dwell solely on the past nor disassociate totally from it, but master and understands it, as the key to understanding the present.

The reconstitution of the past in the historian’s mind is dependent on empirical evidence, but is not in itself an empirical process as facts do not speak for themselves. The process of reconstitution governs the selection and interpretation of facts. This indeed is what makes them historical facts.

The facts of history are never handed down to us in a pure form clarifies Carr. They are always refracted through the mind of the recorder. When a historian takes up a work of history, the author’s first concern should not be with the facts, but rather an understanding of the historians who wrote it and their back ground. To appreciate the work of the English Liberal Historian, Trevelyan “England under Queen Anne”, one must interpret it against the background of his traditional Whig historian lineage.

To appreciate the thoughts behind people’s action, Carr exhorts historian to cultivate an imaginative understanding of the minds of people they are dealing with for a correct interpretation of historical fact.

Historians must necessarily cultivate an objective approach to history asserts Carr. The duty of the historian to respect fact cannot be overshadowed by the obligation to see that the facts are accurate. The historian must seek to bring into the picture all known or knowable facts, relevant in one sense or the other to the theme and the interpretation proposed.

History is meaningless in a static world affirms Carr. History in its essence is change reveals Carr. It is meaningless in a static world. A society which loses its belief in its capacity to move into the future will quickly cease to concern itself with its progress in the past. History can be accurately written by those who find and accept a sense of direction in history itself.

Whilst writing history, two processes must go hand in hand – input and output, states Carr. Working historians must stop and reflect what they are doing. The historian can thus effectively mould facts to his interpretation.

Speaking from his own experience, Carr reveals that the process of reading and writing are simultaneous exercises for him. The writing is added to and subtracted from as he goes along. He found that his reading was more guided and directed by the writing as he went along.

Assessment of Carr’s Arguments

Since its publication in 1961 E.H. Carr’s What is History? the book established itself as a classic reference on the subject. [1] Yet despite its widespread recognition, many inner flaws and contradictions have surfaced, sparking several debates on Carr supposition of What is History?

Whilst rejecting the crude and rigid re-constructionist stance of the empiricist, Carr as a political constructionist historian has failed to visualise the post modern challenge to the distinction between fact and fiction in historical narrative and the influence of root metaphors. [2] His epistemological position is revealed through his scepticism about the nature and status of historical knowledge and sociology of knowledge. (Alan Munslow). Over the years there have been disagreements about Carr’s contribution to the analytical philosophy of history, shadowing the distinction between re-constructionism and constructionism. [3] 

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Authors Anders Stephanson and Rendall Germain in their appraisal conclude that Carr’s answers to the questions he has set about history are in themselves unsatisfactory. Another writer, Keith Jenkins underlines the futility of Carr’s empirical-analytical concept particularly in light of the post modern challenges. [4] Carr devalues his currency of re-constructionist theory, by his ultimate acceptance of the epistemological model of historical explanation as the best method to create and evaluate historical thought. [5] 

Exploring Carr’s epistemological claim to radicalism and his insistence that a historian cannot divorce himself from the outlook and interests of his age, Historian Alan Munslow, highlights the fact that today with greater awareness of the weakness of representation, reference and inductive inference, a larger part of historical writing is based on the supposition that we cannot know any absolute truths about the past.

Whilst acknowledging Carr’s attention to the discursive nature of historical facts, Historian Alex Callinicos refutes Carr’s opinion that the importance of empirical evidence diminishes since the facts of history are refracted through the mind of the historian. [6] Rather this premise gives rise to the question of the historian’s subjective bearing on the facts.

Carr drops his objectivist anchor when he argues that Historian Collingwood’s logic of sceptical position leads to the idea that there is no certainty in historical meaning and that the discourses of historians, or what Carr termed as total scepticism, like something ‘spun out a human brain’, suggests that there could be no objective truth in historical writing. [7] Supporting his own belief in the power of empiricism, Carrexplicitly rejected Nietzche’s notion that historical truth is defined by fitness of purpose. This misguiding percept excludes the possibility that one interpretation is as good as another. [8] 

While confirming the necessity of a continual interaction between the historian and his facts, Carr was unwilling to acknowledge that the written historical fact could possibly be a work of fiction. [9] He overlooks the reality that new evidence and new theory can offer new interpretations. Carr’s epistemological theory of knowledge argues that the past is known from its evidence and remains so whilst being introduced in the historical narrative. [10] 

For example, Carr’s argument that facts are a priori decision of the historian, and that the historians’ influence on and the arrangement of these facts is what constitutes historical meaning. However, this gives rise to the risk of subjectivity and the outcome may not be an accurate representation of the evidence. [11] 

Carr pulls back from relativism which his own logic has thrust him into. Aware that he is running a post empiricist wind, he rejects Collingwood’s demand for the emphatic and constructive approach and cites another historian who accepts the model of dialogue between past and present, while keeping an objective point of view. This profile of a historian is affirmed by the American Commentators Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt and Margaret Jacob who repacked Carr’s position as practical realism. [12] 

Carr uses his objectivist angle to underplay the problems of historical form. [13] He does this by arguing that the standard for objectivity in history is the historian’s “sense of the direction in history”, which means the historian selects facts not on personal bias, but on the ability to choose “the right facts, or, in other words, that he applies the right standard of significance”. [14] 

Carr’s objective historian is one who has the ability to see beyond the inadequate vision of his own position in society and history and at the same time has the ability to visualise the future to give him a more in depth and enduring understanding of the past. [15] 

The objective historian is also one who “penetrates most deeply” into the mutual method of fact and value, who recognises that facts and values are not necessarily in opposition to differences in standards emerging from disparity of historical fact, and vice versa. An objective historian also understands the boundaries of historical theory.

Carr’s insists that the objective historian should develop the habit of reading and interpreting the evidence at the same time. However, appropriate social theory precludes presumption or series of connected presumptions, of how people in the past acted intentionally and related to their social contexts. [16] 


In his book What is History? H E Carr lays out the premises for conducting a correct approach and philosophy to writing history. History according to Carr is a continuous dialogue between the past and present and a continual interaction between the historian and the facts, for a correct interpretation and accurate recording of facts. It is constantly changing. It is important therefore for the historian to develop a proper philosophy of history before undertaking a study, where historical fact, the criteria for selection of, and their factual interpretation are of vital importance.

Carr’s arguments about objectivity and his epistemological theory of knowledge have been widely criticised by empiricist as well as the social theory historians. His failure to visualise post modern challenge to the distinction between fact and fiction in historical narrative and his inclination towards post-empiricism despite his claims to radicalism have reduced the currency of his re-constructionist theory.


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