E. H. Carr and the Thesis of What Is History?

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E. H. Carr and the Thesis of What is History?

Edward Carr begins What is History? By saying what he thinks history is not…by being negative. In Carr’s words, what history is not, or should not be, is a way of constructing historical accounts that are obsessed with both the facts and the documents which are said to contain them. Carr believes that by doing this the profoundly important shaping power of the historian will surely be downplayed.1 Carr goes on to argue – in his first chapter- that this downgrading of historiography arose because mainstream historians combined three things: first, a simple but very strong assertion that the proper function of the historian was to show the past as ‘it really was’; second, a positivist stress on inductive method, where you first get the facts and then draw conclusions from them; and third – and this especially in Great Britain – a dominant empiricist rationale. Together, these constituted for Carr what still stood for the ‘commonsense’ view of history:
The empirical theory of knowledge presupposes a complete separation between subject and object. Facts, like sense-impressions, impinge on the observer from outside and are independent of his consciousness. The process of reception is passive: having received the data, he then acts on them…This consists of a corpus of ascertained facts…First get your facts straight, then plunge at your peril into the shifting sands of interpretation – that is the ultimate wisdom of the empirical, commonsense school of history.2

Clearly, however, commonsense doesn’t work for Mr. Carr. For he sees this as precisely the view one has to reject. Unfortunately things begin to get a little complicated when Carr tries to show the light, since while it seems he has three philosophical ways of going about his studies - one being epistemological and two ideological - his prioritizing of the epistemological over the ideological makes history a science too complex for comprehension to anyone other than himself. Carr’s epistemological argument states that not all the ‘facts of the past’ are actually ‘historical facts.’ Furthermore, there are vital distinctions to be drawn between the ‘events’ of the past, the ‘facts’ of the past and the ‘historical’ facts. That ‘historical facts’ only become this way is by being branded so by recognized historians. Carr develops this argument as follows:

What is a historical fact?…According to the commonsense view, there are certain basic facts which are the same for all historians and which form, so to speak, the backbone of history - the fact, for example, that the battle of Hastings was fought in 1066. But this view calls for two observations. In the first place, it is not with facts like these that the historian is primarily concerned. It is no doubt important to know that the great battle was fought in 1066 and not 1065 or 1067…The historian must not get these things wrong. But when points of this kind are raised, I am reminded of Housman’s remark that ‘accuracy is a duty, not a virtue’. To praise a historian for his accuracy is like praising an architect for using well-seasoned timber. It is a necessary condition of his work, but not his essential function. It is precisely for matters of this kind that the historian is entitled to rely on what have been called the ‘auxiliary sciences’ of history - archaeology, epigraphy, numismatics, chronology, and so-forth.3

Carr thinks that the insertion of such facts into a historical account, and the significance which they will have relative to other selected facts, depends not on any quality intrinsic to the facts ‘in and for themselves,’ but on the reading of events the historian chooses to give:

It used to be said that facts speak for themselves. This is, of course, untrue. The facts speak only when the historian calls on them: it is he who...
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