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Studying The Historian,
This review is from: What is History?: The George Macaulay Trevelyan Lectures Delivered in the University of Cambridge (Penguin History) (Paperback)
E. H. Carr's 'What Is History?' is perhaps the leading introductory textbook on historiography (i.e. the study of historical method). It's essential reading for anyone who has an interest in history, and especially those who are studying any aspect of the subject. Carr's book has always been highly-controversial among professional historians as it contains a number of contentious ideas about historical method. In recent years the controversy has ignited again in the context of education, as policy-makers and educators debate what is the best way to teach history at different scholastic levels.
Essentially, Carr's approach is to look at the way the historian's own bias affects the history he writes. Instead of viewing the historian as an impartial agency situated outside of history, Carr argues that the historian is part of the historical process. What the historian thinks is as important as what happened in history, and each interacts with the other, so that the historian's own social and political perspective will influence both the facts he selects as historically significant and how those facts are interpreted. As perspective is critical, history becomes not merely a dry chronicle of 'what happened', but a vision of the future projected into the past. The main criticism of this approach seems to be that it prioritises the historian over history. This criticism finds populist expression in the idea that children should study history by learning facts rather than skills. The first (traditionalist) approach emphasises content. The second (modern) approach emphasises the historian.
Having read the book for myself, I find this criticism to be very unfair, reflecting a misunderstanding of Carr's ideas. Carr does place a great emphasis on interpretation and how we go about looking at history, the bias we bring to it and how this affects historical content, but Carr is not dismissing the importance of content. He is merely suggesting that a competent historian must consider the process of how history is made by historians, and in particular how his own perspective might influence which facts he chooses to select and how he interprets those facts. This seems to me perfectly reasonable, and it's clear that many of the historians who criticise Carr cannot have read the book, or if they have, they were not paying attention. Perhaps the real reason for the controversy is that many see a political edge to Carr's historical methods, but if so, I find this puzzling. There cannot be any political implication taken from this book, if properly understood. This is not a 'left-wing' or a 'right-wing' book in its own right. It is just a set of ideas on what might guide a competent historian, and Carr's maxim, "Before you study the history, study the historian" is demonstrable in the way virtually any history book is written. Carr himself was a historian I quite admire, mainly because he was able to look at his main field of study, the Soviet Union, quite fairly and objectively. He was not a Marxist himself, but he emphasised the importance of Marxism to history, rather than dismissing its significance as many anti-Marxist historians are want to do.
There are some weaknesses in this book. Carr never really gets to grips with the role of accident in history, a controversy that he glosses over with some weak analogies, but I think where Carr really gets into trouble is when he starts to discuss 'History As Progress'. The problem with Carr's perspective is, first, a belief in an abstract 'progress' as a material end in itself, something which is impossible to define in any rigorous way and which absolves us from properly understanding history; second, a faith in optimism over the real source of historical change, which is conflict.
On the first point, I would suggest that if we wish to define progress as Carr sees it, which is ever-widening reason and liberalism, then history is not necessarily progress and there is little empirical evidence that it is or need be over the greater span of time. In fact, history may prove to be what Carr would consider to be regression and there is no reason why others would not see that as progress. Carr's defenders might respond to this by pointing out that Carr explicitly saw 'progress' as neutral, as nothing more substantial than a 'North' point on the compass of history, a changeable abstract that we continually move towards and interact with, but I find it is undeniable that Carr is specific about what progress 'is', not just where it is located, i.e. that it is liberalism. That being the case, we need to consider whether Carr's preoccupation with 'liberalism as progress' actually strips history of its meaning.
Second, and related to the first point, Carr does not deal rigorously with the role of conflict in history. He seems to think that optimism about the future - a dream - is what drives history, in this case a liberal dream of widespread enlightenment, but it seems clear to me that in fact history is made up of conflicts, mainly of class and race, and it is through conflict that the historical process has to be viewed by historians.
I also think there is a missing critical idiom: the reader of history. Carr does not consider how the perspective of the reader (as opposed to that of the historian) can affect its interpretation. I think that would be a very interesting line of inquiry, particularly in view of emerging post-modern approaches. However, these points do not detract from the greatness of the book and I'm very glad I decided to read this classic again.
This particular edition is recommended because it includes notes by E. H. Carr on a proposed second edition which he, sadly, never came to write.