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What is History?,
This review is from: What is History?: The George Macaulay Trevelyan Lectures Delivered in the University of Cambridge (Penguin History) (Paperback)
The question 'what is history?' is one that has taxed the mind of many a historian throughout the centuries. In 1961 E H Carr plunged into this cauldron of definition and interpretation with his own views on this question. A stance which does not take a position on the proverbial fence. Indeed, the fence is not in the picture. The book unpicks many of the foundations of the field, hence for those studying the subject, in particular the history of 'what is history', will find it refreshing and thought provoking.
Carr begins his answer to 'what is history?' by articulating what he thinks history is, but not from a negative position. He argues that the role of the historian in fetishing the facts and thus their ability to shape history is extraordinarily underestimated. He believes this came about for three reasons. Firstly, Ranke's view that it was the role of the historian to shake off their partisan views; secondly, the overstated emphasis on induction methods, of first, find the facts then draw conclusions from them, and third a dominant empirical culture. The latter having strong foundations among English historians. When the three elements are combined together they form what Carr constitutes the commonsense view of history.
For Carr the empirical theory of knowledge is taken as a precondition for the severance of subject and object. Thus, impressions drawn from conclusions are independent of the processes, and for him this is a passive model, in that the data is received and it is then acted upon. Hence commonsense history, just as night follows day. To put it simply, history is just a collection of a body of material from which you ascertain the facts. A view that he rejects.
Carr rejects the above view in favour of this own way of researching history. In doing so, he puts forward three ways of going about this in the form of a negative reflective position. The first looks at history from an epistemological perspective and the second and third explore the ideological connotations within the construct of history.
For Carr the epistemological argument runs along the lines that not all the facts of the past are historical facts. By this he means there are fundamental differences to identify between the events of the past, the facts of the past and historical facts. He argues that historical facts only become so by their selection for such a position by prominent historians. For the selection of these facts by the historian into historical accounts are done so in relation to the significance of other facts. Thus, another historian may select other facts that are more relevant to their historical construct. In other words Carr concludes:
Its status as a historical fact will turn on a question of interpretation. This element of interpretation enters into every fact of history (Carr E H 1990. p12-13)
On first reading you may induce that he denies factual based history in that all history is just interpretation so there are no things such as facts. However, as he develops his views in later sections of the book, we see that he reinstates the facts in such away that leads him towards his own version of objectivity.
Carr advances two further arguments in support of his views on the grounds of being openly ideological. His stance is that of the classical liberal progressive; one which leaves individuals to their own devices - given that they are working within a framework of intellectual laissez-faire, they will by that very conduit come to some harmony of interest resulting in an ideological view of history. The point he is emphasising here is that the idea of the facts speaking for themselves is in effect a misnomer for they speak with a liberal accent that clouds their view. Thus, he argues that the dominant liberal ideology, not only shaped the facts for themselves, but for all historiography. A position which seems to portray that historians should act as conduits of the past through which facts pass.
However, when he examines the 1950's and 1960's and in his preface of this book in the 1970's and 1980's, he sees the liberal optimism eroded by the very evidence of the facts 1960's and beyond. This evidence he believes is based on values drawn from the facts and so a period of pessimism prevails. However, he himself remains optimistic for two reasons. Firstly, he believes the interpretation of despondency that he detected in the writings of his fellow intellectuals as being based on facts, was in reality an interpretation of the facts as viewed through their value-loaded perspective. And therefore, all they were doing was giving station to their own opinions. Secondly, he thought his colleagues could only see despondency during this period because they were writing within the West from a Western perspective. Whereas, he thought there was no reason to think optimism was not alive and well elsewhere in the world. Their despondence, he believes, is by way of their attachment to elitism. Such elitism was beginning to collapse in the face of the dominance of countries being challenged and with it the ruling class ideas. Thus, their views were clouded by these events. Carr believes himself to be an intellectual dissident for he distances himself from these prevailing views.
If the reader is left looking for an answer to, what is history, after reading the book, they are not alone for it can be argued so was Carr.