What Is History?

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What is History?
First edition
Author E. H. Carr
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Genre Historiography
Publisher University of Cambridge Press
Publication date

What Is History? is a study of historiography that was written by the English historian E. H. Carr. It was first published by Cambridge University Press in 1961. It discusses history, facts, the bias of historians, science, morality, individuals and society, and moral judgements in history.

The book was originally part of a series of G. M. Trevelyan lectures given by Carr in 1961 at the University of Cambridge. The lectures were intended as a broad introduction into the subject of the theory of history.

Some of Carr's ideas are contentious, particularly his alleged relativism and his rejection of contingency as an important factor in historical analysis. His work provoked a number of responses, notably Geoffrey Elton's The Practice of History.

Carr was in the process of revising What is History? for a second edition at the time of his death in 1982. He had finished a new preface, in which he discussed the pessimism of westerners in the 1980s, which he contrasted with the optimism of the 1960s, and pondered his own status as a "dissident intellectual".


I: The Historian and his Facts

"Study the historian before you begin to study the facts. This is, after all, not very abstruse. It is what is already done by the intelligent undergraduate who, when recommended to read a work by that great scholar Jones of St. Jude's, goes round to a friend at St. Jude's to ask what sort of chap Jones is, and what bees he has in his bonnet. When you read a work of history, always listen out for the buzzing. If you can detect none, either you are tone deaf or your historian is a dull dog. The facts are really not at all like fish on the fishmonger's slab. They are like fish swimming about in a vast and sometimes inaccessible ocean; and what the historian catches will depend, partly on chance, but mainly on what part of the ocean he chooses to fish in and what tackle he chooses to use – these two factors being, of course, determined by the kind of fish he wants to catch. By and large, the historian will get the kind of facts he wants. History means interpretation."

E.H. Carr.[1]

Chapter one, "The Historian and his Facts", explores how the historian makes use of historical facts. Carr notes that in the 19th century, western historians held to an empirical, positivist worldview that revolved around a "cult of facts", viewing historical facts as information that simply had to be assembled to produce an objective picture of the past that was entirely accurate and independent of any human opinion.[2] Carr argues that this view is inherently flawed, because historians selectively choose which "facts of the past" get to become "historical facts", or information that the historians have decided is important. As an example, he notes that millions of humans have crossed the Rubicon river in Northeastern Italy, but that historians have only chosen to treat the crossing of the Rubicon by Julius Caesar in 49 BCE as an important "historical fact". Carr contends that historians arbitrarily determine which of the "facts of the past" to turn into "historical facts" according to their own biases and agendas.[3]

Carr proceeds to document the rise of non-empirical historians in the 20th century, who like himself argued that it was impossible to write an objective history, because all historical facts were themselves subjective. Although sharing their general view, he criticises the approach adopted by one of these non-empiricists, R. G. Collingwood, for insinuating that any one interpretation of history was as good as any other.[4][5] He compares the situation facing the historian to the situation of Odysseus facing Scylla and Charybdis, remarking that they can fall into the "untenable theory of history as an objective compilation of facts" or they can fall into "the equally untenable theory of history as the subjective product of the mind of the historian".[6]

Instead, Carr argues that history should follow a middle-path, constituting a relationship "of equality, of give-and-take" between the historian and their evidence. He remarks that the historian continuously moulds his facts to suit their interpretation and their interpretation to suit their facts, and takes part in a dialogue between past and present.[7] Summing up his argument, Carr puts forward his own answer to the question of "what is history?", remarking that "it is a continuous process of interaction between the historian and his facts, an unending dialogue between the past and the present."[8] 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

II: Society and the Individual

In his second chapter, Carr focuses on the influence that society plays on forming the approach of the historian and the interpretation of historical facts. He begins by highlighting the manner in which each individual is molded by society from birth, meaning that everyone is a "social phenomenon". He proclaims that this "very obvious truth" has been obscured by the "cult of individualism" – the idea that the individual was entirely separate from society – that emerged in western thought with the rise of classical liberalism. He accepts that this "cult of individualism" is an inevitable by-product of "advancing civilisation" but nevertheless considers it illogical.[9]

Carr highlights that, as individuals, historians are heavily influenced by the society that surrounds them, meaning that they too are "social phenomenon". In turn, he notes, this societal influence subsequently influences their interpretation of the past. As an example, he highlights the work of George Grote (1794–1871), an English historian and Enlightenment-era thinker whose depiction of ancient Athenian democracy in his History of Greece reflected "the aspirations of the rising and politically progressive British middle class" of which he was a part.[10]

In the same way, Carr argued that no individual is truly free of the social environment in which they live, but contended that within those limitations, there was room, albeit very narrow room for people to make decisions that have an impact on history.[11] Carr made a division between those who, like Vladimir Lenin and Oliver Cromwell, helped to shape the social forces which carried them to historical greatness and those who, like Otto von Bismarck and Napoleon, rode on the back of social forces over which they had little or no control.[12] Though Carr was willing to grant individuals a role in history, he argued that those who focus exclusively on individuals in a Great man theory of history were doing a profound disservice to the past.[13] As an example, Carr complained of those historians who explained the Russian Revolution solely as the result of the "stupidity" of Emperor Nicholas II (which Carr regarded as a factor, but only of lesser importance) rather than the work of great social forces.[13]

III: History, Science and Morality

In the third chapter, "History, Science and Morality", Carr looks at the disputed claims that history constitutes a science. He saw history more as a social Science, and not an art form that many considered it. He then highlights that there are five objections to considering history a science, and proceeds to discuss each of these. First, he looks at the idea that while science looks at general theories, history only covers the unique aspects of history and is selective.[14] Second reason, it cannot teach lessons which later on in this chapter he contradicts himself. Third objection, that historians are selective and their work may contain biases. Fourth objection that it cannot predict the future and final objection is that history is embedded in religion and biases. In his reasonings he clearly contradicts himself several times in what defines science and history. He was strongly against historians only using the empirical method to analyze the facts of history and felt there needed to be less insertion of personal biases in one's work. In this chapter, Carr makes sure to talk about history and its ability to fit and not fit in the realm of science also how morality should be omitted in one's work because as historians we should not view characters from the past with the same biases that we have in our modern society.

IV: Causation in History

In this section of the book Carr talks about causation in history. He believed that everything that happened in this world happened because of cause and effect. Carr holds on to a deterministic outlook in history and firmly believes that events could not have happened differently unless there was a different cause. He called “these so called accounts in history represent a sequence of cause and effect interrupting and so to speak clashing with the Sequence of which the historian is primarily concerned to investigate.”[15] He feels that the main job of a historian is to investigate the reasons/causes as to why events occurred and not to create the events or justify them. He was not a fan of "what if" history and he found it pointless because it did not happen. Carr saw accidents in history as impossible and felt that historians should seek rational causes as to why events happened rather than blame them on chance. He gives various examples throughout the book to illustrate his point that everything has a reason. One involves a common man who apparently we are friendly with and he one day acts out, it is because of something else in his life that is influencing him to act out the norm not just chance.

V: History as Progress

VI: The Widening Horizon

The foundations of modern history were "laid in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries."[16] The fifteenth century saw the emergence of a new middle class, one that rose out of merchants- and more modernly industry. Carr expands on the causes for man to investigate history. In that he specifies the evolution of that curiosity, originally being the timeline and story of man. However, the inquiry of modern history underwent a major change in that man is no longer only fixed to their environment, but on self-reflection and reason.
Carr discusses the development of "revolutionary change," saying it came about with the ideas of Descartes, in that man was first developing concepts and understanding of his place in the world, "man's position as a being who can not only think, but think about his own thinking, who can observe himself in the act of observing, so that man is simultaneously the subject and the object of thought and observation."[16] Carr attributes the developing complexity with the ideas made popular during the French Revolution, and from that stems the ideas and search of liberty.

Second edition


For his planned second edition, Carr authored a new preface, which was posthumously found among his papers. In this short text, he contrasted what he saw as the optimism of the 1960s, when he originally authored the text, with the pessimism of the 1980s, when he was putting together the second edition. The former, he argued, was marked by the dissolution of the British Empire, the economic recovery of France, Germany and Japan following the destruction of the Second World War, the boom of world stock markets, and the process of de-Stalinization in the USSR and de-McCarthyization in the USA. The latter, he felt, was characterised by the economic crisis, mass unemployment, resumed intensity of the Cold War and the increasing power of Third World nations.[17]

Carr then rejects this pessimism, seeing it as nothing more than the elite opinion of Western Europeans and North Americans whose position as global superpowers has rapidly declined since the 19th century. The rest of the world, he reasons, has reason to be optimistic as standards of living are being raised.[18] He furthermore argues that the "standard-bearers" of this pessimistic western view are the intellectuals, who are themselves an elite. He does however exempt the role of "dissident intellectuals" – a category into which he classes himself – whom he believes reject such mainstream intellectual theories.[19]


In What is History? (1961), Carr argued that he was presenting a middle-of-the-road position between the empirical view of history and R. G. Collingwood's idealism.[5] Carr rejected the empirical view of the historian's work being an accretion of "facts" that he or she has at their disposal as nonsense.[5] Carr claimed:

The belief in a hard core of historical facts existing objectively and independently of the interpretation of the historian is a preposterous fallacy, but one which it is very hard to eradicate.[20]

Carr maintained that there is such a vast quantity of information in the modern era that the historian always chooses the "facts" he or she decides to make use of.[5] In Carr's famous example, he claimed that millions had crossed the Rubicon, but only Julius Caesar's crossing in 49 BC is declared noteworthy by historians.[5][21] Carr divided facts into two categories: "facts of the past", that is historical information that historians deem unimportant, and "historical facts", information that the historians have decided is important.[5][22] Carr contended that historians arbitrarily determine which of the "facts of the past" to turn into "historical facts" according to their own biases and agendas.[5][23]

For this reason, Carr argued that Leopold von Ranke's famous dictum wie es eigentlich gewesen (show what actually happened) was wrong because it presumed that the "facts" influenced what the historian wrote, rather than the historian choosing what "facts of the past" he or she intended to turn into "historical facts".[24] At the same time, Carr argued that the study of the facts may lead the historian to change his or her views.[5] In this way, Carr argued that history was "an unending dialogue between the past and present".[5][25]

As an example of how he believed that "facts of the past" were transformed into the "facts of history", Carr used an obscure riot that took place in Stalybridge Wakes in 1850 that saw a gingerbread seller beaten to death.[20] Carr argued that this incident had been totally ignored by historians until the 1950s when George Kitson Clark mentioned it in one of his books.[20] Since Kitson Clark, Carr claimed that several other historians have cited the same riot for what it revealed about Victorian Britain, leading Carr to assert that the riot and the murder of the gingerbread seller was in the progress of going from a "fact of the past" to a "fact of history" that in the future will be regularly cited by historians.[20] Another example Carr used in his theory was the publication in 1932 of the papers of the former German Foreign Minister Gustav Stresemann by his secretary Bernhard.[26] Carr noted when Stresemann died in 1929, he left behind 300 boxes of papers relating to his time in office, and in 1932 Bernhard published three volumes of Stresemann's papers under the title Stresemanns Vermächtnis.[26] Carr noted that because of the Locarno Treaties, for which Stresemann was a co-winner of the Nobel peace prize, Bernhard devoted most of the papers in Stresemanns Vermächtnis to Stresemann's work with relations to Britain and France.[26] Carr noted that the documents of the Auswärtiges Amt and Stresemann's own papers show that Stresemann was far more concerned with relations with the Soviet Union instead of the Western powers, and that Bernhard had edited the selection in Stresemanns Vermächtnis to focus more on Stresemann's Nobel Peace Prize-winning successes and to make him seem more like an apostle of peace than what he really was (one of Stresemann's major interests was in partitioning Poland between Germany and the Soviet Union).[27] Moreover, Carr noted that when an English translation of Stresemanns Vermächtnis was published in 1935, the translator abbreviated one-third of the German original to focus more on those aspects of Stresemann's diplomacy that were of primary interest to British readers, which had the effect of making it seem that Stesemann was almost exclusively concerned with relations with the Western powers and had little time for relations with the Soviet Union.[28] Carr commented that were it only the English translation of Stresemanns Vermächtnis that had survived World War II, then historians would have been seriously misled about what Stresemann had been up to as Foreign Minister.[28] Finally Carr argued that in the conversations between Stresemann and the Soviet Foreign Commissar Georgy Chicherin, Stresemann does most of the talking and says all of the intelligent and original things, leading Carr to suggest that Stresemann himself had edited the papers to place himself in the best possible light.[29] Carr used Stresemanns Vermächtnis to argue for the subjective nature of the documents historians used, which he then used to support his attacks against the idea of the work of the historians being purely that of a totally objective observer who "lets the facts speak for themselves".[29]

Likewise, Carr charged that historians are always influenced by the present when writing about the past. As an example, he used the changing viewpoints about the German past expressed by the German historian Friedrich Meinecke during the Imperial, Weimar, Nazi and post-war periods to support his contention.[30] The British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, one of Carr's leading critics, summarized Carr's argument as:

"George Grote, the 19th-century historian of Greece, was an enlightened radical banker; therefore, his picture of Periclean Athens is merely an allegory of 19th century England as seen by an enlightened banker. Mommsen's History of Rome is similarly dismissed as a product and illustration of pre-Bismarckian Germany. Sir Lewis Namier's choice of subject and treatment of it simply show the predictable prejudices of a Polish conservative".[31]

In general, Carr held to a deterministic outlook in history.[32] In Carr's opinion, all that happens in the world had a cause, and events could not have happened differently unless there was a different cause.[32] In Carr's example, if one's friend Smith suddenly starts acting out of character one day, then it must be understood that there is a reason for the strange behaviour, and that if that reason did not exist, then Smith would be acting normally.[33] Carr criticized counter-factual history as a "parlour game" played by the "losers" in history.[34] Carr contended that those who engaged in counter-factual speculations about Russian history, such as if Count Pyotr Stolypin's land reforms were given enough time, would the Russian Revolution have been prevented, were those who were uncomfortable about the fact that the Bolsheviks were the "winners" of Russian history and their opponents were not.[34] Likewise, Carr asserted those who stress the importance of "accidents" as a central causal agent in history were the "losers" of history, who wished to explain away their defeats as the workings of chance and fate.[35] In the same way, Carr argued that historians must concern themselves with the "winners" of history.[36] In Carr's example, it is those who score centuries in cricket matches who are recorded, not those who are dismissed for ducks, and in the same way, Carr maintained that a preoccupation with the "losers" would be the equivalent of someone only listing the losers of cricket games.[37] Carr dismissed the free will arguments made by Sir Karl Popper and Sir Isaiah Berlin as Cold War propaganda meant to discredit communism.[38] In a similar way, Carr took a hostile view of those historians who stress the workings of chance and contingency in the workings of history.[32] In Carr's view, such historians did not understand their craft very well, or were in some way identified with the "losers" of history.[32]

Carr claimed that when examining causation in history, historians should seek to find "rational" causes of historical occurrences, that is causes that can be generalized across time to explain other occurrences in other times and places.[32] For Carr, historical "accidents" cannot be generalized, and are thus not worth the historian's time.[32] Carr illustrated his theory by telling a story of a man named Robinson who went out to buy some cigarettes one night, and was killed by an automobile with defective brakes driven by a drunk driver named Jones on a sharp turn of the road.[39] Carr argued one could contend that the "real" reasons for the accident that killed Robinson might be the defective brakes or the sharp turn of the road or the inebriated state of Jones, but that to argue that it was Robinson's wish to buy cigarettes that was the cause, while a factor, was not the "real" cause of his death.[40] As such, Carr argued that those who were seeking to prevent a repeat of Robinson's death would do well to pass laws regulating drunk driving, straightening the sharp turn of the road and the quality of automobile brakes, but would be wasting their time passing a law forbidding people to take a walk to buy cigarettes.[40] In a not too subtle dig at critics of determinism like Sir Karl Popper and Sir Isaiah Berlin, Carr spoke of the inquiry into Robinson's death being interrupted by two "distinguished gentlemen" who maintained quite vehemently that it was Robinson's wish to buy cigarettes that caused his death.[40] In the same way, Carr argued that historians needed to find the "real" causes of historical events by finding the general trend which could inspire a better understanding of the present than by focusing on the role of the accidental and incidental.[41]

As an example of his attack on the role of accidents in history, Carr mocked the hypothesis of "Cleopatra's nose" (Pascal's thought that, but for the magnetism exerted by the nose of Cleopatra on Mark Anthony, there would have been no affair between the two, and hence the Second Triumvirate would not have broken up, and therefore the Roman Republic would have continued).[42] Carr sarcastically commented that male attraction to female beauty can hardly be considered an accident at all, and is rather one of the more common cases of cause and effect in the world.[43] Other examples of "Cleopatra's Nose" types of history cited by Carr were the claim by Edward Gibbon that if the Turkish sultan Bayezid I did not suffer from gout, he would have conquered Central Europe, Winston Churchill's statement that if King Alexander had not died of a monkey bite, the Greco-Turkish War would have been avoided, and Leon Trotsky's remark that if he not contracted a cold while duck hunting, he would not have missed a crucial Politburo meeting in 1923.[42] Rather than accidents, Carr asserted history was a series of causal chains interacting with each other.[43] Carr contemptuously compared those like Winston Churchill who in his book The World Crisis claimed that the death of King Alexander from a monkey bite caused the Greek-Turkish war to those who would claim that the "real" cause of Robinson's death was his desire to buy cigarettes.[40] Carr argued that the claim that history was a series of "accidents" was merely an expression of the pessimism which Carr claimed was the dominant mood in Britain in 1961, due to the decline of the British Empire.[44]

Bust of Cleopatra VII. In What is History? Carr dismissed the theory of "Cleopatra's Nose" as an example of the power of accidents in history

In Carr's opinion, historical works that serve to broaden society's understanding of the past via generalizations are more "right" and "socially acceptable" than works that do not.[32] Citing Pieter Geyl, Carr argued that as the values of society changes, so do the values of historical works.[32][44] Carr argued that as society continues to progress in the 20th century, historians must change the values that they apply in writing their works to reflect the work of progress.[45] Carr argued during his lectures that Karl Marx had developed a schema for understanding past, present and the future that reflected the proper and dual role of the historian both to analyse the past and provide a call for action for the present in order to create a better future for humanity.[46]

Carr emphatically contended that history was a social science, not an art,[47] because historians, like scientists, seek generalizations that help to broaden the understanding of one's subject.[47][48] Carr used the example of the word revolution, arguing that if the word did not have a specific meaning then it would make no sense for historians to write of revolutions, even though every revolution that occurred in history was in its own way unique.[47][49] Moreover, Carr claimed that historical generalizations were often related to lessons to be learned from other historical occurrences.[47][50] Since in Carr's view, lessons can be sought and learned in history, then history was more like a science than any art.[47][51] Though Carr conceded that historians cannot predict exact events in the future, he argued that historical generalizations can supply information useful to understanding both the present and the future.[47] Carr argued that since scientists are not purely neutral observers, but have a reciprocal relationship with the objects under their study just like historians, that this supported identifying history with the sciences rather than the arts.[47][52] Likewise, Carr contended that history like science has no moral judgements, which in his opinion supports the identification of history as a science.[47][53]

Carr was well known for his assertions in What Is History? denying moral judgements in history.[54] Carr argued that it was ahistorical for the historian to judge people in different times according to the moral values of his or her time.[54] Carr argued that individuals should be judged only in terms of the values of their time and place, not by the values of the historian's time and/or place.[54] In Carr's opinion, historians should not act as judges.[55] Carr quoted Thomas Carlyle's remark on the British reaction to the French Revolution: "Exaggeration abounds, execration, wailing and on the whole darkness"...", and complained that exactly the same could be said about too much of Western commentary and writing on the Russian Revolution.[56] Likewise, Carr quoted Carlyle on the Reign of Terror as a way of confronting Western complaints about Soviet terror:

"Horrible in lands that had known equal justice—not so unnatural in lands that had never known it".[56]

Thus, Carr argued that within the context of the Soviet Union, Stalin was a force for the good.[54] In a 1979 essay, Carr argued about Stalin that:

"He revived and outdid the worst brutalities of the earlier Tsars; and his record excited revulsion in later generations of historians. Yet his achievement in borrowing from the West, in forcing on primitive Russia the material foundations of modern civilisation, and in giving Russia a place among the European powers, obliged them to concede, however reluctantly his title to greatness. Stalin was the most ruthless despot Russia had known since Peter, and also a great westerniser".[54]

Though Carr made it clear that he preferred that historians refrain from expressing moral opinions, he did argue that if the historian should find it necessary then such views should best be restricted to institutions rather than individuals.[54] Carr argued that such an approach was better because the focus on individuals served to provide a collective alibi for societies.[54] Carr used as examples those in United Kingdom who blamed appeasement solely upon Neville Chamberlain, those Germans who argued that Nazi-era crimes were the work of Adolf Hitler alone or those in the United States who blamed McCarthyism exclusively upon Senator Joseph McCarthy.[57] In Carr's opinion, historians should reject concepts like good and evil when making judgements about events and people.[58] Instead, Carr preferred the terms progressive or reactionary as the terms for value judgements.[59] In Carr's opinion, if a historical event such as the collectivisation of Soviet agriculture in the early 1930s led to the growth of the Soviet heavy industry and the achievement of the goals of the First Five Year Plan, then the collectivisation must be considered a progressive development in history, and hence all of the sufferings and millions of deaths caused by collectivisation, the "dekulakisation" campaign and the Holodomor were justified by the growth of Soviet heavy industry.[60] Likewise, Carr argued that the suffering of Chinese workers in the treaty ports and in the mines of South Africa in the late 19th-early 20th centuries was terrible, but must be considered a progressive development as it helped to push China towards the Communist revolution.[61] Carr argued that China was much better off under the leadership of Mao Zedong then it was under the leadership of Chiang Kai-shek, and hence all of the developments that led to the fall of Chiang's regime in 1949 and the rise to power of Mao must considered progressive. Finally, Carr argued that historians can be "objective" if they are capable of moving beyond their narrow view of the situation both in the past and in the present, and can write historical works which helped to contribute to progress of society.[62]

At the end of his lectures, Carr criticized a number of conservative or liberal historians and philosophers such as Hugh Trevor-Roper, Sir Karl Popper, Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison, Sir Lewis Bernstein Namier and Michael Oakeshott, and argued that "progress" in the world was against them.[63] Carr ended his book with the predication that "progress" would sweep away everything that Popper, Morision, Namier, Trever-Roper and Oakeshott believed in the 20th century just the same way that "progress" swept away the Catholic Church's opposition to Galileo Galilei's astronomical theories in the 17th century.[64] Elaborating on the theme of "progress" inevitably sweeping away the old order of things in the world, in a 1970 article entitled "Marxism and History", Carr argued that with the exception of the Mexican Revolution, every revolution in the last sixty-odd years had been led by Marxists.[65] The other revolutions Carr counted were the revolutions in Cuba, China, Russia, and a half-revolution in Vietnam (presumably a reference to the then on-going Vietnam War).[66] This together with what Carr saw as the miserable condition of the Third World, which comprised most of the world led Carr to argue that Marxism had the greatest appeal in the Third World, and was the most likely wave of the future.[67] Carr expanded on this thesis of "progress" being an unstoppable force in September 1978 when he stated:

"I think we have to consider seriously the hypothesis that the world revolution of which [the Bolshevik revolution] was the first stage, and which will complete the downfall of capitalism, will prove to be the revolt of the colonial peoples against capitalism in the guise of imperialism".[68]

In his notes for a second edition of What Is History?, Carr remarked on recent trends in historiography. Carr wrote about the rise of social history that:

"Since the First World War the impact of the materialist conception of history on historical writings has been very strong. Indeed, one might say that all serious historical work done in this period has been moulded by its influence. The symptom of this change has been the replacement, in general esteem, of battles, diplomatic manoeuvres, constitutional arguments and political intrigues as the main topics of history—'political history' in the broad sense—by the study of economic factors, of social conditions, of statistics of population, of the rise and fall of classes. The increasing popularity of sociology has been another feature of the same development; the attempt has sometimes been made to treat history as a branch of sociology."[69]

About the rise of social history as a subject at the expense of political history, Carr wrote:

"Social history is the bedrock. To study the bedrock alone is not enough; and becomes tedious; perhaps this is what happened to Annales. But you can't dispense with it".[70]

Through Carr himself had insisted that history was a social science, he regretted the decline of history as a discipline relative to the other social sciences, which he saw as a part of a conservative trend.[69] Carr wrote:

"History is preoccupied with fundamental processes of change. If you are allergic to these processes, you abandon history and take cover in the social sciences. Today anthropology, sociology, etc, flourish. History is sick. But then our society too is sick".[69]

Carr deplored the rise of Structuralism.[69] Carr wrote there was the structuralist approach, which Carr called a "horizontal" way of understanding history "which analyses a society in terms of the functional or structural inter-relation of its parts".[69] Against it, there was what Carr called the "vertical" approach "which analyses it [society] in terms of where it has come from and where it is going".[69] Through Carr was willing to allow that a structural approach had some advantages, he wrote:

"But it makes a lot of difference which attracts [the historian's] main emphasis and concern. This depends partly, no doubt, on his temperament, but largely on the environment in which he works. We live in a society which thinks of change chiefly as change for the worse, dreads it and prefers the "horizontal" view which calls only for minor adjustments".[71]

Repeating his attack on the empirical approach to history, Carr claimed that those historians who claimed to be strict empiricists like Captain Stephen Roskill who took a just-the-facts approach would resemble a character named Funes in a short story by Jorge Luis Borges who never forgot anything he had seen or heard, so his memory was a "garbage heap".[72] Thus, Funes was "not very capable of thought" because "to think is forget differences, to generalize, to make abstractions".[72] In his introduction to the second edition of What is History? written shortly before his death in 1982, which was all that Carr had finished of the second edition, Carr proclaimed his belief that the western world was in a state of despair, writing:

"The Cold War has resumed with redoubled intensity, bringing with it the threat of nuclear extinction. The delayed economic crisis has set in with a vengeance, ravaging the industrial countries and spreading the cancer of unemployment throughout the Western world [Carr is referring to the recession of the early 1980s]. Scarcely a country is now free from the antagonism of violence and terrorism. The revolt of the oil-producing states of the Middle East has brought a significant shift in power to the disadvantage of the Western industrial nations [a reference to the Arab oil shock of 1973-74 and the Iranian oil shock of 1979]. The "third world" has been transformed from a passive into a positive and disturbing factor in world affairs. In these conditions any expression of optimism has come to seem absurd".[73]

Carr went on to declare his belief that the world was in fact getting better and wrote that it was only the West in decline, not the world, writing that:

"My conclusion is that the current wave of skepticism and despair, which looks ahead to nothing but destruction and decay, and dismisses as absurd any belief in progress or any prospect of a further advance by the human race, is a form of elitism—the product of elite social groups whose security and whose privileges have been most conspicuously eroded by the crisis, and of elite countries whose once undisputed domination over the rest of the world has been shattered".[74]


Carr's opinions about the nature of historical work in What Is History? were controversial. In his 1967 book The Practice of History, Sir Geoffrey Elton criticized Carr for his "whimsical" distinction between the "historical facts" and the "facts of the past", saying that it reflected "...an extraordinarily arrogant attitude both to the past and to the place of the historian studying it".[75] Elton praised Carr for rejecting the role of "accidents" in history, but said Carr's philosophy of history was an attempt to provide a secular version of the medieval view of history as the working of God's master plan with "Progress" playing the part of God.[76]

British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper said Carr's dismissal of the "might-have-beens of history" reflected a fundamental lack of interest in examining historical causation.[77] Trevor-Roper said examining possible alternative outcomes of history is not a "parlour-game", but is an essential part of historians' work.[78] Trevor-Roper said historian could properly understand the period under study only by looking at all possible outcomes and all sides; historians who adopted Carr's perspective of only seeking to understand the winners of history and treating the outcome of a particular set of events as the only possible outcomes, were "bad historians".[79]

In a review in 1963 in Historische Zeitschrift, Andreas Hillgruber wrote favourably of Carr's geistvoll-ironischer (ironically spirited) criticism of conservative, liberal and positivist historians.[80] British philosopher W.H. Walsh said in a 1963 review that it is not a "fact of history" that he had toast for breakfast that day.[81] Walsh said Carr was correct that historians did not stand above history, and were instead products of their own places and times, which in turn decided what "facts of the past" they determined into "facts of history".[81]

British historian Richard J. Evans said What Is History? caused a revolution in British historiography in the 1960s.[82] Australian historian Keith Windschuttle, a critic of Carr, said What Is History? is one of the most influential books written about historiography, and that very few historians working in the English language since the 1960s had not read it.[83]



  1. Carr 1987. p. 23.
  2. Carr 1987. pp. 7–11.
  3. Carr 1987. pp. 11–13.
  4. Carr 1987. pp. 13–27.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 5.6 5.7 5.8 Huges-Warrington, p. 26
  6. Carr 1987. p. 29.
  7. Carr 1987. pp. 29–30.
  8. Carr 1987. p. 30.
  9. Carr 1987. pp. 31–33.
  10. Carr 1987. pp. 36–37.
  11. Huges-Warrington, pp. 26–27
  12. Carr, What Is History?, pp. 54–55
  13. 13.0 13.1 Carr, What Is History?, p. 46
  14. Carr 1987. pp. 56–.
  15. what is history by Carr, pg. 129
  16. 16.0 16.1 http://library.universalhistory.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/What-is-history.pdf
  17. Carr 1987. pp. 3–4.
  18. Carr 1987. p. 5.
  19. Carr 1987. pp. 4–5.
  20. 20.0 20.1 20.2 20.3 Carr, What Is History?, p. 12
  21. Carr, What Is History?, p. 10;
  22. Carr, What Is History?, pp. 12–13
  23. Carr, What Is History?, pp. 22–25;
  24. Carr, What Is History?, pp. 8–13
  25. Carr, What Is History?, p. 30
  26. 26.0 26.1 26.2 Carr, What Is History?, p. 16
  27. Carr, What Is History?, p. 17
  28. 28.0 28.1 Carr, What Is History?, p. 18
  29. 29.0 29.1 Carr, What Is History?, pp. 18–19
  30. Carr, What Is History?, pp. 40–41
  31. Trevor-Roper, p. 70
  32. 32.0 32.1 32.2 32.3 32.4 32.5 32.6 32.7 Huges-Warrington, p. 27
  33. Carr, What Is History?, p. 94; Huges-Warrington, p. 27
  34. 34.0 34.1 Carr, What Is History?, p. 97
  35. Carr, What Is History?, pp. 99–101
  36. Carr, What Is History?, p. 126
  37. Carr, What Is History?, pp. 126–127
  38. Carr, What Is History?, pp. 91–95; Huges-Warrington, p. 27
  39. Carr, What Is History?, p. 104
  40. 40.0 40.1 40.2 40.3 Carr, What Is History?, pp. 106–107
  41. Carr, What Is History?, pp. 107–108
  42. 42.0 42.1 Carr, E.H. What is History? London: Penguin, 1961, 1987 p. 98
  43. 43.0 43.1 Carr, E.H. What is History?, London: Penguin, 1961, 1987 p. 99
  44. 44.0 44.1 Carr, What Is History?, p. 43
  45. Huges-Warrington, pp. 27–28
  46. Carr, What Is History?, pp. 136–138
  47. 47.0 47.1 47.2 47.3 47.4 47.5 47.6 47.7 Huges-Warrington, p. 28
  48. Carr, What Is History?, p. 62
  49. Carr, What Is History?, p. 63
  50. Carr, What Is History?, pp. 66–67
  51. Carr, What Is History?, p. 68
  52. Carr, What Is History?, pp. 70–71
  53. Carr, What Is History?, pp. 74–75
  54. 54.0 54.1 54.2 54.3 54.4 54.5 54.6 Huges-Warrington, p. 29
  55. Carr, What Is History?, pp. 76–77
  56. 56.0 56.1 Carr, What Is History?, p. 64; Laqueur, p. 126
  57. Carr, What Is History?, p. 78; Huges-Warrington, p. 29
  58. Carr, What Is History?, p. 82
  59. Carr, What Is History?, p. 83
  60. Carr, What Is History?, pp. 80–81
  61. Carr, What Is History?, p. 81
  62. Huges-Warrington, p. 30
  63. Carr, What Is History?, pp. 152–156
  64. Carr, What Is History?, p. 156
  65. Carr, What Is History?, pp. 179–181
  66. Carr, What Is History?, pp. 179–180
  67. Carr, What Is History?, p. 181
  68. Carr, What Is History?, pp. 181–182
  69. 69.0 69.1 69.2 69.3 69.4 69.5 Carr, What Is History?, p. 171
  70. Carr, What Is History?, p. 170
  71. Carr, What Is History?, p. 172
  72. 72.0 72.1 Carr, What Is History?, p. 159
  73. Carr, What Is History?, pp. 3–4
  74. Carr, What Is History?, p. 5
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  76. Elton, Geoffrey The Practice of History, London: Methuen, 1967 p. 40
  77. Trevor-Roper, pp. 72–73
  78. Trevor-Roper, p. 73
  79. Trevor-Roper, p. 76
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