Revisiting E.H. Carr’s What Is History?

My most-read post on The Dustbin of History so far, from 2 November 2013.

Carr What Is HistoryMy first introduction to historiography came in the shape of E.H. Carr’s 1961 text What Is History? in a European History course in my final year of high school. I had long been interested in history and had the benefit of excellent teachers but had never read anything specifically on what it meant to do or to write history. Carr’s book, based on a series of lectures delivered at Cambridge but aimed at a much wider audience, is clear and thought provoking and its central ideas have stayed with me ever since. (I still have the original essay I wrote about it for the high school class so that provides accurate evidence of my perspective at the time!) I recently bought a newer edition of the book and decided to revisit it, to see if my training as a historian has altered my perspective. The purpose of this piece is not to evaluate him in relation to contemporary thinking but to reflect on his core ideas, many of which have remained the subject of historiographical debate in the subsequent decades, though the language we use to discuss them may have changed.

On the first encounter, at the tender age of sixteen, What Is History? provoked two main reactions in me: First, it reinforced some ideas about history that I had only picked up subconsciously before – that how history is written depends on when it is written and who writes it and that the narratives created are not objective because they involve the selection of facts or evidence. Second, I remember being frustrated by its somewhat theoretical or abstract nature – even though Carr uses examples, they were probably more familiar and current to his audience at the time and left me still wanting to know more about the application of his ideas.

Over fifty years have passed since Carr first delivered his ‘broadside on history’[1] and in any analysis of it we cannot escape the statement he made at the beginning: ‘When we attempt to answer the question, What is History?, our answer, consciously or unconsciously, reflects our own position in time, and forms part of our answer to the broader question what view we take of the society in which we live.’[2] This principle applies not only to texts on historical subjects, but also his own, which does indeed reflect his position in time – the atmosphere of post-war Britain and the Cold War. Certainly it’s now unacceptable to refer to the historian consistently using the male pronoun, but I’ll excuse Carr on that point given his generation! Many of the examples he uses to illustrate his points also come from the realm of political history, though there are occasional hints at the emergence of social history: ‘People do not cease to be people, or individuals individuals, because we do not know their names,’ even if he only attaches significance to these nameless individuals when they act en masse.[3]

The idea that a historian’s writings reflects his/her own era is related to Carr’s more general ideas about bias and interpretation. The term bias is often taken to have a negative connotation, but in this case it means something closer to perspective that effects interpretation. These ideas largely come through in the first chapter, ‘The Historian and His Facts.’ Carr’s argument gets a bit bogged down by his attempt to define what a ‘fact’ is and how it becomes a ‘historical fact’, but for the purpose of examining his ideas they can be viewed essentially as the raw materials of history or, the term most commonly used today, evidence. History, then, is written through selection of facts/evidence and this process is an act of interpretation. (I have found this idea one of the most difficult to instil in students, who, coming straight out of secondary school still seem to think books equal unquestionable truth.) Based on Collingwood’s ideas, Carr states three main points: ‘history means interpretation’ (historians tend to find what they’re looking for); the historian needs an ‘imaginative understanding’ of the mindset of the people he/she studies; and we can only look at the past ‘through the eyes of the present’ as even the language we use embodies that perspective.[4] However, he recognizes the dangers of complete skepticism, subjectivity, post-modernism, and all the other post-isms that this view might seem to suggest, that we could be left with either with a history that has no meaning or an infinity of meanings.[5] The way he seeks to resolve this apparent contradiction is through the idea of ‘reciprocal action’ on two levels, ‘between the historian and his facts’ and ‘between the present and the past’.[6] And thus we have the idea of historiography! For example, I don’t think any scholar of American immigration history today sees Oscar Handlin’s The Uprooted and its narrative of assimilation / Americanization as the definitive text on the subject, and yet they still read it and reference it because of its place in the development of the field and to show the distance between it and contemporary work. We are in the business of constantly revising the past.

Much has changed in the world and in historiography since Carr’s time and from the standpoint of the present we recognize his shortcomings: his somewhat elitist view on the eve of the revolution brought by social history, his focus on the political and on history as a ‘science’, his belief in ‘progress’. Nonetheless, I think his ideas about the working process of the historian, with its subjectivity and continual series of revisions, remain central our discipline at all levels – teaching, research, and writing.


This post is dedicated to Dr. Christian Nøkkentved, affectionately known to generations of students as ‘Doc Nok’, a member of the history faculty at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy who retired this year. I am forever grateful to him and the other members of the department for their time and enthusiasm, which continue to inspire me today. I first read Carr’s book in his class and he is in many ways responsible for my interest in social history.

[1] E.H. Carr letter to Isaac Deutscher, March 1960, in Richard J. Evans, introduction to E.H. Carr, What is History?, 2nd ed. (Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, Hampshire, 2001), p.xix.

[2] Carr, What is History?, p.2.

[3] Carr, What is History?, p.44.

[4] Carr, What is History?, pp.18-20.

[5] Carr, What is History?, pp.20-21.

[6] Carr, What is History?, p.24.


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