Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony, 1 January 2017
What is History ? by EH Carr, Chapter 1: Historians & their facts
What is History? by EH Carr 1961 a compilation of the George Macaulay Trevelyan Lectures delivered at The University of Cambridge in 1961.
I’ve been sneaking up on the meat of this topic slowly but EH Carr and later Jared Diamond represent the meat, though there is much more to come. The previous What is History? articles have been 1 Introduction, 2 Sleep Patterns,3 The Medieval Mind, 4 Love. Another is 6 Religion. They were part of a softening up process to indicate that history is not just about kings and famous individuals, that one can view history from different directions to those normally chosen by historians and that writing about and understanding history is not at all an obvious process and is in fact very difficult.
With Carr one examines mainstream history and historians. He shows in a brilliantly witty and erudite series of lectures that the process of studying history is not at all straight forward. However, since Carr’s 1961 lectures the study of history has come a long way and I certainly am optimistic about its future. If one had to sum up Carr in one sentence, in his words, it would be:
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.
This article will deal only with Carr’s first lecture. The next three lectures or chapters in What is History 7 are on Society, Science and Causation. Then the last two lectures are covered in What is History 8: History as Progress.
Edward Hallett Carr was born in 1892. After a career in the Foreign Office from 1916, he became an academic at the University College of Wales in politics in 1936. He was Assistant Editor of The Times from 1941 to 1946. He was Tutor in politics at Balliol College, Oxford from 1953 to 1955, and became a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge in 1955 and an Honorary Fellow of Balliol College, Oxford in 1966.
When he delivered these lectures in 1961, he was considered an outsider in academic history circles in the UK. As a historian he is best known for his monumental History of Soviet Russia published in 14-volumes between 1950 and 1978.
What is History?
Initially, What is History? was received as a radical work unacceptable to mainstream historians, perhaps more so because it was immediately successful. As is the case in academic disputes, some of the comments were vitriolic. I remember one in which Carr was described as an apologist for Stalin, which was most unfair.
A review by Professor Alun Munslow in 1997 places Carr’s ideas now in the mainstream of British thinking on historical practice. Previously he said: the methodologically foundationalist wing of the history profession regarded the book as espousing a dangerous relativism. (I won’t comment on the syntax.)
Munslow damns Carr with faint praise and criticises him for not taking a firmer position with his relativism. Munslow believes that his own current practice of historical relativism goes beyond Carr.
Nevertheless, Carr’s current position in the mainstream is probably because, although he itemises the difficulties in writing history, he steps back from the brink of what he suggests. He thinks that there is no ‘objectiveness’ in what historians do, but one must muddle on as best one can whilst recognising the difficulty.
Considering what happened when postmodernism came along, Carr’s stepping back from the brink seems almost prescient. Postmodernism contends that all history is fiction hence any story is equally valid. There may well be a richer middle ground, as Munslow suggests, though he’s a postmodernist and I am not aware of it.
However, I am not a historian and hence do not need to consider or make comment on these debates. My task is to present Carr’s ideas.
From my perspective in this series, Carr shows the difficulty of mainstream history. The lack of an agreed method means that there is no consistent way of defining history good or bad. I am hopeful that a more rigorous approach to history may evolve in the twenty-first century.
Although I don’t think we’ll ever have a mathematically defined history as proposed by Isaac Asimov in the Foundation Trilogy. Nevertheless, historical methods could approach science slightly more closely. But, don’t take me as a proselytiser for science, I am fully aware of flaws in the scientific method and of scientists, which most scientists aren’t. However, other than mathematics (which isn’t much concerned with the real world), science is the best we have and certainly not open to debate by outsiders, which many crazies and those with vested interests would have us believe. Science is both rigorous and conservative, which they are not.
The advent of ‘Big Data’ may help history. The current example of its use to prove Christopher Marlowe’s contribution to the three Henry VI plays by Shakespeare is a good example.
Historians and their facts
Carr’s lectures were humorous and irreverent, which perhaps fuelled the rancour against him. The present article deals only with the first lecture (pp 7-31) Chapter 1 The Historian and his facts pp 7-31. EH Carr starts by explaining the position of historical relativism.
Carr begins by contrasting the view of history of Lord Acton 1896 who wrote the first edition of the Cambridge Modern History with Professor Sir George Clark who wrote the second edition 60 years later.
He begins with the amusing statement:
Where the pundits contradict each other so flagrantly, the field is open to inquiry. I hope that I am sufficiently up-to-date to recognize that anything written in the 1890s must be nonsense. But I am not yet advanced enough to be committed to the view that anything written in the 1950s necessarily makes sense.
Acton speaks out of the positive belief, the clear-eyed self-confidence, of the later Victorian age; Sir George Clark echoes the bewilderment and distracted scepticism of the beat generation.
When we attempt to answer the question ‘What is history?’ our answer, consciously or unconsciously, reflects our own position in time…
Facts & Empiricism — the commonsense school of history
The nineteenth century was a great age for facts. ‘What I want’, said Mr Gradgrind in Hard Times, ‘is Facts…. Facts alone are wanted in life.’ Nineteenth-century historians on the whole agreed with him. When Ranke in the 1830s, in legitimate protest against moralizing history, remarked that the task of the historian was ‘simply to show how it really was (wie es eigentlich gewesen)’, this not very profound aphorism had an astonishing success. Three generations of German, British, and even French historians marched into battle intoning the magic words ‘Wie es eigentlich gewesen’ like an incantation — designed, like most incantations, to save them from the tiresome obligation to think for themselves.
In Great Britain, this view of history fitted in perfectly with the empiricist tradition… 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. The Oxford Shorter English Dictionary, a useful but tendentious work of the empirical school, clearly marks the separateness of the two processes by defining a fact as ‘a datum of experience as distinct from conclusions’. This is what may be called the commonsense view of history. History consists of a corpus of ascertained facts. The facts are available to the historian in documents, inscriptions and so on, like fish on the fishmonger’s slab. The historian collects them, takes them home, and cooks and serves them in whatever style appeals to him. Acton, whose culinary tastes were austere, wanted them served plain…
Even Sir George Clark, critical as he was of Acton’s attitude, himself contrasted the ‘hard core of facts’ in history with the ‘surrounding pulp of disputable interpretation’ — forgetting perhaps that the pulpy part of the fruit is more rewarding than the hard core. 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.
What is a Fact?
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…
EH Carr talks about the battle of Hastings in 1066. There is no dispute that a great battle was fought in that year and not in Eastbourne or Brighton.
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 or properly mixed concrete in his building. It is a necessary condition of his work, but not his essential function.
These so-called basic facts, which are the same for all historians, commonly belong to the category of the raw materials of the historian rather than of history itself. The second observation is that the necessity to establish these basic facts rests not on any quality in the facts themselves, but on an a priori decision of the historian.
By a priori Carr means for a fact to be accepted it has to be the result of a decision made beforehand by the historian.
It was, I think, one of Pirandello’s characters who said that a fact is like a sack — it won’t stand up till you’ve put something in it.
Carr says the only reason why the battle at Hastings in 1066 was important is because historians regard it as a major historical event. He goes on to say that the fact that Caesar crossed the Rubicon a petty stream is a fact of history is for the same reason, whereas the crossing of the Rubicon by millions of other people before or since interests nobody at all.
Conclusion: A fact of history exists only because a historian decides beforehand that it is so. Carr gives an example of a historian raising an obscure fact that a gingerbread vendor was kicked to death by an angry mob as the result of a petty incident in Stalybridge Wakes in 1850. Is this a fact of history? EH Carr says, not yet, it has been proposed for entry to the club but will remain obscure unless it is taken up and promoted by others.
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.
The Jig-saw of History
Early history is full of gaps or lacunae and has been called an enormous jig-saw, with a lot of missing parts. Carr says:
Our picture of Greece in the fifth century B.C. is defective not primarily because so many of the bits have been accidentally lost, but because it is, by and large, the picture formed by a tiny group of people in the city of Athens. We know a lot about what fifth-century Greece looked like to an Athenian citizen; but hardly anything about what it looked like to a Spartan, a Corinthian, or a Theban — not to mention a Persian, or a slave or other non-citizen resident in Athens. Our picture has been preselected and predetermined for us, not so much by accident as by people who were consciously or unconsciously imbued with a particular view and thought the [facts] which supported that view worth preserving. In the same way, when I read in a modern history of the Middle Ages that the people of the Middle Ages were deeply concerned with religion, I wonder how we know this, and whether it is true. What we know as the facts of medieval history have almost all been selected for us by generations of chroniclers who were professionally occupied in the theory and practice of religion, and who therefore thought it supremely important, and recorded everything relating to it, and not much else.
The Modern Dilemma
The ancient or medieval historian may be grateful for the vast winnowing process which, over the years, has put at his disposal a manageable corpus of historical facts. As Lytton Strachey said, in his mischievous way, ‘ignorance is the first requisite of the historian, ignorance which simplifies and clarifies, which selects and omits.’
The modern historian enjoys none of the advantages of this built-in ignorance. He must cultivate this necessary ignorance for himself — the more so the nearer he comes to his own times. He has the dual task of discovering the few significant facts and turning them into facts of history, and of discarding the many insignificant facts as unhistorical. But this is the very converse of the nineteenth century heresy that history consists of the compilation of a maximum number of irrefutable and objective facts. Anyone who succumbs to this heresy will either have to give up history as a bad job, and take to stamp-collecting or some other form of antiquarianism, or end in a madhouse.
The 19th century heresy concerning facts extends further to sources, which extended to a fetishism for documents.
Carr goes into a long involved story of a German diplomat who died in 1929. His faithful secretary delved into the 300 boxes of diplomatic documents and produced a multi-volume summary, which ignored the Russian data as inconclusive and concentrated on his diplomatic successes with western nations. Later this was summarised again by the British, which focussed in further. Had the archive been destroyed by a bomb in WWII these would have been the only sources left.
The commonsense school of history teaches students not to trust secondary sources. However, Carr points out that the original documents in this case are also problematic. The diplomat’s notes are only one side of the story. As anyone knows, who has worked in the Civil Service, the secretariat in meetings has the power to define events. One often reads the minutes and decisions taken at a meeting one has attended and wonders if it was the same meeting. Primary sources always have their own difficulties.
For myself, as a reader of detective or crime fiction, the police or the detective always expect people to lie — everyone embellishes the truth in everyday life. Why should history be different?
The idea of problematic facts expanded was put provocatively by American historian, Carl Becker, as: the facts of history do not exist for any historian till he creates them.
Carr says in the past 50 years a great deal of serious work began on the philosophy of history: first by Germans and continued by the Italian Croce, who influenced the British in particular Collingwood at Oxford.
Collingwood echoes Croce in that history consists essentially in seeing the past through the eyes of the present and in the light of its problems, but adds that the past and the historian’s views on it are mutually interdependent or entangled.
Carr says that first: the facts of history never come to us ‘pure’, since they do not and cannot exist in a pure form: they are always refracted through the mind of the recorder.
By this he means that one’s first concern should be about the historian who wrote the material rather than the facts he uses.
I remember a paper on Negro-White intelligence (a hugely controversial area in the USA in the mid-twentieth century) by Sherwood & Nataupsky Predicting the conclusions of Negro-white intelligence research from biographical characteristics of the investigator, 1968. The title says it all: they found that the findings of such studies were directly correlated to biographical characteristics of the researcher and little else. I think that Carr is referring to something similar, perhaps less obvious (racism tends to make things obvious).
After discussion of this in relation to Whig views on history. Carr turns Clark’s statement above on its head:
[If] I were to call history a hard core of interpretation surrounded by a pulp of disputable facts’, my statement would, no doubt, be one-sided and misleading, but no more so, …than the original dictum.
Clark moves to his second point that of the historian’s need of imaginative understanding for the minds of the people with whom he is dealing. By this he means that the contemporary historian, in whatever time, may often be initially repelled by the mindset of the past actors: e.g. the barbarity of the middle ages, the idea of killing for religion by someone brought up in the tradition that it is only OK to kill for one’s country. Soviet versus Western ideology in the Cold War, etc.
The third point is that we can view the past, and achieve our understanding of the past, only through the eyes of the present. The historian is of his own age, and is bound to it by the conditions of human existence. The very words which he uses words like democracy, empire, war, revolution — have current connotations from which he cannot divorce them.
He also gives examples of these. He says:
Over the past hundred years the changed balance of power in Europe has reversed the attitude of British historians to Frederick the Great.
It requires only a superficial knowledge of the work of French historians of the last forty years on the French revolution to recognize how deeply it has been affected by the Russian revolution of 1917.
The three points are subtle ones in the sense that one believes that a historian might well be able to overcome each in turn, but overcoming the combination on every occasion, would be well nigh impossible.
Carr continues to give examples.
Conclusion: The historian cannot divorce himself from the views of his own age, his deeply held beliefs or prejudices, or put himself completely into the mindset of his protagonists from the past.
Dealing with Facts and Writing the Results
He says of facts that as well as proper footnoting:
The duty of the historian to respect his facts is not exhausted by the obligation to see that his facts are accurate. He must seek to bring into the picture all known or knowable facts relevant, in one sense or another, to the theme on which he is engaged and to the interpretation proposed.
By this he means you should at least try to overcome your innate biases by analysing all the relevant material, not just picking the facts that suit you.
He then talks about the way a historian works. For example, in science one needs to design one’s experiments and the statistical basis of the analysis, before conducting the experiments and then one has to analyse them in light of the pre-planning, before interpreting the results and coming to conclusions. It is a strict linear process. However, in my experience as a biologist the process is rarely done this way, which renders modern statistical analysis in some areas of biology, rather questionable.
Carr describes the assumption that history follows a similarly linear process in that it involves, 1 a long preliminary period reading sources, making notes and marshalling facts; and, 2 the historian takes out the notebooks and writes the book from beginning to end. However, he says this is unconvincing and implausible and that the processes proceed in parallel, in fits and starts. This is a very plausible description of a creative process.
Conclusion: The process of historical analysis and writing does not facilitate objectivity.
Finding a Balance
Carr is disturbed by the following:
Collingwood, in his reaction against ‘scissors and paste history’, against the view of history as a mere compilation of [facts], comes perilously near to treating history as something spun out of the human brain, and leads back to the conclusion referred to by Sir George Clark in the passage which I quoted earlier, that ‘there is no “objective” historical truth’. In place of the theory that history has no meaning, we are offered here the theory of an infinity of meanings, none any more right than any other — which comes to much the same thing. [A prescient rejection of post-modernism.]
Our examination of the relation of the historian to the facts of history finds us, therefore, in an apparently precarious situation, navigating delicately between the Scylla of an untenable theory of history as an objective compilation of facts, of the unqualified primacy of fact over interpretation, and the Charybdis of an equally untenable theory of history as the subjective product of the mind of the historian who establishes the facts of history and masters them through the process of interpretation…
Carr rejects the precarious situation and concludes:
My first answer therefore to the question’ What is history ?’ is that it is a continuous process of interaction between the historian and his facts, an unending dialogue between the present and the past.
By first answer he means at the end of lecture one. The answer is rather a dissatisfying one, but what a journey he has taken us on.
Carr does not reject the possibility of history but he does show us the lay person the difficulties faced by the mainstream professional historian and his facts. The alternative versions of What is History? discussed thus far in the series also suffer from the same strictures. We cannot escape from the rules that historians must follow, but we can look at history from alternative or outside viewpoints and come to equally valid conclusions.
Indeed, some analysis of history from a scientific basis can, not only be helpful, but may lead to more valid conclusions than those posed by historians. But that discussion is for later.
(The other articles in my What is history series are1 Introduction, 2 Sleep Patterns 3, The Medieval Mind, 4 Love. Then 6 Religion and more articles on EH Carr’s book 7 Society, Science and Causation and 8: History as Progress. )
Key words: EH Carr, what is history, history, facts, historian, GM Trevelyan, Alun Munslow, Lord Acton, Sir George Clark, empiricism, commonsense school of history, RG Collingwood.
Wikipedia on EH Carr
Wikipedia on Alun Munslow
Munslow’s views on deconstructing history
Wikipedia on Lord Acton
Sir George Clark
Wikipedia on Sir George Clark
Wikipedia on RG Collingwood
Wikipedia on Big Data
Marlowe’s role in Shakespeare
Wikipedia on Pirandello
Race and intelligence Sherwood, J.J., & Nataupsky
Sherwood, J.J. & Nataupsky, M Predicting the conclusions of Negro-white intelligence research from biographical characteristics of the investigator. J Personality & Social Psychology 8 (1) 53-58, 1968.
A background to the controversy by Wikipedia