Feature Carr What Is History?

What is history 7: EH Carr Causation in history

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ORT_Logo   Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony,  1 May 2018

What is History? by EH Carr: The next three Lectures (Chapters 2 to 4)

Society & the individual; History, science & morality; Causation in history


I covered Lecture 1 or Chapter 1 (pp 7-30) in What is History, quite comprehensively in What is History 5: Historians and their facts. This was a very satisfying process because it was easy to tease erudite and incisive answers from Carr’s wonderful sentences and quotations from other historians. Others think so too as it is my most visited article on a daily basis.

The remaining lectures or chapters on initial reading tend to be slightly less incisive and a little more difficult in interpretation. However, there is still a huge amount of fascinating material. The content Carr is grappling with, that is, defining a new way of looking at historical method (historiography) is too important to ignore.

The last two lectures in What is HistoryHistory as Progress and the Widening Horizon are also important and will be covered later. In the intervening years since 1961, History as Progress, although equivocal in interpretation, appears to have evolved or come full-circle such as to become quite modern in its outlook.

The previous What is History? articles have been 1 Introduction, 2 Sleep Patterns 3, The Medieval Mind, 4 Love,  5  EH Carr Historians & their facts and 6 Religion. The next article on EH Carr’s book is 8: History as Progress. Further articles in the series are 9 Guns, Germs & Steel Overview, 10 Polynesia a Natural Experiment of History and 11 World Economic History.

Cambridge University

EH Carr

EH Carr

The Faculty of History at Cambridge University (Carr’s university) has always been somewhat dubious of Carr. It currently provides faint praise by saying he is still read by students, helped by the fact that the book is short, but:

Much of its argument has long since passed out of current thinking and, on its own, it is perhaps an inadequate introduction to historiography, as Carr would doubtless have been the first to admit. However, it is a good place to start…

Historiography is the study of historians and of historical method.

I disagree with Cambridge History. I don’t think that good books ever die despite their inadequacies, and although people naturally think a book from 1961 must be out-of-date, the limited amount of more up-to-date historiography that I have read is less clear than Carr and so far less illuminating, at least to me. Carr himself would doubtless have something witty to say about this.

I do not want to diminish Carr’s later lectures in any way. They are highly entertaining and continue the trend of formidable examples and wonderful quotations and insights. The lecture on Causation in History is perhaps the second most important chapter in the book to date. The lectures are so rich I envy anyone (probably few alive) who actually attended them.

The next three lectures are as follows:

2 Society and the individual (pp 31-55)


The premise is that the society and the individual are linked inextricably. No man is an island, said Donne.

Hence, following on from Lecture 1, not only is a historian embedded in his age, he is embedded in society.

In historical terms, Carr is arguing against the cult of the individual, that is, the school of history that deals with great men alone, without treating them as products of their society.

I should mention that Carr only uses men and masculine pronouns. He was a product of his age. This is somewhat irritating but it would be even more so if I changed his prose.

The cult of the individual

Carr objects to the cult of the individual as an obscuring ideology from which the western world is only just emerging. He says it is one of the most pervasive of modern historical myths and mentions one historian who relates it to the development of the idea of the individual from the Renaissance. Although the individualist argument is still used, it was exaggerated more in the 19th century than it is today, or during the Renaissance. (Remember, the idea of the Renaissance as a period was a 19th century invention in the main.)

Carr is also rejecting the 19th century idea of rugged individualism or of history as progress in the sense of 19th century English triumphalism, which extended into the 20th century. For example, Carr would not have agreed with Harry S Truman that men make history. Carr says that it was 19th century liberal historians who encouraged the common-sense view of history as something written by individuals about individuals.


Carr goes about this in a long-winded fashion, when all he is doing is adding society as an influencer to his previous conclusions about the historian and his facts. Nevertheless, he feels the need to deny the trend of liberalism and history as progress (in a partisan sense), particularly historians who focus on the individual above all else.

Carr also presents the arguments against the opposing case that historical events are determined not by the conscious actions of individuals, but by some extraneous all-powerful forces guiding their unconscious will. This is, of course, nonsense.

Despite these problems there are some marvellous quotations, anecdotes and even lovely metaphors, as:

We sometimes speak of the course of history as a ‘moving procession’. The metaphor is fair enough, provided it does not tempt the historian to think of himself as an eagle surveying the scene from a lonely crag or as a V.I.P. at the saluting base. Nothing of the kind! The historian is just another dim figure trudging along in another part of the procession.

This sense of history as a procession and the historian trudging in it is extremely important important to Carr, particularly relevant to his last two lectures not covered here. Carr’s descriptions of other historians and their foibles are the equal of lecture 1.

E.H. Carr What is history? 1961

3 History, Science and Morality (pp 56-86)


History should consider as an aspiration taking a more scientific approach to the discipline.

History also ought not to have anything to do with an overall morality in its approach. One can certainly claim that Hitler and Stalin were immoral, but that has nothing to do with the practice of history.


Carr is actually setting up a ‘strawman’ in examining why historians think that history cannot be approached as a scientific enquiry. His problem however is that he is weak on the philosophy and methodology of science.

Carr missed out on a series of books that were published after 1960, which would have given him a much better insight into the mechanics of science and the lack of agreement over the actual methodology. I am referring to such writers as T H Kuhn, Imre Lakatos, Paul Feyerabend and in particular Sir Peter Medawar. Carr himself seems to have realised this later, as he mentions Kuhn and Feyerabend in his notes towards a second edition, precluded by his death. (However, this greater knowledge may not have changed his thinking much, but it may have strengthened his confidence in his own analysis.)

The strawman that Carr sets up is a series of 5 arguments:

  1. History deals with the unique and particular and science with the general and universal.
  2. History teaches no lessons.
  3. History is unable to predict.
  4. History is necessarily subjective, since man is observing himself.
  5. History, unlike science, involves issues of religion and morality.

Carr demolishes each of these arguments in turn. He concludes that regarding the resemblances and differences in method between history and science that the resemblances are greater than the differences.

However, though I agree with his conclusions, I think his approach is somewhat awkward and in parts unconvincing. Nevertheless, he does demonstrate that the five proposals are untenable.


The conclusion reached by both Carr and myself is that history is not science, but that history is capable of striving to be more like science, that is, pursuing historical analysis with more rigour and by attempting to be more objective (even if objectivity is unattainable in either science or history).

Carr makes the point also that it is only in the English language that history is not a subset of science. He says it is an eccentricity of the English language, which suggests the prejudice against comparing history with science is a peculiarly insular character of English speakers.

In every other European language, the equivalent word to ‘science’ includes history without hesitation.

Religion and morality

Religion often contends that science and history have no business in intruding into its realm. But that is the stance of religion and has nothing to do with science or history. Science has clashed with religion (and won eventually) when religion contends and demands that non-scientific knowledge must hold sway over science.

Similarly, religion sometimes contends that history has no place in examining religion, either at all or when history tends to contradict religious beliefs. (See, for example, What is History 6: Religion for how history can examine the evolution of religion, a contentious subject. As a digression, macro economics similarly derides or ignores economic history, when the latter contradicts the prevailing dogma of the former.)

Carr is more concerned with a personal difficulty in reconciling the integrity of history with belief in some super-historical force on which its meaning and significance depend

Carr mentions that there was a belief in 19th century ideology that history ought to teach moral lessons, but that this is patently absurd. However, the converse is also not true, just because history and science are not governed by a moral overview, does not mean that the historian or the scientist cannot adopt or hold a moral stance as individuals, but that should not intrude upon the attempted objectivity of their discipline.

4 Causation in History (pp 87-108)


EH Carr What Is History? My Copy

EH Carr What Is History? My Copy

Carr says: The study of history is a study of causes. The historian… continuously asks the question ‘Why?’ … The great historian or the great thinker asks the question ‘Why?’ about new things or in new contexts.

Carr seems to me here to be saying the exact thing that Charles Darwin wrote to a friend on 18 September, 1861:

About thirty years ago there was much talk that geologists ought only to observe and not theorise; and I well remember some one saying that at this rate a man might as well go into a gravel-pit and count the pebbles and describe the colours. How odd it is that anyone should not see that all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service!

History is not about counting pebbles and describing the colours.

Carr quotes Voltaire who says much the same:

If you have nothing to tell us, except that one barbarian succeeded another on the banks of the Oxus and Jaxartes, what is that to us?

Carr must be admired for not shirking difficult subjects. In addition to his first lecture about the historian and his facts, this is perhaps his most important contribution to What is History?

The problem of interpretation

Carr mentions that in recent years history has shied away from causes or ‘laws’ for reasons outlined in the historian and his facts, but merely descends into different semantics, partly in reaction to a supposed association with determinism.

The first issue a historian confronts is that he will commonly assign several causes to the one event. The second part of this is that one must assign a hierarchy or priorities or some sort of order onto these causes.

Carr quotes Henri Poincaré on the need for science to advance simultaneously towards variety and complexity, and towards unity and simplicity. He says:

But the fact remains that the historian must work through the simplification, as well as through the multiplication of causes. History, like science, advances through this dual and apparently contradictory process.

Carr’s referral back to science is clever, because no-one can say that the process is easy, yet both disciplines have to contend with the same thing. There is no escape. This is the only approach to the question of Why?

Two red herrings — chance and determinism

Carr labels them nicely: ‘Determinism in History; or the Wickedness of Hegal’ and ‘Chance in History or Cleopatra’s Nose’.

A digression on Science

Jacques Monod a French biochemist in an essay, later published as a 1971 book entitled Chance and Necessity, argued regarding the origin of life on Earth and biology in general that one must give chance a central role in what is otherwise a mechanistic biology.

Determinism tended to be avoided as a concept in biology because it hinted at the dogma of religion and the issue of religion’s antagonism towards evolution in the 19th century. In my own biological studies, I found that the 19th century concept of a soul, as a distinguishing characteristic between humans and animals, still permeated much of biology as an unacknowledged or hidden subtext towards the end of the twentieth century. It is certainly still prominent as an ideology in the twenty-first century that supposedly distinguishes humanity from the rest of life, and highlights the condescension and even contempt felt towards other life forms, in certain sectors of the human population.

My own conversion towards Monod’s view came as a revelation, when a fellow student introduced me to the 1969 book Biochemical Predestination by Kenyon and Steinman. I was not captured by the book itself but by the idea that there had to be a mix between chance and necessity in the development of life. (I was more captured by JBS Haldane, AI Oparin and JD Bernal — see The Origin of Life 1929.)

Biochemistry is the art of the possible, but once certain biochemical pathways have become fixed, then it is quite difficult for evolution to change them, without some sort of radical intervention. Although I generally agree with Monod’s idea, I’m certain in the light of recent advances in biology that the details have perhaps changed substantially.


EH Carr What Is History?

EH Carr What Is History?

But, back to Carr. Carr quotes works by Karl Popper and Isaiah Berlin in the 1940s and 1950s that were in reaction to Hegel and Marx’s supposedly deterministic assumptions about history. Ignoring the politics of these attacks, Carr shows them to be empty of intellectual rigour.

He has a humorous aside about a fictitious Smith, whom one casually meets on a daily basis and with whom one discusses the weather or general university affairs. When one day Smith verbally attacks you for no reason, you don’t shrug your shoulders and treat it as a convincing demonstration of Smith’s free-will, but remember either that Smith’s father died in a mental hospital, or a rumour about his marital problems. And, think poor Smith!

Carr concludes:

Now let us look at the Historian. Like the ordinary man he believes that human actions have causes which are in principle ascertainable. History, like everyday life, would be impossible if this assumption were not made. It is the special function of the historian to investigate these causes.

Carr says that historians sometimes fall into the semantic trap of describing something as ‘inevitable’:

…when they mean merely that the conjunction of factors leading one to expect it was overwhelmingly strong. He goes on to say: Recently I searched my own history for the offending word, and cannot give myself an entirely clean bill of health.

Carr also discovers an oddity in the crime of describing something as inevitable. It is only a crime when one is describing recent history. He mentions the Norman Conquest and the American war of Independence.

The point is that today nobody seriously wishes to reverse the results of the Norman Conquest or the American War of Independence, or to express a passionate protest against these events; and nobody objects when the historian the historian treats them as a closed chapter.

He contrasts this with the Bolshevik victory in Russia and concludes:

The trouble about contemporary history is that people remember the time when all the options were still open… 

…and [are] indignant with the historian who goes on quietly with his job of explaining what did happen and why their agreeable wish-dreams remain unfilled.

I’ve juxtaposed two quotes here to retain the delightful flavour that Carr imparts to his arguments. Car says, Let us get rid of this red herring once and for all.


Chance relates to the Cleopatra’s Nose argument (had it been shorter, the whole of history would have changed, Pascal):

This is the theory that history is, by and large, a chapter of accidents, a series of events determined by chance coincidences, and attributable only to the most casual causes.

Carr does not deny the role of accident in history, though he does deny those who confuse accident with an absence of causal determination. However, he does admit the problem of discovering a coherent sequence of cause and effect, when the sequence is likely to be broken or deflected at any moment by some other random or from our point of view irrelevant sequence.

Although he does note that:

The renewed insistence by British writers on the importance of accident in history dates from the growth of a mood of uncertainty and apprehension which set in with the present century and became marked after 1914.

We know from his previous writings and from what follows after this statement that Carr thinks of this as a valid generalisation. However, he also cannot tolerate those who would deny any importance to accident or chance.

He takes issue with Marx and Trotsky who took the view that chance could ‘accelerate’ or ‘retard’ but not radically alter the course of events. (They were, of course, not aware of the demise of the dinosaurs by the intervention of an asteroid.)

Carr Biography in Spanish

Carr Biography in Spanish

Carr says:

The role of accident in history is nowadays seriously exaggerated by those who are interested to stress its importance. But it exists, and to say that it merely accelerates or retards, but does not alter is to juggle with words.

Carr goes back to his earlier statements on an historian and his facts. Not all facts are historical facts. But the distinction between historical and unhistorical facts is not rigid or constant…

The parallel with causes and accidents is obvious. Carr says:

The relationship with the historian to his causes has the same dual and reciprocal character as the relation of the historian to his facts.

Carr also distinguishes between rational and accidental causes:

The former, since they are potentially applicable to other countries, other periods and other conditions, lead to fruitful generalizations, and lessons can be learned from them; they serve the end of broadening and deepening our understanding. Accidental causes cannot be generalized; and since, they are in the fullest sense of the word unique, they teach no lessons and lead to no conclusions.

Cleopatra’s nose falls into the category of accidental causes and as such is not generalisable. It is not an historically usable fact. Cleopatra as a whole, as a stunningly beautiful woman, as with Helen and a host of others, does perhaps have a more generalisable role in history.

Chance or accident in history is a red herring because, although its role cannot be denied, it is also not useful to the historian because it cannot be predicted as a causal event.

My bias

In this series on What is History? one prime focus has been that history on Earth begins with biology and that the starting point of human history is the rise of an intelligent naked ape. Given the starting point, one must also conclude that certain external forces have had a role in shaping history.

These forces are not those ridiculed by Carr above, but are such things as, climate, geographical location, a beginning as hunter-gatherers, the development of agriculture, and the antagonism between agriculture and pastoralism. The growth of villages to larger societies and cities, the change in elite structures from ‘big men’, to princelings, to kings and empires. The development of religion, the influence of disease produced by the changes in human habitation and trade. All these things and others signal developmental stages and characteristics on the road from hunter-gathering to Empires and so called civilisation.

And, we as humans seem to want to remain oblivious or wilfully ignorant about such things.

These issues will be covered in some detail when we get to Jared Diamond and Guns, Germs and Steel, 1997.


I have surprised myself by continuing to examine Carr in depth. His insights are deep and complex. I wonder if it is my slow reading and comprehension, or whether the Cambridge History Faculty is misguided in considering that What is History‘s short length (188 pages in my Penguin Edition) is what makes it attractive to students. Could it be that it makes more sense and contains more new ideas than the weighty tomes their history professors burden them with?

Criticism of Carr frequently comes from his supposed inconsistency within the lectures and it is easy to find them. However, I am charmed by Carr because of his agonising and his inability to firmly define his position. He is attempting to navigate between extremes as he says himself:

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…

There is no one true path, merely a direction to navigate in through difficult shoals.

(The other articles in my What is history series are1 Introduction, 2 Sleep Patterns 3, The Medieval Mind, 4 Love, 5 Historians and their facts6 Religion and finally one more article on EH Carr’s book 8: History as Progress. )

Key words: EH Carr, What is History, Historians and their facts, Society & the individual, History science & morality, Causation in history, History as progress, Widening horizon, Cambridge University History, TH Kuhn, Imre Lakatos, Paul Feyerabend, Sir Peter Medawar, Charles Darwin, determinism, chance, Voltaire,Henri Poincaré, Hegel, Marx, Jacques Monod, Karl Popper, Isaiah Berlin

Further Information

Cambridge University History Faculty

Quotation about EH Carr

Post-1960 books on the philosophy of science

TH Kuhn The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 1962

Imre Lakatos ed. with Alan Musgrave Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge, 1970 (arose from an International Colloquium, London, 1965)

Paul Feyerabend Against Method, 1975 (based in part on earlier conversations and disagreements with Imre Lakatos)

Sir Peter Medawar Induction & Intuition in Scientific Thought, Jayne Lectures, 1968

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin

Count the pebbles and describe the colours quotation

Voltaire Quotation


Voltaire Philosophical Dictionary, 1764

Henri Poincaré

Henri Poincaré

Jacques Monod

Jacques Monod

Karl Popper

Karl Popper

Isaiah Berlin

Isaiah Berlin



    1. Author

      Thanks Peggy. I was hoping to skip on down after writing about Carr’s first lecture, but got stuck on the detail. At least, or only, one more to come.

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