Edward Carr And History Essay Research Paper

Edward Carr And History Essay, Research Paper

Edward Hallett Carr’s contribution to the study of Soviet

history is widely regarded as highly distinguished. In all

probability very few would argue against this assessment of his

multi-volume history of Soviet Russia. For the majority of

historians he pretty much got the story straight. However, for

several years there was disagreement about his contribution to

the analytical philosophy of history. His ideas were outlined in What

is History? first published in 1961. For many today What

is History? is the most influential book on history thinking

published in Britain this century. For many years, however, the

methodologically foundationalist wing of the history profession

regarded the book as espousing a dangerous relativism. This has

now all changed. Arguably the central ideas in the book

constitute today’s mainstream thinking on British historical

practice. Most British commentators, if not that many in America,

acknowledge the significance and influence of the book. (l ) In

this review I want to establish why it is What is History?

now occupies a central place in British thinking about the

relationship between the historian and the past. I conclude that

the important message of What is History? – fundamentally

misconceived though I believe it to be – lies in its rejection of

an opportunity to re-think historical practice. This failure has

been most significant in rationalising the epistemologically

conservative historical thinking that pervades among British

historians today.

John Tosh, in the most recent edition of his own widely read

methodological primer The Pursuit of History describes

Carr’s book as “still unsurpassed as a stimulating and

provocative statement by a radically inclined scholar” (Tosh

1991: 234). Keith Jenkins, much less inclined to view Carr as a

radical scholar, never-the-less confirms the consequential nature

of What is History? suggesting that, along with Geoffrey

Elton’s The Practice of History both texts are still

popularly seen as “‘essential introductions’ to the ‘history

question”‘ (Jenkins 1995: 1-2). Jenkins concludes both Carr

and Elton “have long set the agenda for much if not all of

the crucially important preliminary thinking about the question

of what is history” (Jenkins 1995: 3).

So, according to Tosh and Jenkins, we remain, in Britain at

least, in a lively dialogue with What is History?. Why

should this be? The reason is, as most British historians know,

to be found in the position Carr took on the nature of historical

knowledge. A position that brought him into a long conflict with,

among others, the Tudor historian and senior Ambassador at the

Court of ‘Proper’ Objectivist History Geoffrey Elton. Again I

turn to John Tosh for his comment that “The controversy

between Carr and Elton is the best starting-point for the debate

about the standing of historical knowledge” (Tosh 1991:

236). Until Jenkins’ recent re-appraisal of Carr’s philosophy of

history, Carr had been misconstrued almost universally among

British historians as standing for a very distinctive relativist,

if not indeed a sceptical conception of the functioning of the


Explaining Carr’s ‘radicalism’ the philosopher of history

Michael Stanford has claimed Carr “insisted that the

historian cannot divorce himself from the outlook and interests

of his age (sic.)” (Stanford 1994: 86). Stanford quotes

Carr’s own claim that the historian “is part of

history” with a particular “angle of vision over the

past” (Stanford 1994: 86). As Stanford points out, Carr’s

“first answer…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”. While this was not a fresh insight with Carr,

it still carved him out for a number of years as someone with a

novel stance. However, over time, the effect of his argument

(which generated such initial notoriety) was to increasingly

balance the excesses of the hard core empiricists. In What is

History? Carr propelled British historiography toward a new

equilibrium – one that pivoted on a new epistemological


The claim to epistemological radicalism on behalf of Carr does

not seem to me especially convincing. Why? My doubts about the

message in What is History? is the product of my present

intellectual situatedness as a historian (a writer about the

past). Today, with our greater awareness of the frailties and

failures of representationalism, referentialism, and inductive

inference, more and more history writing is based on the

assumption that we can know nothing genuinely truthful about the

reality of the past. It would be tempting, but wholly incorrect,

to say that history’s pendulum has swung far more to the notion

of history as a construction or fabrication of the historian.

Rather, what has happened, is that our contemporary conditions of

existence have created a much deeper uncertainty about the nature

of knowledge-creation and its (mis-)uses in the humanities. It is

not about swings in intellectual fashion.

It follows, a growing number of historians believe that we

don’t ‘discover’ (the truthful?’ ‘actual?’ ‘real?’ ‘certain?’)

patterns in apparently contingent events because, instead, we

unavoidably impose our own hierarchies of significance on them

(this is what we believe/want to see/read in the past). I do not

think many historians today are naive realists. Few accept there

must be given meaning in the evidence. While we may all agree at

the event-level that something happened at a particular time and

place in the past, its significance (its meaning as we narrate

it) is provided by the historian. Meaning is not immanent in the

event itself. Moreover, the challenge to the distinction of fact

and fiction as we configure our historical narratives, and

further acknowledgments of the cognitive power of rhetoric, style

and trope (metaphors are arguments and explanations) provide not

only a formal challenge to traditional empiricism, but forces us

to acknowledge that as historians we are making moral choices as

we describe past reality.

Does all this add up to a more fundamental criticism of

historical knowing than Carr imagined in What is History??

I think so. If this catalogue is what historical relativism means

today, I believe it provides a much larger agenda for the

contemporary historian than Carr’s (apparently radical at the

time) acceptance that the historian is in a dialogue with the

facts, or that sources only become evidence when used by the

historian. As Jenkins has pointed out at some length, Carr

ultimately accepts the epistemological model of historical

explanation as the definitive mode for generating historical

understanding and meaning (Jenkins 1995: 1-6, 43-63). This

fundamentally devalues the currency of what he has to say, as it

does of all reconstructionist empiricists who follow his lead.

This judgment is not, of course, widely shared by them. For

illustration, rather misunderstanding the nature of

“semiotics – the postmodern?” as he querulously

describes it, it is the claim of the historian of Latin America

Alan Knight that Carr remains significant today precisely because

of his warning a generation ago to historians to

“interrogate documents and to display a due scepticism as

regards their writer’s motives” (Knight 1997: 747). To

maintain, as Knight does, that Carr is thus in some way

pre-empting the postmodern challenge to historical knowing is

unhelpful to those who would seriously wish to establish Carr’s

contribution in What is History?. It would be an act of

substantial historical imagination to proclaim Carr as a

precursor of post-modernist history.

Carr is also not forgotten by political philosopher and critic

of post-modernist history Alex Callinicos, who deploys him

somewhat differently. In his defence of theory in interpretation

(Marxist constructionism in this case), Callinicos begins with

the contribution of a variety of so called relativist historians

of which Carr is one (others include Croce, Collingwood, Becker

and Beard). Acknowledging the “discursive character of

historical facts” (Callinicos 1995: 76) Callinicos quotes

Carr’s opinion (following Collingwood) that the facts of history

never come to us pure, but are always refracted through the mind

of the historian. For Callinicos this insight signals the problem

of the subjectivity of the historian, but doesn’t diminish the

role of empirically derived evidence in the process of historical


Of course Carr tried to fix the status of evidence with his

own objections to what he understood to be the logic of

Collingwood’s sceptical position. Collingwood’s logic could,

claims Carr, lead to the dangerous idea that there is no

certainty or intrinsicality in historical meaning – there are

only (what I would call) the discourses of historians – a

situation which Carr refers to as “total scepticism” -

a situation where history ends up as “something spun out of

the human brain” suggesting there can be no “objective

historical truth” (Carr 1961: 26). Carr’s objectivist anchor

is dropped here. He explicitly rejected Nietzsche’s notion that

(historical?) truth is effectively defined by fitness for

purpose, and the basis for Carr’s opinion was his belief in the

power of empiricism to deliver the truth, whether it fits or not

(Carr 1961: 27). Historians ultimately serve the evidence, not

vice versa. This guiding precept thus excludes the possibility

that “one interpretation is as good as another” even

when we cannot (as we cannot in writing history) guarantee

‘objective or truthful interpretation’.

Carr wished to reinforce the notion that he was a radical. As

he said in the preface to the 1987 Second Edition of What is

History? “…in recent years I have increasingly come to

see myself, and to be seen, as an intellectual dissident’ (Carr

1987: 6). But his contribution really lies in the manner in which

he failed to be an epistemological radical. In the precise manner

of his return to the Cartesian and foundationalist fold lies the

importance of What is History? The book’s distinction

resides in its exploration and rapid rejection of epistemological

scepticism – what I call post-empiricism. From the first chapter

Carr accepts relativism would an unacceptable price to pay for

imposing the historian on the past beyond his narrow definition

of dialogue. Dialogue even cast as interrogation is all very well

and good, but an intervention that cannot ultimately become

objective is quite another matter. After all, Carr argues, it is

quite possible to draw a convincing line between the two.

While confirming the ever present interaction between the

historian and the events she is describing, Carr was ultimately

unwilling to admit that the written history produced by this

interaction could possibly be a fictive enterprise – historians

if they do it properly, (their inference isn’t faulty and/or they

don’t choose to lie about the evidence) will probably get the

story straight. This argument still appeals to many historians

today for whom the final defence against the relativism of

deconstructionism lies in the technical and forensic study of the

sources through the process of their authentication and

verification, comparison and colligation.

In Britain, most realist-inspired and empiricist historians

thus happily accept the logical rationalisation of Carr’s

position – that of the provisional nature of historical

interpretation. This translates (inevitably and naturally it is

argued) as historical revisionism (re-visionism?). The

provisionality of historical interpretation is a perfectly normal

and natural historian’s state-of-affairs that depends on

discovering new evidence (and revisiting old evidence for that

matter), treating it to fresh modes analysis and

conceptualisation, and constantly re-contextualising it. For

illustration, in my working career (since the early 1970s) the

omission of women in history has been ‘rectified’, and now has

moved through several historiographical layers to reach its

present highly sophisticated level of debate about the

possibility for a feminist epistemology(ies). So, new evidence

and new theories can always offer new interpretations, but

revisionist vistas still correspond to the real story of the past

because they correspond to the found facts.

In fact, with each revision (narrative version?) it is

presumed by some that we know better or see more clearly the

nature of the past. So, we are for ever inching our way closer to

its truth? Arthur Marwick makes the claim that by standing on

“…the powerful shoulders of our illustrious

predecessors” we are able both to advance “the

quality” and “the ‘truthfulness’ of history”

(Marwick 1970: 21). Standing on the shoulders of other historians

is, perhaps, a precarious position not only literally but also in

terms of the philosophy of history. No matter how extensive the

revisionary interpretation, the empiricist argument maintains

that the historical facts remain, and thus we cannot destroy the

knowability of past reality even as we re-emphasise or

re-configure our descriptions. Marxists and Liberals alike

sustain this particular non sequitur which means they can

agree on the facts, legitimately reach divergent interpretations

and, it follows, be objective. The truth of the past actually

exists for them only in their own versions. For both, however,

the walls of empiricism remain unbreached. The

(empiricist-inspired) Carr-endorsed epistemological theory of

knowledge argues that the past is knowable via the evidence, and

remains so even as it is constituted into the historical

narrative. This is because the ‘good’ historian is midwife to the

facts, and they remain sovereign. They dictate the historian’s

narrative structure, her form of argumentation, and ultimately

determine her ideological position.

For Carr, as much as for those who will not tarry even for the

briefest of moments with the notion of epistemological

scepticism, Hayden White’s argument that the historical narrative

is (a story) as much invented as found, is inadmissible because

without the existence of a determinate meaning in the evidence,

facts cannot emerge as aspects of the truth. Most historians

today, and l think it is reasonable to argue Carr also endorses

this view in What is History?, accept Louis Mink’s

judgment that “if alternative emplotments are based only on

preference for one poetic trope rather than another, then no way

remains for comparing one narrative structure with another in

respect of their truth claims as narratives” (Vann 1993: 1).

But Carr’s unwillingness to accept the ultimate logic of, in this

instance, the narrative impositionalism of the historian, and his

failure to recognise the representational collapse of history

writing, even as he acknowledges that “the use of language

forbids him to be neutral” (Carr 1961: 25), has helped blind

many among the present generation of British historians to the

problematic epistemological nature of the historical enterprise.

Take the vexed issue of facts. Carr’s answer to the question

“What is a historical fact?” is to argue, pace

Collingwood (Collingwood 1994: 245) that facts arise through

“…an a priori decision of the historian” (Carr

1961: 11). It is how the historian then arranges the facts as

derived from the evidence, and influenced by her knowledge of the

context, that constitutes historical meaning. For Carr a fact is

like sack, it will not stand up until you put ’something’ in it.

The ’something’ is a question addressed to the evidence. As Carr

insists, “The facts speak only when the historian calls on

them: it is he who decides to which facts to give the floor, and

in what order or context” (Carr 1961: 11).

It is easy to see why Elton and others like Arthur Marwick

misconstrue the (Collingwood-) Carr position when Carr says such

things because, if pushed a little further allows historians to

run the risk of subjectivity through their intervention in the

reconstruction of the past. Carr, of course, denies that risk

through his objectivist bottom line. There is clear daylight

between this position and that occupied by Hayden White. It is

that while historical events may be taken as given, what Carr

calls historical facts are derived within the process of

narrative construction. They are not accurate representations of

the story immanent in the evidence and which have been brought

forth (set free?) as a result of the toil, travail, and exertion

of the forensic and juridical historian.

Since the 1960’s Carr’s arguments have moved to a central

place in British thinking and now constitute the dominant

paradigm for moderate reconstructionist historians. This is

because, as Keith Jenkins has demonstrated, Carr pulls back from

the relativism which his own logic, as well as that of

Collingwood, pushes him. In the end Carr realises how close to

the postempiricist wind he is running, so he rejects

Collingwood’s insistence on the empathic and constitutive

historian, replacing her with another who, while accepting the

model of a dialogue between past events and future trends, still

believes a sort of objectivity can be achieved. This then is not

the crude Eltonian position. It is a claim to objectivity because

it is position leavened by a certain minimum self-reflexivity.

This is a conception of the role of the historian affirmed by the

most influential recent American commentators Joyce Appleby, Lynn

Hunt and Margaret Jacob who claim there can be no postmodern

history by repeating (almost exactly) Carr’s fastidious

empiricist position. Carr received only one oblique reference in

their book Telling the Truth About History which may help

explain why they re-packed Carr’s position as practical realism

(Appleby, Hunt and Jacob 1994: 237, 241-309 passim). Is it

that his position is so central to the intellectual culture of

mainstream history that it wasn’t even necessary to reference

him? In the early 1990’s the historian Andrew Norman endorsed the

Carr mainstream position more directly by arguing writing history

necessitates historians engaging directly with the evidence

“A good historian will interact dialogically with the

historical record” (Norman 1991: 132). Facts in history are

thus constituted out of the evidence when the historian

selects sources contextually in order to interpret and explain

that to which they refer, rather than in the narrative about

which they describe.

It is because Carr remains at the end of the day a convinced

objectivist despite (or because of?) his dalliance with

relativism – that his legacy in What is History? is still

so potent among British historians. His objectivist appeal in What

is History? is potent because it is not of the naive variety.

We know the Carr historian cannot stand outside history, cannot

be non-ideological, cannot be disinterested, or be unconnected to

her material because she is dispassionate. But she is telling us

what actually happened because she can overcome those obstacles.

She knows that the significance of the evidence is not

found solely in the evidence. The historian, as he said,

“does not deal in absolutes of this kind” (Carr 1961:

120). There can be no transcendental objective measures of truth.

However, while accepting the “facts of history cannot be

purely objective, since they become facts of history only in

virtue of the significance attached to them by the

historian” (Carr 1961: 120), Carr was forced by his naked

objectivist desire to underplay the problems of historical form

and the situatedness of the historian. he did this by arguing

that the standard for objectivity in history was the

historian’s “sense of the direction in history” by

which he meant the historian selected facts based not on personal

bias, but on the historian’s ability to choose “the right

facts, or, in other words, that he applies the right standard of

significance” (Carr 1961: 123).

Carr’s philosophical sleight-of-hand produced the objective

historian who “has a capacity to rise above the limited

vision of his own situation in society and history” and also

possesses the capacity to “project his vision into the

future in such a way as to give him a m-ore profound and more

lasting insight into the past than can be attained by those

historians whose outlook is entirely bounded by their own

immediate situation” (Carr 1961: 123). The objective

historian is also the historian who “penetrates most

deeply” into the reciprocal process of fact and value, who

understands that facts and values are not necessarily opposites

with differences in values emerging from differences of

historical fact, and vice versa. This objective historian also

recognises the limitations of historical theory. As Carr says a

compass “is a valuable and indeed indispensable guide. But

it is not a chart of the route” (Carr 1961: 116).

Social theory historians (constructionists) understand past

events through a variety of methods statistical and/or

econometric, and/or by devising deductive covering laws, and/or

by making anthropological and sociological deductive-inductive

generalisations. For hard-core reconstructionist-empiricists on

the other hand, the evidence proffers the truth only through

the forensic study of its detail without question-begging theory.

These two views are compromised by Carr’s insistence that the

objective historian reads and interprets the evidence at the same

time and cannot avoid some form of prior conceptualisation – what

he chooses simply (or deliberately loosely?) to call

“writing” (Carr 1961: 28). By this I think he means the

rapid movement between context and source which will be

influenced by the structures and patterns

(theories/models/concepts of class, race, gender, and so forth)

found, or discovered, in the evidence.

For Carr the evidence suggests certain appropriate explanatory

models of human behaviour to the objective historian which will

then allow for ever more truthful historical explanation. This

sleight-of-hand still has a certain appeal for a good number of

historians today. The American historian James D. Winn accepts

this Carr model of the objective historian when he says that

deconstructionist historians “…tend to flog extremely dead

horses” as they accuse other historians of believing history

is knowable, that words reflect reality, and their un-reflexive

colleagues still insist on seeing the facts of history

objectively. Few historians today, thanks to Carr, work from

these principles in pursuit of, as Winn says “…the

illusory Holy Grail of objective truth” but strive only to

ground “…an inevitably subjective interpretation on the

best collection of material facts we can gather” (Winn 1993:

867-68). At the end of the day, this position is not very much

different to the hard line reconstructionist-empiricist.

What Carr is doing then in What is History? is setting

up the parameters of the historical method – conceived on

the ground of empiricism as a process of questions suggested to

the historian by the evidence, with answers from the evidence

midwifed by the application to the evidence of testable theory as

judged appropriate. The appropriate social theory is a

presumption or series of connected presumptions, of how people in

the past acted intentionally and related to their social

contexts. For most objective historians of the Carr variety, his

thinking provides a more sympathetic definition of history than

the positivist one it has replaced, simply because it is more

conducive to the empirical historical method, and one which

appears to be a reasoned and legitimate riposte to the

deconstructive turn.

For such historians Carr also deals most satisfactorily with

the tricky problem of why they choose to be historians and write

history. The motivation behind the work of the historian is found

in the questions they ask of the evidence, and it is not,

automatically to be associated with any naked ideological

self-indulgence. Any worries of deconstructionists about either

ideology, or inductive inference, or failures of narrative form

has little validity so long as historians do not preconceive

patterns of interpretation and order facts to fit those

preconceptions. Carr would, I think, eagerly challenge the

argument that historians are incapable of writing down

(reasonably) truthful narrative representations of the past. The

position that there is no uninterpreted source would not be a

particularly significant argument for Carr because historians

always compare their interpretations with the evidence they have

about the subject of their inquiry. This process it is believed

will then generate the (most likely and therefore the most

accurate) interpretation.

So, when we write history (according to the Carr model) our

motivation is disinterestedly to re-tell the events of the past

with forms of explanation already in our minds created for us

through our prior research in the archive. ‘Naturally’ we are not

slaves to one theory of social action or philosophy of history -

unless we fall from objectivist grace to write history as an act

of faith (presumably very few of us do this? Do you do this?).

Instead we maintain our models are generally no more than

‘concepts’ which aid our understanding of the evidence indeed,

which grow out of the evidence. We insist our interpretations are

independent of any self-serving theory or master narrative

imposed or forced on the evidence. It is the ‘common sense’ wish

of the historian to establish the veracity and accuracy of the

evidence, and then put it all into an interpretative fine focus

by employing some organising concepts as we write it. We do it

like this to discover the truth of the past.

To conclude, Carr’s legacy, therefore, shades the distinction

between reconstructionism and constructionism by arguing we

historians do not go about our task in two separate ways with

research in the sources for the facts, and then offering an

interpretation using concepts or models of explanation. Rather

the historian sets off, as Carr says “…on a few of what I

take to be the capital sources” and then “inevitably

gets the itch to write”. This I take to mean to compose an

interpretation and “…thereafter, reading and writing go on

simultaneously” (Carr 1961; 28). For Carr this suggests the

“…untenable theory of history as an objective compilation

of facts…and an equally untenable theory of history as the

subjective product of the mind of the historian…” is much

less of a problem than any hard-nosed reconstructionists might

fear. It is in fact the way in which human beings operate in

everyday life, a “…reflection of the nature of man”

as Carr suggests. (Carr 1961: 29). Historians, like Everywoman

and Everyman work on the evidence and infer its most likely

meaning – unlike non-historians we are blessed with the

intellectual capacity to overcome the gravitational pull of our

earthly tethers.

The id e fixe of mainstream British historians today

is to accept history as this inferential and interpretative

process that can achieve truth through objectivism. Getting the

story straight (from the evidence). The unresolved paradox in

this is the dubious legacy of What is History?. I assume a

good number of historians recommend Carr to their students as the

starting point of methodological and philosophical

sophistication, and a security vouchsafed by the symmetry between

factualism, objectivism and the dialogic historian. While I am

unconvinced by its message, I think this is why What is

History? remains, for the majority of British historians, a

comforting bulwark against post-constructive and post-empirical



Appleby, Joyce, Hunt, Lynn, and Jacob, Margaret (1994) Telling

the Truth About History, W.W. Norton and Co., London.

Callinicos, Alex (1995) Theories and Narratives:

Reflections on the Philosophy of History, Cambridge, Polity


Carr, E.H. (1961) What is History? London, Penguin.

———— (1987) What is History? (Second Edition)

London, Penguin.

Collingwood R.G. (1994) The Idea of History (First

published 1946) Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Iggers, Georg, G. (1997) Historiography in the Twentieth

Century: From Scientific Objectivity to the Postmodern Challenge,

Hanover, NH, Wesleyan University Press.

Jenkins, Keith (1995) On ‘What is History?’, London,


———– (1997) Postmodern History Reader, London,


Knight, Alan (1997) “Latin Americ


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