What is History?

By E.H. Carr

We know that history is important, but we rarely ask what it is. It lurks behind us like an amorphous blob tacitly structuring our perceptions and relations to the world and others. But perhaps history is not really a blob, it’s shape is liable to change with new interpretation as previously insignificant events are discovered and form a new sense of importance. History, as conceived by E.H Carr, is a process of continual interaction between the past and the present. It is always moving and cannot be judged by some dogmatic and immovable standard of interpretation. Its true meaning is constantly evolving.

For Carr, history is only relevant if it can tell us something about the present. This inclination was no doubt bred as a civil servant in the foreign office where he was one of the diplomats involved in the crafting of the Treaty of Versailles. Carr did not come into history through the established means and the academic view on his methods has dimmed over time. But Carr saw himself as an academic dissident fighting against the prevailing dogma of the empiricist school. His critics argue that he is too relativistic and he is wrong not to morally judge individuals in history for their bad deeds. These are all legitimate criticisms to make and there are many to be found in the book. But “What is history” is a biting and brilliantly written, full of colourful historical examples and rebukes towards his critics. It is the book he is most closely associated with and considered an undoubted classic of modern historiography. The book sets out a bold view of how we structure our relations between the past, present and future.

The unrealizable notion of objectivity 

Carr disputes the notion that historical objectivity can ever be fully realised. He contends that there are too many things that stand in the way between the historian and the truth. A historian is bound up with biases some of which they are not even consciously aware of. This includes the placement and prominence given by the historian to certain types of facts. The empiricist view of the world was that the facts can be derived from sensory experience and measurement. The historian just needed to find the facts arrange them in the right order and he could arrive at a fully realised picture of history. But Carr argues that far from being value-free, facts are selected by the historian out of a multitude of available facts. Thousands of people have crossed the Rubicon but it’s only when Caesar did so that it becomes a matter of historical fact. History then loses a measure of objectivity as value judgments define which facts should be classified as a matter of history and which should be completely ignored. The historian needs to make sure that his facts are accurate. But Carr argues that “interpretation is still the lifeblood of history.” The historian is the one who curates the facts to reflect their own judgement and understanding.

 ” 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 denies any interpretation of history that is based on fixed laws. He argues that the historian of today is far more objective than the historian writing 200 years ago because of the social and moral progress that has been made in this time. For Carr, objectivity is not necessarily practised by the historian who forms judgments on the basis of the evidence, despite their own preconceptions. He measures objectivity in the historian who can rise above their social condition to project a vision into the future to better illuminate the past. Objectivity in history he argues can’t rest on some fixed standard of judgment. This standard is evolved as history advances.


Progress and morality


For Carr developing an understanding of history is only relevant if it helps us to understand the present. For this reason, the individual cannot be divorced from the society in which he is writing. We see that history generally reflects the prevailing mood of the times it was written. British historians were generally upbeat about the progress of humankind in the late 19th century at the height of the empire, but they were less so after the events of world war one and two.

Carr does not have a clear definable goal for progress as 19th-century thinkers did. Instead, he says that: “belief in progress means a belief not in any automatic or inevitable process, but in the progressive development of human potentialities.” Carr reflects an optimism that the creativity and ingenuity of people to solve problems will be developed over time. The argument is similar to that put forward by contemporary thinkers like Stephen Pinker and Hans Rosling: that over time many of the key outcomes for humans have drastically improved. But just because we are starting to see improvements on indicators like overall global poverty and child mortality does not mean that these trends cannot change. History does not necessarily tell someone where they are going and divorced from its context is a very poor predictor of future developments. But Carr does mitigate such challenges to contends that progress is never a straight line and that there are points in which we might see regression. Whatever progress we can observe is not continuous either in time or in place but given the long view of human history, it is his contention that clear progress can be measured.

Carr is also reluctant to judge historical figures morally. He is only interested in whether Henry VIII was a bad husband if it impacted on him being a king. He contends that the historian does not need to pass moral judgements on the private lives of individuals but can reserve such judgments for events, institutions or policies of the past. Carr does not believe in the idea of the significance of the individual in history and as such condemnation of individual historical figures is of little interest to him. He is, however, willing to criticize events and movements, but not people when they have done wrong.




Carr propounds the importance of cause and effect in history. He believes that ultimately history happened as it did and as such he has little time for speculative “what if” types of analysis. The notion of causality is so clearly bound up with his overall theory that he asserts that: “the study of history is the study of causes.” The only way to change events would be to go back and change one of the causes. This means that history for Carr is invariably a study of the victors, rather than considering the outcomes and misfortunes of the dispossessed. It is here that Carr has drawn criticisms form those who say that his conception of history is one that is always on the side of the elites.

“History is, by and large, a record of what people did, not of what they failed to do: to this extent it is inevitably a success story.”

This view of history causes Carr to lack sympathy with ordinary people. Carr readily dismisses the exploited and victimised Russian peasantry as a “primitive, cunning, ignorant and brutish lot.” He seems to identify more with the brutality of the Russian state when he goes on to praise the original model of collectivisation which came up against “peasant stupidity and peasant obstinacy.”

Carr also does not believe in the notion of accidental history. The mathematician Blaise Pascal,  supposed that had Cleopatra’s nose been shorter see would have lacked the gravitas associated with such physical features during her time. In turn, this would have supposedly made it more difficult for her to project dominance on to the great men of Rome. Carr dismisses these notions as absurd. He instead places greater emphasis on the social forces that propel people to power which he contends cannot change by virtue of accidents.


What is History is a truly thought-provoking and simulative book. Carr’s approach to both morality and history might not stand the test of time, but there is no denying the creativity and expertise that he brings to bear upon this work. Carr is undoubtedly a relativist and his conception of a history framed by the victors is more than a little limiting. But the book is an undoubted classic and for this reason, deserves to be read and considered today.

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