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The Uses of Facts: E. H. Carr: What is History?

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What is History?Carr’s What is History? has long been read by students, helped no doubt by the fact that it is very short. 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, and the link between Kitson Clark’s lectures and Carr’s provides us with a useful point of entry.

Historiography consists partly of the study of historians and partly of the study of historical method, the study of the study of history. Many eminent historians have turned their hand to it, reflecting on the nature of the work they undertake and its relationship both to the reader and to the past. Carr was a well-known authority on the history of Soviet Russia, with which he was in ideological sympathy. Invited to deliver the 1961 George Macaulay Trevelyan lectures, he chose as his theme the question ‘What is History?’ and sought to undermine the idea, then very much current, that historians enjoy a sort of objectivity and authority over the history they study. At one point he pictured the past as a long procession of people and events, twisting and turning so that different ages might look at each other with greater or lesser clarity. He warned, however, against the idea that the historian was in any sort of commanding position, like a general taking the salute; instead the historian is in the procession with everyone else, commenting on events as they appear from there, with no detachment from them nor, of course, any idea of what events might lie in the future. This assault on the privileged authority of the historian was bold for its time, particularly in a series of lectures named after such a whiggish figure as Trevelyan. But if few historians with quibble with his basic premise about the historian’s position vis-à-vis the past, his thoughts on the definition of a historical fact were far more contentious.

 

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