Carr's What is History?
Edward Carr's What is History is a philosophical look at what makes historians. It examines the way we think about history and challenges us to re-examine the way we think about ourselves. Most importantly, it suggests that history is not static but rather an unending discourse between ourselves and the past -- a discourse in which the past is constantly revealing itself and we in turn are constantly questioning our own place. The book is definitely worth reading for any student of history, and though it ventures at times into lengthy, tangential discussions of amusing philosophical questions which can become tiresome, overall Carr's witty juxtaposition of scholarly knowledge and irreverence ("historical farts" for instance) makes the book a humorous and enlightening journey through the mind of a an old teacher of the craft.
There are "facts" and then there are "historical facts" according to Edward Carr. Accuracy is the duty of the historian, not the criteria by which his work is to be judged. This is a rational argument, as Carr likens the writing of history to an architect who designs a great building: it is the architect's responsibility to use good materials -- but it is his particular genius that allows him to turn these materials into something majestic, like a cathedral.
The same may be said of the historian, who must know names, dates and places, because without them he cannot construct a solid structure of events: but they are only the framework or the foundation: it is the interpretation, the understanding, the overall vision of history that makes the historian who he is. It is the arrangement of facts that tells the story. The idea that "the facts speak for themselves" is untrue, states Carr. In fact, it is the historian, says Carr, who decides which facts are worth remembering -- and why.
This statement alone makes me like this book because what Carr is saying is sheer common sense. He is asserting the primary function of the historian -- which is to know why history is meaningful. Dickens satirized the notion that "facts" are all one needs (and not common sense, vision, or sense of greater philosophical or even theological meaning), which Carr notes as well. I would recommend this book based on this observation alone!
Carr's book gets off to a great start, I think, and it just gets better and better. He challenges the idea that historians are merely gatekeepers of facts (the 19th century take on history), and that no judgment is to be made. What Carr affirms is quite the contrary: "The historian is necessarily selective."
In other words, Carr says that any historian worth his salt is going to know which points to emphasize and which to ignore -- in much the same way a great writer of fiction will know how to arrange the plot points of his story with a beginning, middle and end. Not only this -- but the "historical facts" of his profession are those which have both received public acknowledgment from other historians and are also of some importance. The kicking to death of a street vendor, for instance, is a "historical fart" if multiple historians find it worth mentioning in footnotes. It is of not the same significance however as Caesar's crossing the Rubicon, which is a "historical fact."
This brilliant observation makes Carr's book both enlightening and fun to read. Only a man with a great sense of history and a keen sense of humor could call something a "historical fart" and get away with it!
Carr is also polite in his writing....
Before beginning a brief personal narrative, he asks the reader: "May I be allowed a personal reminiscence?" The question is unnecessary, of course, because the reader by this point is sure to allow Carr whatever he wants -- but the fact that Carr asks makes him even more endearing, as though in spite of having the reader eating out of his palm, he still wants to make sure the reader is quite comfortable.
However, the enthusiasm with which I am reading soon turns to confusion as Carr begins, so it seems to me, to suggest that all history is a historical fart -- that is, it is mostly composed of judgments written by a select few individuals, which have been accepted over time as "historical fact," when really they are nothing more than the personal opinions of a particular perspective.
If this is the case, I am confused: is Carr suggesting that the idea of "historical fact" is somewhat ludicrous? I must read on to make sense of his point.
I do so -- and I am once more mollified by Carr's ingenious wit and ability to turn a phrase: "The nineteenth-century fetishism of facts was completed and justified by a fetishism of documents. The documents were the Ark of the Covenant in the temple of fact."
Here, Carr touches on the overwhelming and often debilitating technique of modern academia which is to make empirical research the only kind worth doing. Carr appears to mock this approach -- but I cannot be certain because I am not quite sure which approach he is advocating. Again, I must read on!
Carr uses an anecdote about Stresemann and Bernhard to convey the notion that authenticity is hard to deliver when it comes to preserving history: Bernhard mostly told the story of Stresemann's successes in dealing with the West. When that story was later abbreviated and condensed, the history of Stresemann became even less authentic than before -- yet this is how most individuals' "histories" are remembered by historians, says Carr.
This appears to be for Carr a troubling point. I admit it is a valid one -- but I hope it is not one that feels the need to labor over -- for I enjoy reading this book mostly when it is quick-witted and to the point. I feel this point has been made. Let's move on to what history is all about!
Carr quickly gets there. His point is this: farts and fetishisms do not a history make. Yet what else is there? Carr suggests that every historian is writing for a unique perspective -- Augustine from that of an early Christian, Gibbon from that of a 18th century Englishman. He also admits that such a view is "total skepticism."
He concludes, finally, by asserting that the first answer to what is history is this: it is an unending dialogue between the historian and his "facts," the past and the present.
From this point on Carr embarks on a more theoretical approach to the question in doing so raises a number of questions which seem tangential. For example, which came first, society or the individual? It has never occurred to me to ask this question and I am not particularly interested in it. In fact, I am not even interested in asking, "Why?" As Carr notes is the fundamental question of the historian in the next chapter. However, what does interest me is the way that Carr believes the historian attempts to answer that question, "Why?" In one way, he suggests, the attempt is made by discerning the "cause" of men's actions.
This makes sense as a reasonable way of answering the why: it is what Herodotus and Montesquieu did.
But what the historian does is to arrange the causes -- which in turn makes him an interpreter of history.
Every historian arranges the causes of events (if he is any good) in a way that he believes best reflects the reality of their priority. That is what writing history is all about, says Carr. This is a logical argument and I can easily give my consent to it -- although I do not necessarily agree with the causes Carr lists, or arranges, in his discussion on what led to the Russian Revolution! But I, of course, have my own perspective, and that is Carr's point.
Carr goes on to discuss a variety of philosophies that affect the way historians view history, often juxtaposing historians from the 19th century with those of modern times to show how their views of what is important change.
Carr's discussion of Causation in History, however, becomes a little too pedantic. It is as if at times Carr loses the thread of his own thoughts and gleefully provides anecdotes that are, no doubt, appealing to him but for me, the reader, are tedious. Carr's book begins with a nice mix of inoffensive charm and intellectual pursuit. The charm tends to give way to the pursuit by the middle of the book, and that is when it begins to feel as though Carr is laboring over a point -- and I am not even certain what the point is. That historians view history differently? Got it. But when Carr begins a lengthy discourse on determinism, I am very nearly tempted to put the book down. These questions may be important to some, but I…
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