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Book review | What is history?

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Book: What Is History?

Author: Edward Hallet Carr

Paperback: 224 pages

Publisher: Vintage (October 12, 1967)

Language: English

ISBN: 039470391X

An excellent question to deal with, before starting any intellectual discussion on the topics of history and its interaction with modern society, is to identify the very nature of history itself and of the person trying to preserve it. An excellent book on the subject, written by Mr Carr titled, What is history? endeavours to do just this. I, on the other hand, in my endeavour to comment on this book will limit myself to history, the historian, and the part history plays in social life.

It is imperative that it be settled whether a historical fact passed on by a historian is indeed exactly what happened, or is it what he perceives to have happened. Human psychology dictates that we are limited to be aware of what we, consciously, perceive ourselves to be. Hence a comparative to this note is applicable in this concern. That we can only explain what we perceive to have happened. Now the question becomes whether a fact should be passed on in its original entirety or is it acceptable that the biases of the writer, the historian in this case, present a varied view of an act. Here Aston and Sir George Clark disagree. Aston says that history should be transmitted in its actuality, without being predisposed in any manner. He announced to this effect:

“That our Waterloo must be one that satisfies French and English, German and Dutch alike; that nobody can tell, without examining the list of authors where the bishop of Oxford laid down the pen, and whether Fairbairn or Gasquet, Liebermann or Harrison took it up” (Carr; 1961: 6).

Sir George, on the converse, says that this is not possible as any written work will eventually contain the perspective of the writer, though he agrees that a contrast between fact and opinion is desirable.

Any act, any deed, becomes historically technically right after it is done, as it becomes an act that was done in the past. So it is natural to assume that all acts ever done by anyone are historical, yet there is a selective pressure governing which acts are to be saved for future reference and which ones are to be refuted. This is the domain of choice reserved for the historian. He is the one who picks out select bits of information that he is to save, and the ones that he will leave for obscurity to claim.

A historian is just a person, an individual with individual failings and prejudices. So now the logical question becomes what bits of information will he indeed select to save, or in other words, what is the criterion?

The answer to this question exists in several layers. First, any historical fact will invoke the morality of the historian. That is if he deems a certain act or deed to be immoral, he will either ignore the fact altogether, but if he does choose to make note of the said fact, then it will be in a way that makes his opinion fairly clear.

Second, the way in which the historical fact affects the historian himself is very important to take into account. He is a part of society, and all historical facts have their own impact on society and eventually on the historian. If an act affects him positively or negatively, he will be inclined to mention so.

Third, his nationalism will come into play. This can be said to be an extension of the previously mentioned criterion. If an act was committed by a leader of an opposition, then that will automatically be assumed to be wrong, or unjust at the least. As Mr Carr says:

“The point in the procession at which he finds himself determines his angle of vision on the past” (Carr; 1961: 43).

Fourth, the number of people that an act affects is perhaps the most potent reason for a historian to preserve the knowledge of an act. For example, the rebellion of one man may not interest a historian as much as the rebellion of a whole village, which in turn may not interest him more than say the French Revolution. According to Mr Carr:

“Numbers count in history” (Carr; 1961: 62).

Another criterion to the said effect is whether all historians agree to an established fact or not. This is to say whether they divide history into smaller sub-sections such as the medieval times, or industrial age, etc., and if so, do they all conform to the times that these ages started and ended or not. If not, then most acts that they choose to select will lie in different sectors and will eventually lead to a differential point of view. Mr Carr says:

“The bias of a historian can be judged from the hypothesis which he adopts” (Carr; 1961: 77).

Now that the criteria have been established it is important to understand whether history or rather the study of history falls in the normative sciences, or social sciences. I tend to think that it falls in the natural sciences, as the very purpose of saving relevant information is for its use in later times. Social sciences are moreover a passive science, in that they can answer the ‘how, when and where’, but not the ‘why’. The ‘why’ can only be answered when information is analysed and that is what natural science tends to do. It tends to assimilate information and tries to explain it, or at least offer a logical theory. There are many objections to this effect:

“(1) that history deals exclusively with the unique, science with the general; (2) that history teaches no lessons; (3)that history is unable to predict” (Carr; 1961: 78).

In my opinion, before any such advances are made it is necessary to identify history as a tool and not as an entity. History is what we make of it, both in action and in study. Hence to say that ‘history deals with the unique’ is politically incorrect, as it is the person, the historian who is the one making the choice and not history itself. Therefore, what can be seen is that history like any good tool can be made to serve any purpose that we wish it to. Mr Carr says:

“It is nonsense to say that generalisation is foreign to history; history thrives on generalisations” (Carr; 1961: 82).

The second point is easily refutable as well, as the very purpose of history is to learn from it. From the mistakes of those who came before us. And to act in a manner that would be beneficial to us and according to Mr Carr, “We are consciously or unconsciously trying to do this.”

The third is essentially correct, but when looked through the same window through which we saw the first point, it comes to the same point that it is not the job of history to predict, but rather the person. And one can only predict through knowledge of the past. Historical facts are no different from physical laws in that, they only show a way; it is not binding that something will happen, rather if it does, it will perhaps follow a set course. Mr Carr says:

“The so-called laws of science which affect our ordinary life are in fact statements of tendency, statements of what will happen, other things being equal or in laboratory conditions. They do not claim to predict what will happen in concrete cases” (Carr; 1961: 87).

So to sum up everything, history is said to be a science, and a tool in the hands of the historian with which he can shape the outcome of the present. Perhaps it is best said by Mr Carr: “To enable man to understand the society of the past and to increase his mastery over the society of the present is the dual function of history” (Carr; 1961: 69).


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