Looking Backward Into the Present

Using the Popular Culture of the Past to Help Answer Perplexing Questions in the Present

Archive for Edward Hallett Carr

What is History? (Part 1)

So someone commented yesterday that it had been a long time since I had posted to my blog.  I checked the date of my last post and I couldn’t believe it had been almost two months? Wow.  Time flies.  Part of the reason for the delay is because I have started my coursework on my Ph.d. in history and have been under a mountain of reading/writing.  Of course, one of the first questions that I get is:  “What are you studying?”  The short answer is a lot of historiography.  Naturally, the second question I usually get is “What is historiography?”  To answer basically, it is the history of history.  One of the first books I read to introduce me to the study of historiography is Edward Hallett Carr’s book “What is History?”  Carr’s book is a collection of lectures delivered at the University of Cambridge January circa March 1961.  So I thought it would be interesting to post some of his more interesting quotes that get at the heart of the question: What is history?

BTW – I’m using the Vintage Books paperback version for my citations. 

  • It used to be said that facts speak for themselves.  This is, of course, untrue.  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.  It was, I think, one of Pirandello’s characters who said that a fact is like a sack—it won’t stand up till you’ve put something in it. (page 9)
  • The belief that a hard core of historical facts existing objectively and independently of the interpretation of the historian is a preposterous fallacy, but one which it is very hard to eradicate. (page10)
  • By and large, the historian will get the kind of facts he wants.  History means interpretation.  Indeed, if, standing  Sir George Clark on his head, I were to call history “a hard core of interpretation surrounded by a pulp of disreputable facts. (26)
  • History cannot be written unless the historian can achieve some kind of contact with the mind of those about whom he is writing. (27)
  • The third point is that we can view the past, and achieve our understanding of the past, only through the eyes of the present.  (28)
  • Yet the historian is obliged to choose [terms to describe]: the use of language forbids him to be neutral. (28)
  • The function of the historian is neither to love the past nor to emancipate himself from the past, but to master and understand it as the key to the understanding of the present. (29)
  • What is history?,  is that is a continuous process of interaction between the historian and his facts, an unending dialogue between the present and the past.  (35)
  • My purpose is to merely show how closely the work of the historian mirrors the society in which he works.  It is not merely the events that are in flux.  The historian himself is in flux.  When you take up a historical work, it is not enough to look for the author’s name in the title-page:  look also for the date of publication or writing—it is sometimes even more revealing.  (51)
  • There is no more significant pointer to the character of a society than the kind of history it writes or fails to write. (53)