Edward Carr begins What is History? By saying what he thinks history is not…by being negative. In Carr’s words, what history is not, or should not be, is a way of constructing historical accounts that are obsessed with both the facts and the documents which are said to contain them. Carr believes that by doing this the profoundly important shaping power of the historian will surely be downplayed. Carr goes on to argue – in his first chapter- that this downgrading of historiography arose because mainstream historians combined three things: first, a simple but very strong assertion that the proper function of the historian was to show the past as ‘it really was’; second, a positivist stress on inductive method, where you first get the facts and then draw conclusions from them; and third – and this especially in Great Britain – a dominant empiricist rationale.
Together, these constituted for Carr what still stood for the ‘commonsense’ view of history:
The empirical theory of knowledge presupposes a complete separation between subject and object.
Facts, like sense-impressions, impinge on the observer from outside and are independent of his consciousness. The process of reception is passive: having received the data, he then acts on them…This consists of a corpus of ascertained facts…First get your facts straight, then plunge at your peril into the shifting sands of interpretation – that is the ultimate wisdom of the empirical, commonsense school of history. 2 Clearly, however, commonsense doesn’t work for Mr.Carr.
For he sees this as precisely the view one has to reject.
Unfortunately things begin to get a little complicated when Carr tries to show the light, since while it seems he has three philosophical ways of going about his studies – one being epistemological and two ideological – his prioritizing of the epistemological over the ideological makes history a science too complex for comprehension to anyone other than himself. Carr’s epistemological argument states that not all the ‘facts of the past’ are actually ‘historical facts. Furthermore, there are vital distinctions to be drawn between the ‘events’ of the past, the ‘facts’ of the past and the ‘historical’ facts. That ‘historical facts’ only become this way is by being branded so by recognized historians. Carr develops this argument as follows: What is a historical fact? …According to the commonsense view, there are certain basic facts which are the same for all historians and which form, so to speak, the backbone of history – the fact, for example, that the battle of Hastings was fought in 1066.
But this view calls for two observations. In the first place, it is not with facts like these that the historian is primarily concerned. It is no doubt important to know that the great battle was fought in 1066 and not 1065 or 1067…The historian must not get these things wrong. But when points of this kind are raised, I am reminded of Housman’s remark that ‘accuracy is a duty, not a virtue’. To praise a historian for his accuracy is like praising an architect for using well-seasoned timber. It is a necessary condition of his work, but not his essential function.
It is precisely for matters of this kind that the historian is entitled to rely on what have been called the ‘auxiliary sciences’ of history – archaeology, epigraphy, numismatics, chronology, and so-forth. 3 Carr thinks that the insertion of such facts into a historical account, and the significance which they will have relative to other selected facts, depends not on any quality intrinsic to the facts ‘in and for themselves,’ but on the reading of events the historian chooses to give: 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…The only reason why we are interested to know that the battle was fought at Hastings in 1066 is that historians regard it as a major historical event. It is the historian who has decided for his own reasons that Caesar’s crossing of that petty stream, the Rubicon, is a fact of history, whereas the crossings of the Rubicon by millions of other people…interests nobody at all…The historian is [therefore] necessarily selective.
The belief in a hard core of historical facts existing objectively and independently of the historian is a preposterous fallacy, but one which it is very hard to eradicate. 4 Following on from this, Carr ends his argument with an illustration of the process by which a slight event from the past is transformed into a ‘historical fact’. At Stalybridge Wakes, in 1850, Carr tells us about a gingerbread seller being beaten to death by an angry mob; this is a well documented and authentic ‘fact from the past. But for it to become a ‘historical fact,’ Carr argues that it needed to be taken up by historians and inserted by them into their interpretations, thence becoming part of our historical memory. In other words concludes Carr: Its status as a historical fact will turn on a question of interpretation. This element of interpretation enters into every fact of history. 5 This is the substance of Carr’s first argument and the first ‘position’ that is easily taken away after a quick read his work.
Thereby initially surmising that Carr thinks that all history is just interpretation and there are really no such things as facts. This could be an easily mislead conclusion if one ceases to read any further. If the interpretation of Carr stops at this point, then not only are we left with a strong impression that his whole argument about the nature of history, and the status of historical knowledge, is effectively epistemological and skeptical, but we are also not in a good position to see why.
It’s not until a few pages past the Stalybridge example that Carr rejects that there was too skeptical a relativism of Collingwood, and begins a few pages after that to reinstate ‘the facts’ in a rather unproblematical way, which eventually leads him towards his own version of objectivity. Carr’s other two arguments are therefore crucial to follow, and not because they are explicitly ideological. The first of the two arguments is a perfectly reasonable one, in which Carr is opposed to the obsession of facts, because of the resulting common sense view of history that turns into an ideological expression of liberalism.
Carr’s argument runs as follows. The classical, liberal idea of progress was that individuals would, in exercising their freedom in ways which took ‘account’ of the competing claims of others somehow and without too much intervention, move towards a harmony of interests resulting in a greater, freer harmony for all. Carr thinks that this idea was then extended into the argument for a sort of general intellectual laissez-faire, and then more particularly into history.
For Carr, the fundamental idea supporting liberal historiography was that historians, all going about their work in different ways but mindful of the ways of others, would be able to collect the facts and allow the ‘free-play’ of such facts, thereby securing that they were in harmony with the events of the past which were now truthfully represented. As Carr puts this: The nineteenth century was, for the intellectuals of Western Europe, a comfortable period exuding confidence and optimism.
The facts were on the whole satisfactory; and the inclination to ask and answer awkward questions about them correspondingly weak…The liberal…view of history had a close affinity with the economic doctrine of laissez-faire – also the product of a serene and self-confident outlook on the world. Let everyone get on with his particular job, and the hidden hand would take care of the universal harmony. The facts of history were themselves a demonstration of the supreme fact of a beneficent and apparently infinite progress towards higher things. 6 Carr’s second argument is therefore both straightforward and ideological.
His point is that the idea of the freedom of the facts to speak for themselves arose from the happy coincidence that they just happened to speak liberal. But of course Carr did not. Thereby knowing that in the history he wrote the facts had to be made to speak in a way other than liberal (i. e. in a Marxist type of way) then his own experience of making ‘the facts’, his facts, is universalized to become everyone’s experience. Historians, including liberals, have to transform the ‘facts of the past’ into ‘historical facts’ by their positioned intervention.
And so, Carr’s second argument against ‘commonsense’ history is ideological. For that matter, so is the third. But if the second of Carr’s arguments is easy to see, his third and final one is not. This argument needs a little ironing out. In the first two critiques of ‘commonsense’ history, Carr has effectively argued that the facts have no ‘intrinsic’ value, but that they’ve only gained their ‘relative’ value when historians put them into their accounts after all the other facts were under consideration.
The conclusion Carr drew is that the facts only speak when the historian calls upon them to do so. However, it was part of Carr’s position that liberals had not recognized the shaping power of the historian because of the ‘cult of the fact’ and that, because of the dominance of liberal ideology, their view had become commonsense, not only for themselves, but for practically all historiography. It appeared to Carr that historians seemed to subscribe to the position that they ought to act as the channel through which ‘the facts of the past for their own sake’ were allowed self-expression.
But Carr, not wanting to go the route of his fellow historians, nor wanting to succumb to the intellectual complaints about the demise of the experience of originality, says: In the following pages I shall try to distance myself from prevailing trends among Western intellectuals…to show how and why I think they have gone astray and to stake out a claim, if not for an optimistic, at any rate for a saner and more balanced outlook on the future. 7 It is therefore this very pointed position which stands behind and gives most, if not all, of the reason for Carr’s writing What is History?
Carr himself seems to be quite clear that the real motive behind his text was the ideological necessity to re-think and re-articulate the idea of continued historical progress among the ‘conditions’ and the doubters of his own ‘skeptical days’. Carr’s ‘real’ concern was ‘the fact’ that he thought the future of the whole modern world was at stake. Carr’s own optimism cannot be supported by ‘the facts’, so that his own position is just his opinion, as equally without foundation as those held by optimistic liberals. Consequently, the only conclusion that can arguably be drawn is that ‘the past’ doesn’t actually enter into historiography, except rhetorically. In actuality there should be no nostalgia for the loss of a ‘real’ past, no sentimental memory of a more certain time, nor a panic that there are no foundations for knowledge other than rhetorical conversation.