What is History? E. H. Carr

E. H. Carr. People like to quote this historian’s attitude to facts as saying nothing but what you say them to say, beginning with the choice of what facts to include and how to highlight them thus that they will tell the story you are telling. Indeed, I have made the claim even more relativistic than that which was uttered by this brilliant historian, as, truth to be told, there is nothing dramatic or new about this little reflection, except the fact that the historian is saying it as a critical philosopher, that is, as taking account of himself as speaking it. What is of more interest is this one page following this mumbo jumbo of mine, taken from the Preface of What is History, which goes to explain the optimism with which Carr ends his whole reflection by making a jump to freedom nonetheless the dire times. In short, what is history is the return to philosophy, hinted to us by warning us that Marx would not have approved the talk of mere facts. This is indeed the talk of the facts by the historian speaking as a philosopher or at least as a revolutionary man.

“The tradition of the English-speaking world is profoundly empirical. Facts speak for themselves. A particular issue is debated ‘on its merits’. Themes, episodes, periods are isolated for historical study in the light of some undeclared, and probably unconscious, standard of relevance.

All this would have been anathema to Marx. Marx was no empiricist. To study the part without reference to the whole, the fact without reference to its significance, the event without reference to cause or consequence, the particular crisis without reference to the general situation, would have seemed to Marx a barren exercise.

The difference has its historical roots. Not for nothing has the English-speaking world remained so obstinately empirical. In a firmly established social order, whose credentials nobody wishes to question, empiricism serves to effect running repairs … Of such a world nineteenth-century Britain provided the perfect model.

But in a time when every foundation is challenged, and we flounder from crisis to crisis in the absence of any guidelines, empiricism is not enough”

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