E. H. Carr and the Thesis of What Is History?

1938 Words Oct 21st, 2008 8 Pages
E. H. Carr and the Thesis of What is History?

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.1 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
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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.