What Is History?

An old headmaster of mine, who kindly lent me his copy of E. H. Carr’s What Is History?, had an answer for the question posed by its title. He fondly said that history is ‘the house in which all other subjects live’. That is the natural perspective of an educator, and of a man who read the subject himself and was keen to assert its importance.

On this point, history (perhaps with the first letter capitalised) is the sum total of all human action and achievement. It is a record of advancement and of error. Without having and drawing from a past, my headmaster in his way implied, no academic discipline could ever hope to have depth.

He cared and continues to care, deeply, about that hinterland which surrounds our individual activities, and gives meaning in scope and humility in scale to all we do. In my own time, I happily bought his view in its entirety.

But in the years since, my view of that comment has taken a different tack. Perhaps his rather palatial metaphor can be viewed more humbly.

Carr himself warned against taking too grand a position of what history truly is, even to those writing it. The historian can survey the past, but not from a truly lofty perch. To Carr, history is little but a ‘moving procession’, of lives lived and lives lost, which we can in our time interpret but cannot escape. It is a procession of which the historian, and members of every other discipline, are part.

Whole fields of study have come into being in the past two hundred years, and their pasts include a number of attempts to define their purpose. At my university, some of the natural scientists who appeared to be doing the most interesting work spent a good amount of time on the history and philosophy of their subject. They discovered a catalogue of people, their predecessors, with whom they could empathise, in similar circumstances, either doing their best or doing badly – all of it offering little grounds for imperious, detached judgement.

‘Where can we live but days?’ as Larkin said. This is as true of everyone who has lived as it is of us. If history is simply a method for, in a number of inventive ways, discovering, describing and communing with the lives of the dead, it has a description. But there is still no schema or mission in sight. A rambling house to whose corridors we are confined, and whose depths we shall never, in our own lifetimes, come close to knowing.

This brief essay, originally an answer to a question posed by another that was not taken up, was first published at Correspondence, an occasional journal.

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