Tag Archives: E. H. Carr

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. Continue reading

History in Policy

‘Public history’ is something of a misnomer. The degree to which history which can influence policy is ‘public’ is a difficult question. E. H. Carr writes in his What Is History? that, when he was working in a junior capacity at the Paris peace conference in 1919, all the diplomats and their staffs took extra care to empty their wastepaper baskets. They were thinking of the discussions surrounding the peace treaty after Napoleon’s defeat in 1815, and the history they used to inform their actions was a titbit of information about that time: that nefarious negotiators spied on their opposite numbers’ plans by going through their waste paper. Carr uses this to illustrate the fallacy of thinking one can ultimately ‘learn from history’ in a way which is total and all-encompassing. Each moment in time presents new and unique challenges. One cannot rely simply on knowing the past to know the present, or indeed to predict the future. Continue reading

On “On History” by Bertrand Russell

Bertrand Russell is well known – indeed, he is revered by some – for his philosophy. But his writings, which stretched over a long and eventful life, frequently took on other subjects, many of them decidedly different. In July 1904, when he was a young man, Russell published an essay entitled “On History” in The Independent Review. This piece of writing is both simple and complex; the truths it contains – at least initially – could be seen to be little more than truisms; but this does not mean that they are not true, and nor does this suggest that they are not worth saying. Continue reading

What Are a Historian’s Most Important Skills?

The purpose of history (at least according to Leopold von Ranke) is ‘to show how things actually were’. There is much debate about the exact meaning of this phrase – does it provide a warrant only for literalism and the stating of fact, or does it give license, for example, for historians to write about how the past was in essence? – but much of the central tenets of Ranke’s own empirical history have been broadly accepted. What is not so concrete, however, is the question of what skills and traits a historian ought to exhibit. After all, it takes a certain skill to write empirically, and it takes a certain knack to assemble facts into the form of historical writing, but true skill in the writing of history is something less easy to define; it contains something higher, something nobler – and something infinitely more subjective. But the best historians – in short, those who master both substance and style – can achieve something greater than the result of Ranke’s rather prosaic observation; their works can contain and aspire to the literary – and they can attract the permanence of true art in the process. Continue reading

When Historians Write About the Past, Are They Nearly Always Writing About the Present?

On one level, one must agree with the statement entirely: every historian, in the act of writing, is implicitly chronicling his or her own times. In a basic sense, this can be seen in the language or dialect they use, even in the vernacular of their work. Each is connected with history, but each is still of the present, directed by the exigencies of the present day. The words themselves might also have political connotations from which they cannot be entirely dissociated. E. H. Carr, in his seminal work of historiography What is History?, provides a pertinent example:

The names by which successive French historians have described the Parisian crowds which played so prominent a role in the French Revolution ­­– le sans-cullottes, le peuple, la canaille, le bras-nus – are all, for those that know the rules of the game, manifestos of a political affiliation and of a particular interpretation.[1]

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