Thursday, 11 October 2012

Some further ideas on E. H. Carr

John Tosh, in the most recent edition of The Pursuit of History describes Carr’s book as ‘still unsurpassed as a stimulating and provocative statement by a radically inclined scholar’[1]. Keith Jenkins, much less inclined to view Carr as a radical scholar, nevertheless confirms the importance of What is History? suggesting that, along with Geoffrey Elton’s The Practice of History both texts are still popularly seen as ‘‘essential introductions’ to the ‘history question’’[2]. Jenkins concludes both Carr and Elton ‘have long set the agenda for much if not all of the crucially important preliminary thinking about the question of what is history’.[3]   So, according to Tosh and Jenkins, there remains, in Britain at least, in a lively dialogue with What is History?. Why is this the case? The reason lies in the position Carr took on the nature of historical knowledge, a position that brought him into a long conflict with, among others, the Tudor historian Geoffrey Elton. John Tosh commented further that ‘The controversy between Carr and Elton is the best starting-point for the debate about the standing of historical knowledge’.[4] Until Jenkins’ re-appraisal of Carr’s philosophy of history, Carr had been viewed almost universally among British historians as standing for a very distinctive relativist, if not indeed a sceptical conception of the functioning of the historian.

Explaining Carr’s ‘radicalism’, Michael Stanford has claimed Carr ‘insisted that the historian cannot divorce himself from the outlook and interests of his age’.[5] Stanford quotes Carr’s own claim that the historian ‘is part of history’ with a particular ‘angle of vision over the past’.[6] As Stanford points out, Carr’s ‘first the question What is History? is that it is a continuous ‘process of interaction between the historian and his facts, an unending dialogue between the present and the past’. While this was not a fresh insight with Carr, it still established him out for a number of years as someone with a novel stance. However, over time, the effect of his argument was to increasingly balance the excesses of the hard core empiricists. In What is History?, Carr propelled British historiography that pivoted on a new epistemological certitude.

The claim to epistemological radicalism on behalf of Carr does not seem especially convincing. Why? Today, more and more history writing is based on the assumption that we can know nothing genuinely truthful about the reality of the past. It would be tempting, but wholly incorrect, to say that history’s pendulum has swung far more to the notion of history as a construction or fabrication of the historian. Rather, what has happened is that the contemporary conditions of existence have created a much deeper uncertainty about the nature of knowledge-creation and its uses in the humanities. It is not about swings in intellectual fashion.

It follows, a growing number of historians believe that we do not ‘discover’ patterns in apparently contingent events because, instead, we unavoidably impose our own hierarchies of significance on them. Few historians today are naive realists and accept there must be given meaning in the evidence. While we may all agree at the level of the event that something happened at a particular time and place in the past, its significance is provided by the historian. Meaning is not immanent in the event itself. Moreover, the challenge to the distinction of fact and fiction as historians configure their historical narratives, and further acknowledgments of the cognitive power of rhetoric, style and trope (metaphors are arguments and explanations) provide not only a formal challenge to traditional empiricism, but forces them to acknowledge that as historians we are making moral choices as we describe past reality.

Does all this add up to a more fundamental criticism of historical knowing than Carr imagined in What is History?? I think so. If this catalogue is what historical relativism means today, it provides a much larger agenda for the contemporary historian than Carr’s acceptance that the historian is in a dialogue with the facts or that sources only become evidence when used by the historian. As Jenkins has pointed out at some length, Carr ultimately accepts the epistemological model of historical explanation as the definitive mode for generating historical understanding and meaning[7]. This fundamentally devalues the currency of what he has to say, as it does of all reconstructionist empiricists who followed his lead. This judgment is not, of course, widely shared by them. For illustration, it is the claim of the historian of Latin America Alan Knight that Carr remains significant today precisely because of his warning a generation ago to historians to ‘interrogate documents and to display a due scepticism as regards their writer’s motives’[8]. To maintain, as Knight does, that Carr is thus in some way pre-empting the post-modern challenge to historical knowing is unhelpful to those who would seriously wish to establish Carr’s contribution in What is History?. It would be an act of substantial historical imagination to proclaim Carr as a precursor of post-modernist history.

Carr is also not forgotten by political philosopher and critic of post-modernist history Alex Callinicos, who deploys him somewhat differently. In his defence of Marxist theory of interpretation, Callinicos begins with the contribution of a variety of so called relativist historians of which Carr is one (others include Croce, Collingwood, Becker and Beard). Acknowledging the ‘discursive character of historical facts’[9], Callinicos quotes Carr’s opinion (following Collingwood) that the facts of history never come to us pure, but are always refracted through the mind of the historian. For Callinicos this insight signals the problem of the subjectivity of the historian, but does not diminish the role of empirically derived evidence in the process of historical study.

Of course, Carr tried to fix the status of evidence with his own objections to what he understood to be the logic of Collingwood’s sceptical position. Collingwood’s logic could, claims Carr, lead to the dangerous idea that there is no certainty in historical meaning. There are only the discourses of historians, a situation that Carr refers to as ‘total scepticism’, a situation where history ends up as ‘something spun out of the human brain’ suggesting there can be no ‘objective historical truth’.[10] Carr’s objectivist anchor is dropped here. He explicitly rejected Nietzsche’s notion that historical truth is effectively defined by fitness for purpose, and the basis for Carr’s opinion was his belief in the power of empiricism to deliver the truth, whether it fits or not.[11] Historians ultimately serve the evidence, not vice versa. This guiding precept excludes the possibility that ‘one interpretation is as good as another’ even when we cannot guarantee ‘objective or truthful interpretation’.

[1] John Tosh, The Pursuit of History, London, Longman, 1991, p. 234.

[2] Keith Jenkins, On ‘What is History?’, London, Routledge, 1995, pp. 1-2.

[3]Ibid, Keith Jenkins, On ‘What is History?’ p. 3.

[4] John Tosh, The Pursuit of History, London, Longman, 1991, p. 236.

[5] Michael Stanford, A Companion to the Study of History, Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1994, p. 86.

[6] Ibid, Michael Stanford, A Companion to the Study of History, p. 86.

[7] Keith Jenkins, On ‘What is History?’, London, Routledge, 1995, pp. 1-6, 43-63.

[8] Alan Knight, ‘Latin America’ in Michael Bentley, (ed.), Companion to Historiography, London, Routledge, 1997, p. 747.

[9] Alex Callinicos, Theories and Narratives: Reflections on the Philosophy of History, Cambridge, Polity Press, 1995, p. 76.

[10] E.H. Carr, What is History? London, Penguin, 1961, p. 26

[11] Ibid, E.H. Carr, What is History? p. 27.

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