Carr, EH: What is history?

Carr, EH

What is History? Penguin, Camberwell, Vic., 2008; first published Macmillan, London, 1961; 2nd edition 1987

A slim classic. Some of the key passages relate to fish and they are directly relevant to the recurring battles over the nature and teaching of history. First, there is

what may be called the commonsense view of history. History consists of a corpus of ascertained facts. The facts are available to the historian in documents, inscriptions and so on, like fish on the fishmonger’s slab. The historian collects them, takes them home, and cooks and serves them in whatever style appeals to him. (p. 9)

On the other hand, Carr presents a different view of history which derives from looking first at who is writing it.

The facts [in this version] are really not at all like fish on the fishmonger’s slab. They are like fish swimming about in a vast and sometimes inaccessible ocean; and what the historian catches will depend, partly on chance, but mainly on what part of the ocean he chooses to fish in and what tackle he chooses to use these two factors being, of course, determined by the kind of fish he wants to catch. By and large, the historian will get the kind of facts he wants. History means interpretation. (p. 23)

There are pdf downloads (sometimes including errors) to be had in a number of places, including here. A lengthy review is here and a review of a biography of the author is here.

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