E.H. Carr on the relationship between Historians and Facts

E H CarrThese are extracts from E.H. Carr, What is History? (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001)

The Empiricists (or more affectionately known as ‘Rankean’)

E.H. Carr first describes what the empiricists perceive to be the relationship between historians and facts.

This is what may be called the common-sense view of history.  History consists of a corpus of ascertained facts.  The facts are available to the historians 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…

In other words,

First get your facts straight, then plunge at your peril into the shifting sands of interpretation –  that is the ultimate wisdom of the empirical, common-sense school of history.

Problems with the Empiricists

Carr begins to unravel the empiricist perspective.

It used to be said that facts speak for themselves.  This is of course, untrue.  The facts speak only when historians calls on them: it is he who decides to which facts to give the floor, and in what order or context…

In other words,

The historians is necessarily selective.  The belief in a hard core of historical facts existing objectively and independently of the interpretation of the historian is a pre-posterous fallacy…

Sources, according to Carr, do not come to us in ‘pure’ form, but have been selected for us through conscious and/or unconscious a priori decisions (i.e. bias).  One example that Carr would give for this assertion is the study of ancient Greece.

Our picture of Greece in the fifth century B.C. is defective not primarily because so many of the bits have been accidentally lost, but because it is, by and large, the picture formed by a tiny group of people in the city of Athens.  We know a lot about what fifth-century Greece looked like to an Athenian citizen; but hardly anything about what it looked like to a Spartan, a Corinthian or a Theban…

In other words,

Our picture had been pre-selected and predetermined for us, not so much by accident as by people who were consciously or unconsciously imbued with a particular view and thought the facts which supported that view worth preserving.

Carr also considers the example of medieval studies.

What we know as the facts of medieval history have almost all been selected for us by generations of chroniclers who were professionally occupied in the theory and practice of religion, and who therefore thought it supremely important, and recorded everything relating to it, and not much else.

Therefore,

‘The history we read,’ writes Professor Barraclough, himself trained as a mediaevalist, ‘though based on facts, is, strictly speaking, not factual at all, but a series of accepted judgments.’   (p.8)

Carr further considers the problem of abundance of documents in modern history, a problem not shared by medieval and ancient historians.

The modern historians … has the dual task of discovering the few significant facts and turning them into facts of history, and of discarding the many insignificant facts as unhistorical.  But this is the very converse of the nineteenth-century heresy that history consists of the compilation of a maximum number irrefutable and objective facts. (p.9)

Carr then further considers the historiographical problems posits by the Stresemann archive.  To briefly explain, Gustav Stresemann was the foreign minister of the German Weimar Republic during the late 1920s, when Germany was beginning to recover from the Great Depression.  He was widely remebered by most historians as an able stateman and diplomat.  Stresemann’s secretary subsequently compiled a set of primary documents detailing Stresemann’s communications with Soviet Union. Carrs asks,

What do the paper tell us?  Among other things they contain records of some hundreds of Stresemann’s conversations with the Soviet Ambassador in Berlin…  These records have one feature in common.  They depict Stresemann as having the lion’s share of the conversations and reveal his arguments as invariably well put and cogent. while those of his partner are for the most scanty, confused and unconvincing… (page 13)

In other words,

The documents do not tell us what happened, but only what Stresemann thought had happened, or what he wanted others to think, or perhaps what he wanted himself to think, had happened… (It was) Stresemann himself, who started the process of selection.   (page 13)

The Three Neglected Truths (Collingwood hypothesis)

Having undermined the empiricist tenet regarding the relationship between historians and facts, Carr then goes on to state what he describes as the three neglected truths about the role of historians.

In the first place, the facts of history never come to us ‘pure’, since they do not and cannot exist in a pure form: they are always refracted through the mind of th recorder.  It follows that when we take up a work of history, our first concerns should be not with the facts which it contains but with the historians who wrote it… (page 17)

The second point is …one of historian’s need of imaginative understanding for the minds of the people with whom he is dealing… (page 18)

The third point is that we can view the past, and achieve our understanding of the past, only through the eyes of the present.  The historian is of his own age, and is bound to it by the conditions of human existence.  (page 19)

These three ‘neglected truths’ are actually the restated views of an even more famous historiographer, R.G. Collingwood.  Carr also refers to them as the “Collingwood hypothesis“.  (page 21)

Problems with the Collingwood hypothesis

Carr essentially agrees with the Collingwood view of history.  However, he further ponders on the moral problems presented by this relativist view of the study of history.  First of all,

The emphasis on the role of the historian in the making of history tends, if pressed to its logical conclusion, to rule out any objective history at all: history is what the historian makes. (page 20)

This tantamounts to total skepticism, a key feature of the postmodernist view of history.  As Collingwood stated, “there is no point in asking which was the right point of view” (page 20)  Or as English historian Sir George Clark would say, there is no objective historical truth.  To Carr, this is a profoundly unsatisfactory state of affair.

It does not follow that, because a mountain appears to take on different shapes from different angles of vision, it has objectively either no shape at all or an infinity of shapes.  It does not follow that, because interpretation plays a necessary part in establishing the facts of history, and because no existing interpretation is wholly objective, one interpretation is as good as another…  (page 21)

A greater lurks still for historians who subscribes to the Collingwood hypothesis, that of extreme pragmatism towards facts.

If the historian necessarily looks at his period of history through the eyes of his own time, and studies the problems of the past as a key to those of the present, will he not fall into a purely pragmatic view of the facts, and maintain the criterion of a right interpretation is its suitability to some present purpose?  (Emphasis mine) On this hypothesis, the facts of history are nothing, interpretation is everything… (page 21)

This is not good enough for Carr.  While extreme historical empiricism is an illusion, a complete disregard for objective and balanced interpretation is an overkill solution.  It means that historians can treat historical evidence with complete disrespect.  It also robs them of the authority to speak about the past.  In the face of popular abuse of history, this creates tremendous dangers.  On what basis can historians truly speak on behalf of the past, if the evidence can be straitjacketed into any “present purpose”?  On what basis can one speak out for the past in the face of holocaust deniers, genocide deniers, or other politically motivated abusers of history?

What then, is Carr’s solution to this dilemma?

Conclusion?

First of all, Carr argued that historians have an obligation to be as fair-minded as possible in how they interpret evidence from the past.

The duty of the historian to respect his facts is not exhausted by the obligation to see that his facts are accurate.  he must seek to bring into the picture all known or knowable facts relevant, in one sense or another, to the theme on which he is engaged, and to the interpretation proposed. (Page 22)

In other words, interpretation is the “lifeblood of history” (page 22), of which historians must seek to be fair.

On a further note, Carr reflects on the dichotomy that is human condition, which creates this very historiographical dilemma, this tension “between a view of history having the centre of gravity in the past and a view having the centre of gravity in the present.”  (Page 23)

The predicament of the historian is a reflexion of the nature of man.  Man … is not totally involved in his environment and unconditionally subject to it.  On the other hand, he is never totally independent of it and its unconditional master… (page 24)

Therefore a historian is, similarly,

… neither the humble slave, nor the tyrannical master, of his facts.  The relation between the historian and his facts is one of equality, or give-and-take.  As any working historian knows, if he stops to reflect what his is doing as he thinks and writes, the historian is engaged on a continuous process of moulding his facts to his interpretation and his interpretation to his facts.   (Page 24)

According to Carr, historian exists in a dynamic relationship with evidence from the past.

The historian starts with a provisional selection of facts and a provisional interpretation in the light of which that selection has been made – by others as well by himself…. The historians without his facts is rootless and futile; the facts without the historian are dead and meaningless. (Page 24)

What, then is History?

… it is a continous process of interaction between the historian and his facts, an unending dialogue between the present and the past. (Page 24)

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