Keith Jenkins On "What is History?". From Carr and Elton to Rorty and White. Routledge. 2005.


Keith Jenkins

On 'What is History?'

From Carr and Elton to Rorty and White


Chapter 2

On E.H. Carr

Although I have argued that much of the continued use of Carr and Elton to represent the ‘alternatives in the self-understanding of the discipline’ has been through the popularity of the ‘Carr-Elton debate’, that debate is not the subject of this study. It is not a question of taking sides on this ‘controversy’. Nevertheless, a propos my earlier remarks on the nuances contained in left, centre and right positions with regard to postmodernism, I think it is clear that both Carr and Elton have rather more complicated positions than their debate often suggests, such that the common view of Carr as simply the radical sceptic and relativist, and Elton simply as the truth-seeker and objectivist, may, in some ways, be misleading. In case readers are thinking that I am saying this just in order to make my somewhat more qualified reading of Carr and Elton ‘original’, it might be worth spending a couple of paragraphs to point out that the popular view of Carr as the unalloyed relativist and Elton as the unalloyed certaintist are not characterisations I am inventing for effect but do constitute much of the conventional wisdom.

Thus, for example, in his popular, introductory text, The Pursuit of History’, John Tosh not only still thinks (in 1991) that ‘the controversy between Carr…and Elton…is the best starting point for the debate about the standing of historical knowledge’ (and that Carr’s What is History”? is still ‘probably the finest reflection by a historian on the nature of his subject in our time’), but that Carr is best located on the sceptical and relativistic side of the ‘Carr-Elton debate’.1 Similarly, Gregor McLennan in his Marxism and the Methodologies of History pigeonholes Carr (considered by McLennan to have produced perhaps ‘the most sustained critique of British empiricist historiography’) as a sceptical relativist, whilst even Dominick LaCapra argues that if one wishes to rebut Elton’s ‘documentary objectivism’, one need not necessarily be ‘forced to line up with E.H.Carr and the relativists’.2 And although these and other similar views3 on Carr and Elton are sometimes



qualified (though often in the small print of the footnotes) there is little doubt in my own mind that because of such characterisations as the above, few students are aware that Carr’s final answer to the question of what is history is neither sceptical nor relativistic, but is expressed explicitly as a belief in objectivity, in real historical progress and in truth, whilst Elton goes out of his way to insist that ‘our’ attitude toward ‘proper’ history should include a healthy (if carefully directed) dose of scepticism. Accordingly, it is this slightly more complex Carr and Elton which I want to discuss here, offering my reading not only as a ‘correction’ to some of the simplicities of the ‘Carr-Elton debate’ as popularly construed but, more importantly perhaps, as an interpretation which will serve to show up their shortcomings—and thus pace Tosh et al.—their lack of relevance to the question of what is the nature of history/ historiography today. So, these preliminaries being completed, my reading of Carr can begin, a reading that has three sections: ‘On Carr Being Sceptical’, ‘On Carr Being Positive’, and ‘Carr Today’.



Carr begins What is History”? by saying what he thinks history is not; by being negative. What history ‘is not’, is a way of constructing accounts about the past that are obsessed with, and indeed fetishise, both ‘the facts’ and ‘the documents’ which are said to contain them, as a consequence of which the crucially important shaping power of the historian is massively downplayed.4 Carr goes on to argue—in the early pages of his first chapter—that this fetishisation and downgrading arose because mainstream historians combined three things: first, Ranke’s simple but all pervasive (lower case) dictum that the proper function of the historian was to slough off his or her partisan views and show the past as ‘it really was’; second, a positivist stress on inductive method (first ascertain the facts and then draw conclusions from them) and third (and this especially in England) a dominant empiricist ethos. Together these constituted for Carr what still passed for the commonsense view of history:

The empirical theory of knowledge presupposes a complete separation between subject and object. Facts, like sense-impressions, impinge on the observer from outside and are independent of his consciousness. The process of reception is passive: having received the data, he then acts on them…. This is what may be called the commonsense view of history. History consists of a corpus of ascertained facts…. First get



your facts straight, then plunge at your peril into the shifting sands of interpretation—that is the ultimate wisdom of the [dominant] empirical, commonsense school of history.5

Clearly this will not do for Carr. This is precisely the view one has to reject. So how does he do it? Well, this is where things begin to get a little complicated. For, whilst Carr has actually got three ways of going about this (one epistemological, two overtly ideological) it is normally only the first epistemological rejection that is found in most of the literature, it being this which effectively constitutes much of the Carr element in the ‘Carr-Elton debate’ as it is popularly rendered. However, because it is this prioritising of the epistemo-logical over the ideological that is largely responsible for those readings of Carr as the unalloyed relativist, although I myself want to outline this argument first, I shall be quickly following it with the other two.

So, what is Carr’s first epistemological argument? It is simply this. He thinks that not all the ‘facts of the past’ are actually ‘historical facts’; that there are crucial distinctions to be drawn between the ‘events’ of the past, the ‘facts’ of the past, and ‘historical’ facts. That ‘historical facts’ only become so by being historicised by positioned historians. Carr develops this argument as follows:

What is a historical fact? …According to the commonsense view, there are certain basic facts which are the same for all historians and which form, so to speak, the backbone of history—the fact, for example, that the Battle of Hastings was fought in 1066. But this view calls for two observations. In the first place, it is not with facts like these that the historian is primarily concerned. It is no doubt important to know that the great battle was fought in 1066 and not 1065 or 1067…. The historian must not get these things wrong. But when points of this kind are raised, I am reminded of Housman’s remark that ‘accuracy is a duty, not a virtue’. To praise a historian for his accuracy is like praising an architect for using well-seasoned timber…. It is a necessary condition of his work, but not his essential [sic] function. It is precisely for matters of this kind that the historian is entitled to rely on what have been called the ‘auxiliary sciences’ of history—archaeology, epigraphy, numismatics, chronology, and so forth.6

From which it follows, thinks Carr, that the insertion of such facts into an historical account and the significance which they will have



relative to other selected facts, depends not on any quality intrinsic to the facts ‘in and for themselves’ (for obviously some historians put different facts into their explanatory accounts of the same events from other historians), but on the reading of events the historian chooses to give:

It used to be said that facts speak for themselves. This is, of course, untrue. The facts speak only when the historian calls on them: it is he who decides to which facts to give the floor, and in what order or context…. The only reason why we are interested to know that the battle was fought at Hastings in 1066 is that historians regard it as a major historical event. It is the historian who has decided for his own reasons that Caesar’s crossing of that petty stream, the Rubicon, is a fact of history, whereas the crossings of the Rubicon by millions of other people…interests nobody at all…. The historian is [therefore] necessarily selective. The belief in a hard core of historical facts existing objectively and independently of the historian is a preposterous fallacy, but one which it is very hard to eradicate.7

Following on from this, Carr rounds off his argument with his now famous illustration of the process by which a mere event/fact from the past is transformed into a ‘historical fact’. Thus, at Stalybridge Wakes in 1850, Carr tells us, a gingerbread seller was beaten to death by an angry mob; this is a well documented and authentic ‘fact from the past’. But for it to become a ‘historical fact’, Carr argues that it needed to be taken up by historians and inserted by them into their interpretations, thence becoming part of our historical memory. In other words concludes Carr:

Its status as a historical fact will turn on a question of interpretation. This element of interpretation enters into every fact of history.8

This, then, is the substance of Carr’s (actually extremely slight) first argument and, as I say, this is the ‘position’ that students generally take away with them from Carr to then juxtapose against the ‘objectivist’ Elton (so that one hears them saying things like: ‘Carr thinks that all history is just interpretation and there are really no such things as facts’) which, whilst it has an element of accuracy about it, is far from being the whole story. For this is precisely the misleading conclusion (as based on a partial reading of only a part of Carr’s first chapter) that we need to go beyond. For, if the interpretation of Carr stops at this point, then not only



are we left with a strong impression that his whole argument about the nature of history and the status of historical knowledge is effectively epistemological and sceptical/relativist, but we are also not in a good position to see why, only a few pages after the Stalybridge example has been given, Carr rejects as too sceptical the relativism of Collingwood, and why he begins a few pages after that to reinstate ‘the facts’ in rather unproblematical ways himself, ways eventually leading him towards his own version of objectivity, truth and so on. Carr’s other two arguments are therefore crucial to follow, not least because they are, as noted, explicitly ideological. The first of the two arguments is a perfectly reasonable one; namely, that Carr is opposed to the fetishisation of facts, etc., because of the way in which Rankeanism, positivism and empiricism were yoked together and lived under the auspices of nineteenth and twentieth century liberalism; in other words, because the resultant common sense view of history was/is an ideological expression of liberalism.

Carr’s argument runs as follows. The classical, liberal idea of progress was that, left to their own devices, individuals—and by extension, left to their own devices the economic, the social, the national and international spheres—would, in exercising their freedom in ways which took ‘account’ of the competing claims of others, somehow and without too much external intervention, move towards a harmony of interests resulting in a greater (freer) harmony for all. Carr thinks that this idea was then extended into the argument for a sort of general intellectual laissez-faire (that is, that from the free expression of competing ideas there would emerge a harmonious acceptance of the best argument for everyone; the real truth), and thence more particularly into history. For Carr, the fundamental idea underpinning liberal historiography was that historians all going about their work in different ways but cognisant (and appreciative) of the ways of others, would be able to collect the facts and then, pretty much without their explicit intervention, allow the ‘free-play’ of such facts—as though guided by their own ‘hidden hand’—to effectively ‘speak for themselves’, thus ensuring that they were in harmony with the events of the past which were now truthfully represented. As Carr puts this:

The nineteenth century was, for the intellectuals of western Europe, a comfortable period exuding confidence and optimism. The facts were on the whole satisfactory; and the inclination to ask and answer awkward questions about them was correspondingly weak…. The liberal…view of history [therefore] had a close affinity with the economic doctrine of



laissez-faire—also the product of a serene and self-confident outlook on the world. Let everyone get on with his particular job, and the hidden hand would take care of the universal harmony. The facts of history were themselves a demonstration of the supreme fact of a beneficent and apparently infinite progress towards higher things.9

Carr’s second argument is thus both straightforward and straightforwardly ideological. His point is that the idea of the freedom of the facts to speak for themselves arose from the happy coincidence that they just happened to speak liberal. But of course Carr did not. Therefore, knowing that in the history he wrote the facts had to be made to speak in a way other than liberal (i.e. in a Marxist type of way) then his own experience of making ‘the facts’ his facts is universalised to become everyone’s experience, All historians, including liberals, have to transform the ‘facts of the past’ into ‘historical facts’ by their positioned intervention. And so Carr’s second argument against ‘commonsense’ history is not epistemological at all, but, as stated, ideological.

And so is the third. But if the second of Carr’s arguments is easy to see, his third and final one is not. This argument needs a little teasing-out; it needs to be approached by way of a few preliminaries.

In the first two critiques of ‘commonsense’ history, Carr has effectively argued that the facts (and the documents, etc., wherein they were held to be inscribed) have no intrinsic value (i.e. they have no fixed/necessary place within any historian’s account) but that they only gained their relative value (their ‘use’ value) when inserted by historians into their accounts vis-à-vis all the other fact(or)s under consideration, the conclusion Carr drew being that the facts only speak when the historian calls upon them to do so. However, it was part of Carr’s position—again as already noted— that liberals had not recognised the shaping power of the historian because of the ‘cult of the fact’ and that, because of the dominance of liberal ideology, their view had become common sense not only for themselves but for practically all historiography. It appeared to Carr that historians seemed to subscribe to the position that they ought to act as the conduit through which ‘the facts of the past for their own sake’ were allowed self-expression.

So far so good. But then Carr switches his attention to the 1950s and 1960s and, in his later preface to What Is History? to the 1970s and early 1980s. And here Carr writes that he senses that liberal and other expressions of a general optimism (the accumulation and distribution of wealth in increasingly progressive



ways, the accumulation of a knowledge of the world through an incremental inductivism, etc.) were being undermined—and undermined, ironically, precisely by ‘the facts’ of the 1960s and beyond. Thus, in 1960 when Carr completed the first draft of What Is History?, he thought that things were pretty bad but not impossible. On the one hand, he tells us that the western world was still reeling from the aftermath of two world wars and major revolutions, that the Victorian age of innocence and self-confidence had dissipated, and that an ‘automatic’ belief in progress lay behind us. Nevertheless, on the other hand, the predicted world economic crisis had not occurred, the British Empire had been effectively disposed of, and the Kennedy era promised at least the possibility of a new dawn. Accordingly, and grasping at these rather mixed straws, Carr opined that these ‘conditions provided, at any rate, a superficial justification for the expression of optimism and belief in the future with which I ended my lectures in 1961.’10

From the vantage point of his later Preface, however, Carr admits that he thinks things had worsened. The ‘new facts’ were dismal. The Cold War had been resumed and intensified. The delayed economic crisis had set in with a vengeance, spreading ‘the cancer of un-employment throughout western society’. The third world had been transformed from a passive into a disturbing factor in world affairs. Things looked bleak:

In these conditions any expression of optimism has come to seem absurd. The prophets of woe have everything on their side…. Not for centuries has the once popular predication of the end of the world seemed so apposite.11

And yet Carr remained stubbornly optimistic, for two reasons. First, Carr considered that the diagnoses of hopelessness that he thought he detected in most of his fellow intellectuals, though they purported to rest their case on ‘the facts’, were, of course, just giving vent to their own opinions given that ‘the facts’ had no ‘intrinsic’ meaning (i.e. there is no fact-value entailment). Second, Carr thought that their sense of hopelessness was confined to the conditions they saw in the West, whereas he himself thought there was no reason to think optimism did not hold sway elsewhere in the world.

Consequently—and drawing his own conclusion from these ‘facts’ - Carr was of the opinion that ‘the current wave of scepticism and despair which looked ahead to nothing but destruction and decay and dismissed as absurd any belief in



progress, was a form of elitism, the product of social groups whose security and privileges had been most conspicuously eroded by the crisis, and of elite countries whose once undisputed domination over the rest of the world had been shattered.’12 And it was such intellectuals, the purveyors of the ideas of ‘the ruling social group which they served (“the ideas of a society are the ideas of its ruling class”)’, who were the standard bearers of such gloom. Accordingly, whilst Carr certainly considered himself an intellectual, the idea that he was that kind of an intellectual was anathema to him, seeing himself, and indeed styling himself, as an ‘intellectual dissident’, and thereby distancing himself from such pessimists by a re-affirmation of his faith in progress. For, as he put it, in the end he was an intellectual who had grown up,

not in the high noon, but in the afterglow of the great Victorian age of faith and optimism, and it is difficult for me even today to think in terms of a world in permanent and irretrievable decline13

Consequently, all this being the case, in What Is History”? Carr has thus got this very specific ideological reason (that he must not go along with the pessimists and their facts/interpretations and so renounce progress) to add to his earlier expressed opinion that one must not fetishise the ‘facts’ nor succumb to the intellectual bleatings about the demise of the experience of modernity; not at all:

In the following pages I shall try to distance myself from prevailing trends among Western intellectuals … to show how and why I think they have gone astray and to stake out a claim, if not for an optimistic, at any rate for a saner and more balanced outlook on the future.14

It is thus this very clearly flagged position which stands behind and gives much, if not all, of the raison d’etre for Carr’s writing of What is History? For his text is profoundly misunderstood if it is seen as some kind of disinterested study of historical epistemology. Rather, Carr himself seems to be quite clear that the real impetus behind his text was the ideological necessity to rethink and re-articulate the idea of continued historical progress amidst the ‘conditions’ and the doubting-Thomases of his own ‘sceptical days’: Carr’s ‘real’ concern was ‘the fact’ that he thought the future of the whole modern world/ experiment was at stake.

But—and this is my point in running this third argument—as Carr’s text unfolds, what might be called the ‘epistemological



problem’ continually returns to trouble him. For, despite his own epistemological scepticism as outlined in his first argument Carr will still try to find some proper grounds for his own personal belief in progress and to suggest that his own particular reading is not just his but is actually ‘the case’. Now we can immediately and very clearly see the problem that Carr’s epistemological scepticism and his dismissal of the facts and ‘intrinsic’ meaning has got him into. Because if, as Carr says, the various diagnoses of hopelessness purportedly held by most of the intellectuals around him are not really based on ‘the facts’ in some sort of necessary (entailed) way, but are simply their ‘value judgements’ as based on a careful selection of those facts that suit them; and if the same goes for all those nineteenth-century liberals whose optimism was (unwittingly) based on a similar selection; in other words, if there are no factual grounds per se for either pessimism or optimism given the fact that ‘past facts’ have to become ‘historical facts’ by the historian’s selective practices, then Carr is hoisted with his own petard. For, given that there is no fact-value entailment, then Carr’s own optimism cannot be incorrigibly supported by ‘the facts’, so that his own position is just his opinion, as equally without foundation as those held by old optimistic liberals and by their contemporary, pessimistic counterparts. Consequently, the only conclusion that can arguably be drawn—and here we are back with the position of Bennett et al.—is that ‘the past’ doesn’t actually enter into historiography—except rhetorically.

Now, one might suppose that if Carr was not the modernist he so clearly is, then he might well have embraced this extremely obvious and ‘correct’ conclusion. And if he had done so, nothing would actually have changed. For Carr might still have argued his own value position as he most plausibly could and left it on the table along with everyone else’s; here his reading could jostle for ‘hegemony’ with other equally ‘groundless’ ideological positions. But because of his modernism Carr won’t do this. Instead, he will try to show that there really are some foundations which privilege his own position over others both in terms of what constitutes history as a discipline and in terms of the past considered as history. That is, Carr will be driven back from the epistemological scepticism he has outlined in the first twenty pages of  his book and for which he is best known, precisely so that he can embrace a more certaintist position for politically overt reasons. To be sure, Carr cannot, and will not, go all the way. The days of absolutes are gone. But, as his text unfolds, so he will do his best to claw back his early critical scepticism so that he can move towards an answer to the question of what is history that is compatible with the task he



has actually set himself so clearly: to underwrite his faith in progress.

This clawing back takes place in several stages: (a) a rejection of Collingwood’s too sceptical idealism; (b) a reinstatement of ‘the facts’ in an attempt to join the previously asundered fact and value; and (c) an attempt to link the past into a dialogue not only with the present but also with the future in ways reminiscent of, if not identical to, old teleologies, thereby trying to derive a sense of history that is effectively objective and even, perhaps, true. Accordingly, it is to these positive arguments that I now turn.



Carr begins his examination of Collingwood by placing him amongst those philosophers of history who, since the late nineteenth century, had worked seriously on the question of what is history. According to Carr, the Germans had started this (‘the country which was to do so much to upset the comfortable reign of nineteenth-century liberalism’)15 citing Dilthey as one of those who had challenged the primacy of facts in history, the sceptical torch then being passed on to Italy in the early twentieth century when Croce declared that ‘all history is contemporary history’, and thence to America where, in 1910, Carl Becker argued that ‘the facts of history do not exist for any historian till he creates them’.16 From 1910 Carr then jumps to 1945 and England where, in that year, R.G. Collingwood’s The Idea of History was published posthumously.

Collingwood is then summarised by Carr as follows. Collingwood’s philosophy of history is concerned neither with ‘the past by itself, nor with the historian’s ‘thought about it by itself, but rather is about these two things in their mutual relationship: ‘the past which a historian studies is not a dead past, but a past which in some sense is still living in the present’. But a past act is dead (i.e. meaningless to the historian) unless he/she can understand the thoughts which lay behind it and thus infused it with life; hence ‘all history is the history of thought… the re-enactment in the historian’s mind of the thought whose history he is studying’.17 This reconstitution of the past in the historian’s mind is dependent on empirical evidence but is not itself an empirical process, and cannot thus consist in a ‘mere recital of facts’. On the contrary, the process of reconstitution governs the selection of the facts and their interpretation, and this is precisely what transforms them into historical facts. At this point Carr draws support    for    Collingwood’s    argument    from    the    sceptical,



conservative historian/philosopher, Michael Oakeshott, for whom history, as he puts it, is simply the historian’s experience. It is ‘made’ by nobody save the historian: ‘to write history is the only way of making it’.18

From this potted resume of Collingwood, Carr is then able to extract three oft-neglected ‘truths’ which he thinks support his own sort of scepticism (i.e. the scepticism he is soon to rein back from the ‘extremes’). First, that past facts never come to us pure; they are always refracted through the mind of the recorder. Therefore, it follows that when we read a history, ‘our first concern should be not with the facts which it contains but with the historian who wrote it’.19 Second, Carr advocates a sort of empathy; the need for an ‘imaginative understanding for the minds of the people [the historian] is dealing with’. And third, Carr advocates that we recognise, with Croce, that we can only ever understand the past through the eyes of the present. And from these three points, Carr is thus able to conclude that ‘the function of the historian is neither to love the past nor to emancipate himself from the past, but to master and understand it as the key to the understanding of the present’.20

But if these are valuable nuggets to be gleaned from Collingwood’s work, Carr sees some attendant dangers. And it is therefore at this point that Carr begins to draw back from the radical scepticism he has so far professed. Pressed to its logical conclusion, he warns, Collingwood’s emphasis on the power of the creative historian rules out any objectivity at all. Indeed, says Carr, in his reading, Collingwood comes 21 perilously close to saying that history/historiography is something spun out of human brains with as many histories as brains, so that here we are offered ‘the theory of an infinity of meanings, none any more right than any other’.22 And this is not on. Just because, argues Carr, a mountain takes on different shapes from different angles, we cannot conclude that it has either no shape at all or that it is an infinity of shapes; nor does it follow that just because interpretation plays a necessary part in establishing historical facts (and because no interpretation is absolutely objective) that one interpretation is as good as another or that ‘the facts of history are in principle not amenable to objective interpretation’ (Carr adding immediately at this point that he will ‘consider at a later stage what exactly is meant by objectivity in history’).

This is not all, however, for a ‘still greater danger lurks in the Collingwood hypothesis’. For, if the historian necessarily looks at his/her period of history through present-centred eyes; and if he/ she studies history as a key to an understanding of the present—



both of which we have seen Carr regarding as advantages stemming from Collingwood—then there arises the awful prospect that he/she may ‘fall into a purely pragmatic view of the facts, and maintain that the criteria of a right interpretation is its suitability to some present purpose’ (for which we might have been forgiven for thinking up until this point that this was precisely Carr’s purpose). But apparently not, for now Carr sees the shadow of Nietzsche (and other fellow Germans not so useful now to Carr’s anti-empiricist liking as Dilthey had been earlier) looming on the horizon. For what if, after all, might is right?; what if, worries Carr, objective history is just what those with the power to define it as do define it as? Accordingly, Carr considers that it is time to get away from these dangerous bits of Collingwood and re-instate ‘the facts’ (i.e. his facts).

Carr is explicit about this re-instatement: ‘How then, in the middle of the twentieth century, are we to define the obligation of the historian to his facts?’23 And Carr’s answer—the mood of which is indicated by the notion that the historian has an obligation to his facts (thus introducing into the argument the ethical vocabulary of duty and its cognates) is that the ‘proper’ historian has indeed ‘a duty’ to respect the facts; that he is ‘obliged’ to see that all the facts are accurate; that he ‘must’ include all the relevant facts, and that he ‘must’ be balanced; for example, including in his description of the Victorian Englishman as a moral and rational being, the murder of the Stalybridge gingerbread vendor. Of course, all this cannot eliminate interpretation, but for Carr the position of the historian balanced between what he now refers to as the two ‘extremes’ of one untenable theory of history (as the unqualified primacy of fact over interpretation) and another (of history as the subjective product of the mind of the historian) is not so precarious as it may seem. For the proper historian (i.e. Carr himself) is finally able to rely on that essentially British characteristic: common sense. Here Carr begins to move towards his first (partial) stab at defining what history is.

Carr’s argument runs as follows. In ‘making history’, the historian begins with a provisional selection of facts and a provisional interpretation in the light of which that selection has been made—by other historians working in the field as well as by himself/herself. As the historian works on, and as new information (both ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’) is processed, so both the interpretation and the selection and ordering of facts undergoes subtle changes through the reciprocal action of the one on the other. This reciprocal action also involves a reciprocity between



the present and the past. Thus facts and interpretation, past and present, intermingle in a unity of scholarly duty such that Carr’s preliminary answer to the question of what is history can, at this point, roll off his tongue with ease; history, says Carr, ‘is a continuous process of interaction between the historian and his facts, an unending dialogue between the present and the past’.24

So, Collingwoodian-type excesses having been shed and the facts having been put in their proper place, Carr’s next task is to try to claw back his earlier, rather rash, dismissal of ‘the facts’ in favour of the primacy of the historian. For, now that the facts and the historian have been brought together in a mutual dependency —and now that he needs to have the facts to ‘objectively’ support his belief in progress—so Carr will also have to try and reunite in a mutual dependency that which he had previously put asunder; namely, facts and values. Because if this cannot be done, if facts and values cannot be conjoined, then any ‘values’ Carr draws will still only be a ‘loose’ interpretation. Thus, Carr thinks that he will just have to try and solve the old fact-value problem.

It cannot be said that his attempt is a very good one. It consists of little more than a compilation of historians who have acted as if fact and value could be unproblematically entailed. But we are now in a position to see why Carr thinks that he must try to follow them, and thus we might follow him as he attempts to square this particular circle. He begins by arguing that for the last two hundred years most historians had assumed that there was a direction in which the past was moving, that it was moving in the right direction, and that this right direction consisted of a movement from ‘the worse to the better, from the lower to the higher’, a movement historians not only recognised but endorsed so that, in this way, the alleged dichotomy between the is and the ought, between fact and value, was restored.

This resolution was thus an ‘optimistic’ one, and was the view actually held, in various articulations, by those who were sometimes confident in the future—by Whigs and Liberals, Hegelians and Marxists, theologians and rationalists—so that, for two hundred years, Carr argues that a view of history as progress could be described ‘without much exaggeration as the accepted and implicit answer to the question, “What is history?”.’ But against this view -a view which represents the golden age of the upper case—has come the current mood of apprehension and pessimism. And Carr knows who to blame: disillusioned liberals (Bury, Fisher), French existentialists (Sartre) and Germans such as Meinecke, all of whom have come to insist on the pointlessness of history   and   the   significance   of   chance   and   accident,   the



importance of which Carr dates from a growth of uncertainty which set in in ‘the present century and became marked after 1914’. Here Carr will no longer have any need for the similarly ‘uncertain’ Dilthey and the wedge he and others drove between the human and the natural sciences at the end of the nineteenth century (and which helped prise history from the grip of the old certaintists and located it firmly in the contingency category); rather, in his now positive mood, Carr rejects—and this expression is typical of his positive attitude throughout the later stages of his book—all such sceptics. For today, says Carr, the field has been left open

for the theologians who seek the meaning of history outside history, and for the sceptics who find no meaning in history at all.25

Consequently, and in no way a sceptic in those senses, Carr sees himself as necessarily having to re-yoke the historical facts to the value of progress in some detail. So, what sorts of detail does he come up with?

As already indicated, his detailed argument is of little validity. Carr’s main method is just to go through a list of historians who have effectively yoked together facts and values as if there was no problem. As Carr casually comments: ‘Let us see how a few historians, or writers about history, chosen more or less at random, have felt about this [fact-value] question’. And sure enough, those who appear on his actually far from random list (why not put Dilthey and Nietzsche on it?) namely, Gibbon, Tawney, Carlyle, Berlin and Marx, have all felt fine. But of course the problem remains. For it is obvious from his argument that Carr does not understand what the fact-value question is. Carr puts his own argument this way:

Let us now take another look at this alleged dichotomy between fact and value. Values cannot be derived from facts. This statement is partly true, but partly false. You have only to examine the system of values prevailing in any period or in any country to realise how much of it is moulded by the facts of the environment…. Or take the Christian church as an institution largely concerned with the propagation of moral values. Contrast the values of primitive Christianity with those of the medieval papacy…. These differences in values spring from differences of historical fact. Or consider the historical facts which … have caused slavery … to be generally regarded as immoral. The proposition that values cannot be derived



from   facts   is   [thus]   to   say   the   least,   one-sided   and misleading…26

Of course none of this is to the point. For the fact-value problem doesn’t for one moment refuse to recognise that all of us, everyday, link facts to values all the time. Rather the fact-value argument hinges on whether or not it is logically demonstrable that one, and only one, value can be derived from one, or one set of, facts in terms of a strict, unambiguous, incorrigible, absolute entailment. And despite centuries of attempts to prove such an entailment (recent ‘famous’ examples being by John Searle, Alistair Maclntyre and Roy Bhaskar) in the light of reading, say, Fish, Foucault, Lyotard and Rorty, such an alleged entailment seems unconvincing to me. Besides, if facts and values were entailed in the way Carr suggests, that is, by people just going around doing it, then Carr would be unable to argue—as he had done earlier in his text when it suited him—that those contemporaneous intellectuals who surrounded him and who drew the value of pessimism from the facts of the 1950s and 1960s and 1970s were ‘wrong’ to do so, and that the pessimistic readings of, say, Bury or Fisher, were ‘wrong’ also. No, what we have here is simply all sorts of people drawing all sorts of values from either the same or differently constituted facts. And this is simply because the past -not having in it any purpose or meaning that it itself can ‘arrange’ and/ or communicate to us—is simply waiting for meanings and purposes to be ascribed to it; to be conferred upon it. In that sense the past can be described as an utterly ‘promiscuous past’, a past which will, as it were, go with anybody; a sort of loose past which we can all have; the sort of past that is, arguably, not much use having in the first place. Carr’s argument, then, cannot possibly succeed but, as already indicated, it is easy to see why he so badly wanted it to. Because without it his own view of history remains just that; his own view. And this is exactly what he does not want to accept. Finally for Carr, progress really is written not just in his own positioned ‘mind’, but in the actuality of the past:

Progress in history is achieved through the interdependence and interaction of facts and values. The objective historian is the historian who penetrates most deeply into this reciprocal process.27

Not only that. For Carr will now start to push this particular line much further, not least because in this direction lies objectivity and, yes, even truth:



Somewhere between these two poles—the north pole of valueless facts and the south pole of value judgements still struggling to transform themselves into facts—lies the realm of historical truth. The historian…is balanced between fact and interpretation, between fact and value. He cannot separate them. It may be that, in a static world, you are obliged to pronounce a divorce between fact and value. But history is meaningless in a static world. History in its essence [sic] is change, movement, or—if you do not cavil at the old-fashioned word—progress.28

Well, one may of course cavil. There are a lot of oughts and certainties here, whilst the fact-value difference is unlikely to be due to the notion of a ‘static world’. There is, moreover, that old recourse to essentialism in that when Carr says history is progressive then it really is. That is to say, by now Carr effectively thinks that history and progress are two words for the same thing: they are identical. History is progress, progress is history:

History properly so-called can be written only [sic] by those who find and accept a sense of direction in history itself. The belief that we have come from somewhere is closely linked with the belief that we are going somewhere.29

From which position follows Carr’s enlarged definition of what history is. For now history is no longer a dialogue between the present and the past, but the present and the past and the future:

When…I spoke of history…as a dialogue between past and present, I should rather have called it a dialogue between the events of the past and progressively emerging future ends. The historian’s interpretation of the past, his selection of the significant and the relevant, evolves with the progressive emergence of new goals.30

And this is what Carr means by objectivi ty . For, only the future

can provide the key to the interpretation of the past; and it is only in this sense that we can speak of an ultimate objectivity in history. It is at once the justification and the explanation of history that the past throws light on the future, and the future throws light on the past.31

What then, asks Carr, do we mean when we praise a historian for being objective? Or when we say that one historian is more



objective than another? Well, it is not just that he/she gets his/her facts correct - although this is important. No. What makes one historian better than another—what makes Carr a better historian than another—and what prevents any old history being equally as good as any other (for Carr is, in this important sense, no relativist) is very clear. It is whether or not the historian chooses the right facts. It is whether or not he/she chooses and applies the right ‘standard of significance’. So that when ‘we’ call an historian objective we mean, says Carr, two things:

First of all, we mean that he has a capacity to rise above the limited vision of his own situation in society and in history—a capacity which…is partly dependent on his capacity to recognise the extent of his involvement in that situation, to recognise, that is to say, the impossibility of total objectivity. Secondly, we mean that he has the capacity to project his vision into the future in such a way as to give him a more profound and more lasting insight into the past than can be attained by those historians whose outlook is entirely bounded by their own immediate situation. No historian today will echo Acton’s confidence in the prospect of ‘ultimate history’. But some historians write history which is more durable, and has more of this ultimate and objective character, than others; and these are the historians who have… a long-term vision over the past and over the future. The historian of the past can make an approach towards objectivity only as he approaches towards the understanding of the future.32

Such objectivity is not 100 per cent then. The ‘facts of history’ cannot be ultimately correct. The concept of absolute truth cannot be appropriate to the historian. But insofar as historians can approximate to objectivity and truth about the past, the touchstone by which to do so is the future. In this, the last quotation I will be taking from Carr, he just about says it all:

The absolute in history is not something in the past from which we start; it is not something in the present, since all present thinking is necessarily relative. It is something still incomplete and in the process of becoming—something in the future towards which we move, which begins to take shape only as we move towards it, and in the light of which, as we move forward, we gradually shape our interpretation of the past…. Our criterion is not an absolute in the static sense of



something that is the same yesterday, today, and for ever: such an absolute is incompatible with the nature of history. But it is an absolute in respect to our interpretation of the past. It rejects the relativist view that one interpretation is as good as another, or that every interpretation is true in its own time and place, and it provides the touchstone by which our interpretation of the past will ultimately be judged. It is this sense of direction in history which alone enables us to order and interpret the events of the past—the task of the historian —and to liberate and organise human energies in the present with a view to the future—the task of the statesman, the economist, and the social reformer…I now come back to my starting point by declaring my faith in the future of society and in the future of history.33

This concludes my reading of Carr. It goes without saying (or at least without much saying) that Carr’s notion of objectivity and historical truth as resting on the picking out of the significant from the insignificant relative to a putative future according to which historical changes as expressed in historiography—the only useable past/ history there is—is, of course, still relative with regard to other ways of putting the past ‘under a description’; you can always get another description. Carr may have thought he had pretty much escaped relativism, but of course in that sense he hadn’t done so (and privately as it were, R.W. Davies tells us that ‘The problem of objectivity in history evidently continued to trouble him long after he had completed What Is History?’)34 For simply change what you think the future ought to be and you change the perspective from which you read the past; shift the end point of the narrative slightly, and you change the criterion for significance. This is not to say that Carr is not correct to think that histories are written with a desired future in mind; we do indeed always have the past we want because of the future we desire. We saw this in the Introduction and in Chapter 1; that all histories, including postmodern ones, are future-orientated. However, on the reading that has been given here, the point is not that Carr’s solution to the problem of relativism ultimately failed, but that what is central to his history is that he tried to be an objectivist; that he tried to get to the truth, and that what scepticism he had was reserved for those historians who did not see history in the upper case terms that he himself certainly did.35

Here lies Carr’s weakness, then, if we wish to use him to gain an understanding of what is history today. This weakness is not that he did not understand what is involved in, say, the fact-value



debate (though he didn’t) or that his epistemological scepticism is slight and underdeveloped (though it is) but that he thought that objectivity and even truth—no matter how well qualified—were still items on an agenda drawn up in the ‘old style’. Carr’s self-conscious, stubborn decision to stick with a proclaimed Victorian optimism of a Marxist type can therefore be seen as being just too certaintist, too earnest, too unreflexive and so, in a way, too naive to be taken seriously today. And it is not only that. In Carr—and as we will see in Elton too—there is an air of besieged defensiveness as he recognises that he is running an old-fashioned argument against the tide: he is an embattled optimist. What makes Carr the old modernist he is is thus precisely that he will not, or cannot, change.



A few concluding thoughts. In the last few sentences I think I have given the answer to why Carr is not a good enough guide for students as they pick their way through the labyrinths of history today. Nor is there anything in Carr’s later Preface or his Notes towards a new edition of What Is History? to suggest that he had picked up on all those ‘postist’ debates which were embryonic or fully fledged well before his death and which would have indicated to him the ‘end of modernist history’. For the briefest of examinations of the Index of the latest edition of Carr’s text— which includes items from his later Notes—shows few references to the debates of the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s, or to theories then being developed by theorists with an increasingly high public/intellectual profile. Thus there are no references to, say, Foucault or Barthes or Derrida or Lyotard or Auerbach; no mention of feminism, hermeneutics, phenomenology, narratology, post-structuralism or postmodernism, whilst existentialism or structuralism are written off, generally in one-liners. Nor, within the broadly Marxist framework within which Carr works, is there really any mention of those sophisticated revisions that took place within ‘Western Marxism’ from the 1920s onwards; certainly there is no serious analysis of them. Thus, Lukacs gets only a sentence in the Notes, the Frankfurt School (of Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse et al.) gets no mention (Adorno gets a single entry in the Notes), nor do, say, Gramsci, Della Volpe, Benjamin, Althusser, Jameson, and so on. Nor is there any reference to that whole gamut of intellectual movements drawn on by Hayden White in the making of his M etahis tory and which was published as early as



1973, nor any mention, of course, of either White or his work despite the fact that it received critical attention in the 1970s.

In fact, what Carr draws upon for his discussion of the question of the nature of history are the authors and texts of his youth; of an altogether different generation (or two) of historians/theorists: Acton, Arnold, Earth, Becker, Bloch, Bury, Carlyle, Clark, Collingwood, Dilthey, Eliot, Fisher, Green, Grote. So one can run through Carr’s ‘reference points’ and emerge with a clear understanding of why today Carr is seen to be so unhelpful: he is out of date.

This is not to say, of course, that there are not signs in Carr which suggest he is not totally unaware of certain developments, but only that whenever intimations of familiarity occur, then such ‘developments’ are either dismissed or recuperated back into older, more familiar contexts, present in his text only as the merest shadows of the substance they actually possess—a substance that has, of course, re-written what now passes as plausible under the question of what is history and reconstituted the g roun ds for the making of historical knowledge. For, whilst Carr may well have learnt the late-modernist notion of perspectivism, he hardly seems to have been ready for the postmodernist lesson that perspectivism ‘goes all the way down’; that it includes everything and everybody—including himself. Hence the tension which runs throughout Carr’s text caused by him needing to be, on the one hand, sceptical and perspectival vis-à-vi s his critique of empirical, postivistic, ‘commonsense’ liberal historiography and, on the other, to be non-sceptical, objectivist and non-relativist about his own alternative. In a nutshell, this is why Carr cannot relax with, or be of much use to, the sort of history which the conditions of postmodernity and postmodernism demand. Carr was of course immensely interesting and influential in his own time; his critical sceptism helped enormously to break down some of the old certaintist attitudes, and this can be acknowledged. But times have moved on and those old debates are precisely ‘old debates’. For, amongst postmodernists, perspectivism and its anti-essentialist, anti-teleological, anti-foundationalist, anti-representationalist and anti-realist implications, occasion no fear and trembling but, in their more radical renditions (the renditions of Rorty and White) usher in new possibilities; new opportunities. Here there is no nostalgia for the loss of a ‘real’ past, no wistful remembrance of more certaintist times; no panic that there are no foundations for knowledge firmer than an ultimately rhetorical conversation. Here, few would disagree with the sentiment, apres Rorty, that like the idea of a



putative world-before-all versions, so the idea of a putative history-before-all historiographical versions is indeed one ‘well lost’. Accordingly, it is for these kinds of reasons that Carr ought no longer to be in a central/introductory place in our understanding of what history is nowadays. And neither should Geoffrey Elton.

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