“What is history?”

carrTo initiate the student in the practice and controversies of history, the LSE’s Economic History Department had us read E.H. Carr’s What is History?, originally the 1961 Trevelyan lectures at Cambridge U. That’s a while ago. One expects a terse piece dealing with some debate that have since been “obviously” resolved or obsessed by some minor quibble that made a generation squander time and effort. There is little of it: passing protest about Oxford scholars and a passionate disdain for Professor Butterfield (the one that coined “whig” history), Isiah Berlin and Karl Popper. The pages of my copy were yellowed by the Cold War, Carr was a scholar of Soviet history. Yet, the text feels surprisingly fresh and current. Not like 1961 methodology of economics, or economics proper, sciences of “progress.” Carr’s defense of “causal history” feels a bit overstressed – looking for causes to rank them and identity interconnections; but I did not feel tempted to suggest any editing. I found some bits useful for my polemics. As when he writes,

To describe something as mischance is a favorite way of exempting oneself from the tiresome obligation to investigate its cause and, something tells me that history is a chapter of accidents, I tend to suspect him of intellectual laziness or low intellectual vitality. — p. 102.

Carr is superb in his discussions of history in relation to morality, to biography and the dramatis personae, to the dialogue of past, present and future.

How can that be? How can problems of history feel so much the same? Is there no progress in history? Are there no major quandaries in the theory of history after we’ve settled into a moderate materialism and sociologism? Carr knew the answer in 1961. History is not about method development or the reaching up for some Truth. It’s an open ended labour of imagination and curiosity, playing past, present and future in a mutual construction. History is the celebration of change. Party on!

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