9 February 2011

What is History? - E. H. Carr (1961)

The best book on the theory of history

Sometimes we come across a book which is so powerful that we feel we should have read it years ago. On other occasions we come back to a book which we did not make much of at the time, but on a re-reading wish we had. Such is the case with E. H. Carr’s short book “What is History?”

I took down the dusty volume from my shelf and re-read it last week. I had first attempted to read it at sixteen when an angry history teacher had thrust it into my hands after my writing in a student essay that all major historical events were inevitable. If they weren’t, I had argued, then Marx’s theory of progressive historical development couldn’t be necessarily true.

Carr’s book is a write-up of lectures given in 1961 at Cambridge. Its great strength is that it confronts the fundamental problems of historical theory and by implication those of other social sciences: the role of facts, the individual, causality, objectivity, etc. The language is sharp and clear and Carr produces well-argued answers to all the issues he raises. And though half a century has elapsed since the publication of the work, little in it has dated, save, ironically, the last chapter where Carr attempts to bring his conclusions up-to date.

Much incomprehensible waffle is written about dialectics. But without using obscurantist terminology Carr guides the reader through the interaction of facts and interpretation, the individual and society, accident and pattern in history.

It’s worth a read; and if you’ve read it a re-read.


The Two Faces of E.H. Carr by Professor Richard J. Evans


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