Thursday, 31 January 2013

Edward Hallett Carr - What is History?

Edward H. Carr’s chief argument in ‘What is History?’ is for a methodology and purpose for the study of, and attitude towards, history. That is, how, and why, to engage in ‘an unending dialogue between the past and present.

Carr was primarily a realist. He strove to promote a practical and engaged relationship, via this unending dialogue, between the historian and his facts, which should be selected from the incomplete but nonetheless overwhelming ocean of facts and conjectures that do exist. Carr contends that bias is always present (unless the historian is ‘dull’), both because history is such a vast and noisy ocean, and because this ocean is a tide that immerses past, present and future; what to Carr seemed an unstoppable force of progress that it was the historian’s job to immerse himself/herself in, and indeed, go fishing in that ocean.

Carr argued that the how of this was to be found in a morally neutral and non-judgmental, deterministic ‘middle ground’ between traditionalist and empiricist views of history held by men like Leopold Von Ranke and Lord Acton; and idealistic moralising as held by R. G. Collingwood.

Since facts were so, as discussed earlier, numerous and ambiguous, the connection to the present and future via the unending dialogue had to be the key to the historian’s craft. And here determinism became paramount to the ‘how’ for Carr. He believed that there were no accidents in history, and no singular individual persons, accidents or any other specific events that should be scapegoated; that is given more attention than should the flow of causality, of social forces and political consequences of the unstoppable force of progress. It can be seen as something of a contradiction, then, that he frowned upon the study of the ‘losers’ of history; since history is always ‘written by the winners.’ But perhaps this merely reflects Carr’s belief in causality; what happened, happened for a reason, not by chance or contingency, and according to Carr, if one asked ‘what if? Regarding these ‘losers’ of history, then they did not understand their craft very well at all.

The purpose of Carr’s methodology was to create historical works to help contribute to the progress of society. He believed that progress would sweep away everything in time, the same way as it did the Catholic Church’s opposition to Galileo.

Ironically enough, many historians who have been heavily influenced by Carr’s revolutionary approach to historiography are of the opinion that it is this very same runaway tide of progress that their craft must be employed to counter.

Ronald Wright argues that progress is a trap, a suicide machine, and that now is our last chance to get the future right. Wright is very much employing Carr’s methodology when he says this, and for the same reasons – the betterment of human society.

This is what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object. Progress is leading us headlong to our own demise, because the biosphere cannot sustain humans, a mere 1% of the biomass, consuming 31% of its photosynthesis.

Carr’s beloved progress is not so great after all. His methodology, however, is. It is a dangerous thing to be a Machiavelli. It is a disastrous thing to be a Machiavelli without foresight.