Tuesday 15 November 2016

Facts and historians. E. H. Carr's 'What is history?'

Prompted by "Those with a little postmodern learning often opine that history can never be objective; it always tells a story" in an earlier post, I did a bit of searching for history and postmodernism, but actually I've come back to a book that predates postmodernism. I read it many years ago and (I now realise), it has been formative for me, not just in reference to historical facts, but to facts - information - in general.  This is E. H. Carr's "What is history?", and there's so much good stuff in there I'd like to quote, but this will do for now. (My emphasis in bold.)
What is a historical fact? This is a crucial question into which we must look a little more closely. According to the common-sense 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 in 1065 or 1067, and that it was fought at Hastings and not at Eastbourne or Brighton. 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" [1]. To praise a historian for his accuracy is like praising an architect for using well-seasoned timber or properly mixed concrete in his building. It is a necessary condition of his work, but not his essential 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. The historian is not required to have the special skills which enable the expert to determine the origin and period of a fragment of pottery or marble, to decipher an obscure inscription, or to make the elaborate astronomical calculations necessary to establish a precise date. These so-called basic facts, which are the same for all historians, commonly belong to the category of the raw materials of the historian rather than of history itself. The second observation is that the necessity to establish these basic facts rests not on any quality in the facts themselves, but on an a priori decision of the historian. In spite of C. P. Scott's motto, every journalist knows today that the most effective way to influence opinion is by the selection and arrangement of the appropriate facts. 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. It was, I think, one of Pirandello's characters who said that a fact is like a sack - it won't stand up till you've put something in it. 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 crossing of the Rubicon by millions of other people before or since interests nobody at all. The fact that you arrived in this building half an hour ago on foot, or on a bicycle, or in a car, is just as much a fact about the past as the fact that Caesar crossed the Rubicon. But it will probably be ignored by historians. Professor Talcott Parsons once called science "a selective system of cognitive orientations to reality' [2]. It might perhaps have been put more simply. But history is, among other things, that. The historian is necessarily selective. The belief in a hard core of historical facts existing objectively and independently of the interpretation of the historian is a preposterous fallacy, but one which it is very hard to eradicate.

1 M. Manilii Astronomicon: Liber Primus (2nd e., 1937), p. 87.
2 T. Parsons and E. Shils, Towards a General Theory of Action (3rd ed., 1954), p. 167.

E.H.Carr: What is history?  2nd Ed. 1987 (1st Ed. 1961). Penguin 1990 printing, pp10-12
(Those male pronouns "...it is he who decides..." really jar these days. The chapter is entitled "The Historian and His Facts". But this is from 1961 so not all that surprising.)

My little bit of searching on postmodernism turned up two views: 1: that Carr laid the foundation for postmodern thinking about history; and 2: that Carr did no such thing. Well, that's how things work in academia, isn't it!

But, with reference to "Those with a little postmodern learning often opine that history can never be objective; it always tells a story" it is pretty clear to me that that idea is already there in Carr's writing - you don't need to appeal to postmodernism for the idea that history can never be objective and always tells a story.

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