Small Literature Review on Edward Hallett Carr and John Lewis Gaddis

Small Literature Review on Carr & Gaddis

Edward Hallett Carr wrote in his 1961 book, What is History?, that “great history is written precisely when the historians vision of the past is illuminated by insights into the problems of the present.”[1] This viewpoint permeates the book, for Carr believed that the lens through which a historian views history will be shaped by who he or she is. The circumstances and lived-experiences of one’s life shapes how historical events will be analyzed and interpreted. Influenced by Freud and Marx, Carr believed that the historian should know himself and his motives so that he can identify why particular themes are the subject of his focus. This understanding of oneself and one’s place in history determines the historians’ approach.

To Carr, “history is concerned with the relation between the unique and the general.”[2] Historians deal with a multiplicity of causes for each event. Once the identification of the causes has been made, the historian assigns a sequence to the them to prioritize and assign a hierarchy to them. He subordinates one cause to another.[3] The result is a simplification of a multitude of causes to make sense of the chaos inherent in each event. He says that “History therefore is a process of selection in terms of historical significance.”[4] This prioritization guides the historian in the formulation of his or her argument. The way the historian treats these causes and how they are ranked defines how the historian is known.[5]

Carr criticized nineteenth century historian von Ranke’s approach which characterized the task of the historian as “simply to show how it really was” in his discussion about facts.[6] He relates that the facts of history are not simply dates, names and places. These only have historical significance when questions about the events are asked, answered and interpreted. An example given is the Battle of Hastings. The battle was fought is 1066.[7] That is, indeed, a historical fact, but that is, in itself, not significant. What is significant is the who, what, why, when and how questions and answers that follow. As an opponent of empiricism, he understood that history is more than just knowledge of observable facts, but rather that the historian’s work was only valuable because of his interpretation of those facts.

The way historians write about history evolved in the years between Carr and Gaddis and this is something that Gaddis seeks to explain to readers as he places a heavier emphasis on the scientific method related to historiography. He recognizes that even though Carr (and Bloch) had “anticipated certain developments in the physical and biological sciences” he seeks to build the bridge between the historical method and the “hard” sciences, something, in his view, they fell short of.[8]

Throughout his book, “The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past,” Gaddis uses the language of science. The key to the scientific method is experimentation, with the goal of replicating the result to prove its veracity. This, however, can’t be accomplished with history. One can’t replicate the conditions which caused the Civil War to prove whether the North’s victory was the only possible result, for obvious reasons. But, a historian can virtually replicate events by representing reality in narrative form, illuminating the causes leading to and through the war so that others can better understand the causes and possible outcomes.[9] Through this virtual replication, history is like science.

Another method, called counterfactual history was something that Carr disapproved of, but which Gaddis says has a place. “Historians use counterfactual reasoning all the time in establishing causation, therefore, just as they distinguish between immediate, intermediate, and distant causes, just as they separate out exceptional from general causes.”[10] He does state that this method should be used sparingly and only one fact changed at a time so that the field doesn’t become too muddied.

Gaddis disagrees with a reductionist view of history, which he defines as “a belief that you can best understand reality by breaking it up into its various parts.”[11] He explains that with this approach, it is “critical that causes be ranked hierarchically.”[12] He rejects this and prefers a more ecological approach, one that seeks to understand how the various components of the event relate and interact with one another. As evolutionary theory developed and scientists began to study how organisms had changed over time, Gaddis notes that Carr concluded that science had become historical.[13]

Carr placed a much greater emphasis on the person of the historian, who they are and where they live in time and space, and how that, will influence how they write. Gaddis seeks to further elucidate Carr’s proposition that history and science share some common threads. As both fields had evolved since the 1960’s when Carr wrote “What is History?” many more scientific discoveries have been made and he seeks to show how both scientists and historians begin their experimentations or research with curiosity. He says that, “For science has one quality that privileges it above all other modes of inquiry: it has shown itself more capable than any of the others at eliciting agreement on the validity of results across cultures, in different languages, and among highly dissimilar observers.” So, too does history, in a sense. Historians seek to build upon each other’s work; refining arguments, reinterpreting, and rerunning experiments to write new narratives or illuminate events in different and new ways.

In reading these two works, I enjoyed “What is History?” more. I felt as though I could identify more with Carr’s methods and his approach. His emphasis on knowing oneself to understand one’s biases and themes resonated with me. I found this to be an enjoyable read. Contrarily, I struggled with some of the scientific language and analogies used by Gaddis. His analysis did not seem as straightforward as Carr’s and his methodology was more difficult to discern.


Carr, Edward Hallett. What is History?. New York: Vintage Books, 1961.

Gaddis, John Lewis. The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

[1] Edward Hallett Carr, What is History? (New York: Vintage Books, 1961), 44.

[2] Carr, What is History?, 83.

[3] Ibid., 116

[4] Ibid., 138.

[5] Ibid., 117.

[6] Ibid., 5.

[7] Carr, What is History?, 8.

[8] John Lewis Gaddis, The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), xi.

[9] Gaddis, The Landscape of History, 43.

[10] Ibid., 102.

[11] Ibid., 54.

[12] Ibid., 55.

[13] Gaddis, The Landscape of History, 39.