Book Review: What is History?


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


British historian, E.H. Carr was born in London in 1892 to a middle-class family. He was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge. While he worked for the British Foreign Office, he was attached to the British Delegation to the League of Nations, then went on to become Professor of International Politics at a University of Wales. He returned to Trinity College, Cambridge in 1955 and between January and March of 1961, he delivered a series of lectures which are contained within this book. In each subsequent chapter, Carr defined the role of the historian and his relationship with facts, society, science and morality. He explained the function and hierarchy of causes, and how history is necessarily concerned with progress.

Carr’s first criticism was of the empirical theory of knowledge, common to nineteenth century historians, who believed that there could be a “complete separation between subject and object” and second, that these “these basic facts rest not on any quality in the facts themselves, but on an a prioridecision of the historian.”[1]More accurately, he explained, historians collect and interpret facts. They continuously employ the inductive method, interacting with facts to produce a history based on who he/she is; and that, the historians’ lived experiences, which are highly influenced by the society in which he/she lives, shape the history written. For example, British historians during the height of empire posited a nationalistic/imperialist view of events. He said, "Great history is written precisely when the historian’s vision of the past is illuminated by insights into the problems of the present."[2]


Carr rejected claims that history was an art form. He enumerated five objections to the consideration of history as science and made the case that moral judgements should be omitted from one’s work because past figures should not be judged with modern biases or values.[3] However, he noted that historians do pass moral judgements on societal institutions like that of slavery but should resist from applying these judgements to individual slaveholders.[4]Carr believed that all that happened is due to cause and effect and that the role of the historian is to grapple with the facts, interpret them, prioritize and ascribe causes and effects to events. This was contrary to a deterministic view of history which he defined as “the belief that everything happens has a cause or causes and could not have happened differently unless something in the cause or causes had been different.”[5]The author put forth the view that humanity has progressed through history in terms of quality of life, knowledge, and morality. “History is,” according to Carr, “by and large, a record of what people did, not of what they failed to do: to this extent it is inevitably a success story.”[6]

[1]E.H. Carr, What Is History?(New York: Vintage Books, 1961), 6 & 9.

[2]Carr, 44.

[3]Carr, 101.

[4]Ibid., 101.

[5]Carr, 121.

[6]Carr, 167.