The Essay - What Is History Today?
Monday 14 November to Friday 18 November 10.45-11.00pm
"This week, The Essay marks 50 years since the publication in 1961 of What Is History? by historian EH Carr. Five academics consider the connection between Carr's work and their work today."
Details of the week's programmes here.
I seem to have been the only person to listen to this series of essays. As someone who knows nothing about history, especially as an academic discipline, I found it interesting but couldn't work out why What Is History? was, supposedly, so influential. As presented in some of his talks, his views seemed slightly absurd to me as a naive listener, e.g. the idea that historical events all have an unavoidable cause and couldn't have happened differently, so there's no point in considering alternative courses of action. Perhaps I missed the point.
tony yyy, I think that particular view of Carr's was linked to his view of history as being predominantly driven by impersonal forces, especially economic ones, rather than the whims of 'great men' (histories emphasising the roles of great men had been more common when he was young). Thus, the elimination of much of the Russian peasantry by Stalin's modernisation policies was to be viewed in the context of the overall story of the Soviet drive to match the West economically.
I listened to some of the essays, and what the essayists seemed to pick out as Carr's main contribution was: a) the need to look at the historian as much as his history, as there was not just an incontrovertible set of objective facts that needed simply to be presented, but that historians selected the facts they believed to be important - which could and did result in very different interpretations of the same historical periods b) the greater emphasis on analytical history, looking at social and economic trends, and not just narrative (the history of events, or great men) and c) the move away from a parochial history emphasising the role of Britain and Europe in particular to one which looked at wider influences (interestingly people like Gove are seeking to reverse this)
I did not care much for the work of Carr's that I read (including What is History?, an aeon ago). Apart from the inflexibility you mention, he did not write well - unlike some other historians of similar sympathies such as Christopher Hill and E J Hobsbawm - and his view of history was curiously teleological in that he seemed to see it as always tending to a particular end: the domination of the planned Soviet-style economy and the collapse and failure of the capitalist system (almost Fukuyama's End of History in reverse). Now it seems just a lot more chaotic and unpredictable - notably Carr was very poor at predicting outcomes.