History: handle with care

by Dr Richard Blakemore

One of the first assignments given to Reading history undergraduates is to write a précis, or summary, of one chapter from a selection of well-known books by eminent historians on the theory and purpose of the discipline.  Marking this exercise last term led me back to writings and arguments that were familiar, but which I had not read for some time.  It made me think about some of the underlying principles that ‘jobbing’ historians don’t reflect on all that often while occupied with the brass tacks of teaching and research. I have just started lecturing at Reading this year, and a similar assignment is also the first thing I can remember doing from my own undergraduate days, so it seemed like a good moment to pause and reflect. Here are some things from three of the texts that caught my eye.1

 

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E.H. Carr, What is History?

E. H. Carr certainly wasn’t my favourite historical theorist when I first encountered him as an undergraduate, and I can’t say I like his writing that much more now. He is obviously erudite and experienced, and has been hugely influential, but I feel there is a certain smug tone to this book: too many unexplained allusions, too much assumed agreement, and a sense that Carr was quite often trying to be provocative for the sake of it. For the chapter ‘The historian and his facts’, apart from the objectionable assumption that a historian must be a ‘he’, I take issue with Carr’s suggestion that facts only become legitimately ‘historical’ once they have been noticed by several historians, ‘appearing first in the footnotes, then in the text, of articles and books’.2  In a discipline which places so much emphasis on working with primary sources, how can we accept that a fact only becomes significant once it is common knowledge?  Discovering previously unknown things is one of the greatest joys of research.  More seriously, this seems to suggest that it is historians, not their sources, who dictate the ‘facts’ of history, unmooring us from any sense of respect for, or integrity in, the past we study.

I doubt this is really what Carr was driving at (although it is a position taken by several postmodern writers since Carr’s day), so perhaps it is a matter of bad phrasing.  The general premise of this particular chapter is actually that historians must steer a course between total faith in objective ‘facts’, on the one hand, and the belief that history is factless and freeform interpretation on the other.  Despite the way Carr sometimes expresses it, I think few scholars would dispute this conclusion.  Carr’s attention to the vagaries by which information about the past has survived and been transmitted, and to the limitations inherent in the perspectives thus preserved, is also something I appreciate in my own work. So too is the suggestion that ‘reading and writing go on simultaneously’, something it took me a while to learn.3  Finally, it is hard to better the direct simplicity of Carr’s concluding sentence: history is ‘an unending dialogue between the present and the past’.4

 

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Richard J. Evans, In Defence of History

Richard J. Evans opens his chapter ‘On Causation’ by considering another of Carr’s ideas, that historians must seek out, and rank in importance, the causes behind events.  Evans notes Carr’s opinion that broad trends are more important than chance factors, but then proposes counterfactual history as a better approach to evaluate the role of chance: if a specific ‘accident’ had not occurred, would the course of the past have been different?  I have more sympathy with Evans here, especially because, like many historians, I am interested in the question of individual agency.  A study only of large, impersonal factors would leave little room for that.

Evans then turns his attention to various postmodern criticisms of the idea of causation and indeed of the very existence of sequential time, which is essential to any argument about historical causes.  I will not rehearse these in detail, although it is worth mentioning Evans’s shrewd point that the idea of the ‘postmodern’ itself assumes a sequence, whatever its adherents might say.5  After showing how historians have used different approaches to narrative and periodization, Evans encourages scholars to ‘raid the many and various genres of historical writing which have been developed over the past couple of centuries, to enrich our own historical practice today’.6  I wholeheartedly agree, but why not also consider the many and various ways in which people, throughout the past and across the world, have thought about time?  This might be just as diverse and revelatory.

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Margaret MacMillan, The Uses and Abuses of History

The most popular choice for my students was Margaret MacMillan’s piece, which is not a theoretical discussion like the others, but rather a summary of why she thinks the study of history and scholarly accuracy are important to us today.  Firstly, she looks at some recent examples, like American foreign policy following 9/11, to show how learning the lessons of the past can help us to interpret, and influence, the present – and how failing to do so can be disastrous.  Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, she argues that studying history encourages habits of scepticism, humility, and self-reflection.  This means we should be suspicious of sweeping and potentially misleading claims about the past (MacMillan warns us to ‘always handle history with care’), but it is also true on a personal level.7  Learning to understand the past shows us how much society, and people’s attitudes about it, have changed – often considerably, and sometimes in a short space of time. We should be prepared to examine our own attitudes more critically, to consider alternatives, and to question authority and received wisdom.

MacMillan’s arguments are strikingly relevant given recent political trends, perhaps best summed up by Oxford Dictionaries’ choice of ‘post-truth’ as their word of the year for 2016, and by the recent appearance of the worrisome phrase ‘alternative facts’ (for which, read ‘lies’).  In these circumstances, we are fortunate to have so eloquent an advocate as MacMillan on hand.  Yet the concerns of the three texts are intimately linked.  The lessons we learn by studying history are not just examples that we might emulate or avoid, but also ways of thinking and understanding which we can use in our own time.  We need to adopt flexible and careful approaches to understanding history, as Carr and Evans suggest, so that we can continue and improve our dialogue with the past. It seems to me that we need that dialogue, and the thoughtfulness it produces, now more than ever.

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Notes:

[1] The students in my seminar submitted synopses of chapter 1 of E. H. Carr, What is History? (Cambridge, 1961); chapter 5 of Richard J. Evans, In Defence of History (London, 1997); and the conclusion from Margaret MacMillan, The Uses and Abuses of History (London, 2009).
[2] Carr, What is history?, p.10.
[3] Ibid., p.33.
[4] Ibid., p.35.
[5] Evans, In Defence, pp.141-2.
[6] Ibid., p.156.
[7] MacMillan, Uses and Abuses, p.170.

 

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