Civil Constitution of the Clergy

History Skills

Tutor: Dr. Harvey Osborne

Department: History

Assessment 2: Essay

Title: E.H.Carr has suggested that 'History is an unending dialogue between the past and present'. Was he correct and is 'present-mindedness' on the part of all historians inevitable?

Student: S137249

The extent to which one can give a definitive meaning to the word 'History' has ever been an endeavour fraught with controversy. In this essay, the process of 'academic history' is the definition considered. The history of the question itself can be linked strongly with the development of modernity and the progression of the arts and sciences. One of the important questions also raised is to whether History can be considered a humanity or a social sciences subject.

Edward Hallett Carr, in his work 'What is History', answered the question by claiming that History " a continuous process of interaction between the historian and his facts, an unending dialogue between the present and the past[1]. Though to properly assess the academic value and relevance of his claim, it is first necessary analyse the broader intellectual context to which Carr sought to make a contribution. Ignoring the rigour of 'Science' itself; social science and the humanities can be seen to be very much opposed - one trying to be 'scientific' the latter happy to sit out on its own. The important thing to realise though is that they can still cover the same topics when it comes to 'historical debate' or 'History'.

And yet history does not easily fit into any of these main categories. History, unlike the natural sciences, cannot conduct a controlled experiment because its object of study, being the past, is incapable of being 'recreated.' History may not, on the other hand, claim to be a social science: its goal is not to predict human action like a subject such as Sociology or Psychology. Thus, in many ways history enjoys a sort of separate existence which transcends the natural and social sciences, not to mention the humanities. It is also well to note that History can place its roots back to the ancient Greeks, something which the social sciences cannot, being relatively new disciplines.

History does not, however, fit well into any of the 'ordinary' academic categories. The true meaning and accuracy of Carr's characterisation of history as being "an unending dialogue between the past and present must be evaluated within the context of the evolution of academic and scientific thought in the last two centuries. This may in fact seem to lend support to Carr's assumptions, given that such an assertion in effect contextualizes (historically) those factors which were at the root of his thought. By tracing the origins of Carr's thought, one is in fact agreeing with the assertion that the past is but the reflection of the present, and moreover that any given present has its own ideas of the past.

The nineteenth century's love affair with objectivity gave way to a lust for the subject and his/her/its relation to the object. The work of Carr echoed this transformation. He wrote that "empirical theory of knowledge presupposes a complete separation between subject and object. Facts, like sense-impressions, impinge on the observer from outside, and are independent of his consciousness[2]. He wrote that nineteenth century historiography "...consist[ed] of the compilation of a maximum number of irrefutable and objective facts....[This has produced] in Germany, in Great Britain, and in the United States a vast and growing mass of dry-as-dust factual histories, of minutely specialized monographs, of would-be historians knowing more and more about less and less, sunk without a trace in an ocean of facts[3]. Clearly Carr is no a fan of a solely epistemological, objective approach to History. This is echoed by an article written by Prof. R.J. Evans when he says "...whether we like it not, there is always a subjective element in historical writing, for historians are individuals, people of their time, with views and assumptions about the world that they cannot eliminate from their writing and research, even if they can hope to restrain them[4].

As part of the advent post-modernist thought, more recent historians like R.G. Collingwood sought to emphasize the importance of the temporal influence on the historian. In line with traditional Marxist historiography, any one person for the most part reflects the socio-historical period in which he/she lives. Carr quoted Collingwood: "St. Augustine looked at history from the point of view of the early Christian; Tillemont, from that of a seventeenth-century Frenchman; Gibbon, from that of an eighteenth-century Englishman; Mommsen, from that of a nineteenth-century German. There is no point in asking which was the right point of view. Each was the only one possible for the man who adopted it[5].

Collingwood, in some ways anticipating the ideas of Carr, was among the many historians of the twentieth century who sought to downplay the nineteenth century obsession with facts and concentrate more on an interpretation of a chosen set of historical facts. This new meaning of the 'philosophy of history' largely stood as a methodology for the research and writing of history. Collingwood wrote: "In the present case this will mean a general overhauling of all philosophical questions in the light of the results reached by the philosophy of history in the narrower sense, and this will produce a new philosophy which will be a philosophy of history in the wide sense, i.e., a complete philosophy conceived from a historical point of view[6]. Thus, an overriding emphasis was here placed on the interpreter of the events and not the events themselves.

Carr largely followed in Collingwood's footsteps by distinguishing twentieth century historiography, with its questioning of the subject's ability to 'objectively' perform the task of writing history, from its fact-obsessed, 'objective' nineteenth century predecessor. A great part of Carr's thesis was that each and every historian necessarily employs, willingly or not, a philosophy of history. The chosen methodology, interpretation, and conclusions thus merely reflect said necessity. He affectionately wrote: "Since then [the nineteenth century] we have known Sin and experienced a Fall; and those historians who today pretend to dispense with a philosophy of history are merely trying, vainly and self-consciously, like members of a nudist colony, to recreate the Garden of Eden in their garden suburb. Today the awkward question [as to which philosophy of history to abide by] can no longer be evaded[7]. According to Carr then the possibility of objective historiography has forever been stripped of its capacity to accurately tell the tale of history. By leaving the 'Garden' of facts, the modern historian must pick and choose his/her facts and then interpret them according to an overarching philosophy and perspective.

Carr, though largely in agreement with Collingwood, did seek to avoid some of the latter's extremism. Facts should still play a central role. Interpretation cannot be everything. "The function of the historian is neither to love the past nor to emancipate himself from the past, but to master and understand it as the key to the understanding of the present[8]. Thus Carr sought to create a sort of middle-of-the-road reconciliation of nineteenth century empiricism with the ideas of Collingwood and their emphasis on the importance of interpretation.

Like any other discipline, History, though perhaps not perfectly fitting into any of the general academic categories, was forever changed by post-modernist thought. Carr acknowledged as mush by pointing to the loss of objectivity. He praised the ideas of those who sought to interpret, as opposed to just 'study,' history. He sought a middle ground between the two poles, which incidentally is why his approach is correct in the way that it is. 'Present-mindedness' surely stands as inevitable part of the work of any historian, at any point in history. It is especially true today with the widespread distrust of any claim to objectivity. The fact that the 'present' actually has an entire system of thought which emphasises its extreme importance should come as no surprise to one familiar with Carr's thought. The past then is undeniably the product of the present in which it is invoked.


1) E.H Carr, What is History?, (Penguin, London, 1970)

2) R.G Collingwood, The Idea of History, (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1961)

3) R.J. Evans, The Two Faces of EH Carr, (Institute of Historical Research, Autumn 2001)

4) J Tosh, The Pursuit of History, (Pearson Edu., Harlow, 2006)

[1] E.H Carr, What is History?, (Penguin, London, 1970), p.35.

[2] E.H Carr, What is History?, (Penguin, London, 1970), p.6.

[3] E.H Carr, What is History?, (Penguin, London, 1970), p.14

[4] R.J. Evans, The Two Faces of EH Carr, (Institute of Historical Research, Autumn 2001)

[5] E.H Carr, What is History?, (Penguin, London, 1970), p.30

[6] R.G Collingwood, The Idea of History, (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1961), p.6.

[7] E.H Carr, What is History?, (Penguin, London, 1970), p.21

[8] E.H Carr, What is History?, (Penguin, London, 1970), p.29.

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