Review: What is History?, Edward H. Carr

Rating: 4 out of 5

I am generally not the biggest fan of a meta science book. I do well—at least sometimes—with general philosophy or natural sciences, but once we get into the topic of how this should be practiced, I stop. It was therefore with done trepidation that I picked this book as it is very clearly a meta history book. Nevertheless, I’ve come away happy I read this one, though at least for this edition the two introductions were incredibly valuable.

Mr Carr set out in lecture form what he thought were the problems with the practice of history as it was in the early 1960’s. It’s obvious that time has changed and even so, a large part of the criticism was based on the exclusivity of Oxbridge and what they felt should be studied. In this the introductions were helpful again to highlight that there were changes in these two departments after the publication of the book, but not many and very slowly. However, anyone even slightly familiar with the general character and mentality of Britain in this period should not be surprised.

The other guidance—and in this perhaps it would be more appropriate to call this book a style guide—focussed on the type of questions to be asked and topics to be investigated, in general considering both political or military history alone insufficient to meet a standard of rigorous explanation (“why something happened”). In this it is of course easy to agree that both economic and social factors are also relevant, but to me this criticism was heavily imbued with the bias of the time that interested Mr Carr: 20th century Russia.

For many other periods, the source available regarding social topics is thin to non-existent. Of course, archaeology can come to help the historian out, but it doesn’t seem uncommon for the two disciplines to not really interact very thoroughly. Economic consequences are even more difficult to follow because of the lack of data further back: we cannot really in the majority of cases estimate, for example, whether or how the imposition of a new tax would have affected different classes.

Of course, the more recent the time period, the more information we have available, so these considerations become more valuable.

And with that in mind, I’m happy I read this!

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