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What Is History?

3.84 of 5 stars 3.84  ·  rating details  ·  1,508 ratings  ·  87 reviews
Based on The George Macaulay Trevelyan Lectures delivered at University of Cambridge, January-March 1961.

This edition includes new material which presents the major conclusions of Professor Carr's notes for the second edition and a new preface by the author, in which he calls for 'a saner and more balanced outlook on the future'.

Edward Hallett Carr (1892-1982) was a histo
Paperback, 188 pages
Published November 1st 1990 by Penguin UK (first published 1961)
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This is a masterful study of the questions historians ask themselves--and readers of history should ask themselves--about the nature of the writing of history. Is history a bunch of objective facts just put down by a disinterested bean-counter called an historian? Or is it a study of the past with the goal of shedding light on the present? Is it a 'tale of the victors', as the losers in history are usually obliterated? Is it cause and effect? Is there a Spirit of History, a World Spirit a la Heg ...more
David Sarkies
Jul 09, 2015 David Sarkies rated it 3 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Those interested in studying history as a discipline.
Shelves: philosophy
Exploring the study of history
31 December 2011

This book is not actually a book on history per se but rather an exploration of the discipline of history. This is the main reason that I consider it philosophy as it is not looking at a specific historical event, or looking at the history of civilisation but rather taking a step back and exploring what it is that historians do. This is something that many of us generally take foregranted when we look and an historical event. Many of us will discuss
I bought a 50¢ copy of this book years ago on a bargain bin spree at either Housing Works or the Strand. Until recently, every time I paged through it I couldn't help but deride its maddeningly simple-minded premise: in a series of lectures at Cambridge in the 1950s, Carr set out to actually answer the question what is history.

Is history a science? Are there "causes" for historical events? What is fact? And, yes, this is as boring as one might expect. You advance through a few pages of this kind
Excerpt from my essay:

Carr quickly discredits the notion of history as a universal entity, lambasting Acton’s proposal of an “ultimate history” by indicating that such a concept imposes a complete separation between subject and object. The 19th century positivist claim that history is a pure science is a false conviction based not on reality but rather, as Carr calls it, a “cult of facts.” Factuality comprises merely one aspect of the historian’s task. To have meaning, facts must be properly ana
Although he penned an immense collection of writings on the Soviet Union and international relations, most historians outside of his speciality know E. H. Carr as the author of What is History?, a historiographical work that challenged the traditional mindset of the field of history. Organized as a transcript of a series of lectures he gave on the subject, Carr attempts to answer the work’s eponymous question by examining trends, and several key scholars, over the field’s development and rejecti ...more
Blair Dowden
Objective Reality

Let me begin by stating my personal hardline objectivist viewpoint: There is only one single objective reality. Either some event in the past happened, or it did not. Someone’s opinion does not change that fact. For example, on January 10, 49 BC Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon River with some of his soldiers. Or he did not. There is only one correct answer.

The Hard Truth about Historical Facts

So is the job of the historian is simply to collect up all the objective facts, and a
Thank you to Jackie Hurwitz for even reminding me of What is History? by Edward Hallett Carr.

I read this book for a course on Historiography at Middlebury College in 2004. I should remark that this was the first book on the subject in the syllabus because, if I had read some of the other literature first, my impression may have been substantially less positive. In my opinion, positivism is the problem behind Carr's theory. Carr just puts too much credibility in the validity and Truth of facts.

Herman Gigglethorpe
This is quite a challenging book, and you have to read it multiple times in order to understand all of what E.H. Carr is saying.

It's still a great introduction to historiography. History is not just about learning facts, but learning about bias in the records and interpreting the importance of events in their social context. One example that he gives is that many people have crossed the Rubicon, but only Julius Caesar's crossing is considered history.

Other important sections include the ideas o
Ricardo Ribeiro
I am now 47 years, and I read this one when I was 20. It was in my first university (or college, if you are American) and its reading marked me deeply. It came with the emotion of the first really serious studying book. And it made me think a lot about the degree I was about to initiate. In a word, one of the books of my life.
I first read What is History as part of a philosophy of history class. I believe that the course was given by Aristotle and the book was written on papyrus. I recall being less critical of it at that time in any case. I would still suggest it as a good introduction to issues in historiography. I would, however, suggest caution in taking Carr at face value. He has numerous axes to grind and theories to support.

My major criticism is that he seems to have been a bit disingenuous in putting his arg
Richard Hughes
Believe it or not, this book is a best seller. To date, it has sold nearly one quarter of a million copies. ‘What is History?’ is over 50 years old and is still indispensable reading for historians, history students and anyone with more than a passing interest in history. Despite his landmark history of the Soviet Union, this short work dominated E.H. Carr’s entry in ‘Fifty Key Thinkers on History’ (Marnie Hughes-Warrington, Routledge, 2000).

The book is essentially the transcripts of a series of
i know this is a good book but i just didn't have the patience/knowledge in history to fully appreciate it. but i did learn a few things, that history is not as simple/straight-forward as what i used to think. History is essentially an interplay between the subjective and objective; the past, present and future - how the past is viewed from the present, and how the present is viewed based on the past.
And that historical "facts" aren't purely facts as we know them, because the historian has to s
Old news to the professionals, I suppose. I tell my students all the cliches already: "History is written by the victors"; "History is a cruel joke on the living"; "History is pop culture." (That last one is from Wuhl, by the way.) But Carr apparently got the ball rolling. To him, studying history means studying the historian. To him, facts are not objective, in that they were subjectively selected and arranged by a human being, subject to all the subjectivity bestowed upon him and her. And to C ...more
Marut Lucky
This is the third time i am reading this book.Although the title of the book seem that it might be easy to read. But it is not so. only when you have read a lot of history and philosophicial discussion of person like Hegel and other historians you can comprehend this book. So i have put this book in the shelve of to be read again and again and i hope that after many years i may be able to understand this book very well. But anyone who has read a lot of history books will surely like this book. S ...more
Jon Arnold
Going back to re-read old university textbooks for fun must be a sign of incipient nostalgia for the lost days of youth. That or masochism. I didn’t get a nostalgic buzz (possibly as I was young and foolish enough to think I could get away by essentially skimming it) but reading it with age and experience was far more rewarding than giving it to an intellectually arrogant 19 year old.

Carr’s initial question is the springboard for six essays, transcribed from a series of lectures. It’s a musing o
One of the classics of modern thinking about History as a discipline. Simply put--- something every serious History major or graduate student should read...and so should anyone interested in what History as a discipline is and does.
Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it. E H Carr is a legendary historian who disects the various dimensions of what history is all about. Is it subjective or objective ? Is it fact or interpretation? What is the importance of judgment? How does one select what events constitute history and which ones do not? How does the historian interpret the 'why' of historical events? How much of bias does the historian bring to the narrative ? Is history progress? Is the scope of history widen ...more
Read this for a class, but it is an extremely useful book form an outside on history and historiography!
Read this for the same reason you would read Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Its extremely eloquent and flat out beautiful in its prose at times. E H Carr was a leading man in the historical field in the mid 20th century. He treads a middle line between empiricism and idealism. To quote from a review 'Arguably the central ideas in the book constitute today's mainstream thinking on British historical practice'.
Rob Mills
This was book was on my younger brother's high school reading list and somehow found a way onto my bookshelf. The book is actually a compilation of lectures made by a historian of renown to the history society of Cambridge.
Appropriately, it's an intellectual thought piece where Carr considers what a historian's purpose in society is, whether history should be revised and whether it should be optimistic.
He makes some insightful observations on how society and the historian interact, how facts can
Hakan İlker
Adam fena şekilde Marksçı çıktı. Elbette bu bir deneme kitabı. Neci olduğu beni bağlamaz, fakat bazı yerlerde saçma sapan felsefecilere ve diğer tarihçilere yüklenmesi -yazarın kendisinin ne bir filozof ne de bir tarihçi olmasına rağmen- gülünç geldi. 'Evet sevgili ezik tarihçiler, sizin şu şu görüşünüz saçma ötesi bu şu şu şekilde olmalı' triplerinde yazdığı burnu havada cümleler dışında iyiydi kitap. Düşünceleri havadan kaptım size sundum tarzında değil akla ve mantığa uygun şekilde temellendi ...more
Max Nova
Brief, crisp, and deeply insightful, Carr's short book ([100 pages) tackles the central questions of historiography - from what determines a " historical fact" and the great man theory of history to issues of morality/judgement and the role of causation in history. In the final section, Carr delves into the idea of "progress" and notes that "the fall of the West" may in fact be progress for the rest of the world - it's all a matter of perspective.

You can read this book in an hour or two. You'll
Hessa Almutairi

للمؤرخ إدوارد كار

الكتاب قريته برمضان، ونسيت ماأكتب عنه

يتناول الكاتب عدة اشياء مهمة
منها (
I read this book for an upper-division history course at college. To me it was much more interesting than I expected. Even though it was written in 1961, it raised aspects about history that I had not previously considered.

This section about the religiosity of the Middle Ages got my attention:

"Our picture (of history) has been pre-selected and predetermined for us, not so much by accident as by people who were consciously or unconsciously imbued with a particular view and thought the facts which
A good introduction to historiography and the concept of evaluating the messenger of historical facts. But where I knock off stars is where Carr neglects to examine his own position. Though the essays are really collected lectures and must be read in that context, I still found it irritating that Carr made passing reference to the obvious changes of the present time without explaining why he finds these changes to be the most dramatic since the end of the medieval period. And reading from the pe ...more
After long delay, I finally got around to finishing this book. Although I had a few reservations- such as, whether time had made the work outdated- most of them were dispelled. I saw the book categorized under the label 'intellectual history' in some digital libraries, and understandably so. Carr's forays into the intellectual and philosophical traditions underpinning the writing and teaching of history makes for an illuminating critical journey. The frank manner in which Carr grapples with the ...more
I've heard a lot about this book being mentioned far too often on history students' personal statements but for my first venture into the philosophy of history it was fascinating and insightful. Definitely read it if you're at all interested in history, or in a book which uses the phrase 'cocked a knowing snook'. Also there was a fantastic bit where the author talked briefly about how he attended the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 which amazed me.
I think this seemingly small book demands a bit of patience and love of history in its pure sense and ideology from its readers, no matter what knowledge or experience they've had through their lives. One of the reasons is that, from its six chapters, you're reading a series of university lectures held in 1961 by a Fellow of Trinity College who, presumably, took them as part of serious history (coined by Polybius in his "The Rise of the Roman Empire", Penguin 1979), therefore, reading him is a b ...more
"The prophets of woe have everything on their side. The picture of impending doom, sedulously drawn by sensational writers and journalists and transmitted through the media, has penetrated the vocabulary of everyday speech." Although written 1961, it could be about today. E. H. Carr's look at 'What is History' digs for the crux of how history is written a perceived. Although many references are dated, the Soviet Union is a constant reminder of this, it still delivers many salient points about th ...more
Eric Pecile
If you have ever considered entering the historical profession or are having difficulty finding yourself within it, this is the essential book to read if you want to situate historical methods and practices in time.
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  • In Defence of History
  • The Historian's Craft: Reflections on the Nature and Uses of History and the Techniques and Methods of Those Who Write It.
  • The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past
  • The Idea of History
  • That Noble Dream: The 'Objectivity Question' and the American Historical Profession
  • The Pursuit of History
  • Historians' Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought
  • On History
  • A History of Histories: Epics, Chronicles, Romances and Inquiries from Herodotus and Thucydides to the Twentieth Century
  • The Whig Interpretation of History
  • Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe
  • Dead Certainties: Unwarranted Speculations
  • Telling the Truth About History
  • The Uses and Abuses of History
  • The Purpose of the Past: Reflections on the Uses of History
  • The Making of the English Working Class
  • Gender and the Politics of History
  • The Evolution Of Medieval Thought
E. H. Carr was a liberal realist and later left-wing British historian, journalist and international relations theorist, and an opponent of empiricism within historiography.

Carr was best known for his 14-volume history of the Soviet Union, in which he provided an account of Soviet history from 1917 to 1929, for his writings on international relations, and for his book What Is History?, in which he
More about Edward Hallett Carr...

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“Study the historian before you begin to study the facts.” 14 likes
“History is the long struggle of man, by exercise of his reason, to understand his environment and to act upon it. But the modern period has broadened the struggle in a revolutionary way. Man now seeks to understand, and act on, not only his environment, but himself; and this has added, so to speak, a new dimension to reason and a new dimension to history.” 9 likes
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