What is history? A critical review of E. H. Carr

[I wrote this review many years back whilst I was studying research methods in history and historiography as an undergraduate. It is being published here to give a snapshot of western historiography so that it may shed some light as to why they may disagree with elements of Islamic history. I published it mostly as is without edit, added references to Islam or notes to where it diverges against Islamic principles. Saif]

E. H. Carr in 1961 delivered a series of six lectures at Cambridge University examining the question “What is history?” the title by which it was later published. The book discussed the nature of historiography in six sections; however, the content of these chapters can be simplified under three primary areas which embody Carr’s main arguments; (1) the influence of historians on history, (2) the nature of historical facts and (3) the subject matter of history. This review will analyse these three points by evaluating Carr’s methodology and assessing its place and implication on past, present and future academic historiography.

The influence of historians on history

Carr (1990, p. 55) defines history as “a continuous process of interaction between the historian and his facts, an unending dialogue between the present and the past”. This dialog is accomplished through historians as such he concludes, “History… [is] both the inquiry conducted by the historian and the facts of the past into which he enquires” (p. 55). He, however, argues that historians are susceptible to bias since every person is born into a society and invariably they are moulded by it through its environment and language as such their interpretation of history will be subjective to meet the criteria of their own culture; hence, Carr describes the historian as “the conscious or unconscious spokesman of the society to which he belongs.” Consequently, it is argued history is perceived through the environment in which the historian lives. The author uses various works by historians, such as Mommsen and Meineckes, to illustrate how historians change their own views of history due to the changing of their society. For example, Meineckes, from 1907 to 1946, went from championing German nationalism to showing conflict then distress and finally declaring that history was at the mercy of chance.

Whilst, it is acceptable that the historian will be, to an extent affected by their environment, it does not necessitate that their interpretation will necessarily be biased. It is entirely possible that Meineckes has changed his opinion about the German government due to the appearance of new evidence. This point is exemplified by Elton (2002, p. 54) who states, “This is not a question of interpreting fact but of establishing it, and the difference resulting is likely to be differences in the degree and depth of knowledge, no more.”

A second criticism which can be forwarded on Carr is that if his claim is to be accepted then it must be assumed that no historic truth can be attained, a statement he confirms. However, this assumption is heavily disputed as it is evident some events are undeniable (Evans, 2000). Carr’s claim that all historical facts are susceptible to the historian’s bias puts him in direct conflict with Ranke and the nineteen century historians who advocate that all history be objective and scientific. Whilst Carr negates objectivity, he does claim his methods to be scientific although not in the same manner as the natural sciences. Unlike Ranke, Collinwood’s theory resembles Carr better in the manner that it a relativist outlook, however, they differ fundamentally as Collinwood emphasises on the historian itself whilst Car concentrates on the historians environment.

The nature of historical facts

As mentioned previously Carr declares history constitutes of the historian and the facts. However, Carr differs from his predecessors in his definition of what constitutes as historical facts. He claims in his book that facts only become historical facts when the historian selects it to be as such. He argues that it is the historian who dictates what constitutes history as opposed to the source which Ranke advocates as the essence of history. Elton (2002) posits that there is some truth to Carr’s statement as historians accept that after the 1800s it has become improbable that all sources regarding any one event can be attained. As such it is inevitable that some form of selection must occur. Since Carr believes historians to be a product of their own environment and society, it follows that historical facts selected by such individuals will be biased as they will invariably be chosen to meet their society’s criteria for what constitutes significant. Consequently, Carr concludes that history in effect is determined by historian and as such it is the reflection of the historian’s time and environment. Tosh (2000) argues this be essential as “it provide an indispensible perspective on the present”. Carr illustrates his point by citing how historians have concentrated only on Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon River whilst neglecting the many others who have crossed it prior to Caesar as well as after him. Critics of Carr such as Elton (2002) even attest that some bias maybe inevitable in large areas of history; however, he does assert that it can be managed “up to a point” though proper training, although that might have limited effect.

The problem of bias seems to arise in particular due to Carr’s insistence that interpretation is necessary; an outlook promoted by Trevelyan as well as the argument that history has a function – an idea strongly opposed by the Rankeans. Whilst it is accepted that some interpretation is necessary it should not dictate the sources as stated by Carr. Elton (2002, p. 56) outlines the danger in this method well by stating that “the very act of asking a question the historian limits his choice of material – that he finds in the evidence that for which he looks”. Nevertheless, Carr’s position is somewhat in the middle; negating the total subjectivity of Trevelyn and Collinwood as well as opposing the total objectivity of Ranke. However, his method paves the way for post-modernists who develop extreme scepticism to historical sources crushing Ranke’s notion of the sanctity of sources.

The subject matter of history

The final issue which will be discussed is what Carr considers to be the subject matter of history; this in essence determines what is important in history. Whilst Ranke and other historians attributed much of the subject of history to ‘great men’ Carr has taken a standpoint which is in contrast to them in this respect. He refutes the assumption that one individual can affect an entire event and concludes that, “The view I would hope to discourage is the view which places great men outside history and sees them imposing themselves on history in virtue of their greatness” (Carr, 1990. P. 54). He attributes their greatness to the support of the masses and describes them as the “representative of existing forces”. Hence, Carr advocates that it is the environment or more specifically the political relations between states which should be the concern of historians. Consequently, as according to Carr, since people did not form into political organisations in the modern sense until the last two centuries he considers the history of the masses prior to the 1800s as insignificant and ‘unsound’. This is very narrow definition of history which has particularly lost favour in society. Evan (2000) contests Carr’s notion of pre-eighteenth century as insignificant and declares many are concerned about such history such as the social historian. Additionally, it can be noted that simply stating that it is insignificant does not negate the fact that it exist and as such may be worthwhile learning it. Carr’s theory of the subject of history is at odds with the modern idea of history as it has many branches such as social, economic, education history amongst others.


Carr’s ‘What is history?’ provides an outlook on history which is vastly different from his predecessors such as Ranke, Trevelyan, Collinwood and others. The key concept he proposes is that history is relative to the interpretation and selection of historians who in turn are the products of their environment. Consequently, the main thesis of Carr is that history is subjective not objective which puts it at odds with the Rankeans and empiricist. Also, it is the product and outlook of the historians environment but not the historian itself thus refuting Collinwood and Trevelyan. Carr is, however, not without fault and many of his theories today are considered outdated by modern historian’s standard.


Carr, E. H. (1990). What is history?, 2nd edition. London, England: Penguin Books.

Collinwood, R. G, and Dussen J (ed). (1994). The idea of history, Revised edition. Oxford, England. Oxford University Press

Elton, G. R. (2002). The practice of history, 2nd edition. Oxford, England: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Evans, R. J. (2000). In defence of history. London, England: Pearson Education Ltd.

Tosh. J. (2000). The pursuit of history. 3nd edition. Harlow, England: Pearson Education Ltd

Trevelyan, G. M. (1947). 'Bias in History'. History, vol. 32, no. 115, March, pp.1-15


Muhammad Saifur Rahman Nawhami
6 Muharram 1435
10 November 2013


Nawhami, Muhammad Saifur Rahman. (2012). What is history? A critical review of E. H. Carr. Islamic Studies Bulletin (DIBAJ), Number 9. Available at http://uloom.com/dibaj/article/121011501