Posted by: aboutalbion | May 14, 2012

What is History (3)

In the previous post, I outlined Carr’s challenge to the long pedigree of the view that history is the biography of creative, decisive, key people in the past, and his argument against the notion of special individuals standing outside history, and his argument for the complementarity (and the inseparability) of the individual and society.

Carr concludes that key people (in the past) are always acting in a representative way under the influence of social forces.  (In addition, these key people may have made a contribution to the growth of these social forces.)  Similarly, Carr sees the historian (in the present) as the product of history and her/his work as mirroring the society in which s/he works.

Having insisted that an individual (in the past) by definition was a member of society, Carr observes that (like us) s/he often acted from unconscious motives.  He contests the view that history can be written in relation to the declared intentions of the relevant participants.

This observation leads Carr to go on to quote Professor Butterfield with approval: ‘There is something in the nature of historical events which twists the course of history in a direction that no man ever intended’. (Butterfield, H (1944) The Englishman and His History. p103.)  In other words, the outcomes of the decisions of human actors (in the past) were often not those which were desired or intended.  His examples here include the opinion that it is not credible to believe that a majority of Europeans wanted a World War in 1914 or a Great Depression in the 1930s.

In addition, Carr points out that numbers count for quite a lot in history.  He distinguishes between anonymity and impersonality.  He argues that people do not cease to be people just because historians do not know their names.  Rather, a historian will need to take account of, say, millions of (anonymous) peasants in thousands of villages if they are aggrieved.  ‘These nameless millions [might well be] individuals acting, more or less unconsciously, together and constituting a social force.’ (p44)

[Carr, E H (2001) What is History? Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.]


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