Posted by: aboutalbion | May 16, 2012

What is History? (5)

Again, in chapter 1, Carr credits R G Collingwood with making a significant contribution to the philosophy of history.  Collingwood’s premise was that a historian does not encounter the past in isolation, nor does he encounter his thoughts about the past in isolation.  His argument was that the past remains inert and meaningless to the historian until he can engage with the thought that surrounded the past.  Collingwood’s claim was that ‘all history is the history of thought’, and ‘history is the re-enactment in the historian’s mind of the thought whose history he is studying’. (p16)

Carr critiques Collingwood’s claim when he points out that it is not sufficient for a historian to pay attention to the conscious thought and motive of any given person in history.  ‘What the historian is called on to investigate is what lies behind the act; and to this the conscious thought or motive of the individual actor may be quite irrelevant.’ (p46)  The more I understand about the seemingly infinite capacity of human animals to deceive themselves and others, the more I find Carr’s critique persuasive.

These understandings about the subject of history have made me think again about media commentators who begin “Today, history is being made …”.  If all of life is in a state of perpetual change, then I think that Carr is correct to endorse Professor Oakeshott: ‘[History] is “made” by nobody save the historian: to write history is the only way of making it’. [Oakeshott, M (1933) Experience and Its Modes, p99.]

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

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