Posted by: aboutalbion | June 8, 2012

What is History? (10)

As I look over my notes from Carr’s classic book What is History?, I am continuing to ponder the question of whether or not it is central to a historian’s task to make moral judgments about what occurred in the past as s/he seeks causal explanations.

I incline to Carr’s view that a historian gives priority to society over the individual.  So my question becomes whether or not it is central to a historian’s task to make moral judgments about the events, institutions, and policies which occurred in the past [say, the German Reich and the Greater German Reich 1933-1945 (rather than Adolf Hitler)] as s/he seeks causal explanations.

Carr declined to include moral judgments in a historian’s workload.  Richard J Evans wrote an introduction to the 2001 edition of Carr’s book that I have, and he comments ‘that Carr’s rigorous exclusion of moral judgment from history was exercised in favour of the powerful, the victors of history …’. (pxxixf)  My reading of Carr’s position is that it is sufficient for the historian to explain why something in the past happened.

Carr defended his position on the grounds that a historian could not escape from the influence of the system(s) of morality in her/his own age.  That would mean that a historian’s system of morality (if employed) would provide answers to moral questions in advance of the historian’s work, which Carr found unhistorical.  For Carr, theories of history are theories of change, and change invites comparison.  So Carr stayed focussed on those with power and preferred descriptive judgments on a progressive – reactionary spectrum to moral judgments on a good – bad scale.  Carr further believed that systems of morality were rooted in history to a given place and time, and this raised further questions about the appropriateness of using a system of morality in a different place and time.

The more I ponder the question, the closer I feel I am to deciding that moral judgments on societal events, institutions, and policies are not part of a historian’s enquiry.

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

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