Fishing for the Facts
E.H. Carr’s belief that the histories we get depend on the questions we ask is more relevant than ever.
Sixty years ago E.H. Carr published What is History? In it, he argued that history is largely a work of interpretation, that historians have no choice but to be subjective and that historical facts are not as objective as they appear. Carr was reacting to the 19th-century approach to history that is associated with the German scholar Leopold von Ranke, who urged scholars ‘simply to show how it really was’; Carr thought the idea that this was possible a ‘preposterous fallacy’. The facts, he argued, do not speak for themselves. He wrote:
Facts … are like fish swimming about in a vast and sometimes inaccessible ocean; and what the historian catches will depend, partly on chance, but mainly on what part of the ocean he chooses to fish in and what tackle he chooses to use – these two factors being, of course, determined by the kind of fish he wants to catch. By and large, the historian will get the kind of facts he wants.