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. 

‘Fishes Close to the Quayside’, 19th-century illustration. Alamy.

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. 

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