What is History?

Four historians consider the most fundamental question of all, one famously posed by E.H. Carr almost 60 years ago.

The Owl of Athena: Terracotta lekythos (oil flask) c. 490–480 BC. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

‘History is the study of people, actions, decisions, interactions and behaviours’

Francesca Morphakis, PhD Candidate in History at the University of Leeds

History is narratives. From chaos comes order. We seek to understand the past by determining and ordering ‘facts’; and from these narratives we hope to explain the decisions and processes which shape our existence. Perhaps we might even distill patterns and lessons to guide – but never to determine – our responses to the challenges faced today. History is the study of people, actions, decisions, interactions and behaviours. It is so compelling a subject because it encapsulates themes which expose the human condition in all of its guises and that resonate throughout time: power, weakness, corruption, tragedy, triumph … Nowhere are these themes clearer than in political history, still the necessary core of the field and the most meaningful of the myriad approaches to the study of history. Yet political history has fallen out of fashion and subsequently into disrepute, wrongly demonised as stale and irrelevant. The result has been to significantly erode the utility of ordering, explaining and distilling lessons from the past. 

History’s primary purpose is to stand at the centre of diverse, tolerant, intellectually rigorous debate about our existence: our political systems, leadership, society, economy and culture. However, open and free debate – as in so many areas of life – is too often lacking and it is not difficult to locate the cause of this intolerance. 

Writing history can be a powerful tool; it has shaped identities, particularly at the national level. Moreover, it grants those who control the narrative the ability to legitimise or discredit actions, events and individuals in the present. Yet to marshal history and send it into battle merely to serve the needs of the present is misuse and abuse. History should never be a weapon at the heart of culture wars. Sadly, once again, it is: clumsily wielded by those who deliberately seek to impose a clear ideological agenda. History is becoming the handmaiden of identity politics and self-flagellation. This only promotes poor, one-dimensional understandings of the past and continually diminishes the utility of the field. History stands at a crossroads; it must refuse to follow the trend of the times. 

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‘I have a preference for historians who probe into the “why” and the “how”’

Chandak Sengoopta, Professor of History at Birkbeck, University of London

Any thoroughly researched and well-argued study of any aspect of the past counts, for me, as history. I do have a preference for historians who probe into the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ but, overall, I think that our scope should be as broad and as catholic as possible. I am old enough to remember a time when women’s history was a separate field – left, in many universities, to Women’s Studies programmes – and the existence of non-white people was recognised by historians only in the context of imperial history. Back then – I am talking only about the late 1980s – English, Anthropology and even History of Science departments were often more adventurous in addressing the history of ‘others’ but their work, we were often told by ‘real’ historians, wasn’t proper history: ‘they use novels as evidence, for heaven’s sake!’ ‘Have any of them been near an archive?’ 

If things are better today in History departments, it is because the disciplinary frontiers have been redrawn. But we still have our borders, not all of which are imposed by our institutions or funding authorities. How many History departments would exclude an otherwise excellent candidate only because her sources are mostly literary? A great many, I dare say, including my own. Many of the field’s old fixations may have disappeared, but quite a few antiquated fences still await a well-aimed boot.

Political, economic and social history are, without question, essential; so is the history of Europe and America. But they are not the alpha and the omega of History as a discipline. We still do not pay enough attention to histories of ideas, of the arts, of medicine, of philosophy, of entertainment, of technology, whether in Europe or America or elsewhere. Nor do we feel particularly comfortable about biographical approaches to history. None of these potentially enriching themes can be addressed unless we jettison our atavistic equation of the archive with a collection of yellowing reams of paper. It won’t be easy to dislodge this idol, but I would like to hope that coming generations of historians will chip away at it with greater conviction than mine has been able to muster. 

‘History is fundamentally a problem-solving discipline’

Marcus Colla, Departmental Lecturer in European History at Christ Church, Oxford

Though almost 60 years have passed since E.H. Carr first posed the question, undergraduates still continue to find much to unpack in his answers. Indeed, Carr’s 1961 book What is History? has enjoyed a longer shelf-life than most works of actual history.

But it is a curious fact that What is History? remains a go-to reference for teachers and students everywhere. After all, much of Carr’s argument and the debates to which he was contributing might strike us now, as we attempt to answer the question, as being quaintly archaic. The interim 60 years encompass postmodernism, the rise of gender history and the ‘memory boom’, to name but a tiny sample. Today’s students inhabit a completely different intellectual universe. 

Carr’s ideas clearly resonate more with our contemporary sensibilities than do those of his detractors, who remained wedded to the idea of an objective historian unfettered from all current assumptions. By contrast, Carr saw history as fundamentally a problem-solving discipline. Not only should historians divest themselves of the illusion that they could somehow stand outside the world in which they live, he argued. They should in fact embrace the fact that the study of the past could be oriented to the needs of the present.

One can immediately see the appeal of such an argument today. In an academic world where the humanities are under greater pressure to justify their significance than ever before, studying ‘the past for the past’s sake’ no longer cuts it. But I don’t think this is the whole story. Rather, I sense that the enduring fascination with Carr reflects something much more fundamental in how we view the relationship between past and present. For instance, we are surely less inclined than previous generations to demand rigid dichotomies between ‘history’ on the one hand and ‘memory’ or ‘heritage’ on the other. Furthermore, we’re more democratic in who we believe history belongs to: who from the past it includes, and who in the present can benefit from it.

Each historian will view the relationship between past and present differently. But it was Carr’s great achievement to identify the tensions of this relationship as the very engine of the discipline itself. 

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‘Histories are useful for telling us how we got “here”’

Faridah Zaman, Associate Professor of History, University of Oxford

One way to attempt to answer this question is to ask ourselves what and who are histories for? A common starting point might be that histories are useful for telling us how we got ‘here’. Such histories might take the form of origin stories, of relatively linear and perhaps teleological accounts – how did we come to organise our societies and political systems in the ways that we have now, for instance – or, as the apocryphal saying goes, a series of lessons to learn from in order to avoid the ignominy of repetition. 

Such an understanding of history conceals within itself a more exciting and fraught – though not necessarily antithetical – possibility. Just as we might look to the past to better understand the myriad, complicated ways in which our present world came to exist, historians might also set themselves the task of illuminating worlds unrealised and of other presents that might have existed. Such histories, counter-intuitively, help us understand our own times better either by underscoring the contingency of the world around us or, depending on your perspective, the enduring power of the structures responsible for foreclosing those other paths. 

These kinds of histories require attending to – and often recovering and reconstructing – narratives and perspectives that have been lost in dominant historical accounts. My own work has focused on unsuccessful revolutions and failed political visions in the early 20th century. More broadly, we might consider it a fundamental task of history to reveal the complexity and plurality that people lived with in the past. Such histories can demonstrate how differently people have thought about and related to the world around them, including other ways of recording their ideas and experiences. Much of this terrain used to be marginal to ‘History’ proper; M.K. Gandhi noted as much in 1909 when he dismissed conventional history as simply a record of war. In recovering what has been subsumed and forgotten – for instance, radical dissenting traditions that were drowned out, or anticolonial resistance movements that were defeated – history might instead serve much more emancipatory ends and open up spaces of critical and imaginative possibility for our own times.