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. 

This was an idea so radical that it is still percolating through society’s consciousness. Whether you accept Carr’s conclusion or not (and perhaps even his pronouns) is a key determinant of how, for example, you might respond to the confected ‘culture war’ being trundled out at regular intervals by government ministers and tabloids. The question of what history is and what it’s for – and who it’s for – feels just as timely as it did in 1961. 

History as a discipline has moved on enormously since the 1960s. To give just one example: it was five years after Carr’s book was published that the idea that ‘history from below’ – history focused on the experiences of ordinary people – might be a valuable approach was first popularised by E.P. Thompson (though the phrase had effectively been coined by Lucien Febvre in 1932, when he described ‘histoire vue d’en bas et non d’en haut’). 

What then is history now? What new fields of study has it reached? What new approaches animate its scope? Carr’s great-granddaughter, Helen Carr, and I had these questions in mind when we approached scholars to prepare a volume to mark the 60th anniversary of the publication of What is History? Our slight spin on Carr has been to suggest that history is composed of interpretations: multiple, plural and many-voiced. We therefore asked a number of historians to write about their particular field of study, asking questions such as, how can we write the history of empire or of disability? Can our emotions have a history? Can and should we queer the past? We approached other writers and practitioners to consider the ways in which museums can open doors to the past and why history deserves to be at the movies. We wanted the line-up of writers to be reflective of the discipline today: both leading thinkers and emergent voices, historians working within the academy and outside it, women and men and scholars from a range of ethnicities and backgrounds. 

Our criteria may seem terribly à la mode, yet once again it is Carr who has led the way. He recognised that the questions that we ask of the past are always questions of the present. We might worry that approaching the past from the perspective of the present risks the sins of anachronism and partisanship – but we can do no other because, Carr wrote, we ‘belong not to the past but to the present’. We have taken to heart Carr’s dictum that one must ‘study the historian before you study [their] facts’. If the historian is limited by his or her subjective world view, then we need as broad a range of people writing history as possible. If history is never neutral, then why not ask questions of it that have previously been marginalised, like how can making space for Indigenous peoples change history, how can we recover the lost lives of women and is natural history actually history – precisely because those subjects matter in the present. The past and the present can and should speak to each other. The sort of histories we get depend on the questions we ask – the oceans in which we choose to fish. 

 

Suzannah Lipscomb is author of The Voices of Nîmes: Women, Sex and Marriage in Early Modern Languedoc (Oxford University Press, 2019), host of the Not Just the Tudors podcast and Professor Emerita at the University of Roehampton.