Can we say anything for sure in history?
Given that history is constantly being rewritten, and that a historian cannot, in the words of the historian EH Carr, ‘divorce himself from the outlook and interests of his age’, can we talk about what really happened in history? Can we access the truth about what happened in the past?
We have to be careful here. It is too easy to give up, and answer ‘no’ to that question, taking a relativist position, and arguing that we will always be viewing history through our own eyes. It’s easy to say, in the best tradition of Nietzsche, that there is no truth.
In fact, not even E.H. Carr said this, despite being portrayed by others as an extreme relativist, and opponent of objectivist approaches as typified by Geoffrey Elton. As usual with differences of opinion, the conflict between these two historians was based more on a misunderstanding of what they were saying, rather than genuinely opposing views. Although Carr argued that it is hard to escape your own paradigm, he said that it was the role of the historian to be a ‘midwife to the facts’, and these facts appear by a vigorous investigation of the evidence.
Carr stressed, this investigation involves an empirical application of knowledge. As he put it himself, objectivity in history occurs when the historian has a capacity to rise above the limited vision of his own situation in society and history [and] project his vision into the future in such a way as to give him a more profound and more lasting insight into the past than can be attained by those historians whose outlook is entirely bounded by their own immediate situation.
History as a way of knowing, not an area of knowledge
In other words, we should see history as a process rather than a body of knowledge, as a way of knowing rather than an area of knowledge. Again, Carr helps us to understand this, when he says that it is the job of the historian to be involved in a constant dialogue with the evidence.
This process is a cumulative one, and our efforts must combine with historians who came before us, and ones who we know will follow. Truth may ultimately be an impossible goal, but by combining our efforts with others, we will travel further along the path towards it. History is therefore provisional, and remains so until the next layer of interpretation is applied to it.
The historian Professor Alun Munslow put this in context in his recent reappraisal of Carr’s work. He pointed out that the idea that we cannot divorce ourselves from the outlooks of our age isn’t a hindrance to accessing a more truthful picture of the past. Putting this in context, he used the example of how women were hardly mentioned in works of history during most of the 20th century. Along came the sexual revolution in the 1960s and 1970s, and research influenced by a more emancipated view of women (often by women themselves) led to the role of women being re-examined and incorporated much more into history. Before this period, our empirical knowledge of women wouldn’t have helped much, as it was based on being accustomed to their subservient role in society. But after they were offered the same freedoms as men, and proved themselves more than able to meet the challenges associated with these, their whole position in history had to be re-evaluated.
In other words, Carr and those who subscribe to his ideas believe that the historian should serve the evidence, rather than the evidence the historian. To put this another way, it is the historian who interprets the evidence in such as way as to make it true, rather than the evidence simply backing up what his argument is. Carr said that evidence was like a bag: without anything in it, it lies flat on the floor. It is only by filling it with things do we make it stand upright. The historian’s empirical knowledge is what makes the evidence stand upright.