Originating from a series of lectures given by Carr in 1961, “What is History?” offers an illuminating introduction to historical theory. In just 150 pages Carr’s discussion moves elegantly from the role of the historian and the facts that they employ through to the nature of history as a discipline. He discusses, for example, whether history should be classified as an art, a science or a social science.
It’s origin as a series of lectures gives Carr’s book a fluidity and fluency that make it highly accessible. Carr navigates potentially complex theory with wit and metaphor, presenting his arguments in clear and simple terms. Indeed his tenet that students of history should “study the historian before you begin to study the facts” is followed by a beautiful metaphor: the historian is presented as a fisherman, the facts as fish in an ocean, the resulting “catch” or work of history produced, a result of where the fisherman chooses to fish and which tackle he chooses to use. In other words Carr argues that history is inherently interpretation.
Some of Carr’s ideas may have become somewhat outdated in the fifty or so years which have followed the publication of the first edition of “What is History?”. Yet some of his basic arguments still hold direct relevance to the practice of history today. His condemnation of judging historical figures by the standards of the present offers an immediate example.
Admittedly Cannadine’s “What Is History Now?” and R. J. Evans’ “In Defence of History” offer more recent explorations in historiography. Yet it is Carr’s work, which fundamentally shook how people thought of history, which offers the most accessible and most useful introduction to the theory of historical practice.