What Comprises History?

A Synopsis of EH Carr's "What is History?

The study of history involves a process of moving from appearances to a more profound understanding of the essence of interrelated events. The process of history can be charted like a spiral, the line and ita loops each representing elements, understandings of the past and a continuing body of new knowledge.

History is an analysis of the past from a standpoint in a relative present, embedded with a call to action for the future.

History pedagogy can either teach that people can comprehend, act on, and transform their societies--or they cannot.

A historian's duty is to respect the facts, to see to their accuracy, and to bring them into a picture or interpretation proposed. It is not possible to assemble all the facts. One must choose, a very human task. History, then. is the interplay and hierarchical ordering of the objective through the lens of the subjective. So history is a dialogue between a historian and facts, between the past and today--and tomorrow.

Since history is people studying both things and people, it is necessarily subjective, interpretive, and in a world animated by inequality and authoritarianism, political. The choice of facts is imbued with values.

Historians themselves are the products of history, and come with a standpoint. It is therefore important to discover the historian's point of view, which influences her choice and ordering of events, at least.

Individuals are born into historical moments. The more they comprehend their moment, the more they influence history.

Since people are born into moments independent of~their will, and since each moment is likely to be more complex than anyone's consciousness of it, it follows that many actions have unintended consequences.

History is a study of individuals and the process of interactions they have with one another - - and the social forces which rise from their actions- -planned or not.

Great people can act within the context of their moments, but they do not rise from the mists or fall from the sky. They are products and catalysts of their times.

A historian's biases can be understood by her use of hypotheses. One must observe, test, and revise, recognizing always the possibility of further correction.

History seeks the general within the unique. As such, history is useful as a guide, not a predictor of specific events.

Human suffering is intrinsic to history. Hope is found within the detailed study of specific movements of change. History seeks out causes. Every position in history involves a hierarchical grasp of many causes. In ordering causes, labor, sexuality, and the construction of knowledge are key to every society.

All things are interrelated, interpenetrating. Things exist. Things change. Nothing is random. Nothing comes from nothing. There is no finite beginning or end to history.

The historian, studying matter in motion, asks, "Why? What next?"

Rich Gibson, Wayne State University

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