What Is History?: A Reflection Pt.1


Interpretations of Historical Fact

I tentatively title this “Pt.1” as this is merely a train of thought following what I have read so far of E. H. Carr’s What Is History?; that is, I have only read the first lecture so far and will probably comment on the rest when I get around to it. The first lecture is entitled “The Historian and His Facts”, and it offers a perspective on history I hadn’t considered before (and that I agree with to an extent), as well as talking about a point I’ve written about previously – albeit much less succinctly than Carr – and that is how history is “an unending dialogue between the present and the past.”

A couple of days ago I wrote a piece briefly mentioning a couple of the reasons I believed history was important when discussing the present day. The first was to draw comparisons between different people and events throughout history – be it recent, modern, or earlier – to ascertain what is happening (and indeed will happen) today in relation to the lessons we can learn from the past. To use the US and Latin America as my go-to example, when you consider the history between those two regions and combine it with current events, anticipating a coup attempt in Venezuela is hardly a surprising conclusion to make.

What Carr presents is a compelling view of history as simply the interpretation of historical facts selected by the historian and presented in a particular way. An example of this would be the differences between a Christian missionary from the early 1900’s and an Arab nationalist from, say, the 1950’s writing about European colonisation in the Middle East. The missionary and the Arab would draw upon the same historical facts, but would select and interpret them differently from each other. The missionary, for example, would see a push from the native peoples to prevent European imperialist and religious goals and see such events as the decline of Western influence. The Arab, at a later date, would be looking at this history at a time when Arab nationalism was on the rise and the independence of Arab nations from Britain and France was achieved. They would see these events as the first steps to overcoming oppression and the requisition of their autonomy and rights.

Both of these interpretations, as well as the myriad of others that exist or will exist in the future, according to Carr’s statement, are perfectly legitimate and that “one interpretation is as good as another”. He concludes this particular point by acknowledging, therefore, there is no such thing as an ‘objective interpretation’. As such, to continue my example, the Western reader will be more exposed to the interpretation of the missionary than that of the Arab; the reverse would be the case for a modern Arab in the Middle East. From the same historical facts, two vastly different perspectives are conceived (put simply; in reality, there are many perspectives). He further acknowledges below that such interpretations can be used for a particular purpose, to which he alludes to the differences in Soviet and anti-Soviet Union writings painting one side positively and the other negatively, a contemporary issue at the time the lectures were presented.

From this, as Carr explains and I had previously believed already, a true historian should write within his or her intended theme/interpretation, but still include all knowable facts so as to avoid an overly selective and potentially misleading depiction of history. A (probably poor) example of this would be my own writings in opposition to the current [Australian] government. While the current Parliamentary disgrace we have leaves much to be desired, I would be insolent to suggest that Australians, as a whole, have it ‘tough’ when, compared to the majority of the world, we are actually in the more desirable position. I could write the bleakest outlook on Australia at this point in time and still eagerly recognise how favourable it is to America, or in turn how (even under Trump) America would be favourable to Egypt.

My interpretation of current events here is dissident because there are improvements that can and should be made for the betterment of everyone, but that is not mutually exclusive to an interpretation that represents us as a preferable country to live in. The objective historical facts in these two writings would be exactly the same, but the presentation, whether for purpose or theme, is different.


Read Pt.2 here

Previous piece: Drugs Are a Health Issue, Not a Criminal One

13 thoughts on “What Is History?: A Reflection Pt.1

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