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Philosophy of History

In trying to discover “What is History” one would think a good place to start would be with Carr’s book by the same title. Unfortunately my memory of the book is somewhat rusty, so when I went to my notes I was pleased to find that I had indeed written something down from the book. Here are some excerpts:

  1. Carr came to see that relativity was far more impacting than it had been previously imagined and there is no vacuum from which to stand.
  2. The main problem is what is the role of accident in history. Given a long enough scale we can make significant observations even taking humanity itself as a unit. But with the details and individuals as opposed to society and nation it is impossible to determine motivating factors etc…Accidents should not enter to a historians account/hierarchy of significant causes. History is subject to sufficient regularity to merit its study even if they are upset by irregularities from time to time.He opposed emphasis on individuals as elitist because it emphasizes the individual in opposition to an irrelevant background of everyone else, instead he  focused on communal histories. Emphasizing forces outside the individual that drive history. Individuals merely fill roles, the role is more important than the individual. But not to Tolstoy’s extreme position that no individual role.
  3. Carr claims that the facts of the past are a totality of the events which are impossible to synthesize. The facts of history are selected ignorance which help us see past the totality. In this sense all history is contemporary history because it is as we see it because the historian fishes for the kind of information he needs. Carr on p22 tries to strike a middle ground by saying that while the historian should do his utmost to determine the factual accuracy and respect it, he must do so while realizing that they are subjective. There can be no objective history, and we should not want such a history because it is a dead history.
  4. Objective historians should be able to project into the future to give better insights of the past despite being bounded in outlook by immediate present. Historians cannot escape the influence of their time. Carr dismisses the losers of history as such his history is described as elitist.
  5. 27: That elusive entity human nature has varied so much from country to country and century to century that it is difficult not to regard it as an historical phenomenon shaped by prevailing social conditions and conventions. History by individuals about individuals is wrong, the individuals is the product of his society and transmitted knowledge goes through many individuals.
  6. 37: Toynbee after ww1 tried to argue that history was cyclical and he failed. So he rested on it lacking any direction. According to Carr this is the characteristic ideology of a society in decline. History should not focus on individuals and their motives but on the forces that made it unavoidable for them to do so. Great men are products of their times.
  7. 77:  There are no abstract universal standards in history. All values are historically conditioned.81: The study of history is the study of causes, events have a multiplicity of causes. Answers are available of the why in history and as we progress they build on one another, multiply and unify.
  8. 114: facts are not in dispute but it is their selection and interpretation which are. So Carr is not an extreme relativist, the facts are there in the end.117: One historian is better than another if he applies the right standard of significance. Objectivity is rising out of your own context and being able to project into the future. Ie, make interpretations that will hold relevance for longer amounts of time.

The person that comes out in this book is not the forefather of materialist classical realism, as is portrayed in some IR text-books, but rather a relativist, constructivist, historical sociologist. Though Carr politically supported the socialist project when it began – and this brought him into conflict with Isiah Berlin who as an escapee from (I think Hungary) could not stand Carr’s sympathies with a regime which used assassination and mass punishment – he did so in reaction to the tendencies of British academics to view history as cyclical thereby justifying their own decline and cheapening the rise of Russia and other countries. Additionally, in this book he clearly shows that he has a sensitivity for the subjectivity of historical analysis, and one would presume he would not withhold that judgment from his own analysis.

Carr in practice however was a historian’s historian. Meaning his 14 volumes on the early history of the USSR were conducted with as if positivism, and one would think with genuine Rankean conviction in its meticulous attention to sources, documents, and its factual presentation. (to be honest I did not read any of the 14 volumes of Carr’s work on the USSR but I read that it was positivist in a secondary source) But he also wrote What is History.

On the down-side, while this book does provide us with Carr’s answers to the questions that history poses, it faisl to provide us with an overview of the options and solutions available for these problems. So it is one solution which is presented and that is Carr’s as if positivism, and limited objectivity. A relative relativism.

Let’s take a step back then and look at the major problems in trusting work presented as history.

In outlining  the problems of history I find it useful to distinguish between the events of the past and the information we have on the past today. So the events of the past account for every minute detail that ever happened (the past will be taken here to mean 10 years before present times) collected and accurately documented, including the motivations and ideas and social customs. Basically a one to one scale recreation of what occurred.

If this is the ideal state of knowledge of the past which historians aspire to, these only present their primary material. Historians also extrapolate from this information to create analytical explanations for human behavior and the outcomes of historical events. So while we know what happened we do not know why or how it happened. Enter multi-causal analysis of events. So historians are  really sociologists who manipulate historical data into narratives to make sense of outcomes. Though they tend to be detailed and interested in factual accuracy over generality, they cannot list all the facts, for that would take up countless volumes, instead they can choose and whittle facts down, ignoring most of the information so that they present i would dare say 1% of the information that we would have if we knew all past events absolutely, in order to make sense of historical outcome. The fact that a farmer killed a pig on a specific day cannot factor into the analytical causes of the french revolution (well unless you show it to be the case) and therefore much information will necessarily be dropped out. To be fair if we were mathematicians we would modify the number above from one percent to 0% since the amount of information  present approaches infinity in this ideal understanding of past events, therefore necessarily what we choose from it will be an infinitely small percentage of what actually happened, hence 0.

But there are two problems, the first is that we do not have all the information of the past. We do not  know the events of the past on a one to one scale. The second problem is that even that information which we do have has to be whittled down. So to disagree with Carr it is not only the interpretation of the facts which I find debatable, but the facts themselves.

In other times I came to the conclusion that history is nothing but subjective accounts of an incomplete past, especially global history. I dealt with the problem by assuming that as long as we study the period after 1950, when we begin having corroborated records from multiple accounts which remain in popular memory (which itself may not be accurate) we can start referring to some form of history for understanding the present. A good guide would be to go only as far back as the presence of daily nwspapers in the domestic language.

But clearly that is a disservice to sociological analysis which relies on history, surely we cannot disregard all knowledge of the past, whether factual or analytical (but  especially factual) as suspect and ill fit for academic use. While this point is valid I do not see a way around it at present until I become more confident in the sources of historical accounts in places outside of Europe for periods spanning longer than a hundred years. Maybe I am Eurocentric, I mean there were records taken by Chinese states, Egyptians, Greeks, Assyrians, but I do not understand how we can extrapolate from some secondary texts, and archaeological finds to create an imprint of world history, society and customs.

Why don’t I clarify after this lengthy and indulgent (rambling?) introduction:

1. The information that we have of the ancient and more recent past comes from secondary documents and archaeological digs which are not authoritative sources on the mannerisms and events of the past.

1.a.  Certain historical regions are disproportionately lit up in the past because of climate, culture or other factors. So Jewish religious texts are relatively well preserved because it is part of the religion. (though this does not mean they are any more historically accurate). Egyptian ruins and texts are far better preserved because of the way they buried their dead and because their dry climate was perfect to preserve paper. Assyrian paper was mostly lost to the weather. Until recently it was thought there was no paper in Assyria simply because none of it survived. Likewise the destruction  of the library of Baghdad and the fire in Alexandria means that most  texts were missing.

1.b. Historians often mistake what has remained with what was present, in actuality what remains to us today is but a miniscule portion of what was present in the past.

1.c. Archaeological digs are poor sources of information to tell us authoritatively about the ways individuals lived in the past. This is not to detract from archaeology but historians use their findings in ways which are uncritical of their interpretation (Much like IR uses history).  While textual information and mythology supplements our understanding of how people in the past lived, there are not historically accurate  and merely reflect on their author. The story of the average man is lost, all we have is the story of the writer who is usually clergy or aristocrat.

1.d. Europe’s history is the most disproportionately lit because the academic field of history developed there and because they begin their history from the middle ages which is quite recent and therefore more accessible to us than older periods outside of Europe. Much disservice is done to the indigenous populations of Europe before Christianity spread there.

1.e. This means history is not an account of the past, it is an account of what was left. This makes it inadequate to base theories of contemporary IR on.

Now moving on to the second set of problems. Historians use this limited and already circumscribed set of information and attempt to create analytical categories. Putting aside the fact that analytical categories will necessarily be inadequate given that the information available already limits their conclusions. Assuming that  they all have access to the same information, and that we overlook the impact of instruments on the results of historical surveys (even ignoring the impact of politics). Historians still exist in the present, they grew up in the present, and they think in the present. That means that even if they had all the information available, they would still be incapable of traversing the cultural and social boundaries between time periods. Other scholars have argued that there are even epistemological limits to our knowledge of the past. Therefore any information we have of the past is actually a projection of the present onto the past.

2. Those studying the past cannot divorce themselves from the present.

2.a. We can never know the past even if we have all the information possible.

2.b. Differences in analysis of the past will necessarily rest in differences of understandings of the present.

2.c. Studying the past therefore only brings value in as far as it uncovers our present ideas and interests. But since History is used to win arguments, and since most historical anecdotes are chosen by the one making these arguments, perhaps it is best to avoid the use of history to make points about the present.

2.d. The limits of our study of the past stop with the limits of the system we inhabit. While the dates of this system have varied from those placing it 5000 years in the past to 500 to one hundred, we cannot understand systems beyond our own.

2.e. The only way to conduct good IR with a sociologically responsible attitude is to avoid the use of cases from outside systems and limit our study to our own system. Because we inhabit our own system we are better fit or at least capable of relating to it. Therefore Presentism in Political Science is warranted.

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