Feature Carr What Is History?

What is history 8: EH Carr History as Progress

In Books, The rest by tony2 Comments

ORT_Logo   Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony,  1 July 2018

My what is history series somewhat naively perhaps looks at history from the broad perspective of what processes an intelligent naked ape might go through to develop civilisation.

From that perspective the study of human history should also consider the external forces, including geography, environment, disease and natural disasters that have shaped the development of humanity. At the present time climate change makes this approach both pertinent and urgent.

The approach is not meant to replace mainstream histories, merely in the new era of big data, storage and retrieval to add to them. And, to perhaps provide a different flavour to the study of humanity.

The articles in the What is History? series are: Introduction, 2 Sleep Patterns, 3 The Medieval Mind, 4 Love,  5  EH Carr Historians & their facts, 6  Religion, 7 EH Carr Causation in History, 8 EH Carr History as Progress, 9 Guns, Germs and Steel: Overview, 10 Polynesia A Natural Experiment of History, 11 World Economic History, 12 References from Guns, Germs and Steel and 13 World History and Big History with other articles to come.

What is History 8 by EH Carr: The next two Lectures or Chapters 5 and 6

History as Progress & The Widening Horizon


In What is History: Sleep Patterns we found that what we view as normal wasn’t necessarily the same in other periods. Sleep patterns were quite different before the coming of electric and gas lighting. Similarly the view of history has changed as well.

The two brilliant lectures in EH Carr’s What is History on the historian and his facts and causation were covered in the two previous articles: What is History 5: EH Carr Historians & their Facts and What is History 7: Causation in History covering EH Carr’s earlier lectures 1 to 4 in the book.

The current lecture 5 on History as Progress is perhaps Carr’s most brave and modern chapter in the book. While speculative, it raises issues that we still need to deal with, both in our understanding of history and our current understanding of what civilisation means. As such, the topic needs to be confronted and not marginalised.

E.H. Carr What is history? 1961

Progress in History

The changing view of History

The ancients were basically unhistorical in Asia, Greece and Rome, that is, basically uninterested in the future or the past. EH Carr says:

Poetic visions of a brighter future took the form of visions of a return to a golden age of the past — a cyclical view which assimilated the processes of history to the processes of nature.

…It was the Jews and the Christians, who introduced an entirely new element by postulating a goal to which the historical process is moving — the teleological view of history [towards an end or purpose]. History thus acquired a meaning and a purpose at the expense of losing its secular character.

This was also the medieval view of history.

The Renaissance restored the classic view of an anthropocentric [human focused] world and the primacy of reason, but for the pessimistic classical view of the future substituted an optimistic view derived from the Jewish-Christian tradition.

…History became progress towards the goal of the perfection of man’s estate on earth.

These ideas in Britain reached a pinnacle in the 19th century:

The cult of progress reached its climax at the moment when British prosperity, power and self-confidence were at their height; and British writers and British historians were amongst the most ardent votaries of the cult.

Carr says that in 1910 Dampier, a tutor in his college, still continued the trend but by 1920 it was in retreat:

The hypothesis of progress has been refuted. The decline of the west has become so familiar a phrase that quotation marks are no longer required.

Carr gives a delightful quote to the contrary by AJP Taylor whom he says gives us fascinating glimpse into Oxford academic life:

All this talk about the decline of civilisation, he writes ‘means only that university professors used to have domestic servants and now do their own washing up.’

Nevertheless, by 1960 it was only a brave man who would talk about progress in history, but EH Carr does just this.

Progress in History post 1960

Carr Biography in Spanish

Carr Biography in Spanish


Progress in history is an inevitable part of understanding and writing history. We cannot escape it.


Carr begins by examining four things about which progress in history is and is not.

1 Progress and Evolution

Carr thinks that the equating of progress with biological evolution which began in the enlightenment and intensified with Darwin is a confusion.

From my own perspective as a biologist, there was a time when evolution was considered progressive but no longer. The only progress obvious in biological evolution is a trivial one, in that biology begins with microbes and unicellular life and therefore evolution does involve the development of more complex forms. But, as Stephen Jay Gould frequently said complex life is only the tail of the biological curve. Even today, most life in numbers and biomass is unicellular.

Carr uses the example of biological inheritance (which is not Lamarckian) compared with social acquisition (which is Lamarckian — acquired characteristics), which is the source of progress in history. They are not similar.

2 Progress without finite beginning or end

Carr emphasises that we need not and should not conceive progress as having a finite beginning or end. He contends that this was a problem with the previous understanding of progress in history, particularly in the hubris of 19th century Britain. Similarly history did not begin with Mesopotamia or the Nile Valley or any other convenient society. (One presumes that Carr would have strongly disagreed with Francis Fukuyama’s book The End of History and the Last Man contending that Western liberal democracy was that finite end point.)

3 Progress as an unbroken straight line

…No sane person ever believed in a kind of progress which advanced in an unbroken straight line without reverses and deviations or breaks in continuity, so that even the sharpest reverse is not necessarily fatal to the belief.

4 Improvements in acquired social assets, or social progress

In a more controversial sense of progress Carr states:

The people who struggle, say, to extend civil rights to all, or to reform penal practice, or to remove inequalities of race or wealth, are consciously seeking to do just those things: they are not consciously seeking to ‘progress’, to realise some historical ‘law’ or ‘hypothesis’ of progress. It is the historian who applies their actions to his hypothesis of progress. But this does not invalidate the concept of progress.

EH Carr

EH Carr

Carr is struggling here to define something nebulous, but also real in overview. It is not only the historian, but the social, economic and even broader thinkers who can see this type of progress over time, but it is hard to pin down the specifics, except in context. To my more modern mind one immediately leaps to the concepts of ideals and values, but they can be negative as well as positive, especially ideals. Carr himself speaks of values later (in the last three pages) but his thoughts add further complexity rather than clarity to this summary.

Carr says:

The notion of a finite and clearly definable goal of progress in history, so often postulated by nineteenth-century thinkers has proved inapplicable and barren.

He says of the new progress he is espousing as:

Progress is an abstract term; … But I shall be content with the possibility of unlimited progress — or progress subject to no limits that we can or need envisage…

… Nor do I know how, without some such concept of progress, society can survive.

This is a brave but necessary call for a non-finite view of historical progress and is probably undefinable in concrete terms, even as we recognise its potential.

This leads into murkier waters. I think Carr is struggling to find better answers than he has, but I also think that he is at least charting a course for others to follow and providing reasonable guidance on the topics raised. I think we have come further on the path to answering these questions, since Carr; and often in other disciplines than history.

I’ll merely summarise some of the issues in a series of quotations that follow the course of his thinking.



We can’t escape the idea of objectivity. Even if it is impossible to achieve.


This brings me to the to the famous crux of objectivity in history. The word itself is misleading and question-begging.

He continues:

The facts of history cannot be truly objective, since they become facts of history only in virtue of the significance attached to them by the historian. Objectivity in history — if we are still to use the conventional term — cannot be an objectivity of fact, but only of relation, of the relation between fact and interpretation, between past, present and future.

… But the concept of absolute truth is also not appropriate to the world of history — or, I suspect to the world of science.

EH Carr What Is History?

EH Carr What Is History?

Professor Butterfield says: …the only absolute is change. Carr in a convoluted way says this leads to rejecting the relativist view that one interpretation is as good as another.

He says, referring once more to his idea above of progress in history:

It is this sense of direction in history which alone enables us to order and interpret the events of the past — the task of the historian — and to liberate and organize human energies in the present with a view to the future — the task of the statesman, the economist, and the social reformer. But the process itself remains progressive and dynamic.

This is a gloriously broad view of the idea of progress in history and makes Carr’s vision sufficiently creative and generative of new ideas that it should not be dismissed lightly.

What do we mean he says when we praise a historian for being objective, for applying the [appropriate] standard of significance? Carr says, we mean:

  1. that he has the capacity to rise above the limited vision of his own situation in society and in history…
  2. that he has the capacity to project his vision into the future in such a way as to give him a more profound and lasting insight into the past than can be obtained by those historians whose outlook is entirely bounded by their own situation.

Although Carr is grappling with something almost intangible, he is almost inventing the type of arguments of social psychologists and sociologists to contend with accelerating change and to develop methods of predicting the future, in later decades of the twentieth century. As such, Carr’s bravery in attempting to define these issues appears quite modern. He is also at the same time providing a cogent critique of the over-relativism and barrenness of post modernism.

Values and progress

A final word on History as Progress and the previous four lectures

Carr has become slightly less lucid and certainly less specific as the lectures continue. This lecture on Progress in History is perhaps the most speculative but it also seems and feels the most modern. He is trying to help us to light the way through the fog ahead. Although he is not entirely successful, he is trying valiantly and providing value in the attempt.

In 2011, History Magazine towards its 60th anniversary asked historians to comment on their favourite works of history of the last 60 years. Richard J Evans author of In Defence of History, 1997 said:

Finally, among books that make us rethink what we are doing as historians, I’d go for E.H. Carr’s What is History? (1961), wrong-headed in many ways, but which raises as no other book had done before the crucial questions of relativism, objectivity, truth and knowledge in the study and writing of history and does so in a way that is enjoyable as well as provocative, which no doubt is why it is still being read today.

I think that this is fair comment.

The Widening Horizon

EH Carr What Is History? My Copy

EH Carr What Is History? My Copy

In Carr’s final lecture The Widening Horizon he feels it necessary to generalise on twentieth century history and to make predictions for the future. Having been involved in these type of predictions with groups for over twenty years and with the hindsight of nearly sixty years having passed since Carr, he doesn’t do a bad job of it. Nevertheless, the lecture is highly unsatisfactory as a follow-up to the other five.

Carr himself gives the reason for the unsatisfactory nature of his predictions at the beginning of the lecture, when he reminds us of his metaphor of the historian:

We sometimes speak of the course of history as a ‘moving procession’. The metaphor is fair enough, provided it does not tempt the historian to think of himself as an eagle surveying the scene from a lonely crag or as a V.I.P. at the saluting base. Nothing of the kind! The historian is just another dim figure trudging along in another part of the procession.

He is trudging dimly along, not an eagle on its eyrie.

Nevertheless, he still makes some interesting assertions and wittily criticises contemporary historians including Professor Trevor-Roper, which is perhaps why Trevor-Roper was so critical of Carr later. Academics do not like ridicule.

Carr also criticises his own university Cambridge for a narrowness of focus in its curriculum over the past 40 years.

He particularly says with regard to its ignoring of China:

What may well be regarded in future as the greatest historical work produced in Cambridge during the past decade has been written entirely outside the history department and without any assistance from it: I refer to Dr Joseph Needham’s Science and Civilization in China.

[For more information on Needham refer to Further Information below.]


The criticism could also still apply today, but this would also apply to almost any history faculty at any university, because of specialisation and the removal of other areas of history into other faculties. The genie has escaped from the bottle and academic history today is where you find it. The integration of historical studies may be something for the distant future.

In conclusion

We have finished with EH Carr and his views on history. I agree with Richard J Evans above that despite some irritations Car covers the crucial questions of relativism, objectivity, truth and knowledge in the study and writing of history that had not been done comprehensively before and perhaps not since. I haven’t yet read Evan’s book In Defence of History, 1997.

I also don’t have problems with Carr attempting to navigate a middle course through some thorny topics, nor his perhaps over-ambitious attempt to codify progress in history, because of a need for optimism and values.

Coming from a scientific background, I have no problem that Carr’s views are not absolute nor cut and dried but suffer from some vagueness and lack of precision. The sciences pretend to a more rigorous definition of approach, but most scientists have little interest in the general methodology or philosophy or the history of method in science and most don’t know that science suffers from some of the same problems that historiography or the historical method does.

This does not mean that the results of science are not rigorous nor the result of constant testing and complaint. Continuous peer review is another strength of science, but it also has problems as well. Science, mathematics and statistics are the best we have and are certainly not open to debate by those with no such rigorous ability. I should probably write about the scientific method in a future article.

(The previous What is History? articles have been 1 Introduction, 2 Sleep Patterns 3, The Medieval Mind, 4 Love,  5  EH Carr Historians & their Facts, 6 Religion and 7: EH Carr Causation.)

Key words: EH Carr, What is History, Historians and their facts, Causation in history, History as progress, Widening horizon, Cambridge University History,ancients unhistorical, AJP Taylor Oxford, Progress, Progress without finite beginning or end, Objectivity, Values, Herbert Butterfield, Richard J Evans, Hugh Trevor-Roper, Joseph Needham, Simon Winchester

Further information

History Today Magazine

The Historian’s Historians 1997

Finally, among books that make us rethink what we are doing as historians, I’d go for E.H. Carr’s What is History? (1961), wrong-headed in many ways, but which raises as no other book had done before the crucial questions of relativism, objectivity, truth and knowledge in the study and writing of history and does so in a way that is enjoyable as well as provocative, which no doubt is why it is still being read today.

from Richard J Evans.

Another version

Another version

His book is Richard J Evans In Defence of History 1997. This book received an immense amount of flack particularly from various postmodernists or streams of postmodernism. I haven’t read it yet, so that I can’t comment.

Wikipedia on Richard J Evans

Hugh Trevor-Roper

Carr merely quotes Trevor-Roper’s own remark: when radicals scream that victory is indubitably theirs, sensible conservatives knock them on the nose, in a negative context.

Wikipedia on Hugh Trevor-Roper

The Faculty of History at Cambridge University

Wikipedia on The Faculty of History at Cambridge University

The Faculty of History at Cambridge University

The Faculty of History at Cambridge University

Joseph Needham Science and Civilisation in China

Joseph NeedhamScience and Civilisation in China initiated in 1954.

Wikipedia on Joseph Needham

Wikipedia on Science and Civilisation in China

The Needham Research Institute

I came across Joseph Needham for the first time through Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, 1997. (I’ll elaborate on this in my next What is History article which will be the introduction to Guns, Germs and Steel.) On chasing up on Diamond’s references over time, I looked up Science and Civilisation in China at The Australian National University’s Menzies Library.

Stumbling upon a row of twenty-seven encyclopaedia style books which encompass the seven volumes of Science and Civilisation in China was an amazing experience. I can’t say that I’ve read that much. Although I did make it a practice over a period of months to come in and browse the index and read some of the chapters within various books.

I heartily encourage you to try it yourself someday. Much later I borrowed a copy of Simon Winchester’s book from a friend and thoroughly enjoyed it. Joseph Needham was one of those strange and obsessive English eccentric academics one comes across occasionally.

The Man Who Loved China by Simon Winchester

Simon Winchester The Man Who Loved China 2008

I couldn’t find any great media reviews, so I turned to Goodreads: I thought Will Byrnes, Cecily and Trevor gave solid, long reviews. Enough to arouse your curiosity.

Goodreads Reviews on The Man Who Loved China

Wikipedia on Simon Winchester




  1. Thoroughly enjoyed your introduction to Carr . Will go back to reading history with a fresh mind.

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