Monday, August 29, 2005

The Causes of History

What is History?
by E.H. Carr
Chapter Four: Causation in History
In chapter four of What is History?, E.H. Carr postulates the causes of history, stating that "the study of history is a study of causes." In essence, the cause of history is the why question that historians must ask when dealing with the historic fabric. In the classical tradition, many early historians rejected the necessity of causation, feeling that the event itself was essential enough to be studied. In the modern thread, Montesquieu, writing in the 18th century, commented that the causes of history are responsible for the movements in history (the rise and fall of civilizations, in the general sense). In the late 19th and 20th centuries, many historians have rejected the why in favor of a systematic narrative that approaches how history happened rather than why history happened. In response to this new tradition, Carr emphasizes three characteristics of causation that historians should follow: 1.) Assign several causes to the event (do not be limiting) 2.) Prioritize the causes (major-minor) and 3.) work through simplifications to provide a clean narrative.
The second part of chapter four deals with the determinist school of thought and the chance school of thought. The determinist school of thought states that all events are inevitable and beyond human control. The chance school states that history is a string of accidents and "might have beens.
What school should the historian follow? Is history preordained by events? Is history more accidental? A more appropriate question might be Does man make his times or do the times make the man?
I think that the why is the most important part of the historians craft. The why makes the history worth investigating, it tells us the importance of knowing about the past.

1 Comments:

At 8:00 PM, Blogger Ansley said...

I agree, Joey. I'm offering some thoughts on Carr's chapter 2: "Society and the Individual." Carr's point about the chicken nor the egg being plausible without both in existence is an interesting way of using the "does the chicken or the egg come first" question. Carr relates this question to the individual, who doesn't exist without society; society and the individual are inseparable and are not opposites. John Donne once said: "No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main."
Carr is right to assert that a person doesn't exist before being "brought together." Otherwise, a person might have no more brain capacity than a feral child--those who are unfortunately kept from society without a choice in the matter. It's interesting that the more civilized the person or society, the more individualistic they are inclined to become.
Nonetheless, a society cannot develop without the individual nor the individual without society. Individuals mold societies and societies mold individuals.
Carr's aspect of individuals came from the Renaissance in so far as the individual began consciously considering him/herself an individual at that time. Carr fails to mention, however, that men and women surely knew that they were individuals before the Renaissance--that they were ONE of a race, class, family, etc. Without question, perhaps influential thinker(s) from the Renaissance influenced a more advanced grasp of the idea of being ONE of many.
As Carr states, individualism has been viewed as the "keynote of human progress" as well as the impetus for the onset of such ideas as capitalism. Carr cites individualism as a "normal process of [an] advancing civilization." Carr speaks in Chapter V of the somewhat give-and-take relationship of history--that there are significant losses for every gain in society; individualism can be viewed in this light as well. Because along with the onset of individualism-spurred capitalism, for example, came such collective forms of production as the factories. Carr points out child labor--only one of the misfortunes of this form of production. And I'm sure there are no doubt good things to come from factories.
Concerning the study of history, historians (and nonhistorians) have resorted to contributing certain individuals with more credit than deserved regarding certain historical happenings. Also, there is a lack of study in people as a collective group because of the cult of the individual. As Carr points out, however, this tendency "mirrors" the society that presently practices it. It is the historian's task, in fact, to understand the past and future in light of his or her own present. Thus, if a particular group of historians conveys a belief in the cult of the individual, then Carr will excuse them for sure.

 

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