This week, The Essay marks fifty years since the publication in 1961 of What is History? by the historian E.H. Carr. Five academics consider the connection between Carr's work and their work today.
E.H. Carr was born in 1892 and died in 1982. He was a notable historian of Russia and a well-regarded writer on International Relations. But What is History? remains his most famous work.
When What is History? was published it was arguably the most influential text to examine the role of the historian for a whole generation of budding historians, asking them to scrutinize the way they shaped the past. Today, the book remains a key text for many historians who came of age in the 1960s and is still widely read by history undergraduates. But the book is also controversial and many historians find Carr's views outdated and dangerous to the practice of History.
In the fourth episode of the series, Niall Ferguson, bestselling author of histories including Civilization: The West and the Rest, and editor of Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals, discusses the importance of asking "what if?" questions of history.
Ferguson finds much to be alarmed about in E.H. Carr's work because of its dismissal of the field of historical enquiry known as counterfactual history, which presents "what if?" alternatives as a way of ascertaining the relative importance of actual historical events.
In his essay, Ferguson attacks Carr's work for its damaging effect on a generation of students who were discouraged from asking "what if?" and explores why it is so crucial that Historians use the counterfactual tools at their disposal.
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