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Introductory Seminar: What Is History?


If `Historiography’ involves the study of historical writing and historical thinking as they have developed through time, then a working definition of `History’ will surely be useful for our own enterprise over the next two terms. The focus of this short, introductory seminar is some of the ways in which the question `what is History?’ has been posed, and some of the answers that have been provided by historians and other scholars. `History’ here is conceived of as a practice or an activity rather than as in its everyday meaning as `the past’. We start (most courses in Historiography do this) with the book that asked the question for the Anglophone, twentieth-century world: E. H. Carr’s What Is History?.


Carr, E. H., What Is History? (London, 1961), 7-30, 87-108

Evans, R., In Defence of History (London, 1997), 75-102

Hughes-Warrington, M., Fifty Key Thinkers on History (London, 2001), 24-31

Jenkins, K., Re-thinking History (London, 1991), 5-26

Southgate, B., History: What and Why? (London, 1996), 12-57

Background Seminar Reading:

Goody, J., The Theft of History (Cambridge, 2006)

History in Focus Website

Jenkins, K., Refiguring History. New Thoughts on an Old Discipline (London, 2003), 59-70

Stedman Jones, G., `From Historical Sociology to Theoretical History’, British Journal of Sociology, 27:3 (1976), 295-305

Tosh, J., The Pursuit of History: Aims Methods and New Directions in the Study of Modern History (London, 2002)

Questions for Seminar Preparation (may also be used as essay titles):

  1. Is there such a thing as a `historical fact’?
  2. Is there a `reality of the past’? What did John Tosh mean by using that phrase?
  3. Gareth Stedman Jones once said that history `is an entirely intellectual operation that takes place in the present and in the head’. Do you agree?
  4. Why study history?

Further Reading:

Appleby, J., et al., Telling the Truth about History (New York, 1994)

Bentley, M., Modern Historiography: An Introduction (London, 1999)

Burke, P. (ed.), History and Historians in the Twentieth Century (Oxford, 2002)

Burke, P., History and Social Theory (Cambridge, 1992)

Elton, G. R., Return to Essentials (Cambridge, 1991)

Elton, G. R., The Practice of History (London, 1969)

Fulbrook, M., Historical Theory (London, 2002)

Gallie, W. B., Philosophy and the Historical Understanding (London, 1964)

Haslam, J., The Vices of Integrity: E.H. Carr, 1892-1982 (London, 1999)

Haslam, J., 'Carr, Edward Hallett (1892-1982)', Oxford DNB (Oxford 2004) [ONLINE]

Hexter, J. H., Reappraisals in History (London, 1961)

Iggers, G. G., New Directions in European Historiography (London, 1985)

Jenkins, K., On ‘What is History?’ From Carr and Elton to Rorty and White (London, 1995)

Jordanova, L., History in Practice (London, 2000)

Marwick, A., The New Nature of History: Knowledge, Evidence, Language (Basingstoke, 2001)

Skinner, Q., ‘Sir Geoffrey Elton and the Practice of History’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 6th ser. (1997), 301-316.

Smith, B., The Gender of History: Men, Women and Historical Practice (Cambridge, Mass., 1998), Intro and chs.3-5

Tosh, J., Historians on History: An Anthology (Harlow, 2000)