What exactly this curious phrase meant was not immediately clear, since it had never before appeared in print. As Carl Becker rather grumpily remarked in one of the very few reviews anyone ever wrote about the book—the American Historical Review gave it no notice at all—"The phrase may have an accepted meaning in England; but, so far as I know, it has none elsewhere. In fact, I do not recall ever having heard the phrase before. Thirty years later, E.
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What exactly this curious phrase meant was not immediately clear, since it had never before appeared in print. As Carl Becker rather grumpily remarked in one of the very few reviews anyone ever wrote about the book—the American Historical Review gave it no notice at all—"The phrase may have an accepted meaning in England; but, so far as I know, it has none elsewhere.
In fact, I do not recall ever having heard the phrase before. Thirty years later, E. Carr famously joked that although the book "denounced the Whig interpretation over some pages, it did not. Thus given a new lease on life, The Whig Interpretation of History became required reading for most history graduate students for the next quarter century, and not a few undergraduates as well. What was the Whig interpretation of history, and why did Butterfield find it so objectionable? As summarized in his preface, it was "the tendency in many historians to write on the side of Protestants and Whigs, to praise revolutions provided they have been successful, to emphasise certain principles of progress in the past and to produce a story which is the ratification if not the glorification of the present.
Despite his reticence about naming them, Butterfield clearly had in mind such luminaries as Thomas Babington Macaulay, William Stubbs, and G.
Trevelyan as exemplars of this tradition. Such scholars, he said, habitually narrated the English past as a perennial struggle between the friends and enemies of progress, "of which the Protestants and whigs have been the perennial allies while Catholics and tories have perpetually formed obstruction.
It builds its arguments pretty casually, and critics have long noted its internal contradictions. Among the most problematic was its extraordinarily capacious usage of the word "Whig," which it applied indiscriminately not just to members of the Whig party but to anyone writing histories in which something becomes better over time and so is judged A Good Thing.
Thanks in part to Butterfield, we now recognize such narratives as teleological, and we rightly suspect them of doing violence to the past by understanding and judging it with reference to anachronistic values in the present, however dear those values may be to our own hearts.
Butterfield viewed such moral judgments as problematic because they tempt historians not to understand the past on its own terms. The counterpoint he offered to "abridged history" was what he called "technical history": fine-grained analysis that eschews neat heroic formulas in which one group fights for the past while another fights for the future. Historians distill the nearly infinite records of the past in order to impose some semblance of order on what would otherwise feel like overwhelming chaos.
This is all the more true when they seek to write for audiences other than their colleagues, whose patience for historical technicalities far surpasses that of the public. And because nonhistorians often do want to know how history relates to their own lives, there is no evading their demand for narratives that show how the present did indeed emerge from the past.
Whenever historians seek to make their knowledge accessible to a wider world—whether in books, classrooms, museums, videos, websites, or blogs—they unfailingly abridge, simplify, analyze, synthesize, dramatize, and render judgments about why things happened as they did in the past, and why people should still care today.
But they need not commit the worst sins of whiggishness when they do so. The characters in their stories need not wear white or black hats, and will feel more richly human for being understood on their own terms. Even when such characters are viewed as agents of progressive change, they need not be treated as if they were comrades in arms. The path they followed can honestly be seen as a winding one, with many an unexpected twist and turn, to serve as a reminder of the contingencies that prevent change from being inevitable.
Finally, we can be scrupulous in trying not to judge them by standards that would feel unfair even to us if plucked from our own futures and applied to ourselves.
Still, the ambiguously partial praise I offer here is not just for The Whig Interpretation of History but also for the unitalicized and lowercased whig interpretation s of history that the book criticizes. Historians exist to explain the past to the present. Things happened back then. People really did change. Empires rose and fell. New knowledge emerged. People tried to make sense of their lives and struggled to serve their visions of the good. Although such events, ideas, and actions were never simple, and although we need our best technical skills to understand them, the histories we write typically end somewhere different from where they begin.
A new thing emerges by the end of our story that was not there in the beginning. Just so does his work still speak in all its contradictions to this digital age. And just so do I say: two cheers for the whig interpretation of history. William Cronon Univ.
Shelves: classics , history , read-for-school In The Whig Interpretation of History, Herbert Butterfield critiques historians who let their perception of the present influence their study of the past. Butterfield defines the Whig view of history as the theory that we study the past for the sake of the present p. Butterfield argues that historians distort the truth of history when they use sweeping historical generalizations to justify their moral values or imply that history has any one, all-encompassing purpose or meaning. According In The Whig Interpretation of History, Herbert Butterfield critiques historians who let their perception of the present influence their study of the past.
The Whig Interpretation of History
It takes its name from the British Whigs , advocates of the power of Parliament , who opposed the Tories , advocates of the power of the king. Whig history has no direct relation to either the British Whig or American Whig parties and should not be confused with " Whiggism ", which is a political ideology. The term " Whiggery " is ambiguous in contemporary usage: it may either mean party politics and ideology, or a general intellectual approach. Fisher in gave a Raleigh lecture on The Whig Historians, from Sir James Mackintosh to Sir George Trevelyan , he implied that "Whig historian" was adequately taken as a political rather than a progressive or teleological label and this put the concept into play. Blaas, author of the book Continuity and Anachronism, has argued that Whig history itself had lost all vitality by Intellectuals no longer believed the world was automatically getting better and better.