From the President. William Cronon Sep 1, Eighty years have passed since a young Cambridge don named Herbert Butterfield published in a slender volume entitled The Whig Interpretation of History. 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.
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Butterfield turned increasingly to historiography and man's developing view of the past. Butterfield was a devout Christian and reflected at length on Christian influences in historical perspectives. Butterfield thought that individual personalities were more important than great systems of government or economics in historical study. His Christian beliefs in personal sin, salvation and providence were a great influence in his writings, a fact he freely admitted.
At the same time, Butterfield's early works emphasized the limits of a historian's moral conclusions, "If history can do anything it is to remind us that all our judgments are merely relative to time and circumstance".
Butterfield was born in Oxenhope in Yorkshire and was raised a devout Methodist , which he remained for life. Despite his humble origins, receiving his education at the Trade and Grammar School in Keighley , in he won a scholarship to study at Peterhouse, Cambridge , graduating with a BA in , followed by an MA four years later. Butterfield was a fellow at Cambridge from —79 and in the s, he was a fellow of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey.
Butterfield served as editor of the Cambridge Historical Journal from to and was knighted in Butterfield's main interests were historiography , the history of science , 18th century constitutional history, Christianity and history as well as the theory of international politics.
As a deeply religious Protestant, Butterfield was highly concerned with religious issues, but he did not believe that historians could uncover the hand of God in history.
At the height of the Cold War , he warned that conflicts between self-righteous value systems could be catastrophic:. Butterfield's book, The Whig Interpretation of History , became a classic for history students and is still widely read. The " Whig interpretation of history " is now a general label applied to various historical interpretations.
Butterfield found the Whig interpretation of history objectionable, because it warps the past to see it in terms of the issues of the present and attempts to squeeze the contending forces of the past into a form that reminds us of ourselves. Butterfield argued that the historian must seek the ability to see events as they were perceived by those who lived through them. Butterfield wrote that "Whiggishness" is too handy a "rule of thumb He also wrote about how simple pick-and-choose history misses the point, "Very strange bridges are used to make the passage from one state of things to another; we may lose sight of them in our surveys of general history, but their discovery is the glory of historical research.
History is not the study of origins; rather it is the analysis of all the mediations by which the past was turned into our present". We are all of us exultant and unrepentant whigs. Those who, perhaps in the misguided austerity of youth, wish to drive out that whig interpretation, that particular thesis which controls our abridgment of English history, are sweeping a room which humanly speaking cannot long remain empty.
They are opening the door for seven devils which, precisely because they are newcomers, are bound to be worse than the first. We, on the other hand, will not dream of wishing it away, but will rejoice in an interpretation of the past which has grown up with us, has grown up with the history itself, and has helped to make the history The whig interpretation came at exactly the crucial moment and, whatever it may have done to our history, it had a wonderful effect on English politics Butterfield's book Christianity and History , asks if history provides answers to the meaning of life, answering in the negative: .
Vickers considers the book a late example of the earliest stage of modern analysis of the history of Renaissance magic in relation to the development of science, when magic was largely dismissed as being "entertaining but irrelevant". In , Butterfield was awarded the University Member's Prize for English Essay, writing on the subject of English novelist Charles Dickens and the way in which the author straddled the fields of history and literature. Also in , Butterfield won the Prince Consort Prize for a work on the problem of peace in Europe between and At the same time, he was given the Seeley Medal.
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Oxenhope , Yorkshire. Sawston , Cambridgeshire. Harold Temperley . Thomas Kuhn . Kuhn , The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2nd ed. Retrieved 29 July The London Gazette Supplement. There have been reprints and revisions in , , , , , and Occult and scientific mentalities in the Renaissance. The historical novel: an essay. Retrieved 26 July Herbert Butterfield: Historian as Dissenter.
Yale University Press. The Peace Tactics of Napoleon, The University Press. The Whig Interpretation of History. The Englishman and His History. Archon Books. Lord Acton. Historical Assn. History and human relations. Liberty in the modern world. Ryerson Press. Christianity in European History. Christianity, diplomacy and war. Abingdon-Cokesbury Press. CUP Archive. George III and the historians. The Origins of History. New York: Basic Books. Historians of Europe.
Evans Julia P. Salwyn Schapiro Paul W. Henri Pirenne Sophie de Schaepdrijver. Donald Adamson Robert C. Richard Drayton Gerald S. Graham Vincent T. Harlow Wm. Roger Louis P. Marshall David Quinn D. Kesar Ordin Mikhail Borodkin. Craig Richard J. John Komlos. Martin J. Lee James Francis Lydon F. Lorenzo Arnone Sipari R.
Influences Harold Temperley . Influenced Thomas Kuhn . Wikiquote has quotations related to: Herbert Butterfield. Master of Peterhouse, Cambridge — Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge —
Butterfield’s Critique of the Whig Interpretation
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Two Cheers for the Whig Interpretation of History
It is not as easy to understand the past as many who have written it would have us believe. The historians who look at it from the Protestant, progressive, "19th Century gentleman" viewpoint are defined by Professor Butterfield as "the Whig historians. He looks for agency in history. And, in his search for origins and causes, he can easily select those facts that give support to his thesis and thus eliminate other facts equally important to the total picture. This was a good book, attacking some unnecessary assumptions, while encouraging the pursuit of historical questions. To me, this was a statement in favor of history's independence from the dominance
Whig history or Whig historiography is an approach to historiography that presents the past as an inevitable progression towards ever greater liberty and enlightenment , culminating in modern forms of liberal democracy and constitutional monarchy. In general, Whig historians emphasize the rise of constitutional government , personal freedoms and scientific progress. The term is often applied generally and pejoratively to histories that present the past as the inexorable march of progress towards enlightenment. The term is also used extensively in the history of science to mean historiography that focuses on the successful chain of theories and experiments that led to present-day science, while ignoring failed theories and dead ends. Whig history is rooted in European Enlightenment thinking that gave rise to European liberalism and Marxist theory of history, which itself is influenced by Christianity's teleological assumption that mankind must progress towards a certain goal. It proposes the inevitable, universal progress of humankind. 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.