The Whig Interpretation Of History
In The Whig Interpretation Of History, Herbert Butterfield contends that the “Whig” interpretation of history does not reflect the evidence of the past. He demonstrates this failure, seeking, through foil, to explain how amateur and professional historians should approach the evidence of the past.
Butterfield observes that, presumably at least up unto the time of his exposition, historians have been adhering to malicious tenets, and his aim is to highlight them, showing his reader what history is by making it clear what history is not.
He pursues his aim in five chapters, “The Underlying Assumption,” “The Historical Process,” “History and Judgments of Value,” “The Art of The Historian,” and “Moral Judgments in History,” each of which focuses on a different problem with the “Whig” interpretation of history.
In these divisions, Butterfield sets about his diatribe. He begins by chastising his peers and predecessors for fashioning a present minded interpretation of history. He argues that too many historians have written their histories from the viewpoint that the present day represents the absolute, constructing a story of protagonists and antagonists in some over-arching narrative of progress. On page 29 he writes,
But it is the thesis of this essay that when we organise our general history by reference to the present we are producing what is really a gigantic optical illusion; and that a great number of the matters in which history is often made to speak with most certain voice, are not inferences made from the past but are inferences made from a particular series of abstractions from the past—abstractions which by the very principle of their origin beg the very questions that the historian is pretending to answer.
This quote alludes to his next point, that history interpreted with a focus on the present confuses the audience, leaving them with a false sense of causal relationship between events and people. On page 47 he writes, “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.” In other words, there really is no true narrative. Ultimately he deems this interpretation of history as a means to an end. He postulates that perhaps it arose to deal with the difficult question of how to abridge history.
Highlighting the problem with the “Whig” belief that historians are seers, Butterfield treads deeper into his phillipic. Here, he argues that historians are valuable not as fortune-tellers or prognosticators but as mediators. Butterfield believes that history is too intricate to be predicted. He thinks that a historian should first seek to understand the evidence of the past and then, appealing to an argot familiar to his contemporaries, seek to explain it. He thinks that a historian needs to immerse himself or herself in the world of the people he studies. Furthermore, he argues that the debunking of post hoc misconceptions further adds to the value of careful historical research. And he illustrates this point with a short discourse about Martin Luther and the Reformation.
In the second to last subdivision of his book, “The Art of The Historian,” Butterfield explains that a historian should, above all else, seek to understand the people he writes about. A historian should want to know why a certain person thinks what they think or believes what they believe. On page 96 he says, “But the true historical fervour is the love of the past for the sake of the past.”
He then goes on to give what he considers the proper paradigm for abridging history. On page 103 he says, “It is not the selection of facts in accordance with some abstract principle….It is the selection of facts for the purpose of maintaining the impression—maintaining, in spite of omissions, the inner relations of the whole.”
Concluding his treatise, Butterfield denounces all moral judgments in historical writing. He goes about this with an all out assault against Lord Acton and his adherence to maintaining the moral integrity of history. Ultimately, according to Butterfield, it is not the historian’s job to decide who is right and who is wrong but rather to understand.
Butterfield’s work is linear. So linear that if a reader puts down his book to cook a potato, he won’t know what Butterfield is talking about when he gets back. In the twenty-first century, non-linear media is everywhere and thus this book may be difficult for the modern student to fully comprehend without excessive re-reading. In sum, his exegesis is astute but at times, due largely to his excessive use of pronouns, unclear and difficult to follow.