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Present-Centred History and the Problem of Historical Knowledge*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 February 2009

T. G. Ashplant
School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Liverpool Polytechnic
Adrian Wilson
Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine, Cambridge


In a previous article, we examined Herbert Butterfield's identification of a certain pattern of anachronism in historical writing, in his classic book The whig interpretation of history (1931). In the decades since that book was originally published, Butterfield's designation has been extended far beyond its original domain of political and religious history. The terms ‘whig history’ and ‘whiggish history’ have passed into the common parlance of historians. This very success, however, has masked a failure to define the nature of such anachronistic writing, its causes and remedies. Such definition is all the more necessary since Butterfield's own attempts were clearly inadequate. Building upon and amending certain tentative formulations of Butterfield's, we defined the root of the anachronistic error as present-centredness: that is, that the historian, in seeking to study, reconstruct and write about the past, is constrained by necessarily starting from the perceptual and conceptual categories of the present.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1988

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1 Wilson, Adrian and Ashplant, T. G., ‘Whig history and present-centred history’, The Historical Journal, 30, 1 (1988), 116CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 For instance, Shorter, Edward, The making of the modern family (New York, 1975)Google Scholar; Stone, Lawrence, The family, sex and marriage in England 1500–1800 (London, 1977)Google Scholar.

3 Ariès, Philippe, L'Enfant et la vie familiale sous l'ancien règime (Paris, 1960Google Scholar; subsequent editions Paris, 1973, 1975); Centuries of childhood (trans. Baldick, Robert, London, 1962)Google Scholar. The quoted passage is in Centuries, p. 406.

4 Wilson, Adrian, ‘The infancy of the history of childhood: an appraisal of Philippe Ariès’, History and Theory, XIX (1980), 132–53CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5 Ibid. p. 148. The use of the term ‘evidence’ here was, of course, inadequate. See Wilson, and Ashplant, , ‘Whig history and present-centred history’, pp. 1213Google Scholar.

6 Wilson, , ‘Infancy of the history of childhood’, pp. 147–9Google Scholar (categories); 139, 143, 151 (absences); 152 (evidence).

7 Thomas, Keith, Religion and the decline of magic (Harmondsworth, Peregrine edition, 1978), p. xGoogle Scholar. The epigraph from George Gifford appears on p. xxi.

8 Compare Butterfield on Aquinas, cited in Wilson, and Ashplant, , ‘Whig history and present-centred history’, p. 4Google Scholar.

9 See, however, Religion and the decline of magic, pp. 689, 691.

10 See for example ibid. pp. 640, 661 (Ady); 663, 674 (Scot); 501 (Hobbes and Selden).

11 Ibid. pp. 767–800, particularly 785–94. We quote from pp. 791–2, 794. Compare also pp. 331–2 (magic); 415–18 (astrology); 507–14, especially 513 (ancient prophecy); 691 (witchcraft). In each case, the root cause of the decline of magical beliefs is seen as mental. A functional or technological explanation is, however, supplied for the decline of two ‘allied beliefs’: ghosts (723–4) and the observance of times (744–5).

12 See Webster, Charles, The great instauration (London, 1975)Google Scholar and From Paracelsus to Newton (Cambridge, 1982)Google Scholar; Curry, Patrick, ‘Revisions of science and magic’, History of Science, XXIII (1985), 299325CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Schaffer, Simon, ‘Occultism and reason’, in Holland, A.J. (ed.), Philosophy, its history and historiography (London, 1985), 117–43CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Quotes concerning Newton are from Thomas, , Religion and the decline of magic, pp. 771, 93, 268Google Scholar.

13 Thomas, , Religion and the decline of magic, Foreword, p. xGoogle Scholar.

14 Thompson, E. P., The making of the English working class (London, 1963; Harmondsworth, Pelican, 1968), p. 13Google Scholar.

15 Hexter, J. H., Reappraisals in history (London, 1961), pp. 194–6Google Scholar (we quote from p. 195).

16 Skinner, , ‘Meaning and understanding in the history of ideas’, History and Theory, VIII (1969), 353CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Quotations which follow are from pp. 10–11.

17 Ibid. p. 52.

18 ‘There is a tendency…to suppose that the best, not merely the inescapable, point of vantage from which to survey the ideas of the past must be our present situation, because it is by definition the most highly evolved’ (ibid. p. 52), our emphasis.

19 Ibid. pp. 5–6.

20 This is argued in Andrew Cunningham, ‘Getting the game right: some plain words on the identity and invention of science’, Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science (forthcoming).

21 The ways in which, and the extent to which, the discipline of history is necessarily present-centred are difficult questions which demand extended treatment. Some considerations are offered in our conclusion, below. The fact that both object of study, and interpretation, shift as history is written from different presents has often been noted in the context of particular historiographical issues. Among many examples, note Geyl, Pieter, Napoleon for and against (first published Paris, 1946)Google Scholar, which examines successive interpretations of Napoleon by French historians during the nineteenth century; Cannadine, David, ‘The present and the past in the English industrial revolution 1880–1980’, Past and Present, 103 (1984), 131–72CrossRefGoogle Scholar, which delineates four different periods in the interpretation of the industrial revolution during the past century, and links each of them to contemporary economic experience (e.g. optimistic histories being written during the post-war boom of the 1950s and '60s); Samuel, Raphael, ‘British Marxist historians 1880–1980: Part I’, New Left Review, 120 (1980), pp. 2196Google Scholar, which shows how even a group of historians with a shared intellectual and political commitment have, over the past hundred years, taken widely differing views as to what constitutes the object of their historical enquiry; and Eley, Geoff and Nield, Keith, ‘Why does social history ignore politics?’, Social History, v (1980), pp. 249–71CrossRefGoogle Scholar, which uncovers the ways in which British and German historians, writing about their own labour movements in the twentieth century, each compare it with an implicit ideal type drawn from the other country.

22 See note 31 below.

23 Wrigley, E. A. and Schofield, R. S., The population history of England 1541–1871: a reconstruction (London, 1981)Google Scholar.

24 See note 12 above.

25 Goldstein, Leon J., Historical knowing (Austin, Texas, 1976)Google Scholar.

26 Collingwood, R. G., An autobiography (Oxford, 1939)Google Scholar, chapter 8, and The idea of history (Oxford, 1946), pp. 257–81Google Scholar; Wilson, , ‘Infancy of the history of childhood’, p. 146Google Scholar.

27 Willughby, Percival, Observations in midwifery (Warwick, 1863Google Scholar; reprint, Wakefield, 1972; originally written c. 1660–72).

28 See Harley, David, ‘Ignorant midwives – a persistent stereotype’, The Society for the Social History of Medicine Bulletin, 28 (1981), 69Google ScholarPubMed.

29 Wilson, Adrian, ‘Participant or patient? Seventeenth century childbirth from the mother's point of view’, in Porter, Roy (ed.), Patients and practitioners (Cambridge, 1985), pp. 129–44Google ScholarPubMed, and ‘William Hunter and the varieties of man-midwifery’, in Bynum, W. F. and Porter, Roy (eds.), William Hunter and the eighteenth-century medical world (Cambridge, 1985), pp. 343–69Google Scholar, particularly p. 364. In applying this approach to Willughby's Observations, A.F.W. was greatly helped by the critical advice of Andrew Cunningham, William Lamont and Roger Schofield.

30 In The practice of history (London, 1967; London, Fontana, 1969)Google Scholar, Geoffrey Elton has enunciated the following principle of historical method: ‘There is a single question which the researcher must ask himself in assessing his evidence: how and why did this come into existence?’ (p. 100). This and similar injunctions in the same work (e.g. pp. 93, 102, 103, 111) seem to approach closely to the methodological conception which we have been advancing. However, as will become clear below, Elton's formulation differs importantly from our own.

31 Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 5th series, XXVII, 41–68.

32 Elton, , Practice of history, pp. 96108Google Scholar. Relatedly, Elton's usage of ‘source’ and ‘evidence’ differs from our own. For Elton, ‘the sources’ are ‘the physical survivals from the events to be studied’ (ibid. 88); or, in another place, ‘Evidence is the surviving deposit of an historical event’ (113). We introduce the term relic to describe materials surviving from the past independently of the historian's use of those materials; and we distinguish between ‘sources’ and ‘evidence’. See Wilson, and Ashplant, , ‘Whig history and present-centred history’, pp. 1213Google Scholar. This helps to make visible the fact that the relationship between the events of the past and the relics of the past is much more complex than the process of ‘deposit’ which Elton's formulation assumes.

33 Another response to the structural nature of the present-centred approach to the past would be to take it as an argument in favour of some version of historical relativism. All there ever can be, it might be argued, are a variety of present-centred readings of past sources, present-centred constructions of past activities. We hold that there can be more and less reliable interpretations of past sources, and hence that it is meaningful to talk of historical ‘knowledge’ and ‘misunderstanding’. But the relationship between our delineation of present-centredness, and the question of historical relativism, demands a fuller treatment elsewhere.

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