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Present-Centred History and the Problem of Historical Knowledge*

  • T. G. Ashplant (a1) and Adrian Wilson (a2)

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.

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Simon Schaffer , ‘Occultism and reason’, in A.J. Holland (ed.), Philosophy, its history and historiography (London, 1985), 117–43

David Cannadine , ‘The present and the past in the English industrial revolution 1880–1980’, Past and Present, 103 (1984), 131–72

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The Historical Journal
  • ISSN: 0018-246X
  • EISSN: 1469-5103
  • URL: /core/journals/historical-journal
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