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

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

3 Ariès Philippe, L'Enfant et la vie familiale sous l'ancien règime (Paris, 1960; subsequent editions Paris, 1973, 1975); Centuries of childhood (trans. Baldick Robert, London, 1962). 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), 132–53.

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. 1213.

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

7 Thomas Keith, Religion and the decline of magic (Harmondsworth, Peregrine edition, 1978), p. x. 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. 4.

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

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

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

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

16 Skinner , ‘Meaning and understanding in the history of ideas’, History and Theory, VIII (1969), 353. 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), 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), 131–72, 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. 2196, 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. 249–71, 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).

24 See note 12 above.

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

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

27 Willughby Percival, Observations in midwifery (Warwick, 1863; 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), 69.

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. 129–44, 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. 343–69, 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), 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. 96108. 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. 1213. 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.

* For their help with various aspects of this papers, we wish to thank David Amigoni, Andrew Cunningham, Patrick Curry, Geoffrey Elton, Rob Iliffe, Susan Morgan, Simon Schaffer, and Stephen Yeo. For financial support in this study Adrian Wilson wishes to thank the Wellcome Trust.

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