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Whig History and Present-centred History*

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

Of the many books written by the late Herbert Butterfield, the most influential by far was The whig interpretation of history. The importance of that essay is not just that it attained the status of a classic in Butterfield's own lifetime, and has continued to be reprinted for over fifty years. Its main significance is that the historical profession in Britain came to accept its polemical terminology. The phrase ‘whig history’ has long been used as a term of historiographical criticism, in such a way as to imply, firstly, that everyone knows what it means, and secondly, that nobody wants to be ‘whiggish’. This usage is much in accordance with Butterfield's intentions: he succeeded in implanting the term in the professional language of historians.

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1 Butterfield, Herbert, The whig interpretation of history (London, 1931); subsequent editions include a facsimile reprint (New York, 1965) of the first edition, and a Penguin edition (Harmondsworth, 1973). Page references below are to the first edition.

2 Tosh, John, The pursuit of history (London, 1984), p. 197.

3 Cowling, Maurice, ‘Herbert Butterfield 1900–1979’, Proceedings of the British Academy, LXV (1979), 595609; Hall, A. Rupert, ‘On whiggism’, History of Science, XXI (1983), 4559; Elton, G. R., ‘Herbert Butterfield and the study of history’, The Historical Journal, XXVII (1984), 729–43 (we quote below from p. 734).

4 Our critique of The whig interpretation will cover similar ground to Hall's general criticisms of that book, though from a rather different standpoint. We have not dealt with Hall's more specific argument, that in the particular field of the history of science, Butterfield's historiographic strictures simply cannot be followed, and that ‘whiggism’ is unavoidable. The problem of presentcentredness in the history of science is examined by Andrew Cunningham, ‘Getting the game right: some plain words on the identity and invention of science’, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science (forthcoming). We shall be referring to this where relevant.

5 Butterfield, , The whig interpretation, p. 31.

6 One particular field in which these terms are in common use is the history of science. In the case of science, the present does indeed seem superior to the past; science is produced by an elite whose members – the scientists – enjoy great prestige; and its historiography has often consisted in a celebration of the present by means of a conception of inevitable progress. More recently, however, historians of science have been striving to avoid such anachronistic assumptions, and to distance themselves from the associated value judgments. It is not surprising, therefore, that amongst professional historians of science the label of ‘whiggishness’ is part of everyday discourse.

7 Butterfield, , The whig interpretation, pp. 34.

8 Ibid. pp. 9–10.

9 Butterfield, Herbert, The origins of modern science (1957 edn), pp. 13, 14, 2.

10 Ibid. pp. viii–ix.

11 See Mehta, Ved, Fly and the fly-bottle (Harmondsworth, 1963), pp. 198215; the appraisals by Cowling and Elton cited in note 3 above; Hobart, Michael, ‘History and religion in Herbert Butterfield’, Journal of the History of Ideas, XXXII (1971), 543–54; Needham, Joseph and Pagel, Walter (eds.), Background to modern science (Cambridge, 1938); Butterfield, , Origins of modern science (London, 1949), Introduction (p. vii). Butterfield's 1933 essay (Scrutiny, 1) was reprinted as ‘Marxist history’ in his History and human relations (London, 1951), pp. 66100.

12 Butterfield, , The whig interpretation, p. 72.

13 Hall, , ‘On whiggism’, p. 51.

14 Butterfield, , The whig interpretation, p. 21

15 Ibid. pp. 24, 25.

16 Hall, , ‘On whiggism’, p. 52.

17 Ibid. p. 59, note 7.

18 For a definition of the precise meanings we give to the terms ‘evidence’ and ‘relic’ in this context, see the discussion of terminology in section II below.

19 Butterfield, , The whig interpretation, pp. 1415, 69–70.

20 Ibid. p. 73.

21 Ibid. p. 22.

22 Ibid. pp. 26–7.

23 Ibid. chapter 5 (pp. 90–106); we quote from pp. 92–3.

24 See particularly ibid. chapter 3 (pp. 34–63); and also pp. 27–8, 78–82.

25 Ibid. pp. 102–3.

26 Hall, , ‘On whiggism’, pp. 49, 50.

27 Butterfield, , The whig interpretation, pp. 16, 92, 17.

28 Hall, , ‘On whiggism’, pp. 53, 54.

29 Butterfield, , The whig interpretation, pp. 1113. This passage is quoted by Hall, , ‘On whiggism’, p. 46.

30 Butterfield, , The whig interpretation, p. 31.

31 This has happened on a large scale with the development of social history. For instance, the John Johnson collection of printed ephemera in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, which was originally assembled to record varieties of printing practice, is now increasingly used for the contents of its handbills and flysheets.

32 Thus radiocarbon dating permits organic materials to be examined as a source for questions of ancient chronology; ultra-violet light enables an erased or over-written manuscript to be read.

33 For instance, the rise of labour history and women's history has involved challenging the claim that there are no sources from which such histories could be written.

34 Oral history constitutes at least a partial exception to this rule.

35 See Skinner, Quentin, ‘Meaning and understanding in the history of ideas’, History and Theory, VIII (1969), 353; and Cunningham's paper cited in note 4 above.

37 Wittgenstein, Ludwig, Philosophical investigations, trans. Anscombe, G. E. M. (Oxford, 1953), II, xi (194).

38 Schuyler, R. L., ‘Some historical idols’, Political Science Quarterly, XLVII (1932); Hull, David, ‘In defense of presentism’, History and Theory, XVIII (1979), 115; Tosh, , Pursuit of history, pp. 199–25.

* For their help with various aspects of this paper, 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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