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The Whig Interpretation of History by Herbert Butterfield

20 November 2007

A good old classic for the ‘metahistory’ tag today.

The Whig Interpretation of History by Herbert Butterfield

When I first began to spend my time doing serious historical research, I often came across the word ‘whiggish’ used in a negative sense to describe a historical thesis or set of ideas. Since I had no idea why the word was being used in a negative sense — or for that matter, what it actually meant — I did a little poking around and found that all the signs pointed to Herbert Butterfield’s book The Whig Interpretation of History.

Butterfield’s book is a criticism of the ‘progressive’ kind of historian who sees in the past a definite and predetermined path to the present. A possible example would be a historian of the Reformation who claims that Martin Luther nailed his theses to the church door in order to create Protestantism and ultimately freedom of religion for all, while also claiming that those who opposed Luther’s declaration were backwards, blinkered reactionaries who were deliberately standing in the way of reform and Enlightenment. Whig history is the history of ‘inevitable’ success, the history that judges the past by the standards of the present and reads into history a confirmation of the existing status quo. The reason why Butterfield chose the term ‘Whig’ for his classification of this kind of history is that he noticed that the most blatant promoters of this kind of fallacious historical approach saw the 19th-century Whig gentleman — the Protestant, progressive, anti-slavery and pro-reform gentleman — as the pinnacle of virtue and the natural outcome of the progression of history. Yet Whig history might well describe any modern triumphalist narrative of history…such as the kind that is often found in books about the history of how the West ‘won’ the Cold War.

My edition of this book is an old secondhand copy, Butterfield’s original text and nothing else. I think that a more comprehensive edition of this book might be improved if a short introductory essay was added to give some more perspective on which specific historians or historical theses Butterfield might have been condemning most strongly at the time. (Perhaps it’s because I felt as if I was reading Butterfield’s criticism in a vacuum — at the time, I had very little idea of who or what he was talking about.) But the book is definitely one of the classics of the historiography, the history of writing history, and as such is a must-read for anyone seriously interested in what I tend to call metahistory.

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