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The Whig Interpretation of History Paperback – September 17, 1965

4.0 out of 5 stars 12 customer reviews

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From the Back Cover

The Whig historian studies the past with reference to the present. He looks for agency in history. And, in his search for origins and causes, he can easily select those facts that give support to his thesis and thus eliminate other facts equally important to the total picture. The Whig historian tends to judge, to make history answer questions, and to overdramatize by simplification and organization around attractive themes. The value of history, however, as Professor Butterfield shows, lies in the richness of its recovery of the concrete life of the past. The true historian studies the past for its own sake. He sees 'in each generation a clash of wills out of which there emerges something that probably now man ever willed, ' and his creative work is to make the past intelligible to the present by insight and sympathy with the conditions of the past.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 144 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (September 17, 1965)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393003183
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393003185
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.5 x 7.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 4.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #560,226 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By not me VINE VOICE on April 1, 2007
Format: Paperback
"The Whig Interpretation of History" is superb meditation on the craft of history and how it can be distorted by "whig history." This was how Herbert Butterfield described historians who project modern attitudes on to the past, pass moral judgments on historical figures, and regard history as significant only to the extent that it labored to create the modern world. Butterfield regarded "whig history" as the antithesis of real history, which glories in the sheer "differentness" of the past and attempts to understand past events and people in the context of their own time, not of ours. Butterfield's writing was eloquent, his thought profound, and his temperament humane. His book, although old, is a genuine classic, to be treasured by all historians and readers of history. Highly recommended.
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Herbert Butterfield (1900-1979) was a British historian and philosopher of history, who also wrote Christianity and History and The Origins of History. He wrote in the Preface to this 1931 book, "The following study deals with 'the whig interpretation of history' in what I conceive to be the accepted meaning of the phrase... What is discussed is the tendency in many historians to write on the side of Protestants and Whigs, to praise revolutions provided they have been successful, and to emphasize certain principles of progress in the past and to produce a story which is the ratification if not the glorification of the present... The subject is treated not as a problem in the philosophy of history, but rather as an aspect of the psychology of historians."

He states, "It is part and parcel of the whig interpretation of history that it studies the past with reference to the present... [this] has often been an obstruction to historical understanding..." (Pg. 11) Later, he adds, "The theory behind the whig interpretation---the theory that we study the past for the sake of the present---is one that is really introduced for the purpose of facilitating the abridgement of history." (Pg. 24) He asserts, "the application of this principle must produce in history a bias in favour of the whigs and must fall unfavourably on Catholics and tories." (Pg. 25)

He explains, "It is the thesis of this essay that the Protestant and whig interpretation of history is the result of something much more subtle than actual Protestant or party bias...
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Format: Paperback
On reading histories of the nineteenth century, one cannot help but note that the historians believed that all the clashes of history inevitably led to the apotheosis of virtue in the person of the Whig gentleman. Sir Butterfield adeptly demolishes such a naive, though entrenched, approach to historical documentation, noting that the chaos of history, whether provoked by the Reformation or by English politics, in no way consciously intended many of its results. Religious liberty, for instance, was not a conscious aim of the Protestant Reformation, but a byproduct of the brutal wars over religion which scarred Europe for a century. It is only in the deforming glasses of Whig interpreters that the Protestant Reformers appear as advocating everything whiggish.
Butterfield does have a few of his own biases, speaking in the magisterial "we" when declaring our age a secularized one, or speaking of alleged Catholic irrationality. But these are minor faults, and easily accounted for, hardly marring lthis excellent essay.
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At the time this book was originally published (1931) I suspect it had a lot of direct relevance for practicing historians. Today, it reads somewhat old fashioned. However, it's well written, if a bit formal, and certainly needs to be read by anyone who wants to keep his or her thinking about history on track. But see also the mention this book gets in Fischer's Historians' Fallacies. Even Sir Herbert doesn't escape that work unscathed.
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I am not a historian, nor am I especially familiar with historiography. The remarks here will, therefore, be those of a well read neophyte. But since that will probably describe many readers coming to this book for the first time, perhaps that will not be too much of a disadvantage.
The greatest flaw in the book at this stage in its career is the lack of a historical introduction. It is no longer a contemporary book, the better part of a century old. If I were an editor at Norton, I would give serious consideration to reissuing this book with a new introductory essay. To be perfectly honest, I am not sure who the Whig historians were, and am not quite certain what the relations between being a Whig historian and being a Whig politically is. The only Whig historian Butterfield mentions by name, Lord Acton, was, as Butterfield points out, a Tory. I think I would have profited far more from this book if I had not had to spend all my time wondering precisely who Butterfield's targets were.
Essentially, this book is a critique of imposing moral judgments in historical research. It is a defense of taking each historical epoch on its own terms, and not imposing one's own moral and cultural standards on figures and situations that existed with, perhaps, a different set of moral and cultural concerns. To this degree, the book is commonsensical and noncontroversial, and can be read with a great deal of profit.
The structural problem of the book is that the entire discussion is framed in extremely polemical terms. Perhaps Butterfield was a Whig Catholic, but given the examples he constantly brings up, and the barely disguised passion he brings to the debate, one wonders if he were not a Tory Catholic. Perhaps not, but one cannot help but wonder why he is so polemical.
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