Whig history

Whig history

Whig history or Whiggish historiography presents the past as an inevitable progression towards ever greater liberty and enlightenment, culminating in modern forms of liberal democracy and constitutional monarchy. In general, Whig historians stress the rise of constitutional government, personal freedoms and scientific progress. The term is often applied generally (and pejoratively) to histories that present the past as the inexorable march of progress toward enlightenment. It also refers to a specific set of British historians. Its antithesis can be seen in certain kinds of cultural pessimism.

Origins of the term

The British historian Herbert Butterfield coined the term in his small but influential book "The Whig Interpretation of History" (1931). It takes its name from the British Whigs, advocates of the power of Parliament, who opposed the Tories, advocates of the power of the King and the aristocracy. Butterfield's celebrated book itself has been criticised by David Cannadine ["G. M. Trevelyan" (1992), p. 208.] as "slight, confused, repetitive and superficial".

The term has been applied widely in historical disciplines outside of British history (the history of science, for example) to criticize any goal-directed, hero-based, and transhistorical narrative. The abstract noun "Whiggishness" is sometimes used as a generic term for Whig history. It should not be confused with Whiggism as a political ideology, and has no direct relation to either the British or American Whig parties. (The term "Whiggery" is ambiguous in contemporary usage: it may either mean party politics and ideology, or a general intellectual approach.)

The nature of Whig history

The characteristics of Whig history as defined by Butterfield include:

* Interpreting history as a story of progress toward the present, and specifically toward the British constitutional settlement;
* Viewing the British parliamentary, constitutional monarchy as the apex of human political development;
* Assuming that the constitutional monarchy was in fact an ideal held throughout all ages of the past, despite the observed facts of British history and the several power struggles between monarchs and parliaments;
* Assuming that political figures in the past held current political beliefs (anachronism);
* Assuming that British history was a march of progress whose inevitable outcome was the constitutional monarchy; and
* Presenting political figures of the past as heroes, who advanced the cause of this political progress, or villains, who sought to hinder its inevitable triumph.

Butterfield argued that this approach to history compromised the work of the historian in several ways:

* The emphasis on the inevitability of progress leads to the mistaken belief that the progressive sequence of events becomes "a line of causation," tempting the historian to go no further to investigate the causes of historical change.
* The focus on the present as the goal of historical change leads the historian to abridge history, selecting only those events that have some bearing on the present.

Roger Scruton, in his "A Dictionary of Political Thought" (1982), takes the theory to be centrally concerned with progress and reaction, with the progressives shown as victors and benefactors. Cannadine ["G. M. Trevelyan", p.197.] wrote of the English tradition that:

"It was fiercely partisan and righteously judgemental, dividing the personnel of the past into the good and the bad. And it did so on the basis of the marked preference for liberal and progressive causes, rather than conservative and reactionary ones. [...] Whig history was, in short, an extremely biassed view of the past: eager to hand out moral judgements, and distorted by teleology, anachronism and present-mindedness."

Butterfield's antidote to Whig history was "to evoke a certain sensibility towards the past, the sensibility which studies the past 'for the sake of the past', which delights in the concrete and the complex, which 'goes out to meet the past', which searches for 'unlikenesses between past and present'". [Adrian Wilson and T. G. Ashplant, "Whig History and Present-Centred History," "The Historical Journal", 31 (1988): 1-16, at p. 10.]

Whig historians writing English history

Sir William Blackstone's "Commentaries on the Laws of England" and Henry Hallam's "Constitutional History of England" (1827) reveal many Whiggish traits. According to Arthur Marwick ["The Nature of History" (second edition 1980), p. 47.] , Hallam was the first Whig historian.

The Liberal politician Thomas Macaulay was one of the most popular and perhaps the most famous historian of the Whig school, although his work did not feature in Butterfield's 1931 book. According to Ernst Breisach ["Historiography" (second edition, 1994), p.251.] "his style captivated the public as did his good sense of the past and firm Whiggish convictions". Perhaps the pinnacle of Whig history is his widely read multivolume "History of England from the Accession of James II". Macaulay's first chapter proposes that:

:I shall relate how the new settlement was, during many troubled years, successfully defended against foreign and domestic enemies; how, under that settlement, the authority of law and the security of property were found to be compatible with a liberty of discussion and of individual action never before known; how, from the auspicious union of order and freedom, sprang a prosperity of which the annals of human affairs had furnished no example; how our country, from a state of ignominious vassalage, rapidly rose to the place of umpire among European powers; how her opulence and her martial glory grew together; how, by wise and resolute good faith, was gradually established a public credit fruitful of marvels which to the statesmen of any former age would have seemed incredible; how a gigantic commerce gave birth to a maritime power, compared with which every other maritime power, ancient or modern, sinks into insignificance; how Scotland, after ages of enmity, was at length united to England, not merely by legal bonds, but by indissoluble ties of interest and affection; how, in America, the British colonies rapidly became far mightier and wealthier than the realms which Cortes and Pizarro had added to the dominions of Charles the Fifth; how in Asia, British adventurers founded an empire not less splendid and more durable than that of Alexander.

:... (T)he history of our country during the last hundred and sixty years is eminently the history of physical, of moral, and of intellectual improvement.

A crucial figure in the later survival and respectability of Whig history was William Stubbs, the constitutional historian and influential teacher of a generation of historians. According to Reba Soffer ["Discipline and Power: The University, History, and the Making of an English Elite" (1994), p. 87.]

George Kitson Clark writes ["The Critical Historian" (1967), p. 167.]


Undermining 'whiggish' narratives was one aspect of the post-World War I re-evaluation of European history in general, and Butterfield's critique exemplified this trend. Subsequent generations of academic historians have similarly rejected Whig history because of its presentist and teleological bent.

When H. A. L. Fisher in 1928 gave the Raleigh Lecture on "The Whig Historians, from Sir James Mackintosh to Sir George Trevelyan" he implied that "Whig historian" was adequately taken as a political rather than a progressive or teleological label; this put the concept into play [Michael Bentley, "Modernizing England's Past: English Historiography in the Age of Modernism" (2005), p. 171.] . P. B. M. Blaas has argued that Whig history itself had lost all vitality by 1914 [Bentley p. 95.] . According to Victor Feske, there is too much readiness to accept Butterfield's classic definition from three years later as definitive ["From Belloc to Churchill: Private Scholars, Public Culture, and the Crisis of British Liberalism, 1900-1939" (1996), p. 2.] .

History of science

The history of science was found to be "riddled with Whiggish history". [C. T. McIntire, "Herbert Butterfield: Historian as Dissenter", (New Haven: Yale Univ. Pr., 2004), p. 205.] Like other Whig histories, Whig history of science tends to divide historical actors into "good guys," who are on the side of truth (as we now know it) and "bad guys," who opposed the emergence of these truths because of ignorance or bias. [John A. Schuster, [http://hist-phil.arts.unsw.edu.au/lib/staff/schuster_john/schuster_john_scirev_03.pdf "The Problem of 'Whig History" in the History of Science"] ] From this whiggish perspective, Lamarck would be criticized because he believed in the inheritance of acquired characteristics while Darwin would be praised because he did not; Ptolemy would be criticized because his astronomical system placed the Earth at the center of the universe while Aristarchus would be praised because he placed the Sun at the center of the solar system. This kind of evaluation ignores the evidence that was available at a particular time. Did Aristarchus have evidence to support his idea that the Sun was at the center; were there good reasons to reject Ptolemy's system before the Sixteenth Century? However, many more would argue that the job of a historian includes judging historical characters and point out that revisionism and cultural reletivism makes an ultimately doomed attempt to try and understand people who lived in the past. This ignores the fact that this is a logical impossibility because, when judging people from the past, it is not who they are underneath that matters but it is what they do that defines them, which makes not judging those actions almost irresponsible.

The writing of whig history of science is especially found in the writings of scientists ["The conventional stories of the past that appear in the introductory chapters of science textbooks are certainly a form of Whiggism. Historians take great delight in exposing the artificially constructed nature of these stories, and some scientists find the results uncomfortable." Peter J. Bowler and Iwan Rhys Morus, "Making Modern Science: A Historical Survey", (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Pr., 2005) ISBN 0-226-06861-7, p. 2.] and general historians, ["the history of science – as composed by both ex-scientists and general historians – has largely consisted of Whig history, in which the scientific winners write the account in such a way as to make their triumph an inevitable outcome of the righteous logic of their cause." Ken Alder, "The History of Science, or, an Oxymoronic Theory of Relativistic Objectivity", pp. 297-318 in Lloyd Kramer and Sarah Maza, ed., "A Companion to Western Historical Thought", (Blackwell,), p. 301.] while this whiggish tendency is commonly opposed by professional historians of science. Nick Jardine describes the changing attitude to whiggishness this way: [Nick Jardine, "Whigs and Stories: Herbert Butterfield and the Historiography of Science," . [http://www.shpltd.co.uk/jardine-whigs.pdf "History of Science"] , 41 (2003): 125-140, at pp. 127-8.]

By the mid-1970s, it had become commonplace among historians of science to employ the terms ‘Whig’ and ‘Whiggish’, often accompanied by one or more of ‘hagiographic’, ‘internalist’, ‘triumphalist’, even ‘positivist’, to denigrate grand narratives of scientific progress. At one level there is, indeed, an obvious parallel with the attacks on Whig constitutional history in the opening decades of the century. For, as P. B. M. Blaas has shown, those earlier attacks were part and parcel of a more general onslaught in the name of an autonomous, professional and scientific history, on popular, partisan and moralising historiography. Similarly,... For post-WWII champions of the newly professionalized history of science the targets were quite different. Above all, they were out to establish a critical distance between the history of science and the teaching and promotion of the sciences. In particular, they were suspicious of the grand celebratory and didactic narratives of scientific discovery and progress that had proliferated in the inter-war years.

More recently, some scholars have argued that Whig history is essential to the history of science. At one level, "the very term `the history of science' has itself profoundly Whiggish implications. One may be reasonably clear what `science' means in the 19th century and most of the 18th century. In the 17th century `science' has very different meaning. For example chemistry is inextricably mixed up with alchemy. Before the 17th century dissecting out such a thing as `science' in anything like the modern sense of the term involves profound distortions." [R. Anthony Hyman, [http://www.projects.ex.ac.uk/babbage/whiggism.html "Whiggism in the History of Science and the Study of the Life and Work of Charles Babbage"] ] Historians' rejection of Whiggishness has been criticized by some scientists for failing to appreciate the temporal depth of scientific research. [Edward Harrison, "Whigs, prigs and historians of science", "Nature," 329 (1987): 213-14. [http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v329/n6136/abs/329213a0.html] ]

As teleology

In "The Anthropic Cosmological Principle" (1986, see anthropic principle for details) John D. Barrow and Frank J. Tipler identify Whiggishness (Whiggery) with a teleological principle, of 'convergence' in history to liberal democracy. [ cite book | author=Barrow, J. D. & Tipler, F. J. | title=The Anthropic Cosmological Principle | year=1986 | id=ISBN 0-19-282147-4 | location=Oxford | publisher=Oxford University Press | pages="pp"9-11, 135 ]

In popular culture

Despite their shortcomings as interpretations of the past, Whiggish histories continue to influence popular understandings of political and social development. This persistence reflects the power of dramatic narratives that detail epic struggles for enlightened ideals. Aspects of the Whig interpretation are apparent in films, television, political rhetoric, and even history textbooks. [James A. Hijiya, "Why the West is Lost," "The William and Mary Quarterly", 3rd Ser., Vol. 51, No. 2. (Apr., 1994), pp. 276-292.]

ee also

*Chronological snobbery
*Historian's fallacy
*Schools of History
*Great man theory
*Classical liberalism


External links

* [http://www.eliohs.unifi.it/testi/900/butterfield/ Text of "The Whig Interpretation of History"]
* [http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0043-5597%28199404%293%3A51%3A2%3C276%3AWTWIL%3E2.0.CO%3B2-A James A. Hijiya, "Why the West is Lost"]
* [http://www.angeluspress.org/angelus/2003_April/Catholic_Whiggery.htm 2003 article "Catholic Whiggery"]

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