The study of the past with one eye, so to speak, upon the present is the source of all sins and sophistries in history. –Herbert Butterfield
Herbert Butterfield (1900–1979) was a British historian of science and religion who is probably best remembered for his essay The Whig Interpretation of History (1931). In it he made several important and closely related points about historical writing, which possess something like canonical authority within the Anglo-American profession.
According to Butterfield, throughout the nineteenth century most historical writing, at least in Britain, had been done by protestant, liberal, upper class, and, needless to say, white male scholars, such as Thomas B. Macaulay, George M. Trevelyan, Henry Thomas Buckle, and so on—the eponymous “Whig historians.” They tended to write history as if it were a grand symphony, conducted by providence or some other mysterious agency, which had been building up all along to the magnificent crescendo of the present. When they looked to the past, what they saw in it was people like themselves, “the friends of progress,” heroically struggling against people unlike themselves, its “enemies.” But this view misunderstood the past, for, although it had indeed produced the present, it had not done so through a straightforward process whereby “the children of light” triumphed over “the children of darkness.”
Rather, it was the whole of the past that had produced the whole of the present. It was not inhabited by people like us, but by people unlike us—people who had very different ideas and preoccupations and goals, who could not foresee the consequences of their decision, and who did not know, and may have entirely disapproved of, the outcomes toward which their decisions contributed. The examples that Butterfield used to make his point were largely drawn from the Protestant Reformation, but since this history does not have the same sacred aura about it for us as it did for Butterfield’s generation, his case can perhaps be put more effectively by discussing history that we typically regard in a very similar way—that of Galileo, the martyr to science.
In any number of popular histories of science we learn that Galileo defied all tradition and all authority for the sake of truth, that he dared proclaim to fanatics and bigots that the earth moved, that they turned on him, in their wrath, and—not to put too fine a point on it—crucified him. What we have, in other words, is not what happened, but what Galileo thought had happened, and what people who agree with Galileo tell us happened. And since they are by and large people who share our values, and who worry, like us, that science will be swamped by fundamentalists and anti-intellectuals, we are already primed, before we pick the book up, to give this version of events a sympathetic hearing. The perspectives of Galileo’s opponents—the Pope, the inquisition, the defenders of the Ptolemaic order, and so on—are all allowed to slip out of view, on the tacit assumption that they were and are worthless.
If our aim is to understand physics, or to navigate our everyday lives, this may very well be the case. No physicist need bother about the views of Ptolemy or of Inquisitors on the geocentric theory, nor do we need to be overly concerned with this ourselves if we are just trying to get to work or buy eggs at the supermarket. But if we are historians, or if we take a serious interest in the diversity of human experience, we cannot adopt this perspective, for the point of our study is not to understand the timeless truths of the universe, nor to discover the location of the Earth with respect to the Sun, but to understand the past as it was experienced by the people who actually lived it. If we prefer one side to the other, we will invariably find ourselves cheering on one party to the conflict, and shutting our minds to their opponents. We will become, in other words, parties to the conflicts we are trying to understand, and our partisanship will prevent us from reaching the larger perspective that we're seeking.
The reason that we fall into this habit so easily, according to Butterfield, is that we look for the present in the past. We want to know, for instance, the origins of democracy, so we turn to the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and we see in Martin Luther King, Jr. a person struggling for equal rights; we go back further and we find in Abraham Lincoln a martyr to liberty who freed the slaves; further still to the Revolutionary War and the Constitutional Convention, the heroic struggles that founded the Republic; back even further to the Mayflower and the Pilgrims, to the Magna Carta, to the Republics of Rome and of Athens, and ultimately, all the way back to “the desire of all people to be free,” or some similar principle that is supposed to govern the thoughts and passions of all people at all times and places. Thus we find, by stringing these carefully selected events together, that there has been a certain forward momentum in history that has produced us and our values today.
The mistake is easier to spot the further back in time we travel, because it is more pronounced—the mistake of projecting ourselves onto the past, of assuming that those people all thought of democracy in the same terms that we do. So Martin Luther King, Jr. was fighting at least as much for economic opportunity as for formal civil rights, Abraham Lincoln said many times that if he could save the union without freeing the slaves he would prefer that, most of the founders were actually slave-owners, the Pilgrims were interested in the liberty to hold the right beliefs, not the liberty of all people to believe as they chose, and so on, all the way back to the Egypt and Sumeria, where the rule of god-kings was taken for granted, and a “democrat” would have appeared as a lunatic more than anything else. The “optical illusion” (Butterfield’s phrase) involved in the “march of liberty” theory of history, or any other such construct, rests on the careful selection and arrangement of the evidence in order to produce just the intended effect. It is not a willed or a malicious process; just the contrary, the reason this fallacy is so effective is that historians are generally not aware of having committed it.
There are several ways to combat this tendency, which will persistently creep into a historian’s work if he does not actively guard against it. The first is simple awareness: when a historian thinks that a conclusion is given or obvious, he needs to exercise special care. One or two such errors may not undermine his analysis, but if there are too many of them, and they all tend to skew in the same direction, the combined effect can be seriously misleading.
This in turn suggests a second corrective: detailed research, and lots of it. The more of the relevant evidence the historian can examine, the more opportunities there will be to correct such facile assumptions, and the more the general thrust of that evidence will tend to suggest itself. But this means that the historian’s ambitions must be relatively narrow. One cannot undertake a history of democracy—there is simply too much evidence to consider, and the method of abridgement that must be employed in order to write such a history is necessarily so sweeping and arbitrary that it must produce distortions.
The third is that the historian must abandon any concept of universal, timeless principles that govern all reality or all human thought and activity. The reason is not that there are no such principles—there may very well be—but, rather, because they are no part of his concern. What he needs to understand is not reality as abstracted from time and place, but, just the opposite, the reality of a particular time and place. And, in order to do this, he needs to understand the beliefs of the particular people who lived and acted at that time and place, which, as far as he is concerned, is the explanation of how things came to be as they are. If he tries to answer questions of ultimate meaning or value, he will very quickly find himself shouting down the voices of the past in the name of the present—always an egregious failing in a historian. His work, then, should admit of as many different interpretations as reality itself. It is not a work of philosophy, but a report on past events fit for philosophical interpretation, without the reader having to worry too much about whether he is receiving an accurate report of the past.
This position must not be confused with the philosophical notion that there are no truths apart from those of history, though, as we have seen, there are historians and philosophers, called historicists, who have argued this. Rather, it is a methodological move designed to inoculate the historian from the highly infectious disease of anachronism, and it is adopted in deliberate imitation of scientists. The historian becomes more like a scientist, and more objective in his conclusions, when he confines his argument to the evidence that he has to explain: the documents. There may or may not be immutable facts of the human condition or of the universe. It is no part of the historian’s business to worry about this, just as it is not of the scientist’s. Rather, for both, the sole valid form of argument is appeal to the evidence, and any argument not based on the evidence is excluded, not because it is necessarily wrong, but simply because it is beyond the historian's or scientist's proper sphere of competence.
Butterfield’s argument has been called into question, and he rather embarrassingly departed from his recommendations during the Second World War, when he produced a patriotic history of Britain as part of the war effort (The Englishman and His History, 1944). However, the criticism has generally been that he did not carry his argument far enough, not that it had gone too far, so it should probably be taken as a sign of the success rather than the failure of his somewhat polemical purpose. In the modern Anglo-American historical profession, to say that a history is “Whiggish” is to say that it is anachronistic and methodologically suspect. An intellectually serious history, at least by present lights, simply is not concerned with questions of ultimate meaning, value, truth, or with principles in general, since it regards these “speculative questions,” as we have said, as inextricably anachronistic. Rather, historians are only concerned with the particular meanings, values, and truths of the particular people who lived at a particular time and place, and it is to them—to the past “as it really was”—that they have their deepest professional obligation.
Daniel Halverson is a graduate student studying the history of Science and Technology of nineteenth-century Germany. He is also a regular contributor to the PEL Facebook page.