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Monday, December 12, 2011

Endings (18)—The Whig Interpretation of History

[a] Whiggery's Opposite RF
Progress. Climbing the slope to enlightenment. Pushing the broom of research across the great gymnasium knowledge. Ascending to heights unknown by earlier, even "lesser" periods. Tea for two and two for...teleology.

That is the narrative of the "Whig historian," according to Herbert Butterfield's slender little 1931 classic. History is just one great climb to constitutional government (in monarchic form for the British Whig party). The growth and development of natural science—ever perfected, always rising to new heights—plays right into the ol' framework, too. History. It's what's for progress.

Whiggery of whiggeries; all is whiggery. 
[b] Ascent RF
Early on in The Whig Interpretation of History, Butterfield notes that "the whig historian stands on the summit of the 20th century, and organises his scheme of history from the point of view of his own day." Harold Nicolson was impressed enough to consider it required reading for all teachers and students of history. He had a point. How many times do you open the newspaper, turn on the television, or listen to a lecturer who can't seem to tell the difference between the long look back required of historians and the serious consideration of the very humanity of the historical actors in their own time? The poor characters did not even know what would happen next, for constitutional monarchy's sake.

Politics can be terribly messed up in this regard. The temptation to describe the past as a long, sometimes winding, path toward one's own point of view is very tempting. It goes a little like this: we are all sure to reach that big driveway of progress at the end of the historical road if you just vote for me. Just take a look at the Republican presidential primary debates if you need an example of vituperative teleology in action. That Professor Newt Gingrich, Doctor of Philosophy sometimes seems to be the Whig in Chief is a little perplexing for me (he is stamped with the approval of a Ph.D. in history, after all). It affects other candidates, too. Concord is in New Hampshire...but the battle wasn't. Moreover, a certain Texan thinks the state has the right to secede from the union; any junior high school student in Corpus Christi could tell him that he's wrong (it is true that five little versions of Texas could sprout from the main vine, but that is another matter). Taken together, it is a mind-boggling performance of argumentative ineptitude, a kind of Bachman-Perry Overdrive, and a peculiarly unbookish form of whiggishness.

Herbert Butterfield understood the temptations and the pitfalls of "whiggery," a term that has stuck in the eight decades since he published his essay. It is difficult to get very far in historical studies these days without noticing occasional sneering references to the "whiggishness" of other historians' narratives.

          "I mean, (cough, cough) it is almost as though he paved the road from the 

[c] Experimental RF
          French Revolution to the Fifth Republic; can you imagine?" 

          "What boorish whiggery. Tsk, tsk."

Trust me, in history classrooms at least, it is never a term spoken with approval. The one exception would be neutral reference to, say, Millard Fillmore as the "last of the American Whigs." This is hardly soaring rhetoric, and scarcely rises to the narrative heights of, say, James Fenimore Cooper, who knew a thing or two about "last of"...stuff.

For practicing (and teaching) historians, "whig" only sometimes is followed by the word "party." It is far more popular as a term of denigration, a pointed phrasing (like "sic") meant to heap abuse on lesser minds and methodologies. Politicians take the biggest hit, as we have seen. After them, science writers—at least the less proficient among them—are commonly singled out for abuse, since it is exceedingly common for them to focus upon experimental success (and progress) while ignoring the kinds of failure about which two doubting Thomas figures (Edison and Kuhn) wrote so eloquently.

Nope, history is messy, says Butterfield (and so say I). Here is the conclusion to The Whig Interpretation of History, which is witty...and a little messy. The prose is pointed and often quite funny (
"perhaps all history-books hold a danger for those who do not know a great deal of history already").

Butterfield's gendered references to the historian ("he") and history ("she") is less hilarious, even for 1931. You see, it is not just "history" that is messy; historiography is, too. I leave the original language here, and certainly hope that readers will not assume (beware the Whigs!) that English usage has made the slow ascent toward perfect, non-gendered language now, in the rarefied mountaintop air of today.

You know that you are much too fine a(n) historian for that, don't you?

Herbert Butterfield
The Whig Interpretation of History (1931)
[d] Interpretation RF
The historian presents us with the picture of the world as it is in history. He describes to us the whole process that underlies the changes of things which change. He offers this as his explanation, his peculiar contribution to our knowledge of ourselves and of human affairs. It represents his special mode of thought, which has laws of its own and is limited by his apparatus. If he postures good against evil, he talks of 'the reign of sin, the sovereignty of wrong,' he sets all the angles of his picture differently, for he sets them by measurements which really come from another sphere. If he deals in moral judgments at all he is trying to take upon himself a new dimension, and he is leaving that realm of historical explanation, which is the only one he can call his own. So we must say of him that it is his duty to show how men came to differ, rather than to tell a story which is meant to reveal who is in the right. It must be remembered that, by merely enquiring and explaining, he is increasing human understanding, extending it to all the ages, and binding the world into one. And in this, rather than in the work of 'perfecting and arming conscience,' we must seek the acheivement and the function and the defence of history.

[e] Roman Britain RF
Finally, against Acton's view that history is the arbiter of controversy, the monarch of all she surveys, it may be suggested that she is the very servant of the servants of God, the drudge of all drudges. The historian ministers to the economist, the politician, the diplomat, the musician; he is equally at the service of the strategist and the ecclesiastic and the administrator. He must learn a great deal from all of these before he can even begin his own work of historical explanation; and he never has the right to dictate to any one of them. He is neither judge nor jury; he is in the position of a man called upon to give evidence; and even so he may abuse his office and he requires the closest cross-examination, for he is one of those 'expert witnesses' who persist in offering opinions concealed within their evidence. 

Perhaps all history-books hold a danger for those who do not know a great deal of history already. In any case, it is never safe to forget the truth which really underlies historical research: the truth that all history perpetually requires to be corrected by more history. When everything has been said, if we have not understanding, the history of all the ages may bring us no benefit; for it may only give us a larger canvas for our smudging, a wider world for our wilfilness. History is all things to all men. She is at the service of good causes and bad. In other words she is a harlot and a hireling, and for this reason she best serves those who suspect her most. 

Therefore, we must beware even of saying, 'History says..." or 'History proves...,' as though she herself were the oracle; as though indeed history, once she had spoken, had put the matter beyond the range of mere human enquiry. Rather we must say to ourselves: 'She will lie to us till the very end of the cross-examination.' This is the goddess the whig worships when he claims to make her the arbiter of controversy. She cheats us with optical illusions, sleight of hand, equivocal phraseology. If we must confuse counsel by personifying history at all, it is best to treat her as an old reprobate, whose tricks and juggleries are things to be guarded against. In other words the truth of history is no simple matter, all packed and parcelled ready for handling in the marketplace. And the understanding of the past is not so easy as it is sometimes made to appear.
[f] Remote, past RF

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