The new State Whirligig (Poor John Bulls House Plundered at Noon Day), James Gillray, 1757–1815, British, 1783, Etching. (Photo by: Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Herbert Butterfield: A prophet for our age?

The Whig interpretation of history explains much that is malignant in modern progressivism

Artillery Row

The thought of Herbert Butterfield (1900–1979), Master of Peterhouse, Cambridge (1955–1968), Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge (1959–1961) and Regius Professor of Modern History (1963–1968), is not very much in vogue outside of the so-called “cottage-industry” which has sprung up around his work. His work is considered of interest only to antiquarians. But there is a case to be made for Butterfield as a prophet for our age.

In 2018–19, the History Faculty of the University of Cambridge chose to unceremoniously drop Butterfield’s “Whig Interpretation of History” (1931) from the curriculum of its paper in Historical Argument and Practice. Butterfield’s Whig Interpretation may be summarised in this way: historians are present-minded — always. They should, however, be on the look-out for the way in which that infiltrates their work.

For a while, it is said that undergraduates would lazily deploy “whig!” as a trump-card in their work, in much the same way that an amateur philosopher may choose to deploy Wittgenstein’s mantra “whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent” as an appendage to what they have to say. It works. Nevertheless, it lacks nuance, true understanding. It is, shall we say, slapdash. And if it becomes ubiquitous in one generation, then the next may choose to dispense with it.

Wittgenstein himself said that one must, so to speak, kick away the ladder you’ve scaled. But it is not clear that generations of scholars should be encouraged to do the same. Nor is it clear that our generation of scholars has done the climbing that is required to afford them the luxury of kicking things away. Our generation in fact needs to be reminded of the perils of a whig interpretation.

The time has come to shout “whig!” all the louder

Butterfield himself may well have become associated with the thing which he critiqued. What we have here is a white male academic who dared to rail against institutional bias or presentism in the historical domain. When academics hear “whig!”, perhaps, they see his smirking face. They choose to obliterate him and his precious Whig Interpretation which he, was in fact, against — from the face of the earth.

There is an irony in that: Butterfield warned against consigning historical characters on the wrong side of history to the historical trash; he encouraged the historian to engage with them and present their views fairly.

Why “whig”, anyway? The white, male, Protestant Whigs — the political party — were on the winning side of history from the Glorious Revolution of 1688 to 1689, in England and beyond. The triumphant Whigs swept aside the royalist Tories and the further marginalised British Catholics.

However, Butterfield saw more than a 18th century political movement — he drew a connection between the Whigs and the modern culture of perpetual and inevitable progress. Blending enlightenment rationalism with Protestant triumphalism, they demonised the “mediaeval” past and fetishised the supposed sophistication of their own era.

Today that attitude lives on amongst academic progressives. Chasing the next orthodoxy, whiggish scholars infiltrate established fields, ultimately draining them of originality. Too many people will say the same things, over and over again, whether they are Whigs or “whigs” in the sense that they commit the same historical sin: present-mindedness on an industrial scale.

How did such a destructive revolutionary perspective take hold? The original Whigs had always argued for progress and for a middle-course between extremes. What went wrong with Whiggism? Despite pretensions of moderation, the historical literature written by Whigs was triumphalist, unwilling to engage with the past fairly and unable to see that we, right now, are but one part of history — not its end point. 

“What went wrong with liberalism?” is a question often asked today. Historians are as much if not more responsible for its impotence as anyone else. The engagement with the past gives us the faculties and the resources to call out the world in which we live and to help keep it on the straight and narrow. But academic history has become lost in a welter of false meritocracy and credentialism, even as it touts its radical credentials by backing acts of crude iconoclasm and statue toppling.

This is because the way in which history is written with a focus on individual identities rather than the things which knit us together, is an outgrowth of liberalism as hegemonic ideology — liberalism taken to its imperial extreme. But it does not represent liberalism at its best. It represents its self-destructive tendency to atomise us: to not be challenged by the other and, instead, reign triumphant. Critics would say: not for long.

But historians should be so challenged — the work of academic history is precisely to rediscover history as a challenge to our present assumptions, thus broadening our political and conceptual horizons. And Herbert Butterfield knew that. He wrote that “the chief aim of the historian is the elucidation of the unlikenesses between past and present and his chief function is to act in this way as the mediator between other generations and our own.”

In a deep irony, Butterfield has been toppled and discarded — we have forgotten to remember. His thought once inculcated in students a recognition of the folly of present-mindedness arrogance. The time has come to shout “whig!” all the louder.

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