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The Whig Interpretation of History

3.81  ·  Rating Details ·  186 Ratings  ·  23 Reviews
It is not as easy to understand the past as many who have written it would have us believe. The historians who look at it from the Protestant, progressive, "19th Century gentleman" viewpoint are defined by Professor Butterfield as "the Whig historians." The Whig historian studies the past with reference to the present. He looks for agency in history. And, in his search for ...more
Paperback, 144 pages
Published September 17th 1965 by W. W. Norton & Company (first published 1931)
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Mar 09, 2012 Nicholas rated it liked it
Shelves: macaulay, philosophy
The phrase 'Whig history' is a dirty word; to merely accuse a historian of Whiggishness is not only to impute false methodology but even to question whether they are an authentic historian at all. Much of this is down to the influence of Sir Herbert Butterfield and specifically this work. Published in 1931, this tract has an interwar, Stracheyeqsue taste to it; irreverent towards cherished orthodoxies, self-consciously abandoning the accepted beliefs of the age.

Butterfield eschews the tradition
Douglas Wilson
Jan 21, 2014 Douglas Wilson rated it it was ok
Shelves: history
Butterfield is a superb writer, and is obviously learned. Reading this book was like watching someone put five coats of high gloss paint on a rotten board. Relativistic to the core. Put me down as a whig.
Mike Horne
Jun 30, 2008 Mike Horne rated it it was amazing
Everyone interested in history should read this very short book. Though Whig historians are no longer in the ascendency, this is a good antidote for reading history as if it were a story that leads to your particular view of the present. I think everyone tends to read history as evidence of whatever they believe (certainly I fall into this often). Great quote from the book.

"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 hireli
Victoria Pohlen
Aug 28, 2016 Victoria Pohlen rated it it was amazing
This book was read for a class, and I was intrigued by it from almost the first page. I think it has some truly valuable insight that I had never considered before, and while it certainly represents the opposite extreme from the technique/trend it lambastes, the grain of salt one must take it with is not, I believe, very big. It was honestly eye opening despite being almost a century old, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the study of history - it is an incredibly short read, and ...more
Eb Daniels
Jan 10, 2017 Eb Daniels rated it it was amazing
In The Whig Interpretation of History, Herbert Butterfield presages the hyper-political and hyper-moralizing nature of modern history and historiography, in which the past is measured by the present and history is shown as a linear evolution towards progress. Butterfield examines how this view of history not only does a great disservice to the advancement of human knowledge but serves only to bolster the self-important delusions of the modern age.

Working from an extended examination of the Refo
Becky Snow maybe teves
Mar 07, 2017 Becky Snow maybe teves rated it it was amazing
What a beautiful little book!! Poetic and illuminating.
Apr 17, 2016 Rebecca rated it really liked it
An interesting read, Butterfield eloquently sets out an evaluation of the Whig school of thought, and deals successfully with the major faults of the tradition (its failure to appreciate the past for the past's sake, rather than as a means to an end, and its proclivity to view the past as an all-encompassing noun, rather than in specific detail).

Beyond this, Butterfield highlights some of the more nuanced habits of the Whig historian: the tendency to drag morality into history (where it doesn't
Jul 02, 2015 Heather rated it liked it
Shelves: history
It is easy to see why this little book is such an influential text for historians. It brings to light overlooked assumptions and presents a sharp critique of historians who simplify history and adore it only for what it can give to the present.

Butterfield’s writing is pleasant, though at times his points could be made more succinctly. I began by thinking I would agree completely with him, in the middle thought I disagreed entirely, and by the end decided he is right about many things but is sti
Sep 13, 2009 Jonathan rated it really liked it
A quick read, and justifiably a classic. Butterfield argues that historians should write aesthetically rather than polemically, exercising "imaginative sympathy" in appreciating the lost worlds of the dead rather than seeking (or expecting) the vindication of their own current positions. In particular, he attacks a more or less literally whiggish tendency among British historians, who have always written history as the story of liberty and constitutionalism. The "whig interpretation," as Butterf ...more
Nov 26, 2014 Mike rated it liked it
I liked...I think. I'm not an historian so I'm not sure I actually understood everything that the author discusses. I will re-read sections this weekend. I think he makes a good point that history should not be a slave to our modern causes; that is, it isn't there to serve our principles. The Whig interpretation of history is always "present looking"; in other words, how does history support what the present "good." Butterfield also argues for the complexity of history, and that finding the caus ...more
Oct 14, 2012 Brenton rated it really liked it
A classic work in historiography. Butterfield decries the tendency of historians to interpret history as progressively cumulative in the present; or equally, to selectively use history as an ideological justification of "my views"; or finally, to anachronistically read their ideologies into the past so that its heroes were all fighting to produce the ideas they now possess. If you've ever wanted to throttle someone for claiming "all of history shows..." or if you've heard yet another sermon illu ...more
May 05, 2014 Stephen rated it really liked it
Easily readable in an evening and best consumed whole, Herbert Butterfield's book is a wonderful indictment of the historical meta-narratives that are typical of 'Whig' historians. He rightly cautions us away from linear, progressive, value-laden, reductionist interpretations of history toward an approach that appreciates the diversity and the meanderings of the past and one that sees the events and people of the past as they saw themselves.
Nov 03, 2010 Sam rated it it was amazing
Recommended to Sam by: Dr. Gamble's Philosophy of History
Excellent analysis of Whig history--that is, defining the past in terms of the present. The Whig historian oversimplifies and overdramatizes, trying to draw similarities between the past and present that don't take into effect the complexities of history. This book reminded me of why I love history so much: the beauty of a well-constructed narrative that embraces the complexity of history instead of trying to draw a straight line from Luther to modern religious liberty.
Allan Williams
Nov 14, 2012 Allan Williams rated it really liked it
Shelves: writing-history
This was actually the second time I read this -- first was back in '93 but seemed like a good time to re-read it after finishing volume two of Macaulay's History of England from the Accession of James the Second, and it's a quick read. Great food for thought, however much one might like Macaulay's story-line of progress down to the present.
Robert Terry
Mar 27, 2016 Robert Terry rated it it was amazing
Lives up to its reputation. "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."
Daniel Jones
Jul 26, 2007 Daniel Jones rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Historians
Shelves: history
This is a must-read for all historians. Butterfield presents a monumental thesis on our interpretation of history-- especially for Americans. It's a fascinating discussion of how history is written by the winners-- the protestant, liberal, democratic winners. One of my favorites.
Lee Belbin
Aug 23, 2015 Lee Belbin rated it really liked it
The classic history text
Usha Chilukuri
Jan 05, 2010 Usha Chilukuri rated it really liked it
Could have been half the length.
Angela Holt
Sep 03, 2016 Angela Holt rated it it was ok
Shelves: read-2016
Interesting, but majorly repetitive.
Kate rated it liked it
Aug 23, 2012
Christopher McCaffery
I don't know how I feel about history. Butterfield's book is excellent, though.
Randy rated it it was amazing
May 14, 2014
Beau rated it it was ok
Sep 24, 2013
Seth rated it it was ok
Nov 13, 2010
Luke Rogerson
Luke Rogerson rated it really liked it
Jan 21, 2017
Ryan Campbell
Ryan Campbell rated it it was amazing
Oct 03, 2016
Simon Tetelbaum
Simon Tetelbaum rated it really liked it
Dec 08, 2009
Brenda rated it liked it
Jun 09, 2014
Ryan rated it it was ok
Jul 19, 2008
Samuel Cardwell
Samuel Cardwell rated it really liked it
Sep 01, 2013
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Sir Herbert Butterfield was a British historian and philosopher of history who is remembered chiefly for two books—a short volume early in his career entitled The Whig Interpretation of History (1931) and his Origins of Modern Science (1949). Over the course of his career, Butterfield turned increasingly to historiography and man's developing view of the past. Butterfield was a devout Christian an ...more
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“The study of the past with one eye upon the present is the source of all sins and sophistries in history. It is the essence of what we mean by the word "unhistorical".” 4 likes
“History is not the study of origins; rather it is the analysis of all the mediations by which the past was turned into our present.” 3 likes
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