19 June 2011

Whigs--One Philosophic Approach to History

A few days ago, I posted on my experience in a course on historiography and some of the questions that arose in this context.  One of the philosophies that held quite a bit of importance in historical circles in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is now referred to as Whig history.  One of the most famous writers on this topic was Herbert Butterfield, who interestingly enough wrote a book titled The Whig Interpretation of History that tended to critique this particular view of the past. 

I actually gutted sizable chunks of this book in writing a historiographical overview of the English Reformation for a class last fall.  Most of the articles I read on the historiography of the period tended to refer to the Whig and the Revisionist historians.  I had long been skeptical of the term "revisionist" historians because of the connotation that they were out to change the past for their own sinister purposes.  However, I had not really explored the idea of Whig History in much depth.  What I discovered was that those holding to this idea view the backward past as progressing toward the triumphant present.  Whigs view basically anything in the past that tends toward democracy and liberty as a great sign of progress, while anything that smacks of autocracy as a remnant from a horrible past.

Butterfield, a devout Christian, argued that there were problems with this view, however.  This view of the past makes no real attempt to understand the past on its own terms, but rather in terms of the glorious present to which that past contributed.  Whig history also tends to view people in terms of black and white or right and wrong in their relation to the past's contribution to the wonderful present, not in terms of the laws and customs of the world in which they lived.  In failing to see past actors on their own terms, the past gets skewed terribly, according to the critique.

This error led to revisionism in the study of the English Reformation.  In Whiggish terms, the Reformers were great proponents of religious liberty that led the masses out of superstition.  The general Whig understanding included the idea that the people knew that they had been hoodwinked by the bishops and the pope, and that they willingly followed on this great leap toward religious liberty.  However, after reading the revisionists (generally Catholics) like Christopher Haigh and Eamon Duffy, the evidence definitely pointed toward a view of the masses that conflicted with the traditional Whiggish view of the English Reformation as a pretty much welcomed change.  The revisionist works tended to look at records related to the lower classes who actually worshiped and found that they tended to be fairly committed to their Catholicism.

While I am not a Catholic, this little study made it quite apparent to me (even more so that it already was) that people's presuppositions and their understanding of the past (and present) can definitely affect the way that they interpret events.  It also illustrated that at times revisionist history is actually better than the more "traditional" account, although this one example does not necessarily mean that all revisionist history is better.  Each study deserves to be judged its own merits in light of the evidence.

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