Book Review of "The Whig Interpretation of History"

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Butterfield, Herbert. The Whig Interpretation of History. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1965. The Whig Interpretation of History written by Herbert Butterfield is a superb meditation on the study of history and how it can be distorted by imposing moral judgments into research. It is a defense of studying each historical period on its own terms, and not imposing one's own moral and social standards on figures and situations that existed with, perhaps, a different set of ethical and cultural concerns. Butterfield’s text described historians who project modern attitudes on to the past, pass moral judgments on historical figures, and regard history as significant only to the extent that it labored to create the modern world. Such judgments are viewed as problematic because they tempt historians not to understand the past on its own terms. 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 (92). The "Whig interpretation," as Butterfield calls it, sees history as a struggle between a progression of good libertarian parties and evil reactionary forces, failing to do justice to history's true complexity. The word Whig has its origins in the seventeenth century as a term of abuse against political opponents, and has become a convenient label for one historian to attach to another as a mark of scorn. In Butterfields work, he criticized historians who wrote present-minded history and, in so doing, fell with an echoing thud into traps, which superior historians must avoid. Through Butterfields five sweeping chapters, he makes three remarks that answer the question, why, despite the scolding of an entire discipline do modern historians seem to be drawn to anachronism, or as
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