Sir Herbert Butterfield
was a British historian and philosopher of history
The term philosophy of history refers to the theoretical aspect of history, in two senses. It is customary to distinguish critical philosophy of history from speculative philosophy 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 and reflected at length on Judeo-Christian influences in historical perspectives. Butterfield thought individual personalities more important than great systems of government or economics in historical study. His Christian beliefs in personal sin, salvation, and providence heavily influenced his writings, a fact he freely admitted. At the same time, Butterfield's early works emphasized the limits of a historian's moral conclusions, "If history can do anything it is to remind us that all our judgments are merely relative to time and circumstance."
Butterfield was born in Oxenhope
Oxenhope is a village and civil parish with a population of 2,476 in the metropolitan borough of Bradford, West Yorkshire, England, near Keighley. Oxenhope railway station is the terminus for the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway...
Yorkshire is a historic county of northern England and the largest in the United Kingdom. Because of its great size in comparison to other English counties, functions have been increasingly undertaken over time by its subdivisions, which have also been subject to periodic reform...
, and received his education at the Trade and Grammar School in Keighley
Keighley is a town and civil parish within the metropolitan borough of the City of Bradford in West Yorkshire, England. It is situated northwest of Bradford and is at the confluence of the River Aire and the River Worth...
. He was awarded an MA by Cambridge University
The University of Cambridge is a public research university located in Cambridge, United Kingdom. It is the second-oldest university in both the United Kingdom and the English-speaking world , and the seventh-oldest globally...
in 1926. Butterfield was a fellow of the Institute for Advanced Study
The Institute for Advanced Study, located in Princeton, New Jersey, United States, is an independent postgraduate center for theoretical research and intellectual inquiry. It was founded in 1930 by Abraham Flexner...
in Princeton, New Jersey
Princeton is a community located in Mercer County, New Jersey, United States. It is best known as the location of Princeton University, which has been sited in the community since 1756...
in the 1950s and at Cambridge from 1928 to 1979. He was Master of Peterhouse (1955–1968), Vice-Chancellor of the University (1959–1961), and Regius Professor of Modern History
Regius Professor of Modern History is one of the senior professorships in history at Cambridge University. It was founded in 1724 by George I. The appointment is by Royal Warrant on the recommendation of the Prime Minister of the day...
(1963—1968). Butterfield served as editor of the Cambridge Historical Journal from 1938 to 1955. He was knighted and speared in 1968. He married Edith Joyce Crawshaw in 1929, and had three children.
Butterfield's main interests were historiography
Historiography refers either to the study of the history and methodology of history as a discipline, or to a body of historical work on a specialized topic...
, the history of science
The history of science is the study of the historical development of human understandings of the natural world and the domains of the social sciences....
, 18th century constitutional history, Christianity and history and the theory of international politics. He delivered the Gifford Lectures
The Gifford Lectures were established by the will of Adam Lord Gifford . They were established to "promote and diffuse the study of Natural Theology in the widest sense of the term — in other words, the knowledge of God." The term natural theology as used by Gifford means theology supported...
at the University of Glasgow
The University of Glasgow is the fourth-oldest university in the English-speaking world and one of Scotland's four ancient universities. Located in Glasgow, the university was founded in 1451 and is presently one of seventeen British higher education institutions ranked amongst the top 100 of the...
in 1965. As a Protestant, Butterfield was highly concerned with religious issues, but he did not believe that historians could uncover the hand of God in history.
The Whig interpretation of history
He had in mind especially the historians of his own country, but his criticism of the retroactive creation of a line of progression toward the glorious present can be, and has subsequently been, applied more generally. A given "Whig interpretation of history
Whig history is the approach to historiography which presents the past as an inevitable progression towards ever greater liberty and enlightenment, culminating in modern forms of liberal democracy and constitutional monarchy. In general, Whig historians stress the rise of constitutional government,...
" is now a general label applied to various historical interpretations.
He found Whiggish history objectionable because it warps the past to see it in terms of the issues of the present, to squeeze the contending forces of, say, the mid-17th century into those which remind us of ourselves most and least, or to imagine them as struggling to produce our wonderful selves. They were of course struggling, but not for that. Butterfield argued that the historian must seek the ability to see events as they were perceived by those who lived through them.
Butterfield wrote that "Whiggishness" is too handy a "rule of thumb ... by which the historian can select and reject, and can make his points of emphasis".
Interestingly, after The Whig Interpretation of History
he continued to write history with a Whiggish style. He stated that in fact it was too hard not to portray any historiography Whiggishly.
"The greatest menace to our civilization is the conflict between giant organized systems of self-righteousness - each only too delighted to find that the other is wicked - each only too glad that the sins of the other give it pretext for still deeper hatred." - Christianity, Diplomacy and War
Works on Herbert Butterfield
- Bentley, Michael, The Life and Thought of Herbert Butterfield, History, Science and God, Cambridge University Press, 2011. ISBN: 9781107003972.
- Coll, Alberto R., The Wisdom of Statecraft: Sir Herbert Butterfield and the Philosophy of International Politics, Duke University Press, 1985.
- McIntire, C. T., Herbert Butterfield: Historian as Dissenter, Yale University Press, 2004
- Sewell, Keith C., Herbert Butterfield and the Interpretation of History, Palgrave Macmillan 2005
- Butterfield, Herbert. "The Underlying Assumption
- Butterfield, Herbert. The Whig Interpretation of History, London: G. Bell, 1931.