Whig Interpretation of History

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The Whig Interpretation of History is a concept in historiography that is too present-oriented when dealing with the past. It characterized many historians, such as Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859). They saw British history as the inevitable unfolding of progress, especially liberty and parliamentary rule, with the inexorable defeat of Toryism and absolute monarchy. 20th century historians took a much more nuanced approach and dropped the notion of inevitable progress. They now warn against looking at the past as a simple pathway to the present, insisting there were always multiple contingencies along the way.

Histories of science often take the Whiggish approach, ignoring the dead ends and focusing on the steps that led to the present.

Further reading

  • Butterfield, Herbert. The Whig interpretation of history (1931)online
  • Sewell, Keith C. "The 'Herbert Butterfield Problem' and its Resolution," Journal of the History of Ideas, Volume 64, Number 4, October 2003, pp. 599-618 in Project MUSE; the "problem" is whether Butterfield in the 1940s himself adopted a Whig view; no, says Sewell; he praised Whig politicians but always criticized the Whig-style of historiography, an entirely different matter
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