Back to Basics

By Bernard Wood
March 14, 2012

Some background. For a long time the main political parties in the United Kingdom were called the Tories and the Whigs. The former mainly consisted of the landed-gentry; the latter tended to be more progressive and enlightened (but see below).

The term Whig was appropriated within academia by a historian called Herbert Butterfield, who was a distinguished Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University during the first half of the 20thC. Butterfield used “Whig” as a label for historians who tended to draw progressive causal inferences about historical events (e.g., “the Reformation led to liberty”).

He expanded on the iniquities of Whig historians in an influential extended essay called The Whig Interpretation of History. Butterfield complained that, “it is part and parcel of the whig interpretation of history that it studies the past with reference to the present” (ibid, p.11). The blurb on the back cover of the Norton edition of Butterfield’s book makes the same point somewhat less elegantly, when it explains that a whig historian “looks for agency” and that she/he “tends to judge, to make history answer questions”.

Butterfield suggests instead that historians should be, “trying to understand the past for the sake of the past” and he goes on to write that, “real historical understanding is not achieved by the subordination of the past to the present, but rather by our making the past our present and attempting to see life with the eyes of another century than our own” (ibid, p.16). He urges his colleagues to understand that with respect to the past, “their generation was as valid as our generation, their issues were as momentous as our issues and their day as full and vital to them as our day is to us” (ibid, pp.16-17).

Butterfield’s recommendations with respect to how historians should approach their work also applies to those of us who work in prehistory. There is a strong temptation to be a whig prehistorian and interpret early hominin taxa as organisms that are on the way to becoming modern human. How bipedal are they? Did they have spoken language? How do their cognitive skills match up to our own? It takes energy to resist the temptation to indulge in what Butterfield referred to as “presentism”. Organisms such as Paranthropus boisei were as successful in their world as we are in ours. The task of prehistorians is to understand what that world was like and how and where P. boisei fitted into it. We have precious little evidence to work with, but we will only make the best of that evidence if we heed Butterfields’s advice that the issues of P. boisei, “were as momentous as our issues and their day as full and vital to them as our day is to us”.

Winston Churchill spoke eloquently about the task of the historian. The words I quote below were part of a eulogy he gave in the House of Commons for his predecessor as Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain. Chamberlain and Churchill were colleagues, but they were political adversaries, yet in his eulogy Churchill urged listeners to take the “long view” about Chamberlain and to remember the inauspicious circumstances that faced Chamberlain in 1939.

Chamberlain died on November 9th, 1940, a time when Churchill’s mind must have been occupied with many more pressing tasks than preparing what to say about his recently deceased colleague. Yet the generosity of spirit he showed towards Chamberlain throughout the eulogy is an example we should all remember when we think about how we should treat our academic “adversaries”.

The description of the task of a historian within the eulogy is yet another example of Churchill’s eloquence.

“History with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trails of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes, to revive its echoes, and kindle with pale gleams the passion of former days.”

Churchill’s’ spoken words can be translated into a particularly apt “job description” for prehistorians. Surely, our “flickering lamps” (i.e., methods) are not the same ones our predecessors used (micro CT vs. calipers), but no matter how sophisticated our methods are they are always the equivalent of a “flickering lamp.” Our task is the same as that of our predecessors. We must hope that we make at least as good use of our flickering lamp as they did of theirs.


Butterfield, H. (1965) The Whig Interpretation of History. pp. 132, W.W. Norton, New York.

The full-text of Churchill’s eulogy about Neville Chamberlain.