The seminal work in the denunciation of Whig history is The Whig Interpretation of History, published by Herbert Butterfield in 1931. Butterfield's main claim now seems uncontentious - essentially he argues against a teleological interpretation of history which sees it as forever approaching an end-point - our modern liberal world. The example he mentions most is that of the Reformation - Whigs had a tendency to view Martin Luther as a great champion of freedom standing against a tyrannical Papacy. In reality, this was not really the case - neither party believed in religious toleration, and the outcome of that great struggle would have pleased neither of them. The modern World, then, is the product of processes and a dialectic.
Butterfield accused Whig historians of the most basic sin of history-writing, of which anachronism is the crudest form - studying history with reference to the present. By applying his own prejudices to the past, the Whig historian distorted it hugely - but he did so believably. The historian's task, says Butterfield, is to enter the World of the past and describe it so well and in such detail that the reader can understand the passions of that time through the eyes of that time. Thus Butterfield opposed abridged general surveys of history - for the further we lift our eyes from the detail, the more tempting it is for us to draw analogies that are harmful to historic understanding. For instance, in Lord Macaulay's opening paragraph of The History of England (1848), he enthuses -
"The history of our country during the last hundred and sixty years is eminently the history of physical, of moral and of intellectual development."
In one sentence Macaulay distorts one hundred and sixty years of history, inculcating a Romanticism which close examination cannot help but dispell. Abridgement in history is inevitable - history books cannot teach us as much as history itself can, but will do so in proportion to our fidelity to the truth within abridgements. To understand the massively complex web of interactions which brought us to the present state it is necessary for our history books to be written by people who lack fundamental assumptions so strong that it will lead them to be selective with the evidence. The Whig historian seizes on personages and parties which interest him most - because they relate to something in his own age - and is quick with applause or condemnation according to the standard of his age. He knows the easy pleasure of moral indignation - "the enormous condescension of posterity", as E.P. Thompson called it. Yet the duty of the historian should not be to pass moral condemnation on two parties in a struggle, but describe how they came to struggle at all.
Pressed to define the 'Whig fallacy' succinctly, I would say it is made up of four generic points. These are what is generally understood as 'Whiggishness', and what the historian should strive to avoid.
- Teleology. Seeing a pre-ordained pattern to events, an unfolding that could not be stopped and was inevitable.
- Mistaken reification. Seeing individual historical actors as a part of this unstoppable teleology - they are just manifestations of the underlying essence. In reality, their passions were complex and have reference to their own age - not ours.
- Anachronism - seeing in the past the symptoms of the present. In reality the present has come into existence through a complex web that does not submit to human understanding. Untangling any of these webs is a complex task.
- Manichean. The Whig sees good and evil in an eternal contest - but standards of good and evil change over time. We need to understand their passions in relation to their own time - simply denouncing them as heroes and villains makes further analysis pointless.