Eye on the Present—The Whig History of Science

‘Scenography of the Copernican World System’; engraving from Andreas Cellarius’s Harmonia macrocosmica, 1660
‘Scenography of the Copernican World System’; engraving from Andreas Cellarius’s Harmonia macrocosmica, 1660

It was the Cambridge historian Herbert Butterfield who described and condemned what he called “the Whig interpretation of history.” In a book with that title, the young Butterfield in 1931 declared that “the study of the past with one eye, so to speak, upon the present is the source of all sins and sophistries in history….”1 He spread special scorn on those historians, including Lord Acton, who subject the past to contemporary moral judgments, who for instance are unable to see the Whig Charles James Fox as anything but a savior of British liberties. Not that Butterfield was personally unwilling to make moral judgments; he just did not think it was the business of historians. According to Butterfield, the whig historian studying Catholics and Protestants in the sixteenth century feels that some “loose threads are still left hanging unless he can show which party was in the right.”

Butterfield’s strictures were fervently taken up by later generations of historians. Being called “whig” came to seem as terrifying to historians as being called sexist, or Eurocentric, or Orientalist. Nor was the history of science spared. The historian of science Bruce Hunt recalls that when he was in graduate school in the early 1980s, “whiggish” was a common term of abuse in the history of science. To avoid that charge, people turned away from telling stories of scientific progress or from giving “big picture” stories of any kind, and shifted to accounts of small episodes, tightly focused in time and space.

Nevertheless, in teaching courses on the history of physics and astronomy, and then working up my lectures into a book, I have come to think that whatever one thinks of whiggery in other sorts of history, it has a rightful place in the history of science. It is clearly not possible to speak of right and wrong in the history of art or fashion, nor I think is it possible in the history of religion, and one can argue about whether it is possible in political history, but in scientific history we really can say who was right. According to Butterfield,

we can never say that the ultimate issue, the succeeding course of events, or the lapse of time have proved that Luther was right against the Pope or that Pitt was wrong against Charles James Fox.

But we can say with complete confidence that the lapse of time has shown that, about the solar system, Copernicus was right against the adherents of Ptolemy, and Newton was right against the followers of Descartes.

Though the history of science thus has special features that make a whig interpretation useful, it has another aspect that makes the idea of keeping an eye on the present troublesome to…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. You may also need to link your website account to your subscription, which you can do here.