Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Why is whig history so wrong?
Tom Smith

I like to read history.  I was a history major in college and considered becoming a professional historian, but was dissuaded by the I believe accurate belief on my part that I would not be very good at it, as I read slowly, have trouble remembering what I read, and if I take notes, read more slowly still.  If you want somebody to go through an archive and come back in one lifetime, I'm probably not your man.  But I figure I'm more qualified than most to be a consumer of what historians produce.  Presumably they enjoy occasionally being read by somebody other than each other.

If you read history at all, you will find nothing is more common than to read of the horrors of looking for the seeds of the present in the past.  For example, this missive. This idea that the past somehow led to the present, and that the past was as it were getting ready to become the present, is often called Whig history.  Whig historians, especially of the English constitution, saw history as leading inevitably toward the more classically liberal and enlightened present, namely Gladstone's England.  This is supposed to have been a very silly thing for them to have thought, something we are fortunate in having grown out of, but presumably not inevitably.

But the problem is supposed to be much broader than mere Whiggish historiography would suggest.  Any sort of reading back of the present into the past is supposed to be a kind of ultimate historian's crime that undoes the whole point of doing history, sort of like cheating at chess.  

This is where I begin to cease to understand what is going on.  What exactly is so bad about seeing in the past the origins of the present?  Somewhere or other some of the people of northern Spain and Southern France, to wit, the Basques, got good at herding sheep and various sheep related activities.  Sheep entrepreneurs in nineteenth century Idaho and Nevada needed people who knew sheep to herd them.  They brought over Basques.  They prospered, multiplied and now many people of Basque heritage are to be found in that region of the US.  What would be so wrong about trying find out why this happened and concluding, well, had the Basques not gotten so good with sheep (for reasons you could investigate further) you would not find so many of them in Idaho and Nevada today.  If you were interested in why representative institutions, what we quaintly think of as republican forms of government, are much to be found in countries that were settled (which much injustice, etc. etc.) by northern Europeans, what exactly is so wrong about looking into the history of these peoples and their ways of doing things to (help) find out?  In short, the idea that that there is something illegitimate or unhistorical about wanting to use history to help understand the present has about it the sort of bizarre counter-intuitiveness that is usually a symptom of some peculiar academic stance like the notion that the last thing science or mathematics should do is somehow improve the lot of humans on this planet.

There is also something just logically incoherent about the view.  Presumably it would be difficult to do history of any sort if one took the view that nothing that happened in 1200 could shed any light on what was the case in 1201.  But if you can't really understand 1201 without understanding 1200, might it also be the case that 1648 sheds a lot of light on 1787?  If the present didn't come out of the past, where precisely did it come from?  I would be the first to admit that our current plight refutes the notion that all moves ineluctably toward enlightenment and liberality, but the prejudice against looking to the past to try to understand the present goes far beyond that, as if one were going to church to meet eligible women, another unjustly criticized practice.

I suspect it is like so much else, just another strange manifestation of the loopy politics that infests so much contemporary academic inquiry outside of the hard sciences.  Whig history is bad not because its unscientific, but because it is whiggish, and whiggery is bad because it is inconsistent with X, where X is a point of view expressible only in terms that are lofty, inpenetrable and perfectly opaque, and so, like absolute monarchs, beyond criticism by the mere likes of us.


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If the history you read is written and reasoned as poorly as Perrone's missive, no wonder you read slowly. Bloated and obtuse. What a mess.

Posted by: greg | Feb 28, 2012 9:15:27 PM

The two history classes i took as an undergrad discouraged teleological thinking. What that means is that although it may be wise to read into why the basques had intimate relationships with their sheep, it would be a mistake to think that Basque-sheep intimacy had a non-immediate purpose. There is no reason to read basque sheep rearing in the 1300s as destined to lead to Basques in Idaho in 1900

Yes, I understand that probably but for basque+sheep their settlement in Idaho would have happened differently, but if you read history assuming a purpose or a destiny you are making assumptions that the world is as it should be, which reads a "should" into history. The point is that reality exists independent of our attempts to model and understand it. There is also a real temptation when you presuppose a model to interpret facts in a biased fashion, or flat out omit the inconvenient ones.

The teleological fallacy makes a lot more sense in science, where the whole point is that the world is, and science is supposed to accurately model it to the point that useful predictions can be made. The worst thing a scientist can do is insist the facts are different in order to fit them into a predetermined model.

Posted by: molly | Feb 28, 2012 11:15:45 PM

molly wrote:
"The point is that reality exists independent of our attempts to model and understand it."

This doesn't make sense to me. So we can experience reality but this experience can't be used to model or understand reality? How do we know that there is a reality beyond our experience of it? A model of a reality that exists beyond our model of it is still a model.

Posted by: Terry | Feb 29, 2012 3:01:54 AM

I like the quirks of history. For several hundred years the Church of Scotland tolerated divorce while the Church of England forbad it. Which church originated in part from a divorce?

(Strictly it was an annulment, but hell he was a Catholic at the time, so it would be fudged, wouldn't it?)

But seriously, it's molly's teleological point that's crucial: you mustn't write (say) the history of Greece and Rome as a purposeful development towards the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

Posted by: dearieme | Feb 29, 2012 4:09:24 AM

Is it that thinking the present exists as the consequences of the past gives rise to a danger of making value judgments (specifically, value judgments that make Western Culture look good)?

Posted by: krm | Feb 29, 2012 8:06:20 AM

Dearieme wrote:
"you mustn't write (say) the history of Greece and Rome as a purposeful development towards the Glorious Revolution of 1688."

But why not? Studying random events that take place at random times and not making a narrative out of them isn't an academic discipline.
And it's all narrative, isn't it? In a real story, it can be necessary for the boy who loses his gal in chapter one to get her back in chapter twelve.

Posted by: Terry | Feb 29, 2012 9:16:36 AM

Effect is not necessarily the same thing as intent. We do not say that Socrates, Cicero, Machiavelli or Montaigne intended or planned that we would have the Constitution we do, but that their thought influenced it and is of historical significance.

To hold otherwise has sinister implications, in both senses of the word. There is a tendency, at once leftist and evil, to posit a present uncaused by the past. This error enables the heresy of so-called "multiculturalism," in which every culture is as good as every other culture, Things are as they are, this view would hold, not because civilization has evolved a certain way, but by force and will. Since the goods of the earth are uncaused, mankind may arbitrarily choose what what it wishes.

Thus we arrive at Justice Ginsberg's preference for the South African constitution over our own, as being more "democratic" and immediate in that it puts he power of the state at the disposal of 51% of the flies of a summer, without the restraint which history has taught us is necessary. To arrive at this state of political anomie, it is necessary that we cut ourselves off from the experience of the past, that we step down from the shoulders of giants, to say "Yes we can!"

Posted by: Lou Gots | Feb 29, 2012 1:06:09 PM

I like to read history! I guess the past reflects on the present. How we can get the present if we dont' have any ideas about the past. We make our history and we must understandt it. That's why there are plenty of flaws and ruffles in our whiggish politics. And we get horror-stricken why it is going on in this way.

Posted by: Chris Parker | Feb 29, 2012 10:46:33 PM

The document that TS is complaining about actually has a pretty specific grievance. For several decades liberal england was contrasted with absolutist continent.
That's not actually what happened. There were in fact representative bodies on the continent that were respected, and the British state was usually pretty powerful compared to contemporary continental states. English, then British, then UK governments also systematically repressed local authorities, a policy that kind of blew up in their faces in the US. The author is complaining that the whig teleology in service to the liberal/absolutist model, ignores facts, which is bad history.

Posted by: molly | Feb 29, 2012 11:05:03 PM

Whig History - to the extent that is was some "everything in the past inevitably lead to our glorious state of being here and now" is as wrongheaded as Marxist thought (although the Whig History may be less inacurate as a result of classic liberalism having a better basic understanding of human nature).

Posted by: krm | Mar 1, 2012 7:24:37 AM

The reason that leftists especially dislike history is that, like children, what life which existed before them, if any, has no relevance. Every thought he has is original and brilliant. It cannot therefore be one that has been attempted hundreds of times, and disastrously.

...In history a great volume is unrolled for our instruction, drawing the materials for future wisdom from the past errors and infirmities of mankind-
(the last Whig, and a man who judged it to be fruitless to oppose the American Revolution, and madness to contribute to the French Revolution.)

Posted by: james wilson | Mar 1, 2012 11:53:03 PM