Historical Expertise

On Whigs and Whig History

Whig history, whiggish history, whigs, and even Whigs seem to be enjoying their 15 minutes of fame. Thony over at The Renaissance Mathematicus had a go at Whig history of science, Michal Meyer at PACHS offered something of a defense of whig history, and William Cronon offered a nice analysis of Herbert Butterfield’s own use of the terms in his Two Cheers for the Whig Interpretation of History.

As Cronon pointed out, the terms Whig, whig, and whig history can be confusing even to historians, largely because Butterfield used the terms broadly. Butterfield offered something of a definition in his preface. Whig histories, he tells us, typically “praise revolutions provided they have been successful, emphasise certain principles of progress in the past and produce a story which is the ratification if not the glorification of the present.” It might be helpful to think about how whig history is different from triumphalism or how triumphalism is a particular subset of whiggish history. In “We Have Never Been Whiggish About Phlogiston” Hasok Chang argued that the two are distinct forms of bad history. Triumphalism in particular, he claims, bedevils historians of science and, as both Thony and Michal pointed out, especially scientists who try their hand at history.

Consequently, it is not terribly surprising to see Razib Kahn misuse the term “Whig” in his recent post on Neil Armstrong and to misunderstand (or to have only glanced at) the wikipedia page on whig history. While admitting that he does not think we live in an era of decline, he considers highpoint of space exploration Armstrong’s walk on the moon. The moon landing was, Kahn suggests, was “high point in the spirit of the West.” Our failure to return to the moon somehow signals the end of the “whig conceit.”

Ignoring the controversial nature his claim, I don’t see how the “whig conceit” is related to the moon landing. Moreover, I don’t understand why he invoked the “whig conceit” (or his analogy to Hellenistic Greece). His preference for a space program that, presumably, includes sending humans to moons and planets is not helped by his historical and historiographic claims. A paraphrase of Sokal’s comment might apply here: sloppy history and historiography, like sloppy science, is useless, or even counter productive.