Comparsion Of Two Historiographical Theories: Whig And Empiricist Historiography

Rather a bold statement to make - yet equally worthy of exploration: is the historian, if he is not presenting his side of the case with evidence wrong? Or can the eradication of unnecessary information enhance the history that is being presented? To that end, this essay will look at two different historiographical approaches, the methods behind these approaches and if indeed their viewpoints are to be considered. Do we have to rely heavily on fact-based sources? Or may we allow our own historiographical viewpoints to be formed from the viewpoints of other historians? In order to answer this question, we must first evaluate the available methods, alongside personal interpretations of historiography. Throughout this essay the focal points shall be the works and views of different types of historiography and schools of thought used therein. The intention is to explore the methodology of the Whig historiographical theory and that of those historians who would view themselves more as Empiricist historians such as Leopold Von Ranke. 

Historians have always debated with each other about the many ways in which we ‘do history', in addition, there are many different approaches to tackling the study of history. Whilst introducing the reader to the stern need for sources regarding assessing history, Arthur Marwick, an empiricist historian: advises the reader that unless evidence is readily accessible then the historical content to which they are writing is worthless. ‘imagination, if it is not founded in evidence, really isn't much use'. Observing another historiographical interpretation leads us to the Whig approach to history. A Whig historian, for example, would suggest that the past simply ‘is' and that there is no need to substantiate this claim with evidence, almost adopting an ‘it happened and that's that attitude'. According to Thomas Babington Macaulay: Whig writer and administrator: the importance of his recognition – albeit one-sided, non-evidential and unsupported, was imperative. He displays this mentality in a statement that he makes in his book: Macaulay's history of England: advising that an amusing narrative is immense. Suggesting that he cares more for the propaganda as opposed to the facts. I shall not be satisfied unless I produce something which shall, for a few days, supersede the latest fashionable novel in the talk of young ladies. 

Contrarily an Empiricist historian would vehemently disagree with such a statement arguing that in order to reconstruct the past the facts and true reflections are crucial and that one needs to provide evidence to substantiate these claims. In his book: The varieties of History Stern notes that Ranke would advise history had to be presented ‘as it was’. Delving into what may be seen to be the very creation of source-based historiography leads to the works of Leopold Von Ranke: “Recognised as the father of modern ‘professional’ history writing”. Ranke, a nineteenth-century historian and professor, believed in the scrupulous use of primary sources. Von Ranke set the standards for much of later historical writing and introduced ideas such as the emphasis on narrative history and scientific approaches. He emphasised the importance of proof: namely that of primary and secondary sources. In his field, Ranke left a deep impression and became known to historians as ''the Master. According to Caroline Hoefferle: 'Ranke was probably the most important historian to shape historical profession as it emerged in Europe and the United States in the late 19th century.' Ranke's aim was to reconstruct past events as they were and to avoid injecting spirits of the present, he believed as do many objective historians today in the great emphasis of History: the primary source. Coining the phrase that the purpose of history was to study, wie es elgentlich gewesen: translated meaning how things were or how they happened. Thus, advocating that one had to refer to original sources for example: the archives, artifacts and such. 

It may stand in good stead to note that Von Ranke alleviated history: from this, historians took their work much more professionally. In his book: The Pursuit of History Tosh (2010) mentions Ranke and his methodology: ‘Though very few people read Ranke today, his name continues to stand for an Olympian impartially and a duty to be true to the past before all else. The emphasis of this, meaning that Ranke would always suggest to putting the past first and not to be swayed by the fancifulness of allowing oneself to be influenced by a more glamorous view of this history in question. In the first of many books: history of the Latin and Teutonic nations from 1419-1514, included is an appendix section: Zur kritik neurer geschictschreiber translated to English: a critique of modern historical writing. Ranke presented a criticism of contemporary historiography, condemning the reliance on tradition and proposed instead, a more objective method of history. However, whilst principally following the advanced methodology of Niebuhr, Ranke describes the sources used for this book as, original narratives, other writings and diaries, letters and diplomatic reports, although discussion has been made regarding Ranke's scrupulous use of sources, Marwick (2001) presents that there could indeed be some weakness in Ranke's methods, advising that Ranke never made an explicit difference between sources: ‘It is not clear whether the ‘other writings' are actually secondary sources or just other sorts of primary sources.' Lord John Acton, historian, scholar and friend however spoke highly of the man who was a great influence on him, during a lecture presented at Cambridge University in 1895 Lord Acton considered that Ranke opposed the poetics and put aside the great man theory of history: ensuring that the facts and sciences were to be trusted. He mentions that Ranke's work was critical and colorless: ‘He taught history to be critical, to be colourless and to be new. He decided to effectually repress the poet, the patriot, the religious or political partisan, to sustain no cause, to banish himself from his books’. Lord Acton continues in his verse to praise highly the works of Von Ranke and whilst there may well have been greater writers in the subject of History that we, the students should indeed be indebted to him and his vast literary works. Writers in the Whig tradition opposingly saw England through ‘rose tinted glasses'. Rule Britannia, and all. The English were the progressors – never lending a minute of thought to the past, always looking forward. Even if indeed that included some light fabrication or eradication of truth. 

Thomas Babington Macaulay is the exemplar here of the Whig history. Thomas Babington Macaulay: a giant of the British Empire, Macaulay's greatest achievement - The history of England: from the accession of James II, first published in 1849 - conceivably the creator of his fame. With these volumes, one of which written after his death, Macaulay, writing about his argument that the past is progressive, displays a clear mindset that the route of progression is for the greater glory and liberty of England. In the book History skills: (Mary Abbott et al. 1996, p14) advises of Lord Macaulay's Infatuation with King William III (James' nephew and son-in-law) Macaulay regarded the defeat of King James II as the ‘glorious revolution'. The glorious revolution (1688) is a phrase coined by Whig historians, regardless of the issue that King William committed only to the invasion of the king purely to ‘tip' the power balance of King Louis XIV in Europe. The truth behind this ‘revolution' thus hidden in the works of Macauley emphasises the thesis that Britain was at the forefront of the ignorance and indeed arrogance of the Whig theory. Marwick writes to suggest that the truth was indeed cheated from the public, Marwick accuses Macaulay of ‘rendering the past less truthful', he mentions that in regard to the so-called ‘glorious revolution' Macaulay did in fact lie about the circumstances in which the then Prince William of Orange invaded England, landing at Torbay. Marwick further substantiates his claims that Whig interpretations are not to be trusted. ‘in all that grave senate there was none who could refrain from shedding tears. But the iron stoicism of William never gave way and he stood among his weeping friends calm and austere as if he had been about to leave them only for a short visit to his hunting-grounds at loo.' In hiding the ‘truth' from the people: protecting the ‘lofty hierarchy' complexions of the liberal writers, they did indeed only set themselves up for future historiographical/political failure. Thus, unfortunately leading to the dissolution in 1868 after running out of reforms, having been left in power, doing nothing and looking stupid: Robert Peel: leader of the opposing Tory party, took advantage of the lack of confidence from the general public, the outnumbered and outmaneuvered whigs were wiped out by his party in the general election of 1841. 

Could it be argued that a person or persons are indeed wrong in their school of thought to endeavour to put their own country, their beliefs and what they stand-for first? Perhaps if the current political parties were to do so our beloved Great Britain would not currently be enthralled in a Brexit hell – but that's another issue altogether. Due to his conviction that the English people held sovereignty over any other beings: alongside his rise to supreme council, could it be suggested that, in fact, Macaulay was responsible for the spreading of the English language? Should the natives of India feel be somewhat indebted to Macaulay and his whig interpretation? In his article: ‘Macaulay's children and the rest' Gautam Adhikari attains to the fact that should it not have been for Macaulay the people of India, half a century on would not be ‘of English tongue'. ‘Forty years on, the new policy had indeed produced “hundreds of thousands of natives who can appreciate European knowledge when laid before them in the English language”. A century and a half on, millions in India speak and read English.’ preceding the ‘spread of the English language’, not looking to curry favour with the natives, and arguably his most tenacious act: 1838, returning two years after he became a member of the supreme council of India: Macaulay’s infliction of his ‘superiority supremacy’ on to the people of India: Macaulay, believing sincerely that it was the British duty to enlighten the ‘heathens’ who lived in darkness outside Europe, having convinced the Governor-General to introduce English to replace Persian as the focus of education in schools. In his parliamentary speech delivered in 1835, Macaulay is believed to have said that ‘a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.’ This statement provided by Macaulay is indeed provocative but depending on the type of historian reading this essay dictates how they interpret his statement and indeed how they view - how it affected the people he intended it for.

Reflecting on the initial intent made at the start of this essay, to choose two historiographical approaches, to evaluate these approaches and interpretations: having researched the types of historiography aforementioned the conclusion is reached that indeed it is imperative to ensure that one can substantiate any claims made with supporting evidence. It would be unfair to teach history to the future historians of today based on hear'say. Whilst evaluating the methods used by the historians mentioned it has come to surface that whilst initially the comment that Khrushchev advised in regards to historians being 'topsy-turvy' and that 'they need to be watched' is in fact, invalid. 

After studying the methods discussed in this essay one has concluded that in fact no one set view of historiography is the correct one. It is true that myths can be damaging to the study of history, however, a person or persons perception of something can never be wrong. The objective historian does set the precedent of superiority but the Whig view of English history and all its glory makes for a more fascinating read. The Whig interpretation of history may not have been orthodox, or textbook, but it is a shame that the Whig view of history has been eradicated for so many years. Having decided to sit out of the current situation in British politics, it is exciting to see where Mr. Waleed Ghani will take his newly reformed Whig Party in the 2022 general election. 

16 August 2021
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