THE ORIGINS OF HISTORY by Herbert Butterfield


Email this review


The late Cambridge scholar (The Origins of Modern Science, The Whig Interpretation of History) was a historian who, though fiercely critical of those who approached historical facts with their conclusions already reached, realized that facts never present themselves outside of a mental framework which recognizes them as facts. For that reason, he was always as interested in historians as in history itself. Adam Watson, a former British diplomat presently teaching at the University of Virginia, has edited this book from an incomplete manuscript Butterfield left at his death in 1979; and it is a fitting conclusion to Butterfield's life work. He begins with the recognition, which would be trite if it were not so often forgotten, of the monumental effort it took for humans to first think historically. The first traces of history he finds in lists of kings, dynasties, and events--such as those of the Sumerian period around 2000 B.C.--that were used to keep track of years for commercial or ritualistic purposes. These already represented a more formal ordering of time than the epics of various cultures, or the inventories or other lists of earlier periods. But this ""history,"" as well as that written during the next thousand years, was essentially an ordering of contemporary time and only became the stuff of history for later peoples looking back. The real leap came with the Hebrew Scriptures--the ancient Hebrews were the most historical of peoples because the past and future, the Promise and its fulfillment, gave meaning to the present. Compared to the long sections devoted to interpreting and assessing the historical consciousness and writings of the Hebrews, Butterfield is much more schematic with Classical history, contenting himself with some unsurprising reflections on Homeric cycles, the great histories of Herodotus and Thucydides, and the supplanting of history by the fascination with the unchanging in the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle. The one unexpected chapter is on Chinese historical writing, so often neglected in surveys of this kind; history had an important and institutionalized role in China, and Butterfield's brief summary is worth the detour. After that, in some chapters that were left less finished than the earlier ones, Butter-field surveys the early and late Christian traditions (where Augustine is the key figure), and moves on to the succeeding secularization of historical writing and the birth of historical criticism in the 18th and 19th centuries. There is no grand new theory here, just a continuous amazement at the work it has taken to refine historical thinking and methods. A steady, sustaining guide for amateur and professonal alike.

Pub Date: Sept. 18th, 1981
Publisher: Basic Books