In praise of Whigs

My fellow blogger Jim Grozier ( recently had some interesting things to say about the history of science, and the way historians think about science.  This prompted me to dig out the Preface to the Folio Society edition of my own history of science, in their edition known as a History of Western Science but originally published by Penguin as Science: A History.  In both cases, “a” history, not “the” history, for obvious (I hope) reasons.

In Praise of Whigs
I have been interested in history for as long as I can remember, and writing about science for nearly as long; but it was only well into my career that I realised I was also writing about history. My writing career began with journalism, where stories had to have immediate impact, dealing almost exclusively with things that were ‘new’ and this week’s ‘breakthrough’ – which often became last week’s out-of-date idea. Even when I started writing books, at first I concentrated on so-called cutting-edge research, which made for some excited scurrying to get the stories into print before they became out of date, but didn’t always result in books with a long shelf life. The change came when I decided to write a book about quantum physics, consciously intended as the book I wished someone else had written for my benefit. Lacking the cutting-edge immediacy of its predecessors, it was turned down by eight publishers
before seeing life in 1984 as In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat, and has remained in print ever since. Even then, it only slowly dawned on me, thanks to correspondence from readers, that what Ihad written was a history of how quantum physics developed in
the twentieth century, and who the people were who developed it. Readers, I learned, were fascinated to discover that people they knew of only as names on laws (such as Heisenberg, of uncertainty principle fame) were human beings with human frailties (in this case, among other things, severe hay fever, which played a part in his discovery of some key features of the quantum world).

Gradually, my books became more focused on scientific history and biography (which, after all, is a kind of history), until Stefan McGrath, my editor at Penguin, suggested that I should do the job properly, and write a history of the development of Western science. The result was the book you now see. And once again, after it was published I learned that I had written something that wasn’t entirely what I thought I was writing.

One of the reviews of the Allen Lane edition of this book referred to it sneeringly as a ‘Whig view of history’. Never having trained as a historian, I was only vaguely aware of the existence of factions among professional historians with different views on the
interpretation of history, but it was clear from the context that this was not intended as a complimentary remark. Intrigued, I checked up on what, exactly, the term means. As I had suspected, I discovered that Thomas Babington Macaulay was the archetypal ‘Whig historian’, but (as I had also anticipated) that the term is almost exclusively used as one of derision, so that very few historians, past or present, describe themselves as ‘Whigs’. From John Warren, author of History and the Historians, I learned that ‘most people interested in non-academic history enjoy a good, sweeping narrative and appreciate the way in which Whig-style history gives them straightforward explanations’, which certainly fits what I was trying to do. I also learned that the term was coined by Herbert Butterfield, and that his influential writings helped to push British academic history ‘towards narrow PhD style
research and books which had little or no appeal to a general
readership’ – certainly not my scene.

Macaulay’s great-nephew George Macaulay Trevelyan, following the family tradition, wrote in an autobiographical essay that:
The poetry of history lies in the quasi-miraculous fact that once,
on this earth, once, on this familiar spot of ground, walked
other men and women, as actual as we are today, thinking their
own thoughts, swayed by their own passions, but now all gone,
one generation vanishing after another, gone as utterly as we
shall shortly be gone . . .

I prefer to emphasise the continuity rather than the vanishing, theway the torch of, in this case, scientific progress is passed on from one generation to the next; but I agree with Trevelyan about the poetry. And I would emphasise that in the history of science, whatever the situation may be in the broader historical context, we are talking about progress. Albert Einstein did come up with an objectively better description of the Universe than Isaac Newton did, not because he was any more clever than Newton, but because of all the things that had been discovered in the centuries between Newton’s death and Einstein’s birth.

In his biography of Trevelyan, David Cannadine summed up the success of his Whig approach to history as ‘in evoking the past, in unfolding a narrative, and in capturing the imagination of a broad general public’. Adding this to the comments already quoted, to paraphrase Tom Lehrer, ‘It makes a fellow proud to be a Whig.’ My sneering critic precisely hit the nail on the head, and helped me to understand what I was doing in writing this book – my aim is indeed to evoke the past, to unfold a narrative, and to capture the imagination of a broad general public; and I am flattered to be mentioned in the same breath as Macaulay and Trevelyan.

But in the light of such criticism, in case any other professional historians of a non-Whiggish persuasion should stumble upon this book, there is one relevant point that I would like to make crystal clear. History is inevitably about people, because it is people who make history. But I am firmly convinced that individuals do not play a great part in determining the way history develops (at least, not in terms of the history of science), because if one individual had not made a particular discovery, or come up with a particular law, someone else would have at about the same time. The reason why science has progressed in the way it has since the ball started rolling in the middle of the sixteenth century (why it started rolling then is perhaps another story) is that one thing builds on another, and that science and technology go hand in hand. To take a simple example, Galileo Galilei could not have discovered the moons of Jupiter before the telescope was invented, and the discovery of the moons of Jupiter helped to spur both Galileo and other telescope makers to develop better instruments for observing the heavens.

There is room to debate whether or not the influence of a single individual such as Napoleon or Mohammed can change the way history is developing in the broader sense; but there is very little room for speculation that the course of science over the past few centuries would have been radically different if Newton, or Einstein, or any of the other people whose work is described in this book had not existed.
So if you are looking for a narrow PhD-style book, you have come to the wrong place. But if you have Whiggish tendencies and want a sweeping narrative with plenty of stories about real people doing out-of-the-ordinary things, you are just the kind of person I hope to be able to please.


5 comments on “In praise of Whigs

  1. Jim Grozier says:

    Thanks for publishing this, John. I think I am going to have to write my own blog about Whig history before long. More immediately, I am writing an essay for my “Scientific Revolution” option course about a paper by a Newton scholar, the late Margaret Osler. (My tutor does not know I’m writing it yet. He is going to get it whether he likes it or not!)

    Osler makes the sort of statements that would provoke almost any self-respecting scientist, particularly scientists interested in the history of science, and specifically, the history of scientific ideas, to respond. One of the most provocative I have come across so far is this:

    “Ideas do not influence subsequent ideas; nor do they develop by their own intrinsic power. Rather they are developed by particular individuals in real historical contexts to solve problems of their own”.

    Now, at a trivial level she is of course right that ideas are not animate beings capable of a separate existence from us. Someone has to think them, write them down, pass them on. But they do influence subsequent ideas – either in the head of their originator or in the head of the reader. The idea that there was some connection between electricity and magnetism (which came from observations such as the magnetisation of metal objects that had been struck by lightning) did not of itself lead to Biot and Savart’s Law, nor even to the idea that an electric current produces a magnetic field. Oersted and others had to take this idea and investigate it with the help of the newly-invented Voltaic pile, and we can surely forgive Oersted for initially waving a compass around a pile, because he did not understand that you need a current, not just static electricity. If no-one had ever thought of a link between electricity and magnetism before the pile came along, the link would doubtless have been discovered, but maybe not so soon.

    But can you see what Osler is doing by making her bizarre claim? She is opening up the history of science to non-scientists like herself. Osler was not even a historian of science – she was just a general historian who became interested in Newton, but did not, as far as I can make out, train as a historian of science. And she clearly didn’t know much science. In another quote she bemoans the fact that a certain volume published in 1966 to celebrate the tercentenary of Newton’s “annus mirabilis” – when he discovered integral calculus, optics and gravitation – was “full of mathematical formulae”. What did she expect? Why didn’t she bother to learn some science? She does not complain about the passages of untranslated French and Latin in the book – presumably that was because she could understand those.

    One of the things I have realised since getting involved in the history and philosophy of science is that historians and philosophers love to have their own niches – so the strategy is often to say something outrageous, then spend the rest of your life defending it (and, more to the point, if you are good enough, living off it). An interesting paper by Michael Aaron Dennis in Krige and Pestre’s “Scinece in the 20th Century” in which he discusses Kuhn’s distinction between internalist and externalist histories of science (which translate roughly to “content” and “context” respectively) seems to me to suggest that historians needed to break the internalist stranglehold on the history of science in order to find new niches for them to occupy, since, not being scientists, they were excluded from the internalist approach; the result is the overwhelmingly externalist, anti-Whiggish, “narrow PhD-type” history of science that we have today.

    • Don’t get me started on Kuhn! Another non-scientist who did not understand what science is all about.

      • Jim Grozier says:

        He did physics, though, didn’t he, before switching to history of science? And in the 1968 piece I was referring to (written in 1968), he described the internalist view as the dominant one at the time, and did not seem to be unhappy with that.

        I meant to add btw that the dogma that Thou Shalt Not Write Whig History is, as you might suspect, absolutely entrenched in the current history-of-science community. In fact one of the lecturers on the course, when I asked her why all the studies we do – even at MSc level – are so narrow and detailed, replied that people do not write “general overviews” that link one event with another because they are frightened of being accused of Whiggism.

      • John Gribbin says:

        As far as I know, Kuhn never did research in physics, which is highly relevant.


  2. Jim Grozier says:

    Hmmm. I had hoped that someone would leap in here and defend the anti-Whiggish dogma … but nothing so far. Hence I will try to anticipate what they would have said and respond to that. Now as far as I can understand it, the Whig view of history is supposed to be based on the assumption that history is a sort of inevitable linear progression towards the present; Larry Laudan, whose excellent essay on this topic I have now put on my web page at, says (on page 56) that Butterfield objected to the writing of history as a progression because “it led to historians ignoring all those figures who did not lie on a straight line projecting from then to now”.

    I must say I don’t think I have ever read such an account of the history of science. For instance, all the accounts of 20th century cosmology I’ve read include the Steady State Theory even though that has been thoroughly discredited; and they resist the temptation to claim that Penzias and Wilson’s discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation was a deliberate attempt to verify or disprove the big bang theory, rather than (as it was) something stumbled across in the search for something completely different; as was, in another branch of 20th century science, the discovery of electron diffraction. Such serendipitous discoveries don’t fit very easily into a purely “whiggish” view (if such a thing exists) any more than they fit into Popper’s falsificationist view of how science is supposed to be done.

    Looking back a century or two, another piece of “failed” science that is normally included in general histories of science is phlogiston theory. Hasok Chang has made a special study of the rivalry between the phlogiston and oxygen theories and has even pointed out some disturbingly “modern” aspects of the former, which, he muses, might even have led to the discovery of things like the photoelectric effect a century before it was actually discovered …

    I think that, rather than going out on a limb and eschewing any sort of connectivity between the various historical events in science, what professional historians of science ought perhaps to be doing is just gently cautioning against seeing the science of the past through modern eyes. One example of the dangers of doing that comes in Chang’s account of the phlogiston/oxygen debate, where we might nowadays think that Lavoisier’s weight measurements made an unanswerable case for oxygen – yet in those days the idea of mass conservation was by no means mainstream.

    I think another thing that comes out of the current anti-whiggish orthodoxy is a criticism of the view that there is only one possible theory to explain a given set of phenomena on the basis of a given set of experimental data, and I think there might be something in that because to some extent the conventions we use to describe the universe are arbitrary. For instance, depending on the relative local abundances of germanium and silicon, different societies might have developed NPN transistors before PNP, and hence the theory of holes might exist in some cultures but not in others – but ultimately both versions describe the same thing.

    Finally may I recommend Michael Bycroft’s blog, “Double refraction”, which contains a lot of sense, including a “Manifesto for Internal History of Science”. It’s at

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