Featured Reviews, VOLUME 5

Herbert Butterfield by Kenneth McIntyre [Feature Review]

Herbert Butterfield by Kenneth McIntyreOrdered Liberty Premised on Divine Providence

A Review of

Herbert Butterfield:

History, Providence, and Skeptical Politics

Kenneth B. McIntyre.

Paperback: ISI Books, 2011.
Buy now:  [ Amazon ] [ Kindle ]

Reviewed by Mark Eckel.

Twisted history marks the pastime of lazy thinkers.  Herbert Butterfield would have none of it.  Practicing his craft during the tectonic shifts of the 20th century, it would have been easy for Butterfield, the historian, to accept the view that using history to promote present belief was acceptable.  After all, Butterfield lived in physical and philosophical war zones.  But Butterfield’s work was born of Augustinian theology which acknowledges the inherent corruption of humans.  He understood that views of history must be constrained and limited; interpretation of another person’s place or time does not exist for simple lessons of history.  “The Christian faith produces both humility and sympathy in the face of the moral and intellectual complexity of past” (42).  The practical application of Christian doctrine to an academic discipline is well expounded in Kenneth B. McIntyre’s Herbert Butterfield: History, Providence, and Skeptical Politics.

All too often we are separated from an intellectual’s work and his culture.  McIntyre does the reader a service by explaining early on how the horrors of World War I impacted England, opening the way for Butterfield’s views to be spread to a popular audience.  The ‘progressive’ view of history (culture was becoming better) was rejected in lieu of Butterfield’s contention that history is autonomous, to be understood within its own period of time.  Butterfield rejected ‘presentism’, historical ideas used for current concerns, saying that the study of history should be pursued for its own sake.  Still others analyzed history for its ‘practical’ values.  Butterfield argued instead that history could not be moralized by those living in the present.  Historians come to conclusions based on evidence but their job is not to make ethical judgments.  History operates within its own field of study with different methods of inquiry.  Butterfield’s academic views quickly became accepted based in part on British Broadcasting radio appearances.  Butterfield’s culture made it possible for his thinking to impact the 20th century study of history.

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