Herbert Butterfield and the ethics of historiography

History and Theory 44 (1):55–71 (2005)
Abstract
At the center of this important writer’s thought lies a paradox in his constant implicating of ethical norms in historical writing while simultaneously deriding all forms of moral judgment in history. This article investigates the relationship between Butterfield’s ethics and his religion in order to suggest ways of resolving the paradox. It focuses on his unconventional style of Augustinianism and the levels of historical analysis involved in what he called “technical history,” on the one hand, and his own search for a history that went beyond it, on the other, during a century that threw up particular challenges in barbarous war and genocide. The project requires some consideration of Butterfield’s own substantive historical writing against the background of such events, but also silhouettes something more decisive: the degree to which he came to see the enterprise of historiographical analysis as itself ethical. What emerges from the argument is a framework within which Butterfield’s search for meaning in the past can be laid beside his hostility to moral judgments of past actors on the part of historians without the contradictions that are often assumed. A further implication of the study is that Butterfield was often his own worst enemy in conflating distinctions that he himself had made and blurring lines of argument that demanded sharp separation
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