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The Conservative Historical Imagination in the Twentieth Century

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 July 2014

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In 1935, R. G. Collingwood defined the historical imagination as an innate or a priori part of thinking that allows students of history to reconstruct the past. Whether stored in the furniture of the mind, learned through practice, or inherited as genetic inclinations, imagination is indispensable to the historian's craft. The historian's imagination may be richer, more diverse, more inventive than that, say, of an orthopedist, because the historian's present is the surviving but elusive past. Historians have to imagine more because they can never know what actually happened. Like orthopedists and everyone else, historians enter their professions hauling baggage packed haphazardly with images drawn from cultural, personal, religious, moral and practical experience. An orthopedist checks his psychological and social luggage when treating anesthetized muscle and bone in the controlled atmosphere of an operating room. For the orthopedist, the only images relevant for diagnosis and remedy are those produced precisely by x-rays or magnetic resonance. A historian neither diagnoses nor remedies. Instead, relying upon recalcitrant evidence, she tries to explain events that occurred in a dynamic, unpredictable, uncontrollable world already finished.

When historians conduct research and then interpret what they find, they are unwilling and unable to lay aside their every day images of human nature and society. Such concepts, even when wrong, are logically necessary to explanation. Historical imagination organizes the categories that provide a historian with a match between her expectations and the subjects of her inquiry. The historian's juxtaposition, unlike the orthopedist's realistic image, is impressionistic. It becomes satisfying only when it fulfills a cultivated sense of propriety. Although honest historians are persuaded by the information they discover, there are few experiences more pleasing than that frisson of recognition when initial impressions are validated by the historical records. That pleasure is far more agreeable than disappointment. If the records repudiate anticipations then the historian must search for a more adequate explanatory scheme that approximates the truth more closely.

Research Article
Copyright © North American Conference on British Studies 1996

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2 See Soffer, Reba, Discipline and Power. The University, History and the Formation of an English Elite, 1870–1930 (Stanford, 1994), esp. pp. 4652Google Scholar for a discussion of historians' reactions to the Great War.

3 For J. H. Clapham, see ibid., p. 156.

4 A. J. P. Taylor had “no illusions about Stalinism” in the 1930s, but he was “unshakably pro-Russian” and saw the “Five Year Plan as a demonstration of socialism in action” (A Personal History [New York, 1983], p. 124Google ScholarPubMed).

5 See Rowse, A. L., Appeasement: A Study in Political Decline, 1933–39 (1961), p. 38Google Scholar. Rowse argues that many of the appeasers such as Geoffrey Dawson and John Simon were decent men who did not know the kind of men Hitler and his associates were because they “were ignorant of Europe and European history” (p. 116). Toynbee could not be included in that ignorant group.

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7 Gilbert and Gott's The Appeasers was dedicated to Taylor, A. J. P.. Parker, R. A. C., in Chamberlain and Appeasement: British Policy and the Coming of the Second World War (New York, 1993)Google Scholar, argues that the “evidence shows that Chamberlain, first, became the most active exponent of an agreed policy towards Germany and, then, as others came to doubt and hesitate, argued and manoeuvred to continue it.” Chamberlain dominated the making of British policy and pursued appeasement because “he thought it was correct.” Parker finds that “Chamberlain was wrong when he argued that no effective methods of securing British safety and prosperity were possible other than those he advocated” (pp. 364–65).

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25 Annan, Noel, Our Age, p. 270Google ScholarPubMed. Hugh Trevor Roper was on the Committee of Electors for the Regius Professorship in Modern History in 1963. Butterfield's close friend Desmond Williams sent Butterfield an extract of a letter he received from Trevor Roper, who wrote: “I shall listen demurely and cast my vote with the Cambridge majority.” He thought the candidates would be Jack Plumb, Elton, and George Kitson Clark. He found Elton unpopular and a stiff opponent of reform, “but no denying his energy and ability.” For Plumb, he could not “vote very enthusiastically. … There is something small about his character, something vulgar about his arrivisme, something trivial about his attitude to history.… Rowse…would probably vote for Plumb as a fellow-devotee of the great god Mammon.…Kitson…is not very inspiring and a bit of an ass.…” He wanted to know if there was a dark horse such as A. J. P. Taylor (May 29, 1963, Butterfield Papers, Cambridge University Library, W335). The Chair went to Butterfield.

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56 For Elton's influence see Kouri, E. I., and Scott, Tom, eds., Politics and Society in Reformation Europe: Essays for Sir Geoffrey Elton on his Sixty-fifth Birthday (London, 1987)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Cross, Claire, Loades, David, and Scarisbrick, J. J., eds., Law and Government under the Tudors: Essays Presented to Sir Geoffrey Elton, Regius Professor of Modern History in the University of Cambridge, on the Occasion of his Retirement (Cambridge, 1988)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and, Rules, Religion and Rhetoric in Early Modern England: a Festschrift for Geoffrey Elton from his Australasian Friends (Sydney, 1988)Google Scholar.

57 John Pocock, Peter Laslett, and Jonathan Steinberg were influenced by Butterfield, but their work and considerable reputations are unique to them.

58 See Thompson, Kenneth, ed., Herbert Butterfield: The Ethics of History and Politics (Lanham, Md., 1980)Google Scholar; the very perceptive and sympathetic The Wisdom of Statecraft: Sir Herbert Butterfield and the Philosophy of International Politics (Durham, NC, 1985) by Coll, Alberto R. who shares Butterfield's religious and political commitmentsGoogle Scholar; and the Butterfield Papers, University of Cambridge Library, W270, Letter to Desmond Williams, April 28, 1958, 1; W272, William's reply, on May 2, 1958, 1; W273, May 27, 1958, Williams to Butterfield; W279, n.d., Butterfield to Willliams; Williams to Butterfield, Sept. 30, 1958.

59 Morality and Force. MS on the morality of international relations, Butterfield Papers, Butt/110, n.d., 1.

60 Bosworth, Richard, Explaining Auschwitz and Hiroshima: History Writing and the Second World War, 1945–1990 (London, 1993), pp. 5152CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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