When the idea of a round table on presentism was mooted at a board meeting of Past and Present, my thoughts turned to Herbert Butterfield’s Whig Interpretation of History, a text I hadn’t read since I was an undergraduate. Going back to Butterfield, however, I discovered that he never actually used the term.1 His target was the tendency he perceived in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century British historiography to write British history as a story of the onward march of liberty and, more generally, to judge the past by the standards of the present, which is what I had remembered as a critique of presentism. His book now looks dated. He subscribed to an epistemology that assumed historians could recover the reality of the past through empirical research, that they could get inside the heads of historical actors and...

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