Home » Uncategorized » Essays on English School of International Relations: Herbert Butterfield (2 of 7)

Essays on English School of International Relations: Herbert Butterfield (2 of 7)

A short background about Herbert Butterfield was lectured by Dr. Yurdusev on 2 November 2009. According to him, Butterfield was a devout Wesleyan Methodist, son of a wool sorter/bookkeeper (father) and a domestic servant (mother), and the first boy from his hometown Oxenhope, located a few miles from the Lancashire-Yorkshire border in Australia. He fulfilled his father’s dream by becoming a lay preacher at an early age of 16 and received an Oxbridge scholarship from Cambridge University.[i]
     After publishing “The Whig Interpretation of History” in 1931 at a young age, he submitted an application for the Woodrow Wilson Chair at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, and was placed on the short-list alongside C.A. Macartney, Arnold Forster and E.H. Carr. The selection committee, needless to say, appointed the latter. In spite of disappointment, his stay in Cambridge gave him prominence and administrative authority by becoming Master of Peterhouse (1955-68), Vice-Chancellor (1959-61) and Regius Professor (1965-68).[ii]
     His astonishing career is without a doubt, one of the greatest Western historians in 20th century. However, can we also assume and conclude that in line with the course objective, i.e. critically examine the works of the representative scholars identified with the school, H. Butterfield had greatly contributed to the development of the British theory of International Relations?[iii]  This essay will try to answer whether or not H. Butterfield’s works immensely and significantly contributed to the development and evolution of the British theory of International Relations?
     It is emphatic to disregard the origin of the school since he is the convener of it. But it is not right to say and claim that without H. Butterfield there will be no British theory of International Relations. Not all schools of thought and theory were founded and considered product of a single man (even he is brilliant); the flourishing essentials and growth of it is a byproduct of both intellectual collectivities among group of scholars and of their shared common views.
     Based on what I have read from articles, journals, scanned chapters of books and reviews about his works, I assumed that he was more concerned with the history of historiography and how historians should write, what he termed academic or technical history. Not by generalizing, analyzing and judging historical events but by telling the story and seeking to understand the past as it understood itself.[iv] Thus he is against of “Whig historians,” who practiced staging historiographical narratives anachronistically so as to produce a ratification of the present or justification of position exposed by them.[v] 
     Butterfield’s outlook was greatly influenced by St. Augustine and the traditions of Wesleyan Methodism. He believed that Providence had almost discernibly brought good out of evil, but goodness was never a character in the story the historian had to tell. The story of history, therefore, should teach humility and self-effacement.[vi] The order on which society rested was Providential, the gift of God, which produces a world in which men can live and gradually improve their external conditions, in spite of sin. He regarded the secularization of European society as a qualified good. Convinced of the ‘inner’ nature of religious faith, he held that Christians must come to God through their free will, not through outward conformity to the structure of ecclesiastical authority.[vii]
     In his article “Official History,” he distinguished two maxims for historians: (1) that governments try to press upon the historian the key to all the drawers but one, and are very anxious to spread the belief that this single one contains no secret of importance, (2) that if the historian can only find out the thing which government does not want him to know, he will lay his hand upon something that is likely to be significant.[viii]
     It is evident enough that historicity was the methodology employed and utilized by Butterfield in the study of international relations. He argued that it is best studied through diplomatic and general history, and must remain divorced from the world of practical politics. At a conference held in January 1949, in a characteristic statement of his view, he lamented the decline of diplomatic history in universities and attacked the rise of international relations. He complained, “only advanced training in diplomatic history and international law could provide students with a proper understanding of those relations.”[ix]
     In the committee he convened which was founded by Rockefeller Foundation, the group expressed greater concern with the historical than the contemporary, with normative than scientific, with the philosophical than the methodological and with principles than policy.[x] Most of his writings in the study of international relations were focused on the principles of prudence and moral obligation in the international society of states throughout its history. The role of providence in shaping the society is much of his concerned.
     In his contributions in the “Diplomatic Investigations,” he emphasized that international order is not a thing bestowed upon by nature, but is a matter of refined thought, careful contrivance and elaborate articles. Further, the principle of the balance-of-power apparently tended to the preservation of the status quo, putting a brake on territorial changes.[xi] Consequently, he sought a restoration of the ideas of a community of states, of the balance of power, of limited war, of restatement of the value of prudence and of the dangers of moralism.[xii] 
     In sum, Butterfield views on the study of international relations laid the foundational answers on some salient points of inquiry in theorizing International Politics. These are the question of roles of ethics and morality concomitant with Wesleyan Methodistic nature of providence in the international society of states, the importance of historicity against American’s ahistorical thinking of the field and the normative value of international order as a precondition of justice in formulating the British international politics.
     However, Butterfield’s scholarship on this endeavor was somehow a short-lived one because of his administrative duties in Cambridge and passion for historiography than publishing works in the field of international relations. Thus most, if not all, of international relations’ scholars were not so keen to his works and sometimes were highly critical of his scholarship with regards to theorizing international politics.
     I would argue in answering my posited question that Herbert Butterfield has, somehow, touched on some parts that he thinks are crucial in formulating a British theory of International Relations but in its entirety on the development and evolution, little or much less were contributed. Moreover, it is not that so sophisticated or grandeur as I would had expected from him, but full of slapdash and repetitive historical accounts which are insensitive to logical postulations and explanatory power that a theory requires.


[i] Taken from the first pages of Kenneth W. Thompson’s ‘Masters of International Thought: Major Twentieth-Century Theorists and the World Crisis’ (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980) and Raymond Carr’s ‘Herbert Butterfield’, The Spectator, 23 October 2004.   
[ii] See Ian Hall, ‘History, Christianity and diplomacy: Sir Herbert Butterfield and international relations’, Review of International Studies, vol. 28 (2002), 727-728.
[iii] It was argued by Prof. Yurdusev that the school will be called ‘British’ instead of the common usage ‘English’ because it was placed and established based on ‘British tradition’ where the identified scholars were British or educated from British universities.
[iv] See Joseph Sobran, ‘The Wisdom of statecraft: Sir Herbert Butterfield and the philosophy of international politics’, National Review, 6 September 1985.
[v] See Keith C. Sewell, ‘The “Herbert Butterfield Problem” and its Resolution’, Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. 64, no. 4 (Oct., 2003), 599.
[vi] Sobran’s article.
[vii] Hall, p. 725.
[viii] See Kenneth S. Templeton, Jr. (ed) The Politicization of Society (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1979, p. 379).
[ix] Hall, p. 728.
[x] Thompson, p. 14.
[xi] See Herbert Butterfield’s Balance of Power in H. Butterfield and Martin Wight (eds) Diplomatic Investigations: Essays in the Theory of International Politics (London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd, 1966).
[xii] Hall, p. 736.
%d bloggers like this: