The Three Ways or Levels of History

  • Keith C. Sewell
Part of the Studies in Modern History book series (SMH)


The formal definition and description of what we have termed ‘expository historiography’ in 1944 inevitably raised the problem of its relationship to technical history. It then also became necessary to establish the relationship between the writings that used providence as an explanatory device, and expository history, purporting to be the result of applying a strictly scientific generalising procedure to the concrete facts established by technical history. Were the writings explicitly referring to the idea of providence to be equated with expository historiography, or did they amount to yet a third mode of historiographical discourse? Butterfield answered this question in an address on ‘God in History’ given in August 1951, later partly amplified in ‘The Role of the Individual in History’ delivered in December 1953. Here for the first time he explicitly discussed the three ‘ways’ or ‘levels’ in which history should be viewed:

Concerning the events that take place … in history and in life there are three ways that we can have of looking at them … we can imagine them at three different levels and with three different kinds of analysis. And because they are taken at different levels they can all be true at the same time, just as you could have three different shapes of the same piece of wood if you took three different cross-sections. If you go on a journey, and … I ask: Why are you here now? you may answer: ‘Because I wanted to come’; or you may say: ‘Because a railway-train carried me here’; or you may say: ‘Because it is the will of God’; and all these things may be true at the same time — true on different levels.1


Explicit Recognition Historical Scholarship Human Initiative Explanatory Device Concrete Fact 
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Copyright information

© Keith C. Sewell 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  • Keith C. Sewell
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of HistoryDordt CollegeUSA

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