Presentism (literary and historical analysis)
In literary and historical analysis, presentism is the anachronistic introduction of present-day ideas and perspectives into depictions or interpretations of the past. Some modern historians seek to avoid presentism in their work because they consider it a form of cultural bias, and believe it creates a distorted understanding of their subject matter. The practice of presentism is regarded by some as a common fallacy in historical writing.
The Oxford English Dictionary gives the first citation for presentism in its historiographic sense from 1916, and the word may have been used in this meaning as early as the 1870s. The historian David Hackett Fischer identifies presentism as a fallacy also known as the "fallacy of nunc pro tunc". He has written that the "classic example" of presentism was the so-called "Whig history", in which certain eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British historians wrote history in a way that used the past to validate their own political beliefs. This interpretation was presentist because it did not depict the past in objective historical context but instead viewed history only through the lens of contemporary Whig beliefs. In this kind of approach, which emphasizes the relevance of history to the present, things that do not seem relevant receive little attention, which results in a misleading portrayal of the past. "Whig history" or "whiggishness" are often used as synonyms for presentism particularly when the historical depiction in question is teleological or triumphalist.
Presentism and sociological analysis
Presentism has a shorter history in sociological analysis, where it has been used to describe technological determinists who interpret a change in behavior as starting with the introduction of a new technology. For example, scholars such as Frances Cairncross proclaimed that the Internet had led to "the death of distance," but most community ties and many business ties had been transcontinental and even intercontinental for many years.
Presentism and moral judgments
Presentism is also a factor in the problematic question of history and moral judgments. Among historians, the orthodox view may be that reading modern notions of morality into the past is to commit the error of presentism. To avoid this, historians restrict themselves to describing what happened and attempt to refrain from using language that passes judgment. For example, when writing history about slavery in an era when the practice was widely accepted, letting that fact influence judgment about a group or individual would be presentist and thus should be avoided.
Critics respond that to avoid moral judgments is to practice moral relativism, a controversial idea. Some religious historians argue that morality is timeless, having been established by God; they say it is not anachronistic to apply timeless standards to the past. (In this view, while mores may change, morality does not.)
Others argue that application of religious standards has varied over time as well. Saint Augustine, for example, holds that there exist timeless moral principles, but contends that certain practices (such as polygamy) were acceptable in the past because they were customary but now are neither customary nor acceptable. Then again, such an argument confuses mores (that is, polygamy) with timeless morals.
Fischer, for his part, writes that while historians might not always manage to avoid the fallacy completely, they should at least try to be aware of their biases and write history in such a way that they do not create a distorted depiction of the past.
College Campus Presentism
Students at colleges across the US are researching the backgrounds of college donors who have buildings named after them. When it is demonstrated that actions that were acceptable at the time but no longer acceptable today, students protest and insist on a name change. One example of this is John Evans, founder of the University of Denver and Northwestern University.
- Historian's Fallacies by David H. Fischer, 1970, p. 137
- Historians' Fallacies by David H. Fischer, 1970, p. 139
- Barry Wellman, “Physical Place and Cyber Place: The Rise of Networked Individualism,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 25.2 (June, 2001): 227-52.
- Harris, Sam (2010). The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values.
- "A Selected Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church", Philip Schaff, Vol III, pg. 289
- Fischer, David Hackett. Historians' Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1970.
- Spoerhase, Carlos. Presentism and Precursorship in Intellectual History. In: Culture, Theory and Critique 49 (2008), S. 49–72.