1066 and All That

Presentism [prez-ent-iz-uhm] is a mode of literary or historical analysis in which present-day ideas and perspectives are anachronistically introduced into depictions or interpretations of the past. Some modern historians seek to avoid presentism in their work because they believe it creates a distorted understanding of their subject matter.

The practice of presentism is a common fallacy in historical writings. Historian David Hackett Fischer identifies presentism as a fallacy also known as the ‘fallacy of nunc pro tunc’ (‘now for then,’ a court ruling applied retroactively to correct an earlier ruling). 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 which do not seem relevant receive little attention, resulting 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 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 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, some 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, using language that condemns slavery as wrong or evil would be presentist, and 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, while they are neither customary nor acceptable at present. Others argue that historians as humans cannot truly be objective and so moral judgments will always be a part of their work. David Hackett Fischer, for his part, writes that historians cannot avoid making moral judgments and ought to make them, but that they should be aware of their biases, and write history in such a way that their biases do not create a distorted depiction of the past.

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