In today’s blog I wanted to focus on a concept that most people fall victim to when writing about the past (history). Presentism, the historical fallacy or problem area, applies when writing about general history or trying to write about our family. Don’t try to sugar coat (cover-up) the actions of the ancestors you don’t agree with.
Presentism is a historical term meaning judging past actions by today’s standards, or uncritical adherence to present-day attitudes, especially the tendency to interpret past events in terms of modern values and concepts. We all too often color history with the lens of our current prejudices. Remember, attitudes and cultural values have changed over time. Try not to make excuses for the past.
In literary and historical analysis, presentism is the 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.
Now for Then — Nunc pro Tunc
The Oxford English dictionary gives the first citation for presentism in its historiographic sense in 1916, and the word may have been used in this meaning as early as the 1870s. The historian David Hackett Fischer in his book Historian’s Fallacies, Toward a Logic of Historic Thought, identifies presentism as a fallacy also known as the “fallacy of “nunc pro tunc.” It is the mistaken idea that the proper way to do history is to prune away the dead branches of the past, and to preserve the green buds and twigs which have grown into the dark forest of our contemporary world.
Fischer has written that the “classic example” of presentism was the so-called “Whig history,” in which certain 18th- and 19th-century British historians wrote history in a way that used the past to validate their own political beliefs.
This interpretation was presentism 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.
History differs from fiction in offering not truth-likeness or truth to life, but truth itself; not what might or could have happened, but what did.
Studying Women’s rights is a good example. The rights of women have changed dramatically over the past 100 years. During the nineteenth century women could not vote and by today’s standards were considered second-class citizens. Slowly they received more and more respect — they could vote and own property. What did the founding fathers really intend? It has been debated for decades, but if historians try to apply their current values and beliefs, arguments and disagreements are all that result. Just accept your ancestors with all of their beliefs and value their accomplishments.
Just Describe What Happened
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 presentistism 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.)
Customary and Acceptable Then — But Not Now
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.
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.
Our ancestors were a part of the time they lived — not our own time.