‘… every history was, is, and will be a history of the present’ – Reinhart Koselleck
In this third post of the ‘History and Human Flourishing’ series, David Armitage considers longstanding debates, and new writing, on the value of presentist thinking for historical debate. For many – past and present – presentism serves to deflect and distort from the historian’s true purpose and the distinctiveness of the discipline.
Here David draws on recent work by historians of science, as well as psychologists and philosophers, to advocate for the advantages of presentist thinking. Far from distortion or deflection, history informed by presentism offers possibilities for dialogue with multiple publics and greater humility on the part of practitioners and readers.
This is the third in the Society’s ‘History & Human Flourishing’ blog series, from contributors to the recent essay collection, History and Human Flourishing (2023), edited by Darrin M. McMahon.
It’s rare that a family dispute among historians makes national news. Yet just a few months ago, press commentators in the US debated a missive from the president of the American Historical Association (AHA) to the members of his organisation. The eminent African historian James Sweet set the dovecots fluttering by condemning what he saw as professional malpractice and popular misapprehension in the use and abuse of African history, both within the US and at the popular site of memory, the slave-fort at Elmina in present-day Ghana.
For Sweet, too many contemporary historians slant their research and writing towards what he called their ‘activism’ while tourists like the African Americans whom he met at Elmina were insufficiently informed about the distance between past and present. The AHA president bundled these failings together with ideological cherry-picking by conservative justices on the US Supreme Court under a single, opprobrious heading: presentism. He was attacked first by fellow historians who felt betrayed by his criticism, but mostly right-wing journalists then had a field day with Sweet’s idea of presentism, using it to condemn academics for politicising their work before observing the ensuing dismay and disarray within the American historical profession with undisguised schadenfreude.
Whatever presentism is, historians generally agree on one thing: that they’re against it.
At least for a few weeks, presentism became that rare historical -ism of which headlines are made. But what is presentism? Or, we might better ask, what are presentisms? Even a cursory scan of the burgeoning literature on presentism, by historians but also by philosophers, psychologists, literary critics and historians of science, reveals little agreement on a definition and an ample range of possible presentisms, from the methodologically radioactive to the much more ethically attractive.
Presentism can mean teleologically constructed history: this is the notorious ‘Whig’ interpretation of history defined by Herbert Butterfield in the politically charged atmosphere of the 1930s to describe a history of the past as the yellow brick road leading to the present. It can mean the pressure exerted by the present on historians’ construction of the past, or the tendency the Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce anatomised for all history to become ‘contemporary history’ (storia contemporanea).
Presentism may also refer to the more practical trend that both historians and our students increasingly confine our interest in the past to shorter and short timescales, closer and closer to our own times: a pressing concern when cash-strapped administrators and myopic deans seek to trim budgets by culling supposedly irrelevant subjects or freezing hiring when students vote with their feet. This urgent, destructive presentism might in turn be only a symptom of what the French classicist François Hartog has broadly termed our ‘regime of historicity’ in which ‘one can really talk of an omnipresent present’, or what another French historian, Jérôme Baschet, calls ‘the tyranny of the present’.
Whatever presentism is, historians generally agree on one thing: that they’re against it. ‘Who isn’t?,’ asked a former AHA president, Lynn Hunt, in 2002. If historians agreed on little else around the turn of the millennium, they believed in the pastness of the past and their duty to respect its otherness. History should be divorced from the present, with no role in forming the future, and devoted solely to the excavation and reconstruction of the past. No-one could possibly self-identify as a presentist: to do so would have been to reject the credo of historicism itself.
‘Like funerals, history-writing is for the living’ – Hasok Chang
After all, hadn’t Leopold von Ranke, himself laid down the historian’s task as writing history ‘as it actually was’? In fact, Ranke had not. Yes, he had written of history ‘wie es eigentlich gewesen’ but, as Felix Gilbert had pointed many years ago, Ranke is usually mistranslated: eigentlich meant not ‘actually’ but rather ‘essentially’, a more idealist conception of our craft than the one usually inculcated into aspiring historians. Moreover, Ranke—at least the young Ranke—had been an unabashed presentist himself: ‘Would one study [history] at all without the impulse of the present [ohne den Impuls der Gegenwart]?,’ he’d written in the 1840s. If the profession’s founding father was such a heretic, perhaps we should all be more aware of the present in our conceptions of the past and much less hostile to presentism overall.
The professional revulsion against presentism, confused, unreflective and philosophically ramshackle though it may have been, led to multiple babies being thrown out with the bathwater. Otherwise laudable impulses to dismantle teleology, to judge the past on its own terms, and to resist the narrowing of historical horizons had unintended consequences. For example, separating past and present discouraged historians from attempting causal explanation. Serious discussion of historical epistemology, of the status of the past as past and what historians might mean by that, was short-circuited.
Those impulses shattered the ancient traditions, common to all enduring literate cultures, of history as a guide to life—in the Roman conception, of history as magistra vitae. And, until quite recently, they held back efforts to construct a rigorous ‘history of the present’. These outcomes were a high price to pay for a professional identity based on decidedly shaky foundations. The words of Hayden White nearly sixty years ago still sting, as he viewed history as the ‘conservative discipline par excellence’ whose members since the nineteenth century have ‘affected a kind of willful methodological naïveté’.
More than ever, historians must write to the present because people in that present demand accounting for the past and, by necessity, want historical answers to contemporary questions.
Controversies over history now capture far greater public attention than they did when White wrote in 1966: from the legacies of slavery and white supremacy in the US via Russian claims to the territory of Ukraine to the unhealed scars from Japanese colonialism in Asia, among a host of other chafing points around the world. More than ever, historians must write to the present because people in that present demand accounting for the past and, by necessity, want historical answers to contemporary questions. ‘Like funerals, history-writing is for the living,’ remarks the historian of science Hasok Chang.
That aphorism is one among many signs that historians of science are ahead of most other historians in the sophistication and pragmatism of their attitude towards presentism. For example, my Harvard colleague Naomi Oreskes (‘Why I am a Presentist’) and the French historian of biology Laurent Loison (‘Forms of Presentism in the History of Science‘) have recently argued for what they variously call substantive, empirical, critical and motivational presentisms. Substantive presentism assumes continuities between past and present that make at least some elements of the present usable as keys to unlock the past; this in turn empowers empirical presentism where, say, current scientific understandings of the aetiology of bubonic plague allow historians to analyse past epidemics using knowledge unavailable to past actors. Critical presentism reverses the arrows of Whig history—’Tory’ history, perhaps?—by deploying historians’ sense of the complexity and contingency of the past to dethrone the pretensions of the present. This may dampen dogmatism by admitting all flesh is grass and this, too, shall pass.
Finally, what Oreskes has dubbed motivational presentism is the admission that how we choose our historical questions, as well as how we answer them, are far from innocent or disinterested acts: ‘What matters to us about the past,’ Oreskes argues, ‘has everything to do with who we are, where we live, and what we think is important—to us, here and now, in the present’ (‘Why I Am a Presentist’, Science in Context, 26, 2013, 603) Such frankness about our own motivations will not only allow historians to scrutinise our motivations more closely: it can equip us with more empathy for the swelling publics who demand understanding and accountability for past injustices.
The past can only be constructed in the present from what remains to us in our present … To acknowledge that might demand greater philosophical speculation, about the status of knowledge and the nature of objects.
In the search for more positive forms of presentism, psychologists and philosophers can be as helpful as the historians of science. When we contemplate the future, psychologists tell us, we must do a certain amount of ‘filling-in’ to make it intelligible, and to some extent the same is true of our access to history: ‘if the present lightly colors our remembered pasts,’ notes the Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, ‘it thoroughly infuses our imagined futures’.
Presentism in this sense is the inescapable tendency humans have to populate both the future and, to a lesser extent, the past with our immediate experiences and expectations. In our daily lives, all historians are presentists in this sense, however much in our professional capacities we might try to fend off the incursion of the present into our versions of the past.
Philosophers of time argue for a still more radical idea of presentism: that is, the position that ‘only present objects exist’ and ‘that only the present is real’. To make this more concrete, we might rephrase that to say that you, I and the Taj Mahal exist but that Sappho, your unborn grandchildren, and the Library of Alexandria do not. Though disturbing, this conception of presentism seems intuitive: the future is unknowable except possibly as an extension or projection of the present and, more tellingly for historians, the past though it once existed, has an ontological status distinct from the present.
The past can only be constructed in the present from what remains to us in our present: its shards and fragments, the flotsam and jetsam of the shipwreck of history. To acknowledge that might demand greater philosophical speculation, about the status of knowledge and the nature of objects—about epistemology and ontology in short—than historians have been usually minded to pursue.
That said, I think the benefits of such presentism are clear: liberation from outdated professional prescriptions; greater possibilities for dialogue with multiple publics; greater humility. If we expand our vision of the historian’s craft and of historians’ duties, to encompass the present as well as the past, and even to some extent the future, then we might legitimately and without too much soul-searching all become presentists now.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
David Armitage is the Lloyd C. Blankfein Professor of Intellectual History and International History at Harvard University, where he has taught since 2004. David is the author or editor of 18 books, the most recent being A Cultural History of Peace in the Age of Enlightenment (co-ed., 2020) and Civil Wars: A History in Ideas (2017). He is currently completing an edition of John Locke’s colonial writings and is working on a global history of treaty-making and treaty-breaking and on a study of opera and international law.
ABOUT THIS SERIES
History and Human Flourishing is a three-part series featuring posts by contributors to the recent collection, History & Human Flourishing, ed. Darrin M. McMahon and published in 2023. Other posts in this series:
- Part One: ‘History and Human Flourishing’ by Darrin M. McMahon
- Part Two: ‘Flourishing with Herodotus’ by Suzanne Marchand
HEADER IMAGE: ‘A man sleeps between Roger Bacon (?) and a musician: a brass head proclaims time present and the past’. Woodcut, ca. 1700-1720 (Detail). Wellcome Collection. Public Domain