Memory  /  Argument

In Defense of Presentism

The past does not speak to us; we speak for the past.

It is the rare historian, and perhaps only a foolhardy one, who would dare to defend presentism. Past efforts to do so fell flat because the term is so misunderstood, so frequently—even essentially—contested, and so firmly decried that it has almost become indefensible within the historical profession. Confusion about the meaning and import of presentism has led to the multiple babies being thrown out with the bathwater: worthwhile campaigns to root out teleology, to refute idealism, to judge the past on its own terms, or to resist the narrowing of historical horizons to the last few decades, all under the name of presentism, have closed off productive avenues for historical research and reflection. They have effectively rendered causal explanation null, prevented serious discussion of historical epistemology, broken the ancient tradition of history as a teacher of life (magistra vitae), and until recently discouraged the emergence of a rigorous “history of the present”. This is surely too high a price to pay for professional self-definition alone.

Why might this matter? I would argue that it matters a great deal—to historians, and for the place of historians within a larger public culture, because such indiscriminate antipathy to presentism also has ethical implications. Historians are trained to reject presentism: we are likely to argue that our duty is to the past and its inhabitants—not to the present, and certainly not to the future. In this regard, the late philosopher of history Hayden White’s charge, more than half a century ago, that history is the “conservative discipline par excellence” whose members have since the nineteenth century “affected a kind of willful methodological naiveté” can still sting. The obverse of this tendency has been a rampant ahistoricism in other fields and among wider publics, accompanied by the temporal foreshortening most dreaded by, but hardly prevented, by historians themselves. By disavowing a long-standing duty to speak to the present, and leaving to others the task of shaping the future, historians could do little, White argued, to relieve their contemporaries of the burden of history itself. That remains an urgent task if historians are to attain—or, more accurately, to recover—their standing within the humanities as architects of human flourishing. But we can only do that if we can discriminate among presentisms and defend those forms that are defensible. For, as the American legal historian Samuel Moyn recently put it in his own brief defence of presentism, “Whatever respect we owe the dead, history is still written by—and meaningful to—the living. If so, abuses of the past call for uses in the name of a better future.”

Human flourishing—the individual’s maximization of her human capabilities, and our collective endeavor to realize the best for humanity as a whole—is at once present-centered, future-oriented, and past dependent. It is present-centered because it is only within our own shifting horizon of expectations that we can judge what will best contribute to our own flourishing, as persons and as a species. It is future-oriented since within that horizon we form plans, and discard alternative projects, in order to achieve our goals more effectively. And it is past dependent because only history—again, only our individual experiences and that collective record of the human past in all its forms, from the cultural to the cosmic—can supply the information and the imagination to shape our choices, in the present, among multiple potential paths into the future. If historians too freely use presentism as a slur or as a taboo, then we may be guilty of depriving our readers, and indeed ourselves, of one valuable resource for promoting human flourishing: history. (We might also, as a result, put ourselves out of business by failing to justify our craft and our profession to publics starkly confronted with the challenges of the present.) Yet once we accept that “every history was, is, and will be a history of the present,” we can at least start to make the case for our contribution to the larger enterprise of human betterment. When the past erupts into the present, like those Hawaiian gods in the British Museum, it poses unsettling ethical questions for us individually and collectively. Only if we embrace presentism will we be able to hear those questions and to frame answers conducive to human flourishing.