Book review

Origins of Presentism, review by William Anthony Hay

Our Shadowed Present: Modernism, Postmodernism, and History, by J.C.D. Clark, Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2004. 336 pp.

HISTORY RETAINS A PROFOUND HOLD on the human imagination as individuals and societies alike define themselves by coming to terms with their past. Today, however, a general shift in assumptions about the role of the past in the developed world has changed the relationship of cultures with their history. Events are now located only in the present tense. Having lost touch with a history that provided meaning, Western societies now grapple confusedly with questions of identity.

Jonathan Clark, Hall Distinguished Professor of British History, University of Kansas, calls our pervasive abandonment of history presentism. Whether “at the high level of theory or at the low level of assumptions that seep into every intellectual exchange,” presentism has a profound social impact. Contemporary problems often have deep historical roots, and understanding historical context is vital for developing realistic solutions. Clark outlines an important trend in scholarship from Eric Hobsbawm’s Invention of Tradition (1983) through Linda Colley’s Britons: Forging a Nation (1992) that presses the view that elites typically construct identities to serve political agendas. Constructed identities therefore can be revised to serve other projects, and Colley–who describes herself as European by choice and transatlantic in lifestyle–calls for a substantial rethinking of what it means to be British. Clark argues that such a political use of history either cobbles together a bogus past to justify a current agenda or deliberately mutes profound differences that subsequently emerge in especially virulent forms. “Doctrines that deny the past do not make it go away.” Northern Ireland and Yugoslavia both demonstrate that historians who play at politics with historical identities play with fire.



4 thoughts on “Book review”

  1. There seem to be two types of presentism: one speculates as to what actions would be taken by historical (mostly political) figures on issues that simply did not exist in their time while the other judges the moral culpability of various actions of historical figures or peoples based on the mores of one’s current culture.

    An example of the first:
    “Abraham Lincoln would have favored universal health insurance. (Since this was not an issue in Lincoln’s time, evidence that he would have taken a specific position is necessarily taken out of historical context.)”

    An example of the second:
    “For example, when writing history about slavery in an era when the practice was widely accepted, some believe that using language that condemns slavery as “wrong” or “evil” would be presentist, and should be avoided. There are many critics of this application of presentism. Some argue 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, and therefore it is not anachronistic to apply timeless standards to the past. (In this view, while mores may change, morality does not.)” – Wikipedia

    The latter goes both ways. If we’re to judge our American ancestors with some leniency for their institution of slavery because it was common and they “didn’t know any better”, we must also do so with those today who engage in activities common to today’s culture.

    I’m reminded of those who denounced Clinton as unworthy for public office because of his “not inhaling” marijuana (which was what, over 20 years prior?) and for his marital indiscretions. Well, we live in a druggy, sexed-up culture, and the one which Clinton grew up in was especially so (so I’ve been told). For these, he was deemed unfit for the role of President. (note: Personally, I feel that what someone did 20 years ago may be no indicator of what they are today, whether their last name be Bush or Clinton.)

    So whenever someone says “This person cannot be trusted on x because they engaged in y” today, we should probably first question whether “y” is or was categorically rejected as immoral in the culture of the time the incident took place in addition to whether “x” has anything to do with “y”.

    At least I think this is what a rejection of presentism implies.

    ps … like the new format!! much nicer

  2. James

    Clinton’s problem was not his previous actions. It was making an unbelievable statement during the campaign. The problem was not anachronistic interpretation of  history.

  3. Okay, bad example. My point was that rejecting presentism allows for a certain degree of moral relativism by suggesting that the moral culpability of an action be judged by the culture of the day. Many seem to have no problem rejecting elements of today’s culture for its dissonance with the past, and this is inconsistent, in my opinion. It’s an inverted presentism, if you will.

    Honestly, my feeling is that we are by and large a more moral society than we were in previous generations. I know this is hard to believe, but think about it. The media has simply illuminated the vices that in earlier times were kept hidden, but it doesn’t mean they were any less common. We no longer have teenage brothels. We are a more moderate society in terms of alcohol consumption. We generally no longer tolerate racial discrimination or spousal abuse or backbreaking child labor. We also no longer inflict cruel physical punishment as a means of punishing those of other religious beliefs. Contrary to popular belief, crimes such as theft and murder were not that uncommon either.

    People who long for the past do not know what they are asking for. Of course we have problems, and every age has its excesses. And yes, our forefathers were brilliant and noble men, but the people of the age were not generally more moral in action than they are today, even if they strived to be so.

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