Two Cheers for Presentism

Last week James Sweet, president of the American Historical Association, sparked an academic firestorm by devoting his monthly column for the association newsletter to a critique of presentism. For too many contemporary scholars, Sweet suggested, the past only matters when read “through the prism of contemporary social justice issues — race, gender, sexuality, nationalism, capitalism.”

The resulting uproar led Sweet to issue an apology for what he termed his ”ham-fisted attempt at provocation.” The immediate controversy is dying down, but it has drawn new attention to the fraught question of how present-day concerns should guide historical research. Historians have amply discussed these issues in recent years, as Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins chronicled in his excellent 2020 article in these pages, “Beyond the End of History.” And yet as last week’s events make clear, the debate is as alive as ever.

While the word “presentism” often serves as a term of opprobrium, most historians would nonetheless agree that, inescapably, they write from a present-day perspective. Their experience, world view, conceptual resources, and political concerns all contribute, in both conscious and unconscious ways, to the questions they pose, and to what they find salient and interesting in the past. This sort of “presentism” is not something that can simply be “corrected for,” like measurement error in a scientific experiment.

Beyond this, history written with an eye to the present serves the common good. It illuminates how elements of our own world came into being, exposing the development of key political, social, and economic structures, tracing the effects of past choices, and offering insight into how change can take place. If many scholars have chosen to study the history of race relations in the United States, it is above all because of the profound ways in which this history continues to shape and challenge American society today.

In addition, by pushing scholars to approach old questions from new angles, presentism can open perspectives on the past that were not always evident to past actors themselves. To take an example from my own field of research: Why were so many French Revolutionaries so viscerally hostile to the Roman Catholic Church? The historian Claire Cage (full disclosure: a former Ph.D. student of mine) looked at the question from the perspective of the history of sexuality — a field as deeply influenced as any by present-day concerns. She argued that during the Enlightenment, educated French people largely ceased to see celibacy as a higher spiritual state, and started to see it as an unhealthy damning up of natural impulses that left the celibate twisted and corrupt. The resulting disgust at and distrust of the celibate clergy fed powerfully into the Revolutionary conflicts, and to the insistence — odd at first sight — that ex-priests could prove their political bona fides only by getting married.

My books have all engaged explicitly with present-day concerns, including nationalism, uncontrolled warfare, and the threat that populist strongmen pose to democracies. In my book The First Total War (2007), I drew explicit comparisons between the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, the Iraq War, and the so-called War on Terror. The experience of the U.S. after 9/11 led me to ask questions of the older history that I would not have thought of asking before. History is not simply a matter of ascertaining “the facts.” (Which facts? Arranged and interpreted how?) It is an always-unfinished conversation between past and present.

“Desolation,” by Cole Thomas (1836)


“The Course of Empire: Desolation,” by Thomas Cole (1836)

Reading the past through the prism of contemporary issues in this way does not mean unthinkingly imposing present-day categories on it. Historians always have a responsibility to understand as precisely as possible the meanings that words, things, and actions had for people in the past — and to handle evidence scrupulously and not to cherry-pick their sources. These are the obligations of sound scholarship, and they in no way contradict practices of writing “from the present.” In fact, historians who insist they are looking at the past entirely on its own terms — as if they could shut the present out like flicking a light switch — are more, not less, likely to import their own unconscious preconceptions into their work than those who consciously try to keep both present and past in view.

For all these reasons, what Sweet called “presentism” is to be accepted and even applauded, not denounced — at least to a certain extent. But at the same we need to be aware of the ways that it can also impoverish our understanding and appreciation of history.

The past, it has often been said, is a foreign country: weird, wonderful, and strange. Great historians give a visceral sense of this foreignness, showing that what looks familiar at first sight is really anything but, and revealing, with an anthropologist’s eye, the many wildly different forms the human spirit and human societies can take. This quality, as exemplified in the works of historians like Carlo Ginzburg, Natalie Zemon Davis, and Robert Darnton, was what drew me to the study of history as much as any desire to comment on present-day politics.

It took a very long time for historians to develop this sense of the strangeness of the past. Very few of the great historians of Western antiquity and the Middle Ages considered the societies they were writing about to be qualitatively different from their own, and many of them wrote explicitly to legitimize and glorify a ruling regime or dynasty. Most of them, by our standards, were guilty of egregious presentism. It is crucial to keep in mind what Sweet, in his essay, called “the values and mores of people in their own times,” and how they differed from our own values and mores.

This does not mean embracing moral relativism. If we believe in our own moral values, then we have to believe that they apply always and everywhere. Understanding why slave owners or Nazis behaved as they did does not mean excusing them. But we do have to understand why they chose to act in the way they did if we hope to understand why events played out as they did, and how those events contributed to the making of the present.

In short, good historical scholarship requires maintaining a delicate balance between, on the one hand, trying to convey the sheer strangeness of the past, and, on the other, revealing its connections to the present and to our own concerns. Making things yet more complicated, we also need to take into account the process by which collective memory and scholarship have themselves progressively shaped understanding of a subject, with new layers of meaning accreting with each generation.

The challenge is even greater because we live in a society saturated in stories of the past that run roughshod over all these distinctions. I am speaking here both of historical works intended as entertainment for non-specialist audiences, and of the history deployed by politicians and political commentators. These versions of history often make no attempt to evoke the strangeness of the past, but instead present it as a simple morality play: heroes and villains, oppressors and resisters.

In his essay, Sweet pointed to the example of the new film The Woman King, set in early 19th-century West Africa. Among other things, it presents King Ghezo of Dahomey, who in reality participated in the Atlantic slave trade, as fighting against it with a force of highly trained female warriors. But it should go without saying that artists and entertainers have no obligation to present the past as fundamentally different from our own day, or even to present it in a historically accurate manner (although the producers of The Woman King should really amend that slippery tag line “based on true events”).

Sweet was wrong to conflate art and popular entertainment with serious scholarship on topics such as race, gender, sexuality, nationalism, and capitalism. Scholarly work that is scrupulous in its use of evidence can and should be challenged if present-day concerns have led the author to make unconvincing or unsustainable arguments. Still, this work should in no way be condemned out of hand. (The same goes for serious journalism, which may need to simplify and synthesize historical issues for general readers but should follow the same broad rules of evidence and interpretation that professional historians do.)

What Sweet got right, though, is the danger posed by the ongoing shift in the historical profession toward studying the recent past and topics that have a direct and obvious connection to present-day political concerns. As many have pointed out, this shift has numerous causes, many of which have nothing to do with historians’ political positions. Shrinking budgets, including for the language training and travel needed to study societies remote in place and time, play a large role. So does student demand as shaped in large part by high-school history curricula. But the result is the same. The more direct and obvious the connection between works of history and present-day concerns, the harder it is to keep alive a sense of the past’s strangeness and wonder.

Historians need to convey this strangeness and wonder to their students. If they don’t, the effect is enormously impoverishing. I don’t mean by this that historians should retreat into studying the past for its own sake, ostentatiously turning their backs on a world in crisis. Yes, appreciating the strangeness and wonder of the past is enriching and valuable in ways that have nothing to do with politics. But the effect is political as well.

There is nothing more potentially liberatory than the sense of endless possibility that great history can open up — the sense that categories of thought and practice are not fixed, that the world can be made to change in all sorts of strange and unexpected ways. We may be driven, inescapably, by present-day concerns, but if we make the past look too much like the present, how can we envision a future that looks different from where we are now?

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