In defence of presentism

I was planning a post with this title, but after some preliminary discussion, a commenter on Twitter pointed me to this piece by David Armitage, which not only has the title I planned to use[1], but a much more complete and nuanced presentation of the argument, as you might expect from the chair of the Harvard history department.

I won’t recapitulate his points, except to make an observation about disciplinary differences. The dominant view in history described by Armitage as “professional creed: the commitment to separate the concerns of the present from the scientific treatment of the past” is identical, with a slight change in terminology, to the central claim of “value-free economics”, that it is possible to separate the positive science of economics, from the normative question of what economic choices should be made. [2]

What’s striking here is that the idea of “value free” economics has been the subject of severe criticism for decades, starting in the 1950s with Gunnar Myrdal [3]. Hardly anyone now puts forward claims of this kind in the strong version presented most notably by Milton Friedman. This view is routinely denounced as a residue of “logical positivism”, an pejorative with much the same valence as “Whig history”, except for a reversal of sign.

Armitage’s defense of presentism runs along very similar lines to the critiques of value free economics. Most notably, he observes

can we plausibly deny that we choose our subjects according to our own present concerns and then bring our immediate analytical frameworks to bear upon them?

Referring to history specifically, he says

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.

One point Armitage doesn’t discuss but which seems critical to me is that, if historians reject presentism, they seem to be disqualified, at least qua historians, from saying anything useful about the present. It’s impossible, for example, to talk about (or even to name) last year’s insurrection without bringing in terms and ideas that are value-laden.

But, looking backwards, when does the present stop and the past begin? Should Thatcher and Reagan be regarded as people of their times, exempt from critical judgement? What about their opponents and supporters who are still living? Should historians treat their (or rather, our, since I’m among the critics) actions in the 1980s as objects of study, disregarding our own belief that our concerns then are just as valid now.

Similarly, if it’s appropriate to condemn Donald Trump’s racism now, does it make sense to view the same racism, as expressed by Trump in the 1960s, as a morally neutral product of the times?

And given the fact that generations overlap, there’s no obvious end to this. How should we think about the relationship between Donald Trump and Roy Cohn, or between Cohn and Joe McCarthy?

None of this is to say that people should be judged according to our own local and temporal standards, without reference to their own circumstances. The racism of a privileged New Yorker like Trump says a lot more about him personally than the same attitudes held by a poorly educated white farm worker in Mississippi. Similarly, there’s a big difference between attitudes expressed at a time when nearly everyone accepted them to the same attitudes expressed when they are widely condemned.

But the idea of a value-free social science has been tested to destruction in fields like economics. It is no more defensible in history.

fn1. I didn’t mention this in my tweet, which focused on the contrast between economics and history
fn2. There’s a similar debate in political science, but I don’t think the “value free” approach ever gained the same dominance as it had economics
fn3. This was only 20 years after Butterfield’s denunciation of “Whig history”, which seems to have carried all before it among historians

7 thoughts on “In defence of presentism

  1. There is a strong argument that the “Golden Rule” is transhistorical. This then supports J.Q.’s case. Let me start with a long quote:

    “The Golden Rule is the principle of treating others as one wants to be treated. It is a maxim that is found in most religions and cultures. It can be considered an ethic of reciprocity in some religions, although different religions treat it differently.

    The maxim may appear as a positive or negative injunction governing conduct:

    a. Treat others as you would like others to treat you (positive or directive form)
    b. Do not treat others in ways that you would not like to be treated (negative or prohibitive form)
    c. What you wish upon others, you wish upon yourself (empathetic or responsive form)

    The idea dates at least to the early Confucian times (551–479 BCE), according to Rushworth Kidder, who identifies the concept appearing prominently in Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Taoism, Zoroastrianism, and “the rest of the world’s major religions”. 143 leaders of the world’s major faiths endorsed the Golden Rule as part of the 1993 “Declaration Toward a Global Ethic”. According to Greg M. Epstein, it is “a concept that essentially no religion misses entirely”, but belief in God is not necessary to endorse it. Simon Blackburn also states that the Golden Rule can be “found in some form in almost every ethical tradition”. – Wikipedia.

    Notable points about the “Golden Rule” are:

    A. It is transhistorical and universal. This means it applies to all human eras and it addresses a fundamental, universal and essentially unchanging human experience (for as long as humans are eusocial mammals with self-reflexive mental and emotional capabilities).

    B. It is “anti-othering”. It refers to the other but draws the other to the self in identification and sympathy. It is anti-solipsisitic in this regard.

    C. It is experential (empirical), consequentialist, bi-directional and reciprocal in ethical terms. It is experienced as a “universal-isable” critique and guide by “selfed” and “othered” and also by “othered-as-self” and identifiable “privileged-self-as-oppressive-other”.

    The transhistorical and transcultural nature of the Golden Rule suggests that special pleading for bad behavior (defined as behavior which breaks the Golden Rule) always had a contemporary critique and substantially the same critique in any historical era.

    In this light, special pleading for such behavior in a past historical era being not subjected to a value critique is indeed special pleading for a suspension of the essential value or ethic of the universal GR in the guise of a claimed historical objectivity. It is also special pleading to conservatively or reactionarily entrench anti-GR values and to entrench the historical lineage of such values to buttress against the change of relations oppressive in the status quo.

    Finally, as a footnote, the experiential nature of the GR means it IS experienced, applied and applicable in the conditions of the era in question. Thus we cannot criticize those who historically thought malaria was “miasma”, before the relevant scientific discoveries, and thus we cannot criticize that precise set of wrong decisions and actions they made on that basis (if they were made in good faith), though we may criticize other things they did wrong in that context. But we can criticize our modern politicians and elites for thinking or at least propagandizing that COVID-19 is just a cold or flu, that the new VOCs of COVID_19 are mild, that further mutation and evolution won’t happen and so on ad nauseum. There is a duty to avoid ignorance, especially of leaders with access to the best expert advice, when the knowledge is available; especially to avoid perverse and wilful ignorance and the motivated, self-interested reasoning which listens to corporate, oligarchical and elite donors but not to the needs of the majority of the people.

  2. Clarification:-

    By “a fundamental, universal and essentially unchanging (over history) human experience (for as long as humans are eusocial mammals with self-reflexive mental and emotional capabilities)”, I meant the self-other experience. This experience does develop, change and evolve over a human life from infancy to old age and it is affected by pathologies from fevers and deliriums to psychoses. Nonetheless it is a very widely and commonly felt and apprehended human experience of healthy individuals: necessary for both individual success and general social cooperation. That self-other experience and what flows from it forms the ground for the development of “Golden Rule” ethics of one variant or another.

    Of general interest re self-other issues but not addressing ethics:

    “The role of self–other distinction in understanding others’ mental and emotional states: neurocognitive mechanisms in children and adults” – Nikolaus Steinbeis

  3. Iko: I’m trying to write a long essay or short book on the Golden Rule, so I’ll hoard my response! Throwaway; one solution to the Fermi paradox (“If ETs exist, where are they ?”) is that civilizations that last long enough to invest in interstellar communication have learnt to live by the GR, which forbids interference.with other planetary civilizations as dangerous and unpredictably disruptive.

    I see no reason to think that physical interstellar travel by sentient lifeforms is feasible, but fleets of robot explorers certainly are. By the GR again, they are very well concealed. Disembodied Special Circumstances agents of the Culture may be hiding in your new intelligent toaster. Alexa is a goldmine, and the code is far too big for any human to detect what she is really up to.

  4. How does the “presentism” issue interact with that of time preference? Historians generally have low rates of retrospective time preference, and “what Alcibiades did and suffered” is not absolutely of less importance and interest than the deeds of Donald Trump. Of course, the pragmatic component of that interest varies depending on whether you arr trying to explain the actions of James Madison and other founders of the United States, who were well versed in classical culture, or those of Trump, who does not read books. Small men can be as much of a threat to society as great ones.

  5. James Wimberley,

    My solution to Fermi’s paradox begins with A = 4 π r2.

    That’s the formula for the surface of a sphere. Let us assume the observable universe, from Planet Xeno, is 100 billion light-years in diameter. Probes sent from Planet Xeno will radiate into out into space. As they radiate, the space between them expands. They will be very diffused out in space and more diffused the further they go. But they would have intelligent search algorithms. Find all the galaxies. Visit all the stars. Follow all signals likely to indicate intelligence. Even so…

    “… there are something like 10 to the 11 to 10 to the 12 stars in our Galaxy, and there are perhaps something like 10 to the 11 or 10 to the 12 galaxies. With this simple calculation you get something like 10 to 22 to 10 to 24 stars in the Universe.”

    And the distances and travel times are immense.

    It is likely in the first case that most intelligent civilizations will destroy themselves like we are about to do. If that is avoided, by the time one of their probes finds us and returns with an answer, the sun that powered Planet Zeno would have turned into a red giant sun swallowing and cindering Planet Zeno.

    If there is a Providence to the universe, it decided that intelligent life forms, alien to each other, should be set so far apart they could never meet. That seems like a sensible choice. The meeting almost assuredly would go badly.

    BTW, habe you seen the BBC’s last War of the Worlds set in Victorian England and making a clear parable about colonialism and maybe about geoengineering and planet wrecking as well? I wonder about the Martians from the tripod machines who look and act like large, unintelligent tripod spiders. How could they make and control anything? No arms or hands or digits for fine manipulation. They acted as thick as two short planks too. Perhaps they were larvae of the martians meant to feed here on earth, then pupate and become adults. I’ve long wondered how an intelligent life form would not know that earth had viruses and bacteria. After all, they studied us for so long. And all complex life forms, even on Mars, would have arisen from simpler forms. Plot hole, Mr. Wells?

    And what’s with setting it in Victorian England and then changing the plot so much? Seems silly. The apocalyptic ending was grim. Made me wonder if it was an intended parallel for our destruction of the world by climate change.

  6. This is beautiful stuff in a fortnight where the PM has mulishly pushed sado economics and the propertarian IPA barrow against ALL logic, as Big Pharma feathers its pockets at the expense of many LIVES here and elsewhere.

    I want to read it all again, much closer, before commenting further.

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