All history is presentism

Earlier this year, I wrote a piece in defence of presentism, discovering just before I posted, that the same title had been used (also this year) by David Armitage, Professor of History at Harvard.

It was good to know that I wasn’t alone, but as Armitage made clear, “presentism” has been “a term of abuse conventionally deployed to describe an interpretation of history that is biased towards and coloured by present-day concerns, preoccupations and values”. A fairly standard version of the critique was given by Lynn Hunt, then President of the American Historical Association, in 2002 [1]

It seems however, that things are changing fast. A couple of weeks ago, James Sweet, Hunt’s successor as AHA President, wrote a more or less routine denunciation of presentism , which unsurprisingly picked on the 1619 Project as Exhibit A (for balance, the article also criticised the misuse of historical evidence by Justices Thomas and Alito). This produced a hostile response which forced Sweet to attach an apology to his piece.

The negative response to Sweet’s article reflects in part the intensity of the debate around racism in the US and about the 1619 Project in particular. But it also attracted more fundamental critiques, like this one from Kevin Gannon who concludes “all history is presentism”. As Gannon observes,

the very act of selecting a topic, arranging evidence , and presenting one interpretation of all that as more legitimate than the others—this scholarly ritual is absolutely shaped by the concerns of our present. That it even exists is because of “the concerns of the present.”

As I mentioned, exactly this point was made long ago by critics of “value-free economics”. Hopefully, value-free history will soon join value-free economics in the dustbin of intellectual history. At a minimum, we should see the end of the lazy use of “presentism” as a pejorative.

fn1. This orthodoxy is commonly traced back to Herbert Butterfield’s critique of the Whig Interpretation of History, but I’ve seen some suggestions that this is a misreading.

11 thoughts on “All history is presentism

  1. I agree it seems fairly impossible for any person to leave behind all their values when they write about pretty much anything.

    When it comes to journalists and historians though, I expect them to make a *good faith effort* to be factual.

    And, from historians, I expect footnotes. (I do not accept journalistic history as an actual thing. I wonder if the 1619 Project would have been controversial if it had been a history book. I found it confusing to read – I did not know “what” it was – and while I did keep mine, I haven’t even finished it yet. I don’t see how one could “report” on something that happened so long ago. I did hear Hannah-Jones on the radio and I thought she made some good points. I feel like, you know what? Just be a historian already?)

    If they can’t manage this, then I don’t need to read them. I have enough problems.

    I don’t know about you, but here in the US, we have a real problem with “facts” and “truth.” We absolutely cannot afford to have people messing around any further with blurring the lines. Anything squishy needs to go on the ed page. Thank you for listening if you got this far! Touched rather a nerve I think.

    Oh and btw – there isn’t really a debate here about race. People sort of thought about having one, and then other stuff happened. There are still a few skirmishes happening around books in schools though. But that isn’t just about race.

  2. These OP’s fail me due to ““talking about ice with insects that live only in the summertime.”. (fn^The role of intergenerational mediators: what if we omit to play it?)

    I am unable to fully comprehend this post and prior “In defence of presentism”. 

    But ala operating a system vs design or construction of that system “The Real World Is What Is Reported To The System” (see fn^Gall’s Law), I am able to see plainly who is making the rules, bounds and the paths we are presented with, and so my focus is The Council of National Policy.

    So we get weaponised revisionism and powerfully funded fundamentalist  presentism. The Council of National Policy have no mirrors. And this powerful group consigns progress to theocracy before 1619. Their Golden Rule is not the GR, but “them that owns to gold makes the rules”.

    As for the Golden Rule as Ikonoclast informed us of in JQ’s prior post “In defence of presentism”, it is also overridden by The Council of National Policy by those with oier and the gold makes the rules.

    (James W, when do we see your book about the Golden Rule?)

    As in the Council of National Policy are able to overcome both Murphy’s Law and the Peter Principle with power and money. Control trumps presentism. When things go wrong  (2020 loss) they attack. No one here however learned or able is able to actually attack and bring about timely change. Nice thoughts though. Like geological change, the Council of National Policy are able to erupt, and ‘we’ have to write this ‘water’ all over again, leaving us with the crap saying – history repeats. But cultural and social progress is then at an almost geological pace. 

    Presentism, radical evangelism and the GoP is funded and controlled by a “fight club”, (to which Scott Morrision adheres to the principals of – secret secrecy)… The  Council for National Policy… which was outed by one of it’s founders in 2004 saying ” The real crux of this is that these are the genuine leaders of the Republican Party, but they certainly aren’t going to be visible on television next week.”[6]”
    https://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php/Council_for_National_Policy

    “The Suicide of the American Historical Association”
    By Phillip W. Magness

    [Phillip W. Magness is Senior Research Faculty and Research and Education Director at the American Institute for Economic Research. He is also a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute.] 

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salem_Media_Group
    *

    fn^ The role of intergenerational mediators: what if we omit to play it?”
    [ topic of focus “the Red Flag Canal project – see Wikipedia “History of canals in China”. All you experts need imo to be including a Chinese perspective too ]

    “his/her task of sharing and explaining the reconstructed history to the audience entails a critical and challenging endeavor, best described by a Chinese idiom as “夏虫语冰”—“talking about ice with insects that live only in the summertime.” (Chinese Idiom Dictionary 1985)”

    “Among many benefits we derived from this empathetic approach of “engaging in dialogues with historical figures” is that we became and have since remained mindful of the human tendency toward analytical presentism aforementioned (in Sect. 2 and footnote 10). 
    https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s42532-022-00118-6
    *

    fn^Gall’s Law 
    “Although dubbed Gall’s Law by some, the phrase is not labeled as such in the original work. The work cites Murphy’s Law and the Peter Principle, and is filled with similar sayings.”

    wikipedia
    org/wiki/John_Gall_(author)#Gall.27s_law

    Re article re Gall also:
    A clip – “and The Fundamental Law of Administrative Workings (or F.L.A.W., see the irony?) but in doing so he reveals some pearls of wisdom like this one:

          “The Real World Is What Is Reported To The System” (Gall)
    Via “Cristiano Rastelli
    https://didoo.medium.com/systemantics-a778c4247cbb

  3. And if you want to have timely effect of abive ‘debates’, all you have to do is absorb and effect this:

    “This Article presents the first-ever empirical study of American law professors about legal theory questions. A novel dataset of over six hundred law professors reveals expert consensus and dissensus about dozens of longstanding legal theory debates.”

    Martínez, Eric and Tobia, Kevin,

    “What Do Law Professors Believe about Law and the Legal Academy? An Empirical Inquiry”

    (August 5, 2022). Available at SSRN: 
    https://ssrn.com/abstract=4182521 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.4182521 

    See you in cultural and social geological time.

  4. And all you have to do to, after you have overcome
    the Council of National Policy, is absorb, effect and rewrite this:

    “This Article presents the first-ever empirical study of American law professors about legal theory questions. A novel dataset of over six hundred law professors reveals expert consensus and dissensus about dozens of longstanding legal theory debates.”

    Martínez, Eric and Tobia, Kevin,

    “What Do Law Professors Believe about Law and the Legal Academy? An Empirical Inquiry”
    (August 5, 2022). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=4182521 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.4182521 

    See you in social and cultural geological time.

  5. Overriding (double entendre) presentism. No comments?

    More volcanic action which social Democrats have to weather away showing sicual change down to geological time.

    Funded by your petrol purchases and a “fervent promoter of the writer Ayn Rand, was the “real leader on this.”
    *

    “UT-Austin working with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, conservative donors to create “limited government” think tank

    “Proposals obtained by The Texas Tribune indicate the institute would be “dedicated to the study and teaching of individual liberty, limited government, private enterprise and free markets.”

    “It also includes a plan to create a civics course within UT-Austin’s OnRamps program, which works with more than 20,000 Texas high schoolers to expose them to college courses.

    “A second document explains why the Liberty Center is necessary at UT-Austin. “[A] growing proportion of our population lacks a basic understanding of the role liberty and private enterprise play in their well-being,” that proposal reads. “Too many Americans, particularly younger students, maintain misconceptions about our political system and lack an even basic understanding of the moral, ethical, philosophical and historical foundations underpinning a free society.”

    “Rowling confirmed to the Tribune through his assistant that he is involved with the project and said that Brigham, an oil company executive and fervent promoter of the writer Ayn Rand, was the “real leader on this.” Brigham did not respond to a request for comment.

    https://www.texastribune.org/2021/08/26/ut-austin-liberty-institute/

  6. KT2, this is an important topic – I am a bit at a loss though as to your overall point. Are you saying that various conservative blowhards get too much attention? (Or do i misread? It won’t be the first time if so.)

    This may very well be the case.

    Otoh – what worries me more is the general ignorance, and even worse, the lack of widely shared – and credible, professional – news sources. I think we in the US need to focus on re-building the center – in order to keep being a democracy (however flawed). (I still think I live in one.)

    Even “social change” is less important, isn’t it?

    I would hope most historians would know better than to a) commit professional suicide or b) pay too much attention to the kind of people on Twitter. (I believe that there is a kind of people on Twitter.) Though, as they are academics, I may be wrong!! (sorry, but, some of the stereotypes are true!)

  7. Lynn Hunt did make one good point:

    “History should not just be the study of sameness, based on the search for our individual or collective roots of identity. It should also be about difference. World history, for example, should be significant not only because so many Americans have come from places other than European countries but also because as participants in the world we need to understand people who are hardly like us at all.”

    This looks self-refuting, as the last sentence itself reflects a present concern. But he’s still right that one of the functions of history, or at least historical education, is to expand our cultural empathy, whose value does not rest on relevance to specific contemporary problems.

  8. N, thanks. You rightly say you are at a loss, as I am a terrible written communicator. Apologies. I’m learning. 

    I’d appreciate response comments from regulars, and all please. Otherwise I can’t learn and JQ’s blog atrophies.
    *

    N said; “KT2, this is an important topic”
    Absolutely.

    N: I am a bit at a loss though as to your overall point.
    Apologies – see below from my pt8 on, bypassing my history!

    N: “Are you saying that various conservative blowhards get too much attention? (Or do i misread? It won’t be the first time if so.)”

    In a nutshell,  Conservatives, Religions, and hyper wealthy. Plus the secret propaganda institutions they fund.

    N: “This may very well be the case.”
    Agree.

    James W, see pt11 re global learnt knowledge. Wish I’d said “at least historical education, is to expand our cultural empathy, whose value does not rest on relevance to specific contemporary problems.”
    *

    Presentism seemed to be self evident to me and I have never given it or history a seind thought as a topic or axiom or whatever it is. My bad. It makes my brain hurt.

    And I make a speculative fix to test system changes. See fn^QFix.

    *

    Presentism
    In “In Defense of Presentism” by DAVID ARMITAGE, he starts with this quote;  “… an irretrievable image of the past threatens to disappear if any present does not recognize it as meaningful to itself. (Walter Benjamin)”. What more needs to be said of presentism? Plenty. Please correct any of my blind spots, facilities and conflations.

    1) Presentism ends with “ism”! As Ernestine notes every time,  and I fully agree, anything that ends with ism is fraught.

    2) David Armitage’s piece has a contradiction, or exposes a teaching fault, in the first paragraph;
         “we [historians] possess the whole panoply of graduate training” … just after he stated;
         “Questions about human flourishing are fundamentally ethical but the contemporary discipline of history seems allergic to tacking moral matters. Historians almost never wonder, “To whom is the historian responsible and for what?” – (see also fn^Taleb agreeing). 

    This is the Econ 101 problem. Are you teaching history / economics, or conflating the study of past societies / monetary systems with civics, ethics, flourishing, and what we want in future? (Nobel for Economics – get rid of it. Nordhaus being a prime example who now is trying to make eruptions of sociopolitical landscapes via institutions funded by people think they know better, just because they rose up a monetary pole. I have no vote in their visions).

    To me, historians  do not have “the whole panoply”. If historians almost never wonder after graduating – poor student or poor teacher? Which I think is where I choke at “history”. This gets me questioning what the hell IS the practice and definition of history! And why I liked Economics in Two Lessons by JQ. At least he made an attempt, not at revising history although included, but adjuncting a historically (ha- 50-70 year) rule. For good or bad, at least I didn’t have to necessarily wade into all history,  I just needed to view the potential future with Lesson 1 and NOW with Lesson 2. Sorry historians.

    3) My brain tells me if I am writing history I am going to “recognize it as meaningful to itself” (Benjamin), not overlay history as I see it and wade into potential moral or ethics debates Which…

    4) …gets to the nub of the matter. If history includes MY morals and ethics NOW, to me that is histrorionics plus beliefs, opinion, tending to polemic. This is where the dreaded “R” word steps in – Religion! (fn^Taleb)
    I see slavery (beliefs) as bad, I now conflate current events as bad or use it for my ends. But I believe in god, mammon etc. So it becomes not history to me.

    5) … which is attempting to make me a passenger DRIVING NOW BY A REAR VIEW MIRROR and someone else’s perceptions! If I had never heard of slavery nor societies past which practiced slavery, I for one would not practice slavery! This rear-view-ism of mine is where historians will say…

    6) … but how did you know slavery is bad, historians ask? Where did you get your morals and ethics? Obviously history. But histroy in and of itself, is not the only medium of transmission of right and wrong (oops – belief!). History let’s us easily ‘present'(!) examples along with axioms, hueristcs, morals and ethics. Yet I contend, so would treating me as a slave for a day by my parents. No history required – sorry historians. Just a hot stove with my parents forcing my hand. I’ll get on to this category error.

    7) So history, producing accounts of the past faithfully, is very worthy for short cut to examples of good and bad examples  etc. And my category error is that deciding something limited to me – it burns – I don’t want to be a slave – falls down when deciding about a whole future society. Society and it’s components are a different category to my person. And so needs a different set of tools to envision, design and navigate a change of society, it’s operational systems and the transition to get to an envisioned future. A very hard thing to do.

    8) Therefore I want to be able know the past, even though it may or may not trangress “presentism”, but only as short cuts to be aware of pitfalls and feedbacks to designing a future. If I have to design the future  (insert fancy latin here) from a null set sans (without) history then yes, I am going to have to repeat a lot of mistakes. So yay for non revisionary non moralizing non believer historians. I want agency, and I have a brain and I want to use it thank you! Or I don’t learn.

    10) Now I, we, are wanting a ‘better’ future. One we can see, feel and touch, imagine my own scenarios, and move towards without wars, revolution and encompassing humanity. A BIG ASK. And again history is good,  for without it we would not have the term “future”. Like the word for colour of sky “blue”, I, we just looked past it and accepted “the sky ” as there, (presentism or my belief?), we wouldn’t have any past or future,  but once humans were cognizant of “the colour of the sky” and had language to describe it, we humans now have myriad blues. And histories! Overlaid with facts, morals, beliefs, kultcha, societies. And a billion people in this camp, that camp, some harking back to the worst of theocracy (why did we foresake Afghanistan!), some eating grass NOW, and most still lacking trust of one form or another. Not a recipe for a smooth ride into the future. 

    11) so we have learned a bit, and empowered persons who deign to write history and give language toward a future. They learnt. It is the learning that becomes the problem. Learning requires a bottom up approach so as not to be authoritarians, which then becomes unstable and collapsing back to a globally leant equilibrium. Ala children. I wince at my kid making mistakes. I say, after they, having realized some lesson “I had to hit my toe with a hammer (for a day month year) to not intervene! “. And all the while I am being hypocritical to my thesis here,  by using analogies and history! I have been banned by said kid of using vehicular analogies and “spooling on Dad!”. So imo, as is with human nature and society learning, and it’s systems. The weakest link. If an agent hasn’t learned FOR THEMSELVES, all my super brainy physical and history lessons and futures become unstable and fall back to a shared learning or worse, come crashing down. This is not Lawnmower Man. Or is it! (fn^LM)

    12) NOW we are again set up with huge inequalities – thanks unlearnt amnesiac humans and bent history – with us sleepwalking into the Musk’s, Thiel’s, theocrats and Conservatives pasts or futures, wielding categorically different powers that I, you, JQ, or even nation states are unable to wield. They possess gravity, energy unfathomable to us plebs, and so they don’t bother with history or presentism. They just reform the markets,  sociopolitical terrain, spread FUD, when they see fit. We have crypto gazillionaires creating wealth from the ether. Witness Etherium developed by a 19 year old who now has funded Glen Weyl to offer a complete future system of everything. Did you vote for quadratic voting and resource allocation? Even heard if it? Top down. [ See fn^Weyl & radicalxchange dot org for your future as perceived by weyl an Ayn Rand, soxialist, intellectual economist,  rabble rousing ex researcher now common wealth (?) future designer funded by said crypto gazillionaire]. Yet Weyl proposes – I am not sure – constant tradable property]

    Without the learning of the bulk of society,  we will repeat & rhyme, leading to tension and again providing for eruptions of governance, social and monetary systems. ‘They’ want private everything and no government, certaily no scrutinity by me, except they are hypocritical in that they,want ME ro oay to protect their private property and have crypto governance, if you have the money! A recipe for disaster for many imo.

    The funny thing is, fiat money, when shown to a human in the past the first time must have said I don’t trust it and how the hell do you create “money”! Hence learning via wars. And history. 
    *

    Social is like water. It will fix eruptions of private wealth. But as wealth allows for making changes to the sociopolitical, givernance, market rules and legal landscape, social water raining down takes forever to weather down the continual eruption disruptions. And for social water to effect changes made by conservatives and gazillionaires we have to form storms. Even Star Trek hasn’t changed that.

    Sharing is caring. 
    Thanks for the topic and forum.
    *

    ^fnTaleb.
    Nassim Nicholas Taleb says, as I assume is JQ’s vantage point;

    “On Christianity
    “An essay as a foreword for Tom Holland’s Dominion

    “I am writing these lines from the vantage point of my specialty of decision making under uncertainty, not that of theology, so what follows concerns the supposed conflict between religion and modern science as far as decisions under uncertainty and risk management.

    “Academic historians concerned about their reputation and standing in their community, fear to stray from the current accounts by more than an inch, even if they know that they are correct, which gives some people an unfair advantage. And these insights, in spite of being hard to detect and communicate, appear obvious, even trivial after the fact.”
    View at Medium.com
    *

    fn^Weyl
    Interviewer: “Can you talk a bit about your intellectual roots? You mentioned dialectics. I know you were a socialist for a while. I think you may even claim still to be one, I’m not sure. But you were also a devotee of Ayn Rand for a while. Are these the two poles of your own internal dialectic?

    Weyl: “Yes. That’s one dialectic. There’s also a dialectic between the fact that I spent a lot of time as an on-the-ground political organizer, but also as an intellectual economist in an environment that has more scorn for politics than for just about anything else. I was a consummate technocrat and I was a rabble-rouser. I’ve been both of those things. The way we make progress is by seeing both sides of things.”

    https://fivebooks.com/book/radical-markets-by-eric-a-posner-and-e-glen-weyl/
    *

    fn^LM
    Worth watching just for the ending.

    “The Lawnmower Man(film)
    …” a scientist who decides to experiment on him in an effort to give him greater intelligence. The experiments give Jobe superhuman abilities, but also increases his aggression, turning him into a man obsessed with evolving into a digital being.”
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Lawnmower_Man_(film)
    *

    fn^QFix
    We need a quantum computer to test run our -their – future scenario simulations. A speculative fix for:

    “Is there any heuristic we might use to identify wholly inappropriate stats and flag questionable papers?”
    https://statmodeling.stat.columbia.edu/2022/08/26/is-there-any-heuristic-we-might-use-to-identify-wholly-inappropriate-stats-and-flag-questionable-papers/#comment-2074502

  9. Presentism! Causal inference Statistical analysis, and arfuing past (geddit) each other.
    And Tons of links. Turchin replies.
    And…
    Noah Smith;
    “All I am saying is that we ought to think about historians’ theories with the same empirically grounded skepticism with which we ought to regard the mathematized models of macroeconomics.”
    *

    From Andrew Gelman
    “History, historians, and causality

    “Through an old-fashioned pattern of web surfing of blogrolls (from here to here tohere), I came across this post by Bret Devereaux on non-historians’ perceptions of academic history. Devereaux is responding to some particular remarks from economics journalist Noah Smith, but he also points to some more general issues, so these points seem worth discussing.

    ” Smith doesn’t just criticizes historians here; he leads off by criticizing academic economists:

    “After having endured several years of education in that field, I [Smith] was exasperated with the way unrealistic theories became conventional wisdom and even won Nobel prizes while refusing to submit themselves to rigorous empirical testing. . . . Though I never studied history, when I saw the way that some professional historians applied their academic knowledge to public commentary, I started to recognize some of the same problems I had encountered in macroeconomics. . . . This is not a blanket criticism of the history profession . . . All I am saying is that we ought to think about historians’ theories with the same empirically grounded skepticism with which we ought to regard the mathematized models of macroeconomics.””

    By saying that I found both Devereaux and Smith to be reasonable, I’m not claiming they have no disagreements. I think their main differences come because they’re focusing on two different things”
    ..
    https://statmodeling.stat.columbia.edu/2022/09/01/history-historians-and-causality/#comments

    See why history, presentism & economics makes my brain hurt!

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