Against Presentism

Lynn Hunt, May 2002

Who isn't, you say? Hardly any "ism" these days has much of a scholarly following. Yet presentism besets us in two different ways: (1) the tendency to interpret the past in presentist terms; and (2) the shift of general historical interest toward the contemporary period and away from the more distant past. Although the first propensity was implicit in Western historical writing from its beginnings, it took a more problematic turn when the notion of "the modern" began to take root in the 17th century. Over time, modernity became the standard of judgment against which most of the past, even the Western past, could be found wanting. The second trend, the shift of interest toward the contemporary period, clearly has a connection to the invention of modernity, but it did not follow as much in lockstep as might be expected. As late as the end of the 19th century, and in some places even after that, students in history expected to study mainly ancient history and to find therein exemplars for politics in the present. Ten or fifteen years ago, survey courses routinely stopped at World War II. French historians still refer to history in the 16th–18th centuries as histoire moderne; for them "contemporary history" began in 1789, and until recently, it stopped about the time of World War I, the rest of the 20th century being consigned to the province of journalism rather than historical scholarship. I believe that the 20th century should be part of historical scholarship and teaching, of course, but it should not crowd out everything else.

There is a certain irony in the presentism of our current historical understanding: it threatens to put us out of business as historians. If the undergraduates flock to 20th-century courses and even PhD students take degrees mostly in 20th-century topics, then history risks turning into a kind of general social studies subject (as it is in K–12). It becomes the short-term history of various kinds of identity politics defined by present concerns and might therefore be better approached via sociology, political science, or ethnic studies. I'm not arguing that identity politics have no place in historical study; women's history, African American history, Latino history, gay and lesbian history, and the like have all made fundamentally important contributions to our understanding of history. It is hard to imagine American history in this country without some element of national identity in it. And present-day concerns have helped revivify topics, such as imperialism, that needed reconsideration. But 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 curiosity about difference should apply to the past in general. The "Middle Ages" or "Ancient World" (themselves presentist designations when they appeared) are not just stepping stones to the "modern" present we know. As historians of those periods know all too well, we must constantly remind students that the Greeks and Romans did not think of themselves as "ancient" and 12th-century people did not imagine themselves to be living in an in-between period of time (except perhaps in relationship to the Second Coming of Christ in Christian Europe). Some of the interest of these "early" periods—but only some—comes from the ways in which people then thought and acted like us now. Much of it comes from the ways in which they differed from us, indeed, lived in ways that are almost unimaginable to us.

Presentism, at its worst, encourages a kind of moral complacency and self-congratulation. Interpreting the past in terms of present concerns usually leads us to find ourselves morally superior; the Greeks had slavery, even David Hume was a racist, and European women endorsed imperial ventures. Our forbears constantly fail to measure up to our present-day standards. This is not to say that any of these findings are irrelevant or that we should endorse an entirely relativist point of view. It is to say that we must question the stance of temporal superiority that is implicit in the Western (and now probably worldwide) historical discipline. In some ways, now that we have become very sensitive about Western interpretations of the non-Western past, this temporal feeling of superiority applies more to the Western past than it does to the non-Western one. We more easily accept the existence and tolerate the moral ambiguities of eunuchs and harems, for example, than of witches. Because they found a place in a non-Western society, eunuchs and harems seem strange to us but they do not reflect badly on our own past. Witches, in contrast, seem to
challenge the very basis of modern historical understanding and have therefore provoked immense controversy as well as many fine historical studies.

Students readily absorb these attitudes of temporal superiority, but they also stand in some ways as our best bulwark against it. When I teach Hegel's lectures on the philosophy of history to students in UCLA's history of history class, they at first seize upon his Eurocentric, indeed racist, comments about Africa's place in world history, but they quite readily see that their condescension toward Hegel derives from Hegel's own worldview. Hegel was the great codifier of Western temporal superiority; for Hegel, all truth is revealed through the progression of history, which means that those in the present always have a better shot at grasping truth than do people in the past. Students understand quite quickly that those who follow them will have the same retrospective advantage over them that they enjoy vis à vis Hegel. Moreover, despite the great upsurge of interest in 20th-century and even post–World War II topics, students still take courses in ancient and medieval history. Whether motivated by escapism, nostalgia, a wish to study "elite" subjects, or just a desire for something "different," they readily throw themselves into another era. In this, they reflect the interests of the general public, which often resents the scholarly insistence on revealing all the foibles of past men and women. They don't always want history to teach them the inadequacies of people in the past or even to reassure them about their own identities in the present. It's the difference of the past that renders it a proper subject for epic, romance, or tragedy-genres preferred by many readers and students of history. The "ironic" mode of much professional history writing just leaves them cold.

Presentism admits of no ready solution; it turns out to be very difficult to exit from modernity or our modern Western historical consciousness. But it is possible to remind ourselves of the virtues of maintaining a fruitful tension between present concerns and respect for the past. Both are essential ingredients in good history. The emergence of new concerns in the present invariably reveals aspects of historical experience that have been occluded or forgotten. Respect for the past, with its concomitant humility, curiosity, and even wonder (as Caroline Bynum reminded us in a memorable presidential address), enables us to see beyond our present-day concerns backward and forward at the same time. We are all caught up in the ripples of time, and we have no idea of where they are headed.

Lynn Hunt (UCLA) is president of the AHA. She can be contacted by e-mail addressed to lhunt@history.ucla.edu