Presentism (literary and historical analysis)

Presentism (literary and historical analysis)

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Presentism is a mode of literary or historical analysis in which present-day ideas and perspectives are anachronistically
Anachronism
An anachronism—from the Greek ανά and χρόνος — is an inconsistency in some chronological arrangement, especially a chronological misplacing of persons, events, objects, or customs in regard to each other...

 introduced into depictions or interpretations of the past. Some modern historians seek to avoid presentism in their work because they believe it creates a distorted understanding of their subject matter.

The Oxford English Dictionary
Oxford English Dictionary
The Oxford English Dictionary , published by the Oxford University Press, is the self-styled premier dictionary of the English language. Two fully bound print editions of the OED have been published under its current name, in 1928 and 1989. The first edition was published in twelve volumes , and...

 gives the first citation for presentism in its historiographic sense from 1916, and the word may have been in use in this meaning as early as the 1870s. Historian David Hackett Fischer
David Hackett Fischer
David Hackett Fischer is University Professor and Earl Warren Professor of History at Brandeis University. Fischer's major works have tackled everything from large macroeconomic and cultural trends to narrative histories of significant events to explorations of...

 identifies presentism as a logical fallacy also known as the "fallacy of nunc pro tunc
Nunc pro tunc
Nunc pro tunc is a Latin expression in common legal use in the English language. It means Now for then. In general, a court ruling "nunc pro tunc" applies retroactively to correct an earlier ruling.-Definition:...

". He has written that the "classic example" of presentism was the so-called "Whig history
Whig history
Whig history is the approach to historiography which presents the past as an inevitable progression towards ever greater liberty and enlightenment, culminating in modern forms of liberal democracy and constitutional monarchy. In general, Whig historians stress the rise of constitutional government,...

", in which certain eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British historians wrote history in a way that used the past to validate their own political beliefs. This interpretation was presentist because it did not depict the past in objective historical context, but instead viewed history only through the lens of contemporary Whig beliefs. In this kind of approach, which emphasizes the relevance of history to the present, things which do not seem relevant receive little attention, resulting in a misleading portrayal of the past. "Whig history
Whig history
Whig history is the approach to historiography which presents the past as an inevitable progression towards ever greater liberty and enlightenment, culminating in modern forms of liberal democracy and constitutional monarchy. In general, Whig historians stress the rise of constitutional government,...

" or "whiggishness" are often used as synonyms for presentism, particularly when the historical depiction in question is teleological
Teleology
A teleology is any philosophical account which holds that final causes exist in nature, meaning that design and purpose analogous to that found in human actions are inherent also in the rest of nature. The word comes from the Greek τέλος, telos; root: τελε-, "end, purpose...

 or triumphalist
Triumphalism
Triumphalism is the attitude or belief that a particular doctrine, religion, culture, or social system is superior to and should triumph over all others...

.

Presentism and sociological analysis


Presentism has a shorter history in sociological analysis, where it has been used to describe technological determinists
Technological determinism
Technological determinism is a reductionist theory that presumes that a society's technology drives the development of its social structure and cultural values. The term is believed to have been coined by Thorstein Veblen , an American sociologist...

 who interpret a change in behavior as starting with the introduction of a new technology. For example, scholars such as Frances Cairncross
Frances Cairncross
Frances Anne Cairncross CBE is a British economist, journalist and academic.Cairncross read Modern History at St Anne's College, Oxford, graduating in 1965, and holds an MA in Economics from Brown University, Rhode Island....

 proclaimed that the Internet had led to "the death of distance" without realizing that most community
Community
The term community has two distinct meanings:*a group of interacting people, possibly living in close proximity, and often refers to a group that shares some common values, and is attributed with social cohesion within a shared geographical location, generally in social units larger than a household...

 ties and many business ties had been transcontinental and even intercontinental for many years.

Presentism and moral judgments


Presentism is also related to the problematic question of history and moral
Morality
Morality is the differentiation among intentions, decisions, and actions between those that are good and bad . A moral code is a system of morality and a moral is any one practice or teaching within a moral code...

 judgments. Among historians, the orthodox view may be that reading modern notions of morality into the past is to commit the error of presentism. To avoid this, some historians restrict themselves to describing what happened, and attempt to refrain from using language that passes judgment. For example, when writing history about slavery in an era when the practice was widely accepted, 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
Moral relativism
Moral relativism may be any of several descriptive, meta-ethical, or normative positions. Each of them is concerned with the differences in moral judgments across different people and cultures:...

, 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
Mores
Mores, in sociology, are any given society's particular norms, virtues, or values. The word mores is a plurale tantum term borrowed from Latin, which has been used in the English language since the 1890s....

 may change, morality
Morality
Morality is the differentiation among intentions, decisions, and actions between those that are good and bad . A moral code is a system of morality and a moral is any one practice or teaching within a moral code...

does not.) Others argue that historians, like all humans, cannot truly be objective, and so moral judgments will always be a part of their work. David Hackett Fischer, for his part, writes that historians cannot avoid making moral judgments, and indeed they ought to make them, but that they should be aware of their biases, and write history in such a way that their biases do not create a distorted depiction of the past.