Two Cheers for PresentismRoundup
tags: historiography, AHA, American Historical Association, Presentism
David A. Bell is a professor of history at Princeton University.
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 damming 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.