All history is presentism

by John Q on August 23, 2022

Earlier this year, I wrote a piece in defense 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.