The presentism fallacy

by Tim Harding

In recent times, there has been a trend in the popular media towards viewing past events and people through the prism of present-day attitudes. This trend is manifested in attempts to ‘cancel’ the past, including by silencing discussions, banning books, tearing down statues and so on.

In historical and literary analysis, presentism is a pejorative term for the introduction of present-day ideas and perspectives into depictions or interpretations of the past. Some modern historians seek to avoid presentism in their work because they consider it a form of cultural bias, and believe it creates a distorted understanding of their subject matter. The practice of presentism is regarded by some as a common informal fallacy when writing about the past.

Presentism also fails to take into account that, at the time in which historical events occurred, those involved did not enjoy the benefit of hindsight that has informed our present perspective. Yet to fully understand an historical event, we must view it not only with the benefit of hindsight, but also in the more limited context of its own times.

To avoid the fallacy of presentism, orthodox historians restrict themselves to describing what happened and why, attempting to refrain from using language that passes judgment. For example, in analysing the history of slavery, it is more useful to study the attitudes and circumstances of the past that led to slavery, rather than just present-day attitudes that simply condemn slavery without further analysis. One theory is that African-American slavery began for economic reasons and that racism was a consequential attempt to justify the practice, rather than being the prime cause of slavery. Such a theory would be overlooked by presentism.

This fallacy should not be confused with philosophical presentism, which is a technical position in ontology (the study of existence) that only the present exists.

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