There is no RationalWiki without you. We are a small non-profit with no staff — we are hundreds of volunteers who document pseudoscience and crankery around the world every day. We will never allow ads because we must remain independent. We cannot rely on big donors with corresponding big agendas. We are not the largest website around, but we believe we play an important role in defending truth and objectivity.
If everyone seeing this today donates $5, we will meet our goal for 2018.
| Fighting pseudoscience isn't free.|
We are 100% user-supported! Help and donate $5, $20 or whatever you can today with !
| Tomorrow is a mystery,|
but yesterday is
|Wie es eigentlich gewesen|
| Part of the series on|
Logic and rhetoric
Presentism can refer to either a style of argumentation or philosophical position, depending on the context in which it's used.
History and sociology
Historical determinism and context
In the field of history and sometimes sociology, presentism is a style of writing or argument that can be fallacious, depending on the circumstances. Most simply, presentism refers to, intentionally or unintentionally, writing history from a teleological point of view (or historical determinism) or reading primary documents outside of their historical context. The most blatant forms of presentism are revisionist, negationist, or triumphalist histories attempting to justify the actions of a certain group or paint it as superior. Teleological forms of history like that of Karl Marx or technological determinism (the belief that technology determines history) and triumphalist pseudohistories like those written by David Barton are usually characterized as presentist. Those extolling the good old days or a golden age inevitably commit this fallacy.
Another common form of presentism is allowing present-day moral judgments to creep into characterizations of the historical figures. For example, you can dig up quotes from any number of figures active in civil liberties or equal rights movements that would seem racist, sexist, or otherwise bigoted by today's standards to paint them as crazy, reactionary wingnuts. Historians remind us that people are products of their times and so must be judged within that paradigm. Some, especially politicians, are often blamed for consequences of their actions that they could not have foreseen. This often boils down to legal-esque argument over whether the individual was negligent, short-sighted, or acting with malicious intent. In good scholarly historical work, like in law, it's imperative to separate the consequences of the action from the intent.
The historian's fallacy
The term "historian's fallacy" is sometimes used synonymously with presentism or considered to be a type of presentism. The term was coined by David Hackett Fischer to refer to characterizing the actions or decisions of historical figures as if they had access to all the information we have now in the present. Thus, it is similar to the problem with moral judgments as above. These could be considered a form of outcome or hindsight bias.
Whig history views the past as a march of progress towards the present age of liberty and enlightenment. Assuming that current political ideas were in fact held in the minds of prior figures, it cast those figures in the roles of heroes, people who laid foundations for the current status quo, or villains who opposed them. Whig history frequently appears in the historiography of science, especially in popular works of the Microbe Hunters type. Scientists were either heroes, who are on the side of truth (as is now known), or villains who opposed the emergence of these truths because of ignorance, bias, or clinging to power.
C.S. Lewis coined the term "chronological snobbery" for a similar phenomenon in which intellectual accomplishments of the past are considered necessarily inferior to the ones of the present. This could be considered a type of appeal to novelty.
History itself as a historical product
Less commonly, presentism is sometimes used to refer to works of history themselves as products of their time. There is some debate between historians over to what degree historical works are simply products of their time and if, in fact, this is inevitable. Thus, presentism is often unintentional as well as intentional.
Of course, if you're marshaling historical fact to make an argument about the present, presentism is not fallacious. For example, making an argument for a certain policy based on history is obviously not a fallacy, but is not usually labelled as "presentism" as it's considered within the purview of political science or political philosophy rather than history, though the lines can often be blurry.
In philosophy, presentism is contrasted with eternalism. Presentism is the view that only the present time actually exists, while eternalism holds that past, present, and future are equally existent.
- Against Presentism by Lynn Hunt, American Historical Association (history)
- Presentism entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia (philosophy)
- Historians' Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought by David Hackett Fischer