Presentism is a neologism coined to identify today's preoccupation with the present age as the essential temporal referent in historical interpretation. (One notes that the term does not appear in the earlier edition of this Dictionary. ) As a perspective on the meaning of historical time, it accords the present a privileged status. Presentism therefore stands as a counterpoint to the historicist idea of "progress," which dominated thinking about historical time during the modern age in its greater valuation of the future. As a stance on historical interpretation, moreover, presentism takes issue with the proposition that historical knowledge of the past should be pursued for its own sake, and offers instead the call for interpretations of the past that contribute to morally responsible critical perspectives on the present age.
In his classic essays on the time of history, the Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) proposed a unified narrative framework for recounting the way humankind over time had come to understand its own predicament, a saga with a conjectural beginning, middle, and end. Modern historical writing has for the most part played out this portrayal of history's script as a sustaining, all-encompassing "grand narrative." But presentism challenges the proposition that history may be plotted on a single, continuous timeline. More and more, historians of our own day would prefer to divide the time of history into "regimes of historicity," by which they refer to changing conceptions of historical time in different epochs of history.
Favoring the past.
The regime of historicity in antiquity tended to favor beginnings. Thenceforth, at least until the age of the Renaissance, historians in the Western world presupposed a golden age shining forth as a guiding beacon out of humankind's primordial past. As a lost Eden, it was a time to revere. The precedents of origins—ways of life as they were in illo tempore —served as models for emulation in the present. In interpreting the meaning of the past, this notion of a time of origins denotes a fullness of human experience then to which life now can never measure up. Humans may approach that past in their imaginative longings, the ancients argued, but only as a simulacrum of what it once was. Accordingly, they believed that historical time moves in circles in the repetitious search for a lost harmony, played out in the rise and fall of nations, the ebb and flow of human affairs. Implicit in such a notion of time is a fatalism about the future course of events, governed as they are by an all-knowing Providence. The classic formulation of this conception of time in the Western tradition was St. Augustine's (354–430) speculation on the fortunes of the City of Man after the fall of humankind (The City of God, 427 c.e.). In modified versions, such a view of history had apologists as late as the mid-eighteenth century, notably Giambattista Vico (1668–1744), who formulated a philosophy of history based on the "course and recourse" of civilizations in his New Science (3rd ed., 1744). The notion of an archetypal golden age appears as well in a broad array of non-Western cultures.
Favoring the future.
Historians of the modern age (i.e., from the Enlightenment well into the twentieth century), by contrast, assigned the future a favored status. Essential to such a notion of time is the proposition that humankind fashions its own destiny, and so has some measure of control over its own fortunes. Implicit in such a conception is the prospect of a better way of life to be attained over time. In its various depictions, such a vision of a more perfect society in the making incited rising expectations. In this view, historical time moves in a linear direction toward a transcendent future. Throughout the modern age, optimistic theories of progress (for example, Kant, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Jules Michelet, Karl Marx), and by the early twentieth century more disillusioned ones of decline (such as Oswald Spengler, Arnold Toynbee), became the fashion. On a timeline projected toward what was anticipated to be a transforming future, the present marked only a stage along the way. In early formulations of this conception of historical time, the process of historical change proceeds teleologically—toward the fulfillment of a process that was implied in its beginning. While the deterministic apparatus of metahistorical design was discarded by the late nineteenth century, the presumption of humankind's advance into a better future, inspired by practical achievements in scientific technologies and rational reforms in social and political institutions, remained implicit in a great deal of historical writing about the course of Western civilization.
Favoring the present.
But just as historical interpretation had been divested of its once profound reverence for past precedent, so it has been disabused of its more recent great expectations for the future. As a regime of historicity, the present age is distinctive for its preoccupation with its own predicament. The distinguishing trait of today's historians of the present age is their newfound confidence that they can acquire a critical perspective on a present age in which they themselves are immersed. The early-twentieth-century pragmatism of American historians Charles Beard (1874–1948) and Carl Becker (1873–1945) prepared the way for this perspective by pointing out the subjectivity of the historians' choices about questions to ask of the past. But the larger significance of presentism as a new historical perspective on time was signaled in the emerging distinction between a modern and a postmodern age as a basis for identifying an epochal change in the mid-to late twentieth century. Some philosophers of history have recently offered an alternative formulation of this reorientation in their notion of an "end" to history, conceived not as the eschatological end of time but as the end of the modern regime of historicity.
The philosopher who contributed most to this new way of historical thinking was Michel Foucault (1926–1984). Foucault rejected the historicist claim that the historians' task is to return to the origins of the phenomenon under investigation to assess its meaning in light of its initial context, and then to trace modifications of its meaning in the ascent from that past into our present. Foucault reversed the interpretive process. Rather than search for the sources of language, he preferred to plot the genealogical descent of modes of discourse backward from the present age in order to appreciate the discontinuities revealed in disruptive and unexpected meanings encountered along the way. From this perspective, he explained, one recognizes that old forms of discourse are easily invested with new meanings, to be redeployed in unrelated ways. Linguistic forms are continually and often abruptly reinvented in the present to suit the needs of changing configurations of political and social power.
The present in historical interpretation.
But the historians' newfound attention to the present as the privileged temporal referent has come with a price, for it has destabilized the place of the present in historical interpretation. To privilege the past was to provide a solid ground for a world in which precedent was a reassuring guide to present action. To privilege the future was to provide a sense of direction for actions intended to hasten the coming of an unfulfilled destiny. But as past and future recede as horizons of transcendence, the historical meaning of the present becomes more elusive. Until very recently, historians were reluctant to approach the present age in their interpretations. Most of them ruled out historical assessments of the most recent fifty or sixty years (roughly the time of living memory) as a prudent hedge against missing patterns hidden in the flux of contemporary events, for unforeseen factors continually intrude to upset the most wisely conceived interpretive judgments about the historical meaning of the present age.
In light of the presentist perspective, therefore, the meaning of the present as a moment in historical time has come to be characterized by its indeterminacy. The diminished faith of the present age in the past's precedents and the future's promise has dissolved the sense of continuity essential to the idea of a single timeline of history. History is no longer conceived as a grand narrative, but as a host of discrete, and not necessarily congruent, narratives that proceed from the particular topics historians choose to address in their random travels back in time. Such a perspective breaks up the sense of continuity that informed the understanding of historical time in the modern age. If the past is no longer perceived to exercise an inertial power, its uses in the present are understood to be more open-ended. The horizons of the present age are wider, even if expectations of the future are no longer as clear. The past is thereby revisited as a resource for re-visioning the future in terms of its infinite possibilities. As the future becomes less predictable, however, so too does the past. It becomes strange, a "foreign country" to be entered in more tentative ways.
Presentism, its apologists therefore contend, should not be charged with anachronism—that is, accused of interpreting the past as if it were just like the present. Rather, it underscores the differences between past and present, and the more discerning judgment needed to make sense of them in historical interpretation. It introduces as well the notion of the relativity of historical time. In other words, it not only discriminates among regimes of time, but also alters perception of the tempo at which time flows. The punctuation of time in historical periodization depends on the nature of the phenomenon addressed. While the plotting of political events lends itself to a perception of a rapid pace of change, that of social mores appears to proceed more slowly, whereas that of environmental change is rarely perceptible in living memory. In its geological depths, history becomes almost "immobile".
Concerns of History
As the dominant historical perspective on time in the contemporary age, presentism speaks to the urgency of the concerns of today's historians, notable among them:
A pessimism about the near past.
The Holocaust and other egregious atrocities of the mid-to late twentieth century have rendered the idea of history as a continuous narrative problematic. The motives behind such acts have been so incomprehensible as to defy ready historical explanation. As historical assessment is postponed, gaping holes in previously accepted narratives begin to appear (as in the problem of assessing the place of the Third Reich in the history of modern Germany, or of the Soviet Union in the history of modern Russia). Nor has the wealth produced through capitalist economic expansion and the unprecedented affluence of Western society inspired unqualified optimism about the human prospect at the turn of the twenty-first century. Their benefits are measured against the deleterious effects of a seemingly insatiable consumerism, with its legacy of environmental destruction and overuse of natural resources critical for the future well-being of humankind. The outlook, moreover, is complicated by present-day problems that have proved intractable, among them: fulminating and unsustainable population growth; the pollution of the biosphere; and the pervasive tenor of violence in global politics, exacerbated by media-driven publicity. If the techniques of enhancing the quality of life in the present age are vastly superior to any that have gone before, widespread human suffering remains persistent as the divide between rich and poor nations widens.
The eclipse of Eurocentrism.
Given historical change whose dynamics are global in scope in the present age, the Eurocentric timeline of modern history has lost much of its meaning as a referent for interpreting today's problems. The time of history, previously conceived in light of the adaptation of the people of the world to a Western conception of civilization's advance, is now reconceived to consider the effects of encounters among diverse cultures, for good or ill. Such a vision of history reinterprets the past in terms of changing global patterns of equilibria and disequilibria. World historians showcase the assessment of political, cultural, and economic interchange, and so discard the once dominant model of history that focused on developments within the matrix of Western civilization.
The media revolution.
The advent of media culture has given a new power to imagery as a mode of publicity. It has effaced continuities between past and present in its constant creation, re-creation, and recycling of images. It reveals the degree to which linear thinking about time was inextricably intertwined with the protocols of the print culture of the modern age. Therein images of the past were fixed securely in their places in time. Media, however, continually reinvents the images of human experience and mobilizes them in ways that intensify the public's desire for present-minded interpretations. These tend to dismiss the preoccupations of the past as extraneous to present concerns. A present-minded perspective serves the needs of a consumer-oriented mass culture, while obliterating the traditions of the past and thereby losing sight of the complex, richly layered textures of societies in times past.
The acceleration of time.
The revolution in the technologies of communication has multiplied exponentially the publicizing of events, and so has reinforced present perceptions of the ever more discrete segmentation of time. The effect has been to create the impression that time is speeding up (a perception made manifest, for example, in the Timetables of History [3rd ed.; Bernard Grun, ed.], a popular reference of historical chronology since the beginning of recorded historical time but heavily weighted toward the events of the present age).
Symptomatic of presentism as a new regime of historical time is the historians' current obsession with history's relationship to collective memory, for memory displays all of the traits that betoken the sense of urgency about interpreting the meaning of the present age. Memory is present-minded. It is also protean, unreliable, easily and quickly remodeled. The shapes that collective memories assume reflect constellations of social or political power. In the process, the importance of some memories is exaggerated, others diminished. The study of the politics of memory has made historians more aware of the frequent misrepresentation of the past in what is officially remembered and what is thereby ignored and forgotten. It has also made manifest how commemorative monuments and rituals are used to further present-minded political ends. The historians' concern, therefore, is to tame memory—to expose its distortions, repressions, and politics in more refined, comprehensive, and discriminating historical interpretations. At the same time, the interest in memory has made historians more sensitive to their own motives, presuppositions, and biases.
But historians have also come to understand that imagination is the reverse side of memory, and that they cannot evade moral responsibility in the choices they make about how the past should be rendered in the histories they write. In an age that has lost the consoling faith in a transcendent past or future, the responsibility of revisiting the past to make sense of the daunting problems of the present age has become more momentous. For this reason, the present vis-à-vis the past appears to today's historians as an expanding presence in their efforts to understand the nature of historical change. Historians are thus faced with a puzzle—the dilemma of how to reconcile the imposing demands of memory's immediacy with their own need for more deliberate and discerning judgment.
See also Historiography ; Memory ; Narrative ; Progress, Idea of .
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Patrick H. Hutton