7 minute read

Presentism

Historical Time

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".

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Positive Number to Propaganda - World War IiPresentism - Historical Time, Concerns Of History, Bibliography