“One of the basic rules of historical scholarship is to avoid ‘anachronistic judgments.’ In simple terms, this means the following: the people who lived in the past, lived different lives with different values and different obligations then do we in the present.”
“Therefore, it would be wrong to judge them by standards that are outside the context of their lives, about which they might have known nothing, and which fails to grapple with the dynamics of the culture in which they actually lived.” (Nurse)
“Presentism besets us in two different ways: (1) the tendency to interpret the past in presentist terms; and (2) the shift of general historical interest toward the contemporary period and away from the more distant past.”
“Although the first propensity was implicit in Western historical writing from its beginnings, it took a more problematic turn when the notion of “the modern” began to take root in the 17th century.” (Hunt)
“Over time, modernity became the standard of judgment against which most of the past, even the Western past, could be found wanting. The second trend, the shift of interest toward the contemporary period, clearly has a connection to the invention of modernity, but it did not follow as much in lockstep as might be expected.”
“To sit in judgment on the past is not always advisable. It is easy, in the light of subsequent events, to perceive what would have been the wiser course.”
“But it is not always easy to put ourselves in the places of our predecessors; to realize what difficulties may have beset them, and what obstacles may have prevented the carrying out of their own conceptions of what should have been done.” (Lyons; Island, 1875)
“Another kind of bad moral luck is being born at a time when you’d need to be a moral genius to see that a certain view or practice is wrong, because all around you are people who accept that the practice is alright.” (Fricker)
“To pass moral judgements on the past is to fall into the fallacy of imagining that somewhere, behind the veil, the past is still happening … as if [it is] now being enacted in the next room and we ought to break open the door and stop it. These things have been; they are over; there is nothing to be done about them.” (Collingwood)
“Presentism, at its worst, encourages a kind of moral complacency and self-congratulation. Interpreting the past in terms of present concerns usually leads us to find ourselves morally superior; the Greeks had slavery, even David Hume was a racist, and European women endorsed imperial ventures.”
“Our forbears constantly fail to measure up to our present-day standards. This is not to say that any of these findings are irrelevant or that we should endorse an entirely relativist point of view.”
“It is to say that we must question the stance of temporal superiority that is implicit in the Western (and now probably worldwide) historical discipline.”
“In some ways, now that we have become very sensitive about Western interpretations of the non-Western past, this temporal feeling of superiority applies more to the Western past than it does to the non-Western one.” (Hunt)
“But it is possible to remind ourselves of the virtues of maintaining a fruitful tension between present concerns and respect for the past. Both are essential ingredients in good history.”
“Respect for the past, with its concomitant humility, curiosity, and even wonder (as Caroline Bynum reminded us in a memorable presidential address), enables us to see beyond our present-day concerns backward and forward at the same time. We are all caught up in the ripples of time, and we have no idea of where they are headed.” (Hunt)
Follow Peter T Young on Facebook
Follow Peter T Young on Google+
Follow Peter T Young on LinkedIn
Follow Peter T Young on Blogger
Bob Bortfeld says
Excellent. This is something that more people today need to embrace. We seem to be hung up on ancestors, nee predecessors, who violate our view of morality and legality based on today’s conditions, cultures and mores. I say “Give ’em a break!”
Paula Bauer says
What I find uncomfortable ….. and it is present in all modern societies…. the blame game about invaders changing and restructuring the past to suit the needs of the present.
My English ancestors took over my Irish ancestors land, starved them, amongst other things and both ended up in the America’s….
Do I blame the English? Do I blame the Irish? Do I blame the Native Americans?
Where does it end?
Growing up in Hawaii, I was always made to feel the intruder/invader/interloper. I carried this guilt/shame all the time till I realized there are no perfect species and everyone came from somewhere else.
The microcosm of our tiny and yet dynamic islands can be the best and the worst.
We must all work towards a cohesive future primarily led with kindness.