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From: Len Gutkin
Subject: The Review: What Are Historians Good For?
Two summers ago, The Review published a fascinating essay by the historian Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins on the question of “presentism” in the discipline of history. (In her 2002 article “Against Presentism,” Lynn Hunt defined the object of her attack in two 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.”) The topic felt newly urgent, motivated by questions about whether Trumpism could be illuminated by analogies to European fascism as well as by a series of highly publicized debates around
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Two summers ago, The Review published a fascinating essay by the historian Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins on the question of “presentism” in the discipline of history. (In her 2002 article “Against Presentism,” Lynn Hunt defined the object of her attack in two 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.”) The topic felt newly urgent, motivated by questions about whether Trumpism could be illuminated by analogies to European fascism as well as by a series of highly publicized debates around The New York Times’s “1619 Project.” “Debates about presentism,” Steinmetz-Jenkins observed, “are amplified during moments of political uncertainty, frustration, and disruption.”
His essay became the germ of a new forum just published in Modern Intellectual History, “Whose Present? Which History?” edited by Steinmetz-Jenkins and featuring contributions from Todd Shepard, Emma Hunter, Louise Young, Alaina M. Morgan, Fabio Lanza, Patrick Iber, Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, Faisal Devji, and Udi Greenberg. The papers cover a large range of topics — Japanese historiography, the Weimar analogy, the Cold War and its consequences for the historical imagination, Eurocentrism and tactics for its displacement, global Black history — but all turn to some degree on the theoretical problem Steinmetz-Jenkins summarizes thus: “What does it mean to make the present historical? How can you teach something like the history of the present? From whose perspective? And what are the risks and rewards of so doing?”
As these questions suggest, Steinmetz-Jenkins rejects blanket prohibitions on presentism: “Some forms of presentism avoid the pitfalls that have made it a bad word to the profession,” as he wrote in our pages. A significant source for this re-evaluation is David Armitage’s 2017 paper “In Defence of Presentism.” Presentism, Armitage writes, is a “less polite” term for “anachronism, the willful or inadvertent misunderstanding of the past by applying standards or interpretations from outside the immediate era, context, or milieu under study.”
Armitage doesn’t exactly defend anachronism, but he does insist that before historians can reject presentism they should be more precise about what they mean by it. He offers a useful analytic summary of the word’s often underspecified meanings. He ranges across philosophy, psychology, and historiography to propose clearer definitions of presentism and to delimit the forms he thinks historians cannot avoid. His treatment is tremendously elucidating, but his conclusion is perhaps unsurprising. Since “we have no direct access to the past any more than we can immediately grasp the future,” therefore “our reconstruction of history can only take place in the present, just as our imagination of events to come occurs in the here and now.”
But Armitage’s ultimate questions are ethical. He begins by asking what the discipline of history “can do for human flourishing,” and that question frames his essay. While the precision he brings to bear on presentism is indispensable, he is vaguer about human flourishing. There are of course instances of applied or activist academic history in which a more or less direct benefit to flourishing might be conferred. But that accounts for such a tiny proportion of scholarly work that making it the measure of the discipline can hardly be the goal.
What if the answer to the question of how much the study of history enables flourishing is, at least much of the time, “not much” — that is, unless flourishing encompasses something like the availability of study for its own sake? In The Higher Learning in America (1918), Thorstein Veblen argued that scholarship was modern society’s distinctive way of fulfilling the drive, which he took to be an anthropological constant across cultures, toward “idle curiosity.” Without some such justification, is history still worth doing?
- “The Umwelt concept is one of the most profound and beautiful in biology. It tells us that the all-encompassing nature of our subjective experience is an illusion, and that we sense just a small fraction of what there is to sense.” In The New York Times, Ed Yong on what it’s like to be a bat, or a tick, or a corgi.
- “Ruggerio quickly understood that a French kitchen was not dissimilar to La Cosa Nostra. Both were governed by rigid hierarchies and Old World codes. Transgressors were punished harshly.” In Vanity Fair, Gabriel Sherman with an unsettling, Zolaesque profile of mobster-cum-chef David Ruggerio.
- “Enlightenment Deism shaped Casanova’s philosophy — and helped to rationalize his predations.” In The New Yorker, Judith Thurman on Giacomo Casanova, by way of Leo Damrosch’s new book.
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