Presentism in History of Psychology : LUSENET : History & Theory of Psychology : One Thread

Do you agree that presentism is necessary when studying the history of psychology?

-- Niamah Graham (, September 14, 2003


Presentism is the urge to evaluate the past through the sensibilities of the present. For instance, facilely criticizing Victorians for being sexually inhibited is an example of presentism because it holds Victorian attitude up to a set of values they patently did not hold to be true. So it is hardly surprising that they didn't hold the views we do. The tendency to be presentist often derives from an implicit belief that we, here and now, are the pinnacle of all historical trends -- that we have achieved (or are nearer to achiving) the goals that everyone else wanted to achieve, and thus "they" are to be criticized for having achieved as much as we. This is often called "Whig" history -- the view that history has been a story of progress up to "us."

As soon as one puts it the baldly, however, it is clear that it is a fairly ridiculous assumption. The Victorian, or any other historical group, weren't trying to be us. They were trying to be them. We should study them *in their own terms* -- according to the values they held and with reference to the historical context in which they lived.

As for whether "presentism is necessary when studying the history of psychology," I would say not. While there may be a certain value in *noting* that there were, say, racist, classist, and sexist assumptions underlying Victorian views of mental ability, there is little to be gained from *criticizing* Victorians for their attitudes. More valuable is to try to *understand* why people -- mostly of good will and as rational as we are -- and who were in their social, political, economic, and intellectual situation ("historical conjuncture," as Foucault liked to say) held such views. What "facts" were they trying to explain. What values were they trying to defend? Why didn't they see things in the say that we do? (Perhaps in doing this we will begin to see previously "hidden" things about why we hold the views we do as well.)

Of course, none of this is to say that any of us can completely lift ourselves out of our own "historical conjuncture" and view the past with complete objectivity. Still, that doesn't prevent us from making an attempt to "bracket" some of our assumptions in order to see things from a perspective that is somewhat less parochial.

-- Christopher Green (, September 15, 2003.

Niamah, I think the historicism--presentism issue in historiography is extremely important, and is a question of balance and a certain commitment to writing a particular kind of history. The one point I would emphasize here is that one can be 'presentist' *without* assuming that the present is just the linear culmination of the past. You need not be committed to a modernist sense of historical progress here--consider Foucault, who writes about the contingencies and conditions that enabled, disabled, shaped, altered, (etc.) the present. In such a view, present day (and present knowledge) is not so much an inevitable outcome of the past in some progressive fashion, but a state that needs to be contextualized with the understanding of how it emerged from the confluence of the various historical, linguistic, economic, institutional, cultural, scientific, (etc.) forces. Doing this, of course, demands some attention to 'history for history's sake' (the historicist position). I find this kind of "genealogical" (to use Foucault's term) approach works for me in so far as it doesn't make simplistic claims to 'objectivity,' nor reify history as a type of grand narrative of the past, but acknowledges our own positioning with respect to the past without assuming some direction toward Truth. Yet at the same time, it pays attention to historical context for its own sake by asking us to consider what the phenomenology of 'being there' at that time was like. Foucault, Gadamer, and Heidegger all have some important things to say on this.

Scott Greer

-- Scott Greer (, September 17, 2003.

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