February 18, 2012

There's a Word for That: Presentism

 "presentism /'prezen,tizəm/ n. uncritical adherence to present-day attitudes, esp. the tendency to interpret past events in terms of modern values and concepts." -The New Oxford American Dictionary

This is a relatively new word to me although I have long noted the existence of this phenomenon in the history field. This kind of viewpoint is often shown when discussing the more gruesome parts of history such as slavery, the oppression of women, styles of warfare, and daily life choices.

In the history field, we constantly hear "I would never do that!" But, it is far more complicated than that. Just like many of us would not harbor a fugitive today, many people understood the real 1800s risks of harboring a fugitive slave.

Today, very few of us would let a doctor operate on us with the fresh blood of another patient on his arms and apron or squeeze their internal organs to get a tiny waist.     

 Information and knowledge builds upon existing knowledge, things that are obvious to us or "common knowledge" may not have been to people in the past. Today, every child knows that germs can make you sick and that washing your hands can keep you safe. Three-hundred  years ago the technology to prove the existence of germs didn't exist. People responded to the modern scientific and medical information at their disposal.

 People in the past were not any less intelligent than people today. In 300 years, schoolchildren everywhere will laugh at the stupidity and ignorance of the inhabitants of 2012. You cannot judge people of the past by modern standards, values or ideas, you can only try to understand them through the lens of the time period in which they lived. Many people fall into this trap but study can help create a fuller understanding of the people of the past, what motivated them, and their experiences.      


  1. Well put. What a timely post. I'd like to share it, if you don't mind my linking to your blog...

    1. Thanks Jacqi! I'd love to be linked.

    2. OK, Stephanie, I must be hopelessly technologically challenged. I clicked on the "create a link" hyperlink at the bottom of your article here, but when I attached it to my post, it doesn't show back up here on your blog. I guess I'm not getting the hang of the system...at any rate, here are my thoughts, spun from your thoughts:

      Thanks for the inspiration! (btw I did include links on my post directing readers back to your blog, which I thoroughly enjoy reading!)

  2. I also linked it to my blog - - excellent!

    1. Thanks Ken, that video on your blog is hilarious!

  3. :D I'm sure all of the anti-conformists just picked up shop and moved to be a rebel. People tell me that they could never ever do Confederate because their values are so opposed to slavery as if I am a supporter.

  4. Dear Stephanie Ann,

    I usually hear some pro "states rights" or "Heritage" twaddle from the "Presentists." I used to portray the British in Rev-War just because the uniforms looked sharp and most British reenactors were "serious" history buffs and therefore fun to be with. I've met quite a few Confederate reenactors who were in it for the history and not the modern politics.

    p.s. I hope you are looking in on my blog once in a while as there are entries of interest to lady reeanctors.

  5. As reenactors we have to sometimes answer a lot of dumb questions like "which side were the good guys?" The fact is that there was a lot of bad and good people on both sides, as in every war. Some men do it for the fame or recognition, some for the glory, some young ones do it to get money for education after they leave an army. Some do it to support their families or protect their way of life.

    Others do it simply because they like killing. In the Civil War and maybe some other wars for awhile the government considered letting major criminals or murderers out of jail to fight, under the reasoning that they'd be less morally objecting to killing other human beings. But experience quickly proved this was a bad tactic.

  6. I know we always say "we are the good guys," in a joking manner, but you are absolutely right, there are good people and bad people in every bunch as well as good and bad times each person's life which affects their actions.

    Personally, I am with Sweden on rehabilitating criminals. A person with no options will only become a repeat criminal. I do realize that some criminals are a threat to other people and that some will still chose crime, but I think it is important to give people second chances.


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