Panel 1: Presentisme
Should historians be presentists?
Please note that this panel is in English
Today, democratic societies seem to be confronted with an increasing number of crises and threats: the rise of populism, the lure of authoritarianism, terrorism, a global pandemic and, rapidly approaching, the biggest crisis of them all – climate change. Struggling to make sense of these crises, journalists and other pundits are turning to the past. Analogies with past events abound in the endless stream of commentaries on the current crises facing us.
Yet historians often seem wary to meet this demand for their expertise. Since the 1990s, the historical profession reorganized itself around a strong suspicion of ‘presentism’. The idea that we might want to study the past in order to draw lessons for the present, or to come to a better understanding of how our current world evolved has been identified as one of the main cardinal sins of the historical profession, in addition to ‘determinism’. Why did this happen? And how does the prohibition on ‘presentism’ hold up today? What does the recent surge of interest in courses with titles like “The History of the Present” mean for our profession?