Site icon CYNTHIA D. BERTELSEN

Writing about History: A Few Words about the Dangers and Fallacies of Presentism

pres·ent·ism

/ˈprezenˌtizəm/
noun
  1. uncritical adherence to present-day attitudes, especially the tendency to interpret past events in terms of modern values and concepts.

Many years ago, David Hackett Fischer published Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought. Despite the many years since its publication – 1970 – and the now somewhat dated examples he provides to prove his points, Fischer’s book teases out the many issues facing anyone attempting to make sense of the past.

One of those issues he examines is what historians called presentism. As Fischer so eloquently puts it on page 135:

Sometimes called the fallacy of nunc pro tunc,* it is the mistaken idea that the proper way to do history is to prune away the dead branches of the past, and to preserve the green buds and twigs which have grown into the dark forest of our contemporary world.

Presentism is a major problem today, at least in food/culinary history circles. Particularly when it comes to discussions of culinary appropriation.

Looking at the past through the lens of present awareness and sensibilities results in erroneous and damaging attitudes, an unwillingness to acknowledge that any discussion of, say, the agency of enslaved cooks was at best limited. Given the attitudes, for example, of English elites toward people of their own race who were deemed to be of the lower classes, is it surprising that indentured servants and, later, enslaved Africans were only rarely if at all, treated with anything venturing on respect and worthy of attention beyond the jobs they were ordered to perform?

Yes, these unfortunate people did perform the vast majority of the work in the situations in which they found themselves because that’s what was expected of them. And woe to them if they didn’t. No one disputes that.

But there’s no denying the attitudes and beliefs of powerful people at the time. That cannot be changed. Just because today’s society is aware of the great injustices meted out to so many doesn’t mean it can be erased. And so it is vital to acknowledge this. And to realize that to discuss these sad facts doesn’t mean a writer is “racist.”

Leveling false charges of “racism” in these cases is far from the realm of scholarship and civil debate.

My latest book – Take a Goose or a Duck – examines many different aspects of the history of English cooking, as well as American. It does question received wisdom about the role of enslaved cooks in American culinary history, not disrespectfully, not with malicious intent, but rather with the facts as those facts now exist. With time, perhaps, interpretations will change.

But truthfully, right now, attributing great agency to oppressed people denies the facts.

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* A legal term that originated in Great Britain, meaning “Now for then.”

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