Sexy Idea #2: Presentism—The Most Dangerous Prejudice

Calling presentism a prejudice is a little like calling some specific LOSER a bad president: It’s not strong enough.

Prejudices are frequently conceived as quasi-voluntary decisions individuals have. For example, if we call someone a racist—what people in the US usually identify with the word prejudice—the term denotes a reflection on someone’s character. But character emerges out of repeated voluntary actions, Q.E.D.

But that is probably an inaccurate description of the concept of character (informed by Aristotelian hexis). Admittedly there are many more popular notions of character that imply a sort of haecceity—but those even less would be the basis for calling someone a “racist,” which is a moral judgment. According to such popular concepts, calling some a racist would be like calling a human being a homo sapiens. But that is not what is meant.

But presentism is a prejudice in the sense of you-are-standing-there and therefore you-see-things-from-there.

In other words, at any moment of time we have inherited an immense body of knowledge demonstrating the past’s leading to the present. We have seen the days and nights of the past led slowly and seemingly incontrovertibly to the present. With that knowledge we’ve gained/inherited/been interpolated by the conviction that the present’s coming to be was a result of a thousand factors leading to this moment. That knowledge and/or conviction is a powerful narcotic that makes an alternate past—what’s more, the possibility that we could be wrong about the past—nearly unthinkable.

Think of the expression, hindsight is 20/20. On the one hand, this means the same as saying, it’s always the last place that you look. The point of this pleonasm is that you don’t keep looking after you’ve found what you’re seeking; therefore, where you find it will always be the last place you look. There is nothing mysterious about this statement, although it does have a certain valence that sounds like and is destiny or fate.

On the other hand, hindsight is 20/20 because no one (or rather most of us) claims that they know less now that they did before. From the present the patterns in the past that led to the present seems inalterable. Each passing day has confirmed the causal chain that is the past repeatedly. Why is 45 this person rather than that? Because of this and n other conditions.

scientific presentism

At this point I can confess that in part my interest in this notion comes from having recently led a reading group through Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Science has this same problem that I have above called presentism, although for science the problem is epistemological in another sense.

Presentism Klee's Angel of History

For us presentism is an epistemological problem because it shapes how we know what we know. But for science presentism is also epistemological, although in a distinct sense, because science recognizes its past “discoveries” as the building blocks that lead to the present. Moreover, this is the narrative that science tells/consoles itself with each night it encounters what seems like another failure. Science is ontologically invested in its movement from the past.

Yet at the same time, were science to engage in genuine reflection (something which had neither the propensity for or inclination to), it would be forced to admit that at each its “advances” reveal the shortcomings if not misprisions of earlier scientific paradigms. Such reflection requires the disavowal of each previous paradigm if the scientist is to say this is true and concurrently say that is false. But the consequence of this disavowal is that the scientist ends up claiming that he is doing science, but not that the previous paradigm-researcher was. So the story of science gets shorter on each telling.

That is what we call a paradox.

By presentism I mean how the values and knowledge of the present create the conditions according to which the past is understood. In other words, presentism is a historical prejudice. But to merely call it a historical prejudice is again failing to appreciate how fundamental this power is.

I write this on November 8th, the day after Biden has been announced the winner of the 2020 United States presidential contest

Quod erat demonstratum. A phrase that Spinoza used like it was going out of style throughout his work but especially in the Ethics, his posthumously published masterpiece that transformed all of philosophy. The phrase means, which is what was demonstrated.