chapter  2
46 Pages

Reinventing the wheel: The present-past nexus

My reference to ‘the wheel’ in the title partly signals a return to an old debate in the discipline, concerning presentism. It could also be taken to signify the circularity of causation in representations of the past (or ‘history’, ‘origins’, ‘tradition’) that seek to show how the past has determined the present, apparently in unilinear fashion. This overlooks the fact that the past doing the determining is already the product of our interpretation, which is to say that we cannot learn the ‘lessons of history’ without first imputing a moral/political character to the aspect of the past which is under consideration. So, contrary to Gertrude Himmelfarb’s belief that presentism should not be ‘permitted’ in good history, in history it is inevitable that the present will teleologically determine (our representations of) the past. Although sceptics such as postmodernist scholars may share a concern with history’s teleologies and seek through various means

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be present-minded, and in a variety of ways, culturally, politically, epistemologically, historiographically and so on. For them ‘presentist’ is not merely a code-word for ‘political’ or, more specifically, the sorry habit that only others have of allowing their ideologies to interfere with the constructions they place upon the past. A further difference is that postmodernists often seek to engage creatively and selfreflexively with presentism in their works of history.