Tuesday, March 13, 2018

The Meanings of Presentism

In my second post, I briefly described one of the central arguments in my book, which concerns why governing small-sum lending has proved to be especially tricky over the course of the past century. I mentioned that this argument is directed especially to policymakers and others concerned about present-day regulatory questions. In this post, I grapple with the problem of “presentism” in legal history.

Even before I attended my first graduate school class, I confronted the problem of presentism. After I described my proposed project to one member of the faculty, who I shall call Professor X, the professor replied that it sounded awfully “presentist.” I did not fully understand the import of this label, having spent the previous seven years studying and working outside a History Department. But Professor X’s tone indicated that it was meant as a criticism – or at least as a provocation to defend my project.

After this charge was leveled against me, I did some research and quickly discovered that presentism, like so many –isms, is ambiguous. It can describe a multitude of practices, only some of which are widely scorned. For example, presentism can mean judging the past according to present-day moral standards or otherwise adopting “attitudes of temporal superiority,” in the words of historian Lynn Hunt. Most historians, myself included, agree that these judgments should be avoided. But, in labeling an entire project as presentist, Professor X could not have intended this meaning. Rather, I suspect that the professor was using presentist to mean “motivated primarily by present-day concerns” and “seeking to be relevant in our present moment.”

To this charge, I must plead guilty – with one caveat. History that is motivated by present-day concerns is not all “law office history” or “history lite,” which are both perjorative terms for when lawyers assemble cherry-picked historical evidence to support their legal claims. Law office history starts with a conclusion about the past (usually one that serves the author’s legal position) and then seeks evidence that will support the conclusion. Professor X likely feared that I would write law office history because I was coming to graduate school directly from practice. In response, I took this concern seriously and I consciously tried to avoid engaging in law office history.

My interest in the present has surely guided my choice of topics. (Would I have embarked on a project about the history of consumer credit regulation if I had not worked as a legal services lawyer defending low-income homeowners in danger of foreclosure during the subprime mortgage crisis?) But I strive to prevent my own values and views on present-day policy from driving my historical conclusions. Instead, over the course of researching City of Debtors, I tried to follow where my sources led me and hoped that they would yield conclusions about the past that would be of some value in policymaking. I’ll present a few examples in my next post.