5 November 2014
All of us who navigate the world of history have to watch for shoals. Today, we feature two on which well-intentioned researchers too-often founder.
Anachronism: "An error in chronology; especially: a chronological misplacing of persons, events, objects, or customs in regard to each other." (Merriam-Webster)
Presentism: "The application of contemporary perspectives in explaining past events rather than placing these events in their historical context." (YourDictionary.com)
Amid research, a wary eye for anachronisms can help us avoid reliance on illegitimate sources—the Pennsylvania-Virginia "Horn Papers" being a classic example.1 In our analysis and writing, we also need to guard against presentism—anachronistic thinking of our own—particularly our unconscious assumptions that people in the past held the same attitudes as those that prevail today. If you haven't yet discovered it, the American Historical Association has posted a superb essay to guide researchers across this particular shoal.2
PHOTOCREDIT: "Rocky Islands in Georgian Bay," CanStockPhotos (http://www.canstockphoto.com/images-photos/jumbled-punctuation.html#file_view.php?id=11267948 : downloaded 1 November 2014), uploaded 18 October 2012 by LesPalenik; used under license.
1. "Errors: The Horn Papers—Trusting Local Artifacts," University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Warring States Project (http://www.umass.edu/wsp/history/outline/horn.html : posted 15 June 2004).
2. Lynn Hunt, "Against Presentism," Perspectives on History: The NewsMagazine of the American Historical Association (May 2002); html edition, American Historical Association (http://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/may-2002/against-presentism).