The Fallacy of Presentism

Of what use is early modern Burmese history (c. 1350-1600) to contemporary problems in Burma?

Can early modern history help us understand the current military regime? Can generalizations be made that hold over hundreds of years about the inherent nature of Burmese culture and people?

Clifford Geertz points out the fallacious nature of Lucien Pye’s supposedly timeless generalizations regarding Burmese personality published in 1962:

“Professor Pye’s incisive, exciting, yet ultimately disappointing book is directed toward discovering why Burma, seemingly “objectively” so well endowed, has advanced so little politically and economically. But the question it raises even more insistently is why studies of national character, on the surface similarly well endowed, have advanced so little scientifically.”

A great danger is also posed when the currently important issue of military rule in Burma comes to dominate all historical scholarship related to Burma. There are other dimensions of Burmese history than the military dimension. Because the kingdom of Myanmar engaged in large-scale expansionary warfare that engulfed much of mainland Southeast Asia in the sixteenth century and once again in the eighteenth century, does this mean that Burmese culture is someone inherently bellicose? Or as Geertz aptly summarizes Pye’s judgements, “hyper-individualistic, distrustful, liable to violence, fond of empty social form, and prefer uncertainty to determinism” ? More primary source publishing and direct comparison, less judgement and generalization.

What about the long periods of history during which the Burmese state effectively retreated from the world, moving the capital north under Thalun in the 1630’s, choosing not to align themselves with NAM, the non-aligned movement in the Post-WWII era, and recently moving their capital to Pyinmana, reorienting the center of the country northwards towards China. Geographical isolation and diverse ethnicities might equally be the cause here.

Wikipedia on Presentism:

The fallacy of presentism is also known as “Whig history” or the logical fallacy of “nunc pro tunc”. It is often “teleological” or “triumphalist”.

Presentism is a mode of historical analysis in which present-day ideas and perspectives are anachronistically introduced into depictions or interpretations of the past. Most modern historians seek to avoid presentism in their work because they believe it creates a distorted understanding of their subject matter.

“…’Whig history’, in which certain eighteenth and nineteenth century British historians wrote history in a way that used the past to validate their own political beliefs.”

A greater emphasis on primary sources is a partial antidote because presentism often exhibits itself as the selective use of sources:

“…this kind of approach, which emphasizes the relevance of history to the present, things which do not seem relevant receive little attention, resulting in a misleading portrayal of the past.”


About this entry