History Department, University of Exeter
Follow on Twitter @RichardToye
Our free online course Empire: The Controversies of Imperialism has now been running two weeks; between them, the participants have already made thousands of comments, often arguing their respective points of view quite vigorously. One persistent theme of debate is the degree to which it is possible to pass judgements on the actions of people in the past, who were operating on the basis of standards that are different from those held today. This is an important and difficult issue for historians in general, although the contentious topic of ‘Empire’ seems to throw it into particular relief. Everyone can agree that we shouldn’t reach assessments that are anachronistic; it is much harder to reach agreement on what constitutes anachronism.
As I discussed with Dr. Marc Palen in our Week 1 feedback video, we do of course need to distinguish between moral or value judgements and theoretical concepts applied retrospectively by historians. Thus, the concept of ‘gentlemanly capitalism’ – coined by P. J. Cain and A. G. Hopkins in the 1990s – was not in use during the late nineteenth century, but may nonetheless be helpful in trying to explain the dynamics of imperial expansion during that period. It would be almost impossible to limit ourselves purely to terms that were familiar to the people we study, and indeed I am not aware of anyone seriously suggesting that we should try to do so. It is, however, important to be aware of what kind of discourse was used by contemporaries, and how that is different from the language we use today.
Evaluative judgements offer a more difficult problem. Consider, for example, William Pitt the Elder’s description in 1739 of the Spanish Empire as ‘an usurpation, an inhuman tyranny claimed and exercised over the American Seas’. This comment was typical of the so-called ‘Black Legend’, which alleged that Spanish imperialism was unusually and horrifically cruel. Practically all empires, at some point during their lifetimes, have been subject to harsh verdicts of this type. It may be that these criticisms were often unfair or exaggerated; but we can’t rule them out of court on the grounds of anachronism in the sense that they were judgements that were unavailable to contemporaries.
One could take the absolutist position that we can’t pass any moral judgements whatsoever about people in the past. However, I doubt that many people would be willing or able to stick to it. Almost everyone, I think, is happy to condemn slavery even though many of the people who perpetrated it were doing so in line with what were then commonly accepted standards within their own societies. We might also ask: where is the cut-off date? If it’s not right to express moral opinions on what people did 500 or 250 years ago, are we also precluded from expressing them about what people did 50 years, 20 years ago, or even last week? Finally, if we are precluded from voicing negative views of what (say) was done in the name of the British Empire in the past, are not positive views of the Empire ruled out as well? After all, the claim that the British spread peace and civilization is just as much a moral view as the claim that it was brutal and highly oppressive.
I would, however, agree that we can’t simply assume that modern society has reached the ‘correct’ answers, or that we should look down on people in the past simply because they failed to grasp truths that now strike us as self-evident. Quentin Skinner, the eminent historian of political thought, contends that a major reason for studying past viewpoints is that ‘they address familiar questions but offer unfamiliar answers.’ Yet taking past historical actors seriously in this way requires us to engage with their arguments; and doing that involves something more than just saying ‘Well, of course, they couldn’t possibly have known better in those days.’ So for me, the problem of avoiding anachronism is not a simple rule that can be easily applied, but rather a constant journey of investigation and debate. How did people judge and argue in the past? What were the competing world-views that were available to them? Our responsibility as historians is not to take a position which claims that judgments can be avoided, but rather to engage in an ongoing process of trying to decide what types of judgements are actually possible.