Causal Presentism. An Ontological Approach in Historiography

I have defended causal presentism in the historiography of science before. (See here for a blog text; see here for 200 page defense.) Quite often I have been asked whether causal presentism is applicable to other fields of historiography, such as historiography of war or historiography of politics. This is presented as a critique towards causal presentism in the historiography of science: If causal presentism is not a reasonable position with respect to other fields of historiography, it appears to be an ad hoc position with respect to historiography of science. In this post, I argue that causal presentism might not be necessary in other fields of historiography but it surely would be a highly valuable position.

In what follows, I briefly introduce causal presentism and its main virtues in the historiography of science. I then argue that these virtues make it reasonable position in other fields of historiography as well. Because causal presentism does not correspond to the current order of classifying historiographical disciplines, I suggest that it would be reasonable to reconsider the whole intellectual structure of historiography as it currently stands.

According to causal presentism, the historiography of science is the study of the past events, processes, and practices that have led to the present science, i.e. the study of causal links that lead from the past to the present science.

Causal presentism has three main virtues that make it a valuable approach in the historiography of science:

First, causal presentism does not identify the subjects of study of the historiography of science on conceptual basis but rather on ontological basis. What counts as part of the history of science does not depend on concepts, definitions, relevant similarity, stipulations, or any other conceptual machinery but on the causal relations in reality. In this way, causal presentism is a viable opinion in the current atmosphere in the historiography of science where the field has become increasingly skeptical – or even hostile or indifferent – towards anchoring its identity to the category of science or other conceptual machinery.

Renn writes:

For many historians of science, science no longer seems distinguishable from other forms of cultural practices. It has ceased to be a paradigm of universal rationality and presents itself as just one more object of study for cultural history or social anthropology. Even the most fundamental aspects of the classical image of science — proof, experimentation, data, objectivity or rationality — have turned out to be deeply historical in nature. This insight has opened up many new perspectives on the study of the history of science, which is turning more and more into a history of knowledge. It thus includes not only academic practices, but also the production and reproduction of knowledge far removed from traditional academic settings, for instance, in artisanal and artistic practices, or even in family and household practices. (2015, 37–38.)

It is becoming more and more acknowledged that the historiography of science is not literally about science but about ways of knowing the world, i.e. epistemological practices in general. This has become evident in the explicit shift from the historiography of science to the historiography of knowledge during recent years. Even though there has been debates concerning the nature of the historiography of knowledge and its relation to the historiography of science (Daston 2017; Bergwik & Holmberg 2020; Östling & Heidenblad 2020; Mulsow 2018; Burke 2020), it is widely agreed that it is futile to attempt to identify the history of science by using some conceptual machinery build around the category of science, no matter how historically sophisticated that machinery is. As Daston has argued,

The original disciplinary narrative of the history of science is simply untenable on scholarly grounds, undermined by the careful historicism and aversion to anachronism and teleology that has characterized the most rigorous and imaginative work in the field for the last forty years. [–] Following the trail of practices has intertwined science with its ambient cultural context in tangled ways. There is no way of unweaving this web, of excising science cleanly from other ways of knowing and doing. (2017, 144-145.)

However, even if there is no way of excising science from other ways of knowing in the past, this does not mean that there cannot be historiography of science. It only means that there is no way to define the discipline through a shared conceptual basis. There is another completely intelligible way of defining a historiographical discipline. The historiography of something can be understood as a description of the development of that something through time. Such descriptions fulfill some of our deepest historical needs. As Hall puts it ‘The most obvious of all historical questions is: “How did we arrive at the condition we are now in?’ (1983, 54). Following these lines, we can define the historiography of science as the study of the development of the present science. This is what causal presentism suggests when it defines the historiography of science as the study of the causal history of the present science. If we conceive the historiography of science in these terms, we do not need to rely on any conceptual machinery to identify the subjects of study. Rather, we can leave that task to the causal relations in the history. That is why I classify causal presentism as an “ontological” approach in the historiography of science in contrast to “conceptual” approaches: what counts as a part of the history of science does not depend on our conceptual machinery but on the causal features of world.

Secondly, causal presentism provides a clear account of what counts as historical explanatory understanding about science. Historical understanding has many forms and can be achieved in many ways. The complexity increases once we notice that historical understanding has two directions. It can refer either to our attempts to make the past understandable or to our attempts to make the present understandable through the study of history. However, in the middle of this complexity, there is a clear sense of explanatory understanding that corresponds to what the historiography of science can provide: knowledge of causal relations between different events and processes. Causal presentism provides this kind of understanding when it tracks down the causal history of the present science and therefore enables us to achieve historical understanding in one of its central forms, in the explanatory form.

We can understand this virtue of presentism by considering how significant science is in our society and how deeply it affects our lives and thinking – even in historiography. As Chang has pointed out, “Presentism in historiography is inevitable in a basic sense: the historian is quite simply stuck in the present, and it does not make sense to attempt to escape the present” (2021, 98). This point about the relationship between the historiography and the present state of the world is formulated eloquently also by Naomi Oreskes in the paper “Why I Am a Presentist?” (2013). Oreskes formulates motivational presentism and writes:

What matters to us about the past has everything to do with who we are, where we live, and what we think is important – to us, here and now, in the present. Our motivations are inescapably presentist. Thus, to qualify the deliberately provocative title of this paper, I am a motivational presentist, and I believe all historians are. (2013, 603).

However, we should not only look the past through our present interests. Understanding the past is necessary for us to understand the present. The importance of understanding the history of the present science has been noted by philosophers of science. For example, Schickore argues that

[–] a history of the present should remain part and parcel of our present efforts to understand the sciences. Fully to understand the concepts, practices, and methodological and epistemological goals and commitments of present science, we need to trace how they have come into being. (2011, 477.)

Moreover, Psillos concludes that

[–] what science tells us about the world, as well as the reasons to take what it tells us seriously, are issues that are determined historically, by looking at the patterns of convergence in the scientific image of the world. (2012, 101).

It is important to notice that one can be a motivational presentist without being a causal presentist. There are many ways in which studying the past enables us to understand the present, some of which might be completely indifferent to causal relations. One might compare the present science with some past activity that has no causal connection to it, or one might study an activity that is causally relevant to present science without being interested in the causal connection. For example, Chang argues that giving attention “to the bits of past science that modern scientists consider unimportant, outdated, or simply wrong” enables us to see that “the current dominant system in a field of science is not the only good approach to the understanding of nature, and looking at the past is one of the possible ways of finding other good ones” (2021, 107). Causal presentism is not committed to the claim that such ways to study the past do not have a great value. However, what motivates causal presentism is that it is unclear in what sense these different ways of studying the past provide historical understanding.[1] Almost any study of human activities can be relevant to our understanding of science, as science is a human activity and shares similarities with other activities. However, not all human sciences are historiography of science. I do not wish to suggest that there is no reading of historical understanding that could capture what the “causally indifferent” studies in the historical study of science can provide. What I wish to suggest is that these different senses of historical understanding should be made explicit and systematized. Meanwhile, I will point out that there is a rather straightforward sense of historical understanding in which causal presentism provides historical understanding.

Causal presentism provides historical understanding in a very clear sense. It provides causal explanations and answers what Hall calls “the most obvious of all historical questions: ‘How did we arrive at the condition we are now in?’” (1983, 54). I call this kind of understanding historical explanatory understanding. Causal presentism combines the need to understand the present situation with the fact that causal explanations provide understanding. In other words, if one follows causal presentism, one achieves historical understanding of science in explanatory form. While we cannot settle here what is the best way of analyzing the notion of causal explanation in historiography, it is important to note that such analyses have been developed recently on the bases of influential frameworks in other areas of the philosophy of science. For example, Glennan (2010) has explicated the notion in terms of ephemeral mechanisms, and Virmajoki (forthcoming) has explicated the notion in terms of counterfactual dependencies. This means that there are works on causal explanation in historiography on which causal presentism can be conceptually based. It is also interesting to note that both Glennan (2010) and Virmajoki (forthcoming) explicitly discuss the issue of historical contingency. As we will see below, this issue is one of the main themes in the historiography of science. The fact that the accounts of causal explanation in historiography tackle such issues gives us a great hope that causal presentism has interesting contributions to be made on conceptual and methodological issues in the historiography of science.

Thirdly, causal presentism provides novel conceptual resources to tackle many conceptual and methodological problems in the historiography of science. Causal presentism enables us to approach many central issues in the historiography of science in a systematic way, including contingency, the problem of big pictures, triumphinalism and so on. What is remarkable is that causal presentism enables us to tackle these issues even though presentism is often considered as the source of the problems associated with them.

Contingency: One could perhaps argue that if the history of science is only a study of causal histories of the present science, the history of science loses its grip on understanding how things were different in the past and how they could be different in the present. It is one of the main tasks of historians – the objection continues – to show that the present state of things is only contingent and that the ways societies have organized their epistemological practices have varied greatly. Rée writes:

The contemplation of historicity – of the sheer singularity of places and times, situations and conjunctures, including all those you habitually take for granted – will help you see that there are different ways of looking at the world, and that what is obvious in one perspective may be ridiculous in another. (1991, 991.)

I agree that there is some force in this objection – understanding how the past has been different gives us tools to imagine how things could be at present. Yet this kind of imagination does not give us any idea of what should have happened in the past in order for things to be different at present. However, if we study the causal history of the present science, and if we understand causation as difference-making (e.g. Menzies 2004, Beebee et al. 2017), then a historiographical explanation automatically tells us when things would have been different (see Virmajoki [forthcoming]). Therefore, causal presentism with its causal explanation is a rather powerful tool for understanding the contingency of our own scientific practices. Causal presentism allows us to pinpoint on which historical events, processes, and practices our present practices are based. (Virmajoki 2018).

History of winners and triumphalism: It could be argued that presentism only finds the winners from the history and celebrates those who got things right and contributed to the present science. This point was made famous by Herbert Butterfield in his legendary work The Whig Interpretation of History (1931).

In order to answer, we must notice that there are two ways of judging who was a winner at a certain point in time. We can consider as a winner a person whose thoughts influenced the following generation the most. It is obvious that, from the causal presentist point of view, these persons should capture our attention in the history of science. Yet these persons could have been completely wrong from our point of view and thus their scientific achievements are not worth celebrating. Alternatively, we can consider as winners those who were right from our point of view. These persons could be celebrated if one wishes to do so (personally, I do not see any reason for that) but it is clearly possible that these persons were not very influential and thus do not deserve our attention as a part of the history of science. Thus, the set of people we might celebrate and the set of people who are important parts of the causal history of science are not coextensive.[2]

To be sure, one of the main advantages of causal presentism is that it gives objective criteria for which practices and person count as parts of the history of science. Causal presentism makes sure that one cannot pick one’s subjects of study as one wishes and, therefore, causal presentism restricts the possibility of celebrating the historical actors one happens to favor for some reason. If the choice of the subjects of study was purely a matter of convention, it would be possible to ignore some historical actors who deserve attention. This kind of ignorance, based on an ideology or a subjective bias, is surely something that every respectable historian of science wants to get rid of. Causal presentism has concrete tools to avoid these biases.

The problem of Big Picture: One could argue that presentism is a form of big-picture thinking since it defines the history of science as a comprehensive account of the developments that have led to present science. This kind of big-picture should be rejected (Shapin 2005, 242).

It is true that the ideal goal of causal presentism is a comprehensive account of the causal history of present science. Yet it is not committed to the usual sins that make the big-picture thinking questionable. Shapin (2005, 242) writes: “Big pictures imply coherence [and] in old versions of scientific coherence [mean] the conceptual unity and universality of science, narratives of rational and linear progress, a specifiable and efficacious scientific method [–].” Causal presentism is not committed to the claim that the history of science has progressed linearly or that the development of science is driven by rational decision-making and by the use of clear methods. What kind of causes have been at work in the history of science is an empirical question and must be answered case-by-case.

We can say even more: Compare causal presentism to some other framework in which a historian approaches the history of science using some (perhaps implicit or intuitive) definition of science. If we allow this kind of approach to the history of science, it is hard to say what prohibits a historian to define science as a rational practice that is driven by clear methods. Thus, the distortions of the big-picture reappear since it is possible for the historian to describe the history of science as consisting of activities driven by rationality and clear methodology. This description would follow directly from the definition the historian has chosen. Again, one of the main advantages of causal presentism is that it gives ontological criteria for which practices count as parts of the history of science. Causal presentism makes sure that one cannot pick one’s subjects of study as one wishes. Causal presentism can get rid of the biases of considering the history of science as a history of rational activities driven by clear methodology (and any other unjustified biases, for that matter).

Let’s new return to the original issue and consider the applicability of causal presentism in other fields of historiography. I must begin by pointing out that I do not have the expertise to judge whether other areas of historiography face similar impasses with their conceptual machinery as the historiography of science. There might not be a need for such radical rethinking in those areas. However, there still might be great value in applying causal presentism in other areas of historiography:

First, causal presentism does not lead, as we have seen, to the usual problems associated with presentism. On the contrary, causal presentism allows us to avoid biases that stem from our conviction that we can recognize real historical trajectories through our conceptual machinery, as we saw above. As the development of the historiography of science has shown, what at first appears as a transparent historical phenomenon with evident features, such as science and its conceptual and methodological unity, often turns out to be a mirage produced by our own historical conditions. This means that causal presentism can provide more solid unity (in the form of a causal trajectory) for a historiographical discipline than the customary way of classifying apparently similar phenomena from different eras together, at least in some cases.

Secondly, causal presentism provides clear criteria for when we have achieved historical (explanatory) understanding. When we understand the causal relations between historical events, processes, and practices, i.e., when we understand the causal nexus of the past, we have explanatory understanding in historiography. Even if there are other forms of historical understanding, explanatory understanding certainly is one of the most central forms. In fact, it would not be too far-fetched to claim that, if we wish to stay faithful for the historical order of things in our understanding, we should first understand the causal relations between historical events, processes, and practices and only then ask how to name and classify historical phenomena. The ontological structure of the history is certainly much more important and interesting than our conceptual machinery.

To be sure, adopting causal presentism would deeply shake how historiographical disciplines are structured as conceptually connected phenomena might not be causally connected and vice versa. I am not naïve enough to suggest that causal presentism is strong enough to shake the institutional grounds of historiography but I still wish to point out (a bit provocatively) that the current institutional arrangement might forbid us from truly understanding the history.

Encore: Blind Alleys

It might be argued that we can learn many things about science by studying past developments that turned out to be blind alleys. Causal presentism ignores these blind alleys, the objection concludes.

In order to answer this worry, we must separate two versions of the objection. The first one is that there have been research programs in the history that (seemingly) turned out to be on the wrong tracks and were then replaced by (seemingly) more progressive programs. This case is not a problem for causal presentism. The process of replacement surely is a causal process that contributes to the development of science. More generally, this also means that Kuhn’s worry that

Scientific development becomes the piecemeal process by which these items have been added, singly and in combination, to the ever growing stockpile that constitutes scientific technique and knowledge. And [historiography] of science becomes the discipline that chronicles both these successive increments and the obstacles that have inhibited their accumulation. (1970, 1-2.)

does not arise in causal presentism. The view that the history of science must be explained causally does not imply anything about progress, cumulativity, or linearity. Which turns have taken place and which kind of causes have been at work in the history of science is an empirical question and must be answered case-by-case. Replacements and steps backward (whatever that means) surely can be parts of the causal history of science.

The second version is that there have been research programs that ended for some reason and were never replaced but just faded away. There are two possible answers. The first is to say that these blind alleys can be causally relevant to the development of science in the sense that they may have informed people what they should not attempt to do. That a blind alley provides information is surely a causal connection. If this is the case, these blind alleys can be studied as a part of the history of science. The second answer is to bite the bullet: the study of the blind alleys that have no causal relevance to the present science does not belong to the historiography of science as long as the discipline seeks to provide explanatory understanding. The causally irrelevant blind alleys can be studied for their own sake, we can even learn and find inspiration from them (Chang 2009, 256), and we can even accept that they provide historical understanding in non-explanatory form, but the study of such blind alleys is not explanatory relevant, in the sense explicated above. Causal presentism does not claim that the study of causally irrelevant blind alleys cannot be valuable. The problem is that they do not provide historical explanatory understanding and therefore do not belong to the historiography of science (see also the discussion around Endnote 1).

Notice that the distinctions between different types of blind alleys are based on their causal role in the history of science. Such distinctions are important to our historical understanding of those blind alleys and to our general views of science.[3] For example, both phrenology and the phlogiston theory seem like blind alleys. However, their respective roles in the development of science, the factors behind the abandonment of the theories, and our retrospective views on the theories differ.[4] Equating phrenology and the phlogiston theory because they were blind alleys does not seem to serve any real historiographical insight. Therefore, causally structured historiography of science has an advantage in its ability to make those distinctions.

I see no reason why we should not handle the supposed blind alleys in other areas of history in the same way.


Beebee, Helen & Hitchcock Cristopher & Price, Huw. (2017). Making a Difference: Essays on the Philosophy of Causation. Oxford University Press.

Bergwik, Staffan & Holmberg, Linn (2020): “Concluding reflections. Standing on whose shoulders?”. In Östling, J. & Larsson Heidenblad, D. & Nilsson Hammar, A. (eds.) Forms of Knowledge.

Burke, Peter. 2020. “Response”. Journal for the History of Knowledge 1 (1)

Chang, Hasok (2009) ”We Have Never Been Whiggish (about Phlogiston)”. Centaurus 51 (4). 239–264.

Chang, Hasok (2021). “Presentist History for Pluralist Science”. Journal for General Philosophy of Science / Zeitschrift für Allgemeine Wissenschaftstheorie 52 (1). 97-114.

Daston, Lorraine. (2017). “The history of science and the history of knowledge”. KNOW: A Journal on the Formation of Knowledge 1 (1).

Glennan, Stuart (2010). “Ephemeral Mechanisms and Historical Explanation”. Erkenntnis 72 (2):251-266.

Hull, David (1979). “In Defense of Presentism”. History and Theory 18 (1) 1–15.

Kuhn, Thomas S. (1970). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions [2nd ed.]. The University of Chicago Press.

Menzies, Peter (2004). “Difference-making in context”. In J. Collins, N. Hall & L. Paul (eds.), Causation and Counterfactuals. MIT Press. 139-180.

Mulsow, Martin (2018). “History of Knowledge”. InBurke, P & Tamm, M. (eds.) Debating New Approaches to History.

Oreskes, Naomi (2013). “Why I Am a Presentist”. Science in Context 26 (4). 595-609.

Parssinen, T. (1974) “Popular science and society: The phrenology movement in early Victorian Britain”. Journal of Social History 8 (1). 1–20.

Psillos, Stathis (1999). Scientific Realism: How Science Tracks Truth. Routledge.

Rée, Jonathan (1991). “The Vanity of Historicism.” New Literary History 22, no. 4. 961-83

Renn, J. (2015). “From the History of Science to the History of Knowledge – and Back”. Centaurus, 57: 37–53

Schickore, Jutta (2011). ”More Thoughts on HPS: Another 20 Years Later”. Perspectives on Science 19 (4). 453–481.

Shapin, Steven (2005). “Hyperprofessionalism and the Crisis of Readership in the History of Science”. Isis 96 (2). 238–243

Tosh, Nick (2003). ”Anachronism and retrospective explanation: In defence of a present-centred history of science”. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 34A. 647–659.

Virmajoki, Veli (forthcoming). ”What Should We Require from an Account of Explanation in Historiography?”. Journal of the Philosophy of History.

Virmajoki, Veli (2018). “Could Science Be Interestingly Different”. Journal of the Philosophy of History 12 (2).

Östling, Johan, and Larsson Heidenblad, David. 2020. “Fulfilling the Promise of the History of Knowledge: Key Approaches for the 2020s”. Journal for the History of Knowledge 1 (1).

[1] An anonymous referee once pointed out to me, in a thought-experiment, that if we were to find out that an alien civilization has developed science, we could learn interesting things about science by studying that causally unrelated science. The referee concluded that this speaks against causal presentism. I would like to draw the opposite conclusion. The study of the alien civilization is clearly not a historiographical study. Therefore, the thought-experiment shows exactly that not all understanding is historical understanding. That causal presentism cannot provide understanding through the study of an alien civilization is a consequence of the fact that causal presentism attempts to capture how can we understand science historically.

[2] The formulation of the answer is based on the points made by Hasok Chang (2009).

[3] For example, the theoretical continuity between successive theories is an important topic in the debates concerning scientific realism. See Psillos (1999).

[4] See Parssinen (1974) and Chang (2009).

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