A Precedent Sign

Here is a sign to look for in determining if you place too much emphasis on precedent in your understanding of history. The sign is about repetition, exactitude, and using history.

Some people insist that history can only be useful in the present and future if the historical point in question is exactly replicated. They believe that if some details are different between then and now, it invalidates the attempt to use a historical takeaway. That’s a form of precedent thinking.

Nonsense. Sure, common sense dictates that the greater the percentage of difference between a past example and its re-use in today’s world, the more you need to allow for adjustment and adaptability. No sane person would dispute that. The more salient point, however, is that you can invoke the exact-replica argument as an excuse or justification for historical ignorance. Quite likely, too, is that the exact-replica stance might be a way of fending off criticism or refusing to hear alternatives.

Ask yourself: do I insist that a precise or near-precise repetition of circumstances and dynamics is necessary before I accept the learnings and teachings of history? 

Precedents in and of themselves aren’t bad. Precedents as the end-all and be-all of history and historical value are.