Joan Wallach Scott


On her book On the Judgment of History

Cover Interview of June 02, 2021

In a nutshell

We hear a lot these days about the judgment of history. In the face of political conflict, corruption, and sheer lies, we sometimes comfort ourselves by saying that “history” will right the moral and factual wrongs of the present. At some future time, the record will be set straight, evil condemned, and “legacies” established for posterity. This is a vision of history (a fantasy, I argue) that imagines a story of inevitable progress; that expects we can count on the future to be an improvement over the past. It is the vision expressed by Martin Luther King Jr., citing the abolitionist Theodore Parker: “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” My book is an extended reflection on this idea, rejecting its Enlightenment optimism and suggesting a different vision entirely. It’s not judgment we should look to in history, but a record of processes of contention and conflict, a story of successful and unsuccessful struggles against and for power that may serve present actors as caution or inspiration.

An additional focus is on the idea—dating from the Enlightenment as well—that the state is the highest instrument of historical progress, the institution best placed to deliver the justice that constitutes the judgment of history. I suggest that we should be skeptical of the state’s ability to do that since it is above all a political institution, an arena of necessary conflict, a place where balances of power are always in play. We should look neither to a reified idea of history nor of the state, but to human actors in their diverse and complicated movements to appreciate what counts as history.