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In arguments involving past decisions or tradition, people frequently blow off a claim to tradition by using the (false) assumption that people in days gone by, or even ancient history were less able to use their powers of reason.

Is there a term for this assumption?

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I wasn't aware of this assumption. Can you give an example where someone has written like this? Can you give the motivation, the thing that sparked you interest in this question? –  Mitch Dec 22 '11 at 19:52
In the context of biblical studies (not in academia) I've heard this called primitivism, but I see that merriam-webster.com and thefreedictionary.com interpret that term differently so I don't know if that's valid. –  Monica Cellio Dec 22 '11 at 20:24
@Mitch: With The Beginning of Infinity, David Deutsch is my current champion for the idea that we live in an age where there is actually some justification for saying we are more rational than our forebears. Which I believe, obviously. Without wishing to get into an extended debate on the issue itself, I'm surprised you weren't even aware that some if not many people might think this. –  FumbleFingers Dec 22 '11 at 21:55
... I'm voting to close on the grounds that including (false) in the question title makes this one "not constructive". –  FumbleFingers Dec 22 '11 at 22:03
@FumbleFingers: How does the inclusion of the word "false" in the title make it not constructive? He's asking for a word to describe an idea. The fact that he believes that idea to be false doesn't mean the idea doesn't exist or that there's no word for it. Surely we can discuss the definition and usage of, say, the terms "reincarnation" or "global warming", without regard for our own opinions on the truth of the subject. –  Jay Dec 23 '11 at 17:01
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up vote 16 down vote accepted

CS Lewis and others have called this "Chronological Snobbery". See Wikipedia on Chronological snobbery.

...what I have called my "chronological snobbery," the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited. -CS Lewis

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I've been racking my brain for this passage! +1! –  Daniel Dec 22 '11 at 21:00
The opposite tendency - to seat the height of civilization at some unreachable point in the past and bemoan our inability to return - is sometimes referred to as golden ageism. –  onomatomaniak Dec 24 '11 at 10:58
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This is simply an example of temporal chauvinism:

chauvinism, noun: undue partiality or attachment to a group or place to which one belongs or has belonged [MW]

Edit: Jay and Peter Shor suggested that temporal chauvinism is the specific term that captures this attitude. While Googling temporal chauvinism, I came across this paper that contains a paragraph that could have been written with this question in mind, and introduces another word to express the concept: chronocentricity.

Like ethnocenricity, the word chronocentricity is meant to convey an unconscious bias. The bias, however, is related to time (chronos) and not ethnicity. Chronocentricity is a neologism that you won’t find in the dictionary. The closest comparable terms I’ve come across are “temporal chauvinism” and “generational chauvinism.” The underlying idea is that we mistakenly think of our own generation as better than any other generation. We think that we represent the highest point of world civilization. We look back to earlier times and cluck our tongues at how benighted, “quaint,” and misinformed earlier generations tended to be. We uncritically assume that our quality of life is better, and that people “back then” just didn’t know enough, or have the right kind of technology, to live properly and adequately.

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But in context you need to make it a little more specific, like "temporal chauvinism" or "chronological chauvinism". But those terms aren't really right: they indicate a bias based on time, but not necessarily for OUR time. –  Jay Dec 22 '11 at 21:34
@Jay: I'm not sure any cultures/civilisations could meaningfully be accused of "temporal chauvinism" in respect of future generations. Any such society would presumably be so moribund it wouldn't be likely to survive long enough for anyone to even know it ever existed, let alone care what the people thought about future generations. –  FumbleFingers Dec 22 '11 at 22:01
Well, I was thinking that a society might say that people in, say, the 1970's were much smarter than those before or since. But in any case, a belief that we are so much smarter than people in the past might logically be accompanied by a belief that people in the future will be smarter still. It doesn't necessarily follow that such a society would be paralyzed into inactivity. They might well say that we'll do the best we can now, and future generations will do even better. –  Jay Dec 23 '11 at 16:55
+1 for Gnawme and Jay: Chauvinism is undue partiality towards one's own group, so temporal chauvinism would be undue partiality towards one's own time, which is exactly the meaning that the OP wants. –  Peter Shor Dec 23 '11 at 20:15
@PeterShor Thank you. I expanded my answer based on your feedback and Jay's. –  Gnawme Dec 24 '11 at 4:36
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Sounds for the most part like the appeal to novelty logical fallacy, or argumentum ad novitatem.

However, there's a fine distinction to consider. The appeal to novelty represents a prejudice in favor of the recent or the new. "It is more modern, ergo it is superior."

What you describe is a complementary prejudice against the past: "It is old, ergo it is inferior."

I also considered chronocentrism, but that again does not quite capture your full meaning. That denotes the assumption that one's own times are the most important and relevant in history.

Again, finely interpreted it is a bias in favor of the present, not against the past.

When speaking of people, ageism would be appropriate, but when speaking of ideas it is not correct.

I'm still pondering a proper fit. Perhaps these suggestions will steer one of us in the right direction.

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Dear downvoter, how about an explanation of your reasoning? Sincerely, Jonathan –  Jonathan Van Matre Dec 22 '11 at 21:46
Hi Jonathan, my reasoning for downvoting was simply that you did not provide an answer. I thought maybe your thoughts would have been better as a comment. However, since for some strange reason I honestly admit I don't understand, they have closed this question anyway, I suppose it doesn't matter now. –  Mark Beadles Dec 23 '11 at 2:06
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I'm unaware of any single-word term for the assumption you refer to, but it appears that the phrases myth of primitive societies [1] and myth of primitive society [2] are used by some anthropologists to refer to it. In [1], the first paragraph in part remarks

Humans who live in technologically primitive societies aren’t as intelligent as those who live in advanced societies, or so some of history's most influential personalities thought. The reasoning behind their thinking ... is that primitive societies just harvest what is naturally provided, so ... there isn’t much innovation in the techniques used to collect and store it, and because there is no innovation the brain doesn’t develop all the skills ...

The discussion in [2] is diffuse, but after mention of some of the same issues as noted above, on page 10 appears

Not to put too fine a point upon it, the history of the theory of primitive society is the history of an illusion ... its basic assumptions were directly contradicted by ethnographic evidence and by the logic of evolutionary theory itself.

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