The Nature of the Past

THE present is not the past and the future. The distinction which we make between them is evidently fundamental. If we spread a specious present so that it covers more events, as Whitehead suggests, taking in some of the past and conceivably some of the future, the events so included would belong, not to the past and the future, but to the present. It is true that in this present there is something going on. There is passage within the duration, but that is a present passage. The past arises with memory. We attach to the backward limit of the present the memory images of what has just taken place. In the same fashion we have images of the words which we are going to speak. We build out at both limits. But the images are in the present. Whitehead's suggestion that rendering these images sufficiently vivid would spread the specious present is quite beside the mark. No memory image, however vivid, would be anything but a memory image, which is a surrogate merely for what was or will be spoken.

The actual passage of reality is in the passage of one present into another, where alone is reality, and a present which has merged in another is not a past. Its reality is always that of a present. The past as it appears is in terms of representations of various sorts, typically in memory images, which are themselves present. It is not true that what has passed is in the past, for the early stages of a motion lying within a specious present are not past. They belong to something that is going on. The distinction between the present and the past evidently involves more than passage. An essential condition is its inclusion in some present in this representational form. Passage as it takes place in experience is an overlapping of one specious present by another. There is continuity of experience, which is a continuity of presents. In this continuity of experience there is distinction of happening. There is direction. There is dependence or conditioning. What is taking place flows out of that which is taking place. Not only does succession take place, but there is a succession of contents. What is going on would be otherwise if the earlier stage of the occurrence

(236) had been of a different character. It is always a passage of something. There is always a character which connects different phases of the passage, and the earlier stage of the happening is the condition of the later stage. Otherwise there would be no passage. Mere juxtaposition of events, if this is conceivable, would not constitute passage. The connection involves both identity and difference, and it involves that in the identity which makes the condition for that which follows. The immediate position of a moving body is conditioned by that which preceded it. Continuity is involved as a presupposition in passage in experience.

Although apparently sudden dislocations take place, back of these we imply continuities within which these dislocations could be resolved into continuities. The spatio-temporal connections which these continuities express involve the conditioning of any spatio-temporal position by a previous set of positions. This conditioning is not complete determination, but the conditions that are involved in the continuity of passage are necessary. That which is novel can emerge, but conditions of the emergence are there. It is this conditioning which is the qualitative character of the past as distinguished from mere passage. Mere passage signifies disappearance and is negative. The conditioning, spatio-temporally considered, is the necessity of continuity of relationship in space-time and of characters which are dependent upon space and time, such as velocities and momenta. The discontinuous is the novel. When a force is applied which is responsible for an acceleration, the moment at which that force is applied may be as respects its appearance an emergence from a continuous past, but the spatio-temporal continuities set conditions for the accelerations which result from the application of the force.

There are other continuities which we look for besides those of space-time. These are those of the so-called uniformities of nature. The embedding of any two successive events and their characters, however fortuitous they may seem, within a continuity of happening registers itself as carrying some conditioning of their happening in the succession within which they have appeared. The physical sciences push this conditioning into spatio-temporal form as far as it is possible. They attempt so to state the two happenings that the mere fact that one occurs at a certain place and time determines in some degree that which follows upon it. The ideal of this presentation is an equation between a situation at one moment and that at the next. We seek such a statement that the mere

(237) passage of experience will determine that which takes place. Where this can rigorously be carried out we reach what Whitehead calls the Aristotelian adjectives of events, but where it is impossible to so present the happenings that the continuity of passage determines what will take place we have in his terms pseudo-adjectives of events. But that the continuities of space-time do carry with them conditions of that which takes place is a fundamental presupposition of experience. The order within which things happen and appear conditions that which will happen and appear.

It is here that we find the function of the past as it arises in memory and the records of the past. Imagery is not past but present. It rests with what we call our mental processes to place these images in a temporal order. We are engaged in spreading backward what is going on so that the steps we are taking will be a continuity in the advance to the goals of our conduct. That memory imagery has in it characters which tend to identify it as belonging to the past is undoubtedly true, and these characters seem to be frequently independent of its place in a continuous order. A face or a landscape may flash upon the inward eye with seemingly intrinsic evidence of past experience, although we may have great difficulty in placing them. The evidence is not necessarily of an immediate character. There are certain sorts of images which belong to our pasts and we are confident of them because they fit in. And there are sorts of images which betray the operation of the imagination. A memory may be recognized as such by a method of exclusion, because it has not the fashion of the fancy -- because we cannot otherwise account for it. The assurances which we give to a remembered occurrence come from the structures with which they accord.

What is, then, the immediate occasion for this building out of specious presents into a past? These presents themselves pass into each other by an overlapping process. There is no break except under what may be called pathological conditions. We do not build out into the past to preserve mere continuity, i.e., to fill out breaks in reality. But it is evident that we need to complete something that is lacking in that which is going on. The span of that which occupies us is greater than the span of the specious present. The "what it is" has a temporal spread which transcends our experience. This is very evident in the pasts which we carry around with us. They are in great part thought constructs of what the present by its nature involves, into which very slight material of memory imagery is

(238) fitted. This memory in a manner tests and verifies the structure. We must have arisen and eaten our breakfasts and taken the car, to be where we are. The sense of this past is there as in implication and bits of imperfect scenes come in at call -- and sometimes refuse to arise. But even in this latter case we do not feel that the past is lost.

It may be said that the existence in experience of affairs that transcend our presents is the very past under discussion, and this is true, and what I am endeavoring to make evident. The past is an overflow of the present. It is oriented from the present. It is akin on the one side to our escape fancies, those in which we rebuild the world according to our hearts' desires, and on the other to the selection of what is significant in the immediate situation, the significant that must be held and reconstructed, but its decisive character is the pushing back of the conditioning continuities of the present. The past is what must have been before it is present in experience as a past. A past triumph is indefinitely superior to an escape fancy, and will be worn threadbare before we take refuge in the realm of the imagination, but more particularly the past is the sure extension which the continuities of the present demand.

The picture which Bergson gives of it seems to me to belie both its character in experience and its functional character -- the picture of an enormous incessantly accreting accumulation of "images" against which our nervous systems defend us by their selective mechanisms. The present does not carry any such burden with it. It passes into another present with the effects of the past in its textures, not with the burden of its events upon its back. And whatever account we give of our exiguous imagery, it is marked by what Bergson has himself emphasized, its function of filling out present perceptions. It bears no evidence of the richness of material which Bergson predicates. It is hard to recover and disappointing in its detail. Imagery plays the same rôle in the past that it plays in the present, that of supplying some element of detail that makes the construction possible.

The inevitability of existence is betrayed in its continuity. What follows flows from what was. If there is continuity, then what follows is conditioned by what was. A complete break between events would remove the character of inevitability. The elimination of continuity is the gist of Hume's attack upon causality. While the recovery of continuity in passage is the gist of Kant's second deduction of the categories. If there

(239) were bare replacement of one experience by another, the experience would not be that of passage. They would be different experiences each wrapped up in itself, but with no connection, no way of passing from one to the other. Even a geometrical demonstration involves passage from situation to situation. The final structure is a timeless affair in the sense that it is a completed structure which is now irrelevant to the passage by which it has arisen. Any passage is in so far inevitable as earlier stages condition later achievements, and the demonstration is the exhibition of the continuity of the passage. One route when it is once taken is as inevitable as another. The child's whimsical movements of the men upon the chessboard is as inevitable as the play of the expert. In the one case its inevitability is displayed by the psychologist and in the other by the logician. Continuity in the passage of events is what we mean by the inevitable.

But are continuity could not be experienced. There is a tang of novelty in each moment of experience. Kant reached this by the Mannigfaltigkeit der Empfindungen, an unordered sensuous content which becomes experience when it is placed within the forms of the understanding. Without this break within continuity, continuity would be inexperienceable. The content alone is blind, and the form alone is empty, and experience in either case is impossible. Still Kant's chasm between the two is illusory. The continuity is always of some quality, but as present passes into present there is always some break in the continuity -- within the continuity, not of the continuity. The break reveals the continuity, while the continuity is the background for the novelty.

The memory of the unexpected appearance of a supposedly far distant friend, or the memory of an earthquake can never recover the peculiar tang of the experience. I remember that there was a break which is now connected with just the phases of the experience which were unconnected. We recall the joy or the terror, but it is over against a background of a continuum whose discontinuity has been healed. Something was going on -- the rising anger of a titan or the adjustment of the earth's internal pressures which resulted in that which was unexpected, but this was not the original experience, when there was no connection between the events before the occurrence and the sudden emergence. Even if no qualitative causal connection appears in the memory, the spatio-temporal connection is there to be developed as thought or imagination may refashion it.

(240) Redintegration of the past can never bring back the unexpected. This is just the character of the past as distinguished from the passage of presents into each other. The primal break of novelty in passage is gone and the problem of bridging the contingent factors is before the mind, though it may go no further than the oppressive sense of chance or fate. The character of the past is that it connects what is unconnected in the merging of one present into another.

The corresponding character of the future is still more evident. The novel is already there in the present and introduced breaks into the continuity which we must repair to attain an approach to certainty in the future. The emergent future has therefore a hypothetical character. We can trace the spatio-temporal continuities into it and the less rigorous continuities of other uniformities, but the particular aspects they will assume depend upon the adjustments which the present with its novelties will call out. Imagery from past continuities, such as the concluding words in the sentence we are speaking, or the house around the corner which we are nearing, approach the inevitable, but we may break the discourse and an explosion may send us down another road. The inevitable continuities belong to the structure of the hypothetical plans of action before us.

What is now to be said of these pasts and futures, when we seek them outside of human experience in terms of which we have been considering them? In the first place we can say that the only pasts and futures of which we are cognizant arise in human experience. They have also the extreme variability which attaches to human undertakings. Every generation rewrites its history -- and its history is the only history it has of the world. While scientific data maintain a certain uniformity within these histories, so that we can identify them as data, their meaning is dependent upon the structure of the history as each generation writes it. There is no texture of data. Data are abstractions from things and must be given their places in the constructive pasts of human communities before they can become events. It is tempting to illustrate this in the shifting histories which our present generation has constructed of its habitat -- including the whole universe, so far as it has been able to survey it, but the phenomenon is too evident and striking to call for illustration. Every advance in the interpretation of spectroscopic observations of the stars, every advance in the theory of the atoms opens the door to new

(241) accounts of the millenia of stellar history. They rival at present the rapidly changing histories of human communities. The immutable and incorruptible heavens exist only in rhetoric. Minute shifts in the lines of the spectrum or the readings of the spectroscope may add or subtract billions of years to the life of the stars.

The validity of these pasts depend upon the continuities which constitute their structure. These continuities in passage are the essence of inevitability, and when we feel the continuity we have reached the security we seek. It is an error to assume that the security depends upon the form of the continuity. For the Psalmist the only form of continuity that gave security was that of the Everlasting Hills and for the Greeks it was the Unchangeable Heavens. We find greater security in the laws of stellar evolution because it knits the continuities of the atoms with the continuities of the stars. The continuities of process are more universal than those of structure. More particularly we have swept away the cosmical and metaphysical chasm between the changeless heavens and the contingent earth. Ancient metaphysics divorced the two inseparable components of passage -- the continuous and the emergent. The doctrine of evolution has obliterated the scandal from the union out of which arise all objects in experience. There is no more striking contrast in the history of thought than the gathering security with which we control events by rapidly reconstructing our histories, which reveal our dependable continuities when we stretch them out into their implied pasts; and the helplessness of ancient and mediaeval thought that found continuity only in a changeless order and an irrevocable past.

The conclusion is that there is no history of presents that merge into each other with their emergent novelties. The past which we construct from the standpoint of the new problem of today is based upon continuities which we discover in that which has arisen, and it serves us until the rising novelty of tomorrow necessitates a new history which interprets the new future. All that emerges has continuity, but not until it does so emerge. If we could string together the presents as presents we would present the conditions under which the novel could arise but we would not deduce that which arose. Out of the discovered continuities of that which has arisen with all that has gone before we can reconstruct it -- in the future, and we obtain the field for this reconstruction by stretching backward in history the new-found continuities. Within our narrow

(242) presents our histories give us the elbow room to cope with the ever-changing stream of reality.

If the novel emerges, there can be no history of a continuity of which it is a constituent part, though when it has emerged the continuities which it exhibits may enable us to state a succession of events within which it appears. Let us assume that life has emerged. In a genuine sense the conditions which allow of this emergence determine its appearance. It could not have appeared earlier than these events. The history of life will relate it to these events, which have now become its conditions, but previously were not its conditions, for there was no life to constitute those events the conditions of life. The setting up of the relation between the events which have become conditions and the emerging life is an establishment of continuity between the world before life and life itself, which was inconceivable before life appeared, as one establishes in his memory a continuity between the moment before the earthquake happened and the earthquake, which in its unexpectedness permitted in its happening no such connection. The past thus belongs to a generalized form of experience. It is the arising of relations between an emergent and a conditioning world. Any organism, taken in its widest Whiteheadean sense, maintains itself by means of relationships which, extended backward as well as forward, constitute a history of the world, but evidently it arises only after the appearance of that which gives to the world this value. The past consists of the relations of the earlier world to an emergent affair -- relations which have therefore emerged with the affair.


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