The Philosophy of the Present

Chapter I: The Present as the Locus of Reality

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The subject of this lecture is found in the proposition that reality exists in a present. The present of course implies a past and a future, and to these both we deny existence. Whitehead's suggestion that, as specious presents vary in temporal spread, one present can be conceived which could take in the whole of temporal reality, would seemingly leave to us passage but would eliminate the past and the future. Whatever else it would be it would not be a present, for that out of which it had passed would not have ceased to exist, and that which is to exist would already be in that inclusive present. Whether this would still leave the character of passage might be doubted, but in any case the essential nature of the present and of existence would have disappeared. For that which marks a present is its becoming and its disappearing. While the flash of the meteor is passing in our own specious presents it is all there if only for a fraction of a minute. To extend this fraction of a minute into the whole process of which it is a fragment, giving to it the same solidarity of existence which the flash possesses in experience, would be to wipe out its nature as an event. Such a conspectus of existence would not be an eternal present, for it would not be a present at all. Nor would it be an existence. For a Parmenidean reality does not exist. Existence involves non-existence; it does take place. The world is a world of events.

There is little purpose or profit in setting up antinomies

(2) and overthrowing the one by the other, or in relegating permanence to a subsistent, timeless world while the event, in which there is nothing but passage, is made the substantial element in existent things. The permanent character that we are interested in is one that abides in existence, and over against which change exists as well. There is, that is, the past which is expressed in irrevocability, though there has never been present in experience a past which has not changed with the passing generations. The pasts that we are involved in are both irrevocable and revocable. It is idle, at least for the purposes of experience, to have recourse to a "real" past within which we are making constant discoveries; for that past must be set over against a present within which the emergent appears, and the past, which must then be looked at from the standpoint of the emergent, becomes a different past. The emergent when it appears is always found to follow from the past, but before it appears it does not, by definition, follow from the past. It is idle to insist upon universal or eternal characters by which past events may be identified irrespective of any emergent, for these are either beyond our formulation or they become so empty that they serve no purpose in identification. The import of the infinite in ancient and modern mathematical thought illustrates this impotence.

The possibility remains of pushing the whole of real reality into a world of events in a Minkowski space-time that transcends our frames of reference, and the characters of events into a world of subsistent entities. How far such a conception of reality can be logically thought out I will not undertake to discuss. What seems to me of interest is the import which such a concept as that of irrevocability has in experience.

I will not spend time or rhetoric in presenting the moving picture of the histories that have succeeded each other from

(3) the myths of primitive ages up to Eddington's or Jeans' account of "The Universe about Us." It is only of interest to note that the rapidity with which these pasts succeed each other has steadily increased with the increase in critical exactitude in the study of the past. There is an entire absence of finality in such presentations. It is of course the implication of our research method that the historian in any field of science will be able to reconstruct what has been, as an authenticated account of the past. Yet we look forward with vivid interest to the reconstruction, in the world that will be, of the world that has been, for we realize that the world that will be cannot differ from the world that is without rewriting the past to which we now look back.

And yet the character of irrevocability is never lost. That which has happened is gone beyond recall and, whatever it was, its slipping into the past seems to take it beyond the influence of emergent events in our own conduct or in nature. It is the "what it was" that changes, and this seemingly empty title of irrevocability attaches to it whatever it may come to be. The importance of its being irrevocable attaches to the "what it was," and the "what it was" is what is not irrevocable. There is a finality that goes with the passing of every event. To every account of that event this finality is added, but the whole import of this finality belongs to the same world in experience to which this account belongs.

Now over against this evident incidence of finality to a present stands a customary assumption that the past that determines us is there. The truth is that the past is there, in its certainty or probability, in the same sense that the setting of our problems is there. I am proceeding upon the assumption that cognition, and thought as a part of the cognitive process, is reconstructive, because reconstruction is es-

(4) -sential to the conduct of an intelligent being in the universe.[1] This is but part of the more general proposition that changes are going on in the universe, and that as a consequence of these changes the universe is becoming a different universe. Intelligence is but one aspect of this change. It is a change that is part of an ongoing living process that tends to maintain itself. What is peculiar to intelligence is that it is a change that involves a mutual reorganization, an adjustment in the organism and a reconstitution of the environment; for at its lowest terms any change in the organism carries with it a difference of sensitivity and response and a corresponding difference in the environment. It is within this process that so-called conscious intelligence arises, for consciousness is both the difference which arises in the environment because of its relation to the organism in its organic process of adjustment, and also the difference in the organism because of the change which has taken place in the environment. We refer to the first as meaning, and to the second as ideation. The reflection of the organism in the environment and the reflection of environment in the organism are essential phases in the maintenance of the life process that constitutes conscious intelligence.

I will consider the import of consciousness in a later lecture. At present my interest is only to locate that activity to which cognition belongs and of which thought is an expression. I am distinguishing in particular that existence of the world for the individual and social organism which answers to the more general usage of the term consciousness from that situation which answers to the term "consciousness of." It is the latter which, to my mind, connotes cognition. The distinction between the two falls in with that

(5) which I have suggested between the problem and its setting. The setting within which adjustment takes place is essential to the adjustment and falls within what belongs to the "field of consciousness," as that term is generally used especially when we recognize the implications of that which is more definitely in the field of consciousness. The term "field of awareness" is at times used in the same sense, but it is more apt to carry with it the value of "awareness of" than is the term "consciousness." In other words, in knowledge there is always the presupposition of a world that is there and that provides the basis for the inferential and ideational process of cognition. This of course restricts cognition or "consciousness of" to that which has within it an inferential strain.

Now the world which is there in its relationship to the organism, and which sets the conditions for the adjustment of the organism and the consequent change in and of that world, includes its past. We approach every question of a historical character with a certain apparatus, which may be nicely defined, and this more technically defined material of documents, oral testimony, and historical remains subtends a given past which extends backward from the memories of yesterday and today, and which we do not question. We use the apparatus to answer hypothetically the historical questions which press upon us, and to test our hypotheses when they have been elaborated. It is of course understood that any part of this apparatus and of the past within which it is embedded may itself fall under doubt, but even the most heroic skepticism in its very enunciation cannot get away from the memory of the words and ideas which formulate the skeptical doctrine.

Some such given past is involved in questions bearing upon the past. And this given past extends the specious present. lt is true that the ultimate agreement between

(6) the meanings of two documents may lie in experience in a specious present, but only upon the supposition of the comparison we have previously made of the documents. This comparison stretches back of us and remains unquestioned until someone points out an error therein and thus brings it into question, but then only upon the basis of his and others' past. Take the ingenious suggestion, of Gosse's father, I believe, that God had created the world with its fossils and other evidences of a distant past to try men's faith; and bring the suggestion up to a half an hour ago. Suppose that the world came into existence, with its exact present structure, including the so-called contents of our minds, thirty minutes ago, and that we had some ulterior evidence analogous to Mr. Gosse's fundamentalist views, that this had taken place. We could examine the hypothesis only in the light of some past that was there, however meager it had become. And this past extends indefinitely, there being nothing to stop it, since any moment of it, being represented, has its past, and so on.

What do we mean, now, by the statement that there has been some real past with all its events, in independence of any present, whose contents we are slowly and imperfectly deciphering? We come back of course to the very corrections which we make in our historical research, and to the higher degree of evidence of that which has been discovered over that which can be offered for the discarded account. Higher degrees of probability and added evidence imply that there is or has been some reality there which we are bringing to light. There is thus a palpable reference to the unquestioned past by means of whose evidence we investigate and solve the problems that arise. And the very fact to which I have referred, that any accepted account of the past, though not now in question, may be conceivably thrown into doubt, seems to imply some unquestionable past which

(7) would be the background for the solution of all conceivable problems. Let us admit this for the time being, and ask the further question whether this past independent of any present does enter at all into our investigations -- I mean as a presupposition that plays any part in our thinking? If we should take away this presupposition would our apparatus and the operation of it in historical research be in any way affected? Certainly not, if we concern ourselves only with the problems with which historians in social or scientific history are concerned. Here the reference is always and solely to the given past out of which a problem has arisen; and the outlines of the problem and the tests to which presented hypotheses are subjected, are found in the given past. As we have seen, this given past may itself at a later date be affected with doubt and brought under discussion. And yet the possible dubiety of the given past in no way affects the undertaking. This is another way of saying that the dubiety of all possible pasts never enters into the historian's thinking. The only approach to such entrance is the demand that all past pasts should be accounted for and taken up into the latest statement. And every past past, in so far as it is reconstructed, is in so far shown to be incorrect. In the implications of our method we seem to approach a limiting statement, even if at infinity, which would fill out all gaps and correct all errors. But if we are making corrections there must seemingly be some account that is correct, and even if we contemplate an indefinite future of research science which will be engaged in the undertaking we never escape from this implication.

There is another way of saying this, and that is that our research work is that of discovery, and we can only discover what is there whether we discover it or not. I think however that this last statement is in error, if it is supposed to imply that there is or has been a past which is inde-

(8) -pendent of all presents, for there may be and beyond doubt is in any present with its own past a vast deal which we do not discover, and yet this which we do or do not discover will take on different meaning and be different in its structure as an event when viewed from some later standpoint. Is there a similar error in the conception of correction of the past error and in the suggestion that it implies the absolutely correct, even if it never reaches it? I am referring to the "in-itself" correctness of an account of events, implied in a correction which a later historian makes. I think that the absolute correctness which lies back in the historian's mind would be found to be the complete presentation of the given past, if all its implications were worked out. If we could know everything implied in our memories, our documents and our monuments, and were able to control all this knowledge, the historian would assume that he had what was absolutely correct. But a historian of the time of Aristotle, extending thus his known past, would have reached a correct past which would be at utter variance with the known world of modern science, and there are only degrees of variance between such a comparison and those which changes due to research are bringing out in our pasts from year to year. If we are referring to any other "in-itself" correctness it must be either to that of a reality which by definition could never get into our experience, or to that of a goal at infinity in which the type of experience in which we find ourselves ceases. It is of course possible to assume that the experience within which we find ourselves is included in some world or experience that transcends it. My only point is that such an assumption plays no part in our judgments of the correctness of the past. We may have other reasons, theological or metaphysical, for assuming a real past that could be given in a presentation independent of any present, but that assumption does not enter into the

(9) postulations or technique of any sort of historical research.

While the conception of an "in-itself" irrevocable past is perhaps the common background of thinking, it is interesting to recur to the statement that I made earlier that the research scientist looks forward not only with equanimity but also with excited interest to the fundamental changes which later research will bring into the most exact determinations which we can make today. The picture which this offers is that of presents sliding into each other, each with a past which is referable to itself, each past taking up into itself those back of it, and in some degree reconstructing them from its own standpoint. The moment that we take these earlier presents as existences apart from the presentation of them as pasts they cease to have meaning to us and lose any value they may have in interpreting our own present and determining our futures. They may be located in the geometry of Minkowski space-time, but even under that assumption they can reach us only through our own frames of reference or perspectives; and the same would be true under the assumptions of any other metaphysics which located the reality of the past in pasts independent of any present.

It would probably be stated that the irrevocability of the past is located in such a metaphysical order, and that is the point which I wish to discuss. The historian does not doubt that something has happened. He is in doubt as to what has happened. He also proceeds upon the assumption that if he could have all the facts or data, he could determine what it was that happened. That is, his idea of irrevocability attaches, as I have already stated, to the "what" that has happened as well as to the passing of the event. But if there is emergence, the reflection of this into the past at once takes place. There is a new past, for from every new rise the landscape that stretches behind us

(10) becomes a different landscape. The analogy is faulty, because the heights are there, and the aspects of the landscapes which they reveal are also there and could be reconstructed from the present of the wayfarer if he had all the implications of his present before him; whereas the emergent is not there in advance, and by definition could not be brought within even the fullest presentation of the present. The metaphysical reality suggested by Eddington's phrase that our experience is an adventuring of the mind into the ordered geometry of space-time[2] would, however, correspond to a preexistent landscape.

There is of course the alternative doctrine of Whitehead that perspectives exist in nature as intersecting time systems, thus yielding not only different presents but also different pasts that correspond to them. I cannot, however, see how Whitehead with the fixed geometry of space-time which he accepts can escape from a fixed order of events, even though the "what" of these events depends upon the ingression of eternal objects arising through the action of God, thus giving rise to emergence.[3] The point at issue is whether the necessity with which the scientist deals is one that determines the present out of a past which is independent of that or any present. An ordered space-time involves such a metaphysical necessity. From this standpoint the different pasts of experience are subjective reinterpretations, and the physicist is not interested in making them a part of the whole scheme of events. Whitehead's philosophy is a valiant attempt to harmonize this sort of geometric necessity with emergence and the differences of varying per-

(11) -spectives. I do not believe that this can be accomplished, but I am more interested in the answer to the question, whether the necessity which is involved in the relations of the present and the past derives from such a metaphysical necessity, that is, from one that is independent of any present.

I revert here to my original proposition that a reality that transcends the present must exhibit itself in the present. This alternative is that found in the attitude of the research scientist, whether he confesses it in his doctrine or not. It is that there is and always will be a necessary relation of the past and the present but that the present in which the emergent appears accepts that which is novel as an essential part of the universe, and from that standpoint rewrites its past. The emergent then ceases to be an emergent and follows from the past which has replaced the former past. We speak of life and consciousness as emergents but our rationalistic natures will never be satisfied until we have conceived a universe within which they arise inevitably out of that which preceded them. We cannot make the emergent a part of the thought relation of past and present, and even when we have seemingly accepted it we push biochemistry and behavioristic psychology as far as we can in the effort to reduce emergence to a disappearing point. But granting the research scientist a complete victory -- a wholly rationalized universe within which there is determined order-he will still look forward to the appearance of new problems that will emerge in new presents to be rationalized again with another past which will take up the old past harmoniously into itself.

Confessedly, the complete rationality of the universe is based upon an induction, and what the induction is based upon is a moot point in philosophic doctrine. Granted any justifiable reason for believing it, all our correlations greatly

(12) strengthen it. But is there such a reason? At this crucial point there is the greatest uncertainty. Evidently the scientist's procedure ignores this. It is not a moot question with him. It is not a question in his procedure at all. He is simply occupied in finding rational order and stretching this back, that he may previse the future. It is here that his given world functions. If he can fit his hypothesis into this world and if it anticipates that which occurs, it then becomes the account of what has happened. If it breaks down, another hypothesis replaces it and another past replaces that which the first hypothesis implied.

The long and short of it is that the past (or the meaningful structure of the past) is as hypothetical as the future. jeans' account of what has been taking place inside of Aldebaran or Sirius Minor during the past millions of years is vastly more hypothetical than the astronomer's catalogue of what eclipses will take place during the next century and where they will be visible. And the metaphysical assumption that there has been a definite past of events neither adds to nor subtracts from the security of any hypothesis which illuminates our present. It does indeed offer the empty form into which we extend any hypothesis and develop its implications, but it has not even the fixity which Kant found in his forms of intuition. The paradoxes of relativity, what Whitehead terms the different meanings of time in different time systems, reveal the hypothetical nature of the ruled schedules of the past into which we are to fit the events which our physical theories unroll behind us. We may have recourse to the absolute space-time with its coincidences of events and intervals between them, but even here it is open to argument whether this interpretation of the transformations from one frame of reference to another is the final one, whether we have attained the ultimate structure of the physical universe or only a more powerful mathe-

(13) -matical apparatus for reaching higher exactitude in measurements and calculations, whose interpretation will vary with the history of mathematical physics. The Minkowski space-time is as much an hypothesis as the de Broglie wave-constitution of matter.

But the irrevocability of the past event remains even if we are uncertain what the past event was. Even the reversible character of physical processes which mathematical equations seem to disclose does not shake this character of time experience. It may be thinkable that viewed from some vast distance the order of some of what we call the same events might differ in different perspectives, but within any perspective what has passed cannot recur. In that perspective what has happened has happened, and any theory that is presented must make room for that order in that perspective. There is an unalterable temporal direction in what is taking place and if we can attach other processes to this passage we can give to them as much of certainty as the degree of attachment justifies. Given a certain value for the velocity of a moving body in a certain frame of reference, we can determine where the body will necessarily be. Our problem is to determine just what it is that has preceded what is taking place so that the direction of temporal progress may determine what the world is going to be. There is a certain temporal process going on in experience. What has taken place issues in what is taking place, and in this passage what has occurred determines spatio-temporally what is passing into the future. So far then as we can determine the constants of motion we can follow that determination, and our analysis seeks to resolve the happening in so far as may be into motion. In general, since passage is itself given in experience, the direction of changes that are going on partly conditions what will take place. The event that has taken place and the direction of the proc-

(14) -ess going on form the basis for the rational determination of the future. The irrevocable past and the occurring change are the two factors to which we tie up all our speculations in regard to the future. Probability is found in the character of the process which is going on in experience. Yet however eagerly we seek for such spatiotemporal structures as carry with them deducible results, we none the less recognize relations of things in their processes which can not be resolved into quantitative elements, and although as far as possible we correlate them with measurable characters we in any case recognize them as determining conditions of what is taking place. We look for their antecedents in the past and judge the future by the relation of this past to what is taking place. All of these relationships within the ongoing process are determining relations of what will be, though the specific form of that determination constitutes the scientific problem of any particular situation. The actuality of determination within the passage of direct experience is what Hume by his presuppositions and type of analysis eliminated from experience, and what gives such validity as it has to Kant's deduction of the categories.

It is the task of the philosophy of today to bring into congruence with each other this universality of determination which is the text of modern science, and the emergence of the novel which belongs not only to the experience of human social organisms, but is found also in a nature which science and the philosophy that has followed it have separated from human nature. The difficulty that immediately presents itself is that the emergent has no sooner appeared than we set about rationalizing it, that is, we undertake to show that it, or at least the conditions that determine its appearance, can be found in the past that lay behind it. Thus the earlier pasts out of which it emerged as something

(15) which did not involve it are taken up into a more comprehensive past that does lead up to it. Now what this amounts to is that whatever does happen, even the emergent, happens under determining conditions--especially, from the standpoint of the exact sciences, under spatio-temporal conditions which lead to deducible conclusions as to what will happen within certain limits, but also under determining conditions of a qualitative sort whose assurances lie within probability only-but that these conditions never determine completely the "what it is" that will happen. Water as distinct from combinations of oxygen and hydrogen may happen. Life and so-called consciousness may happen. And quanta may happen, though it may be argued that such happening stands on a different "level" from that of life and consciousness. When these emergents have appeared they become part of the determining conditions that occur in real presents, and we are particularly interested in presenting the past which in the situation before us conditioned the appearance of the emergent, and especially in so presenting it that we can lead up to new appearances of this object. We orient ourselves not with reference to the past which was a present within which the emergent appeared, but in such a restatement of the past as conditioning the future that we may control its reappearance. When life has appeared we can breed life, and given consciousness, we can control its appearance and its manifestations. Even the statement of the past within which the emergent appeared is inevitably made from the standpoint of a world within which the emergent is itself a conditioning as well as a conditioned factor.

We could not bring back these past presents simply as they occurred-if we are justified in using the expression except as presents. An exhaustive presentation of them would amount only to reliving them. That is, one present

(16) slipping into another does not connote what is meant by a past. But even this statement implies that there were such presents slipping into each other, and whether we regard them from that standpoint or not we seem to imply their reality as such, as the structure within which the sort of past in which we are interested must lie, if it is an aspect of the real past. Passing by the ambiguities which such a statement carries within it, what I want to emphasize is that the irrevocability of the past does not issue from this conception of the past. For in our use of the term irrevocability we are pointing toward what must have been, and it is a structure and process in the present which is the source of this necessity. We certainly cannot go back to such a past and test our conjectures by actually inspecting its events in their happening. We test our conjectures about the past by the conditioning directions of the present and by later happenings in the future which must be of a certain sort if the past we have conceived was there. The force of irrevocability then is found in the extension of the necessity with which what has just happened conditions what is emerging in the future. What is more than this belongs to a metaphysical picture that takes no interest in the pasts which arise behind us.

In the analysis which I have undertaken we come then, first, to passage within which what is taking place conditions that which is arising. Everything that is taking place takes place under necessary conditions. Second, these conditions while necessary do not determine in its full reality that which emerges. We are getting interesting reflections of this situation from the scientist's criticism of his own methods of reaching exact determination of position and velocity and from the implications of quanta. What appears in this criticism is that while the scientist never abandons the conditioning of that which takes place by that which

(17) has gone on, expressed in probability, he finds himself quite able to think as emergent even those events which are subject to the most exact determination. I am not attempting to previse what later interpretation will be put upon the speculations of de Broglie, Schroeder, and Planck. I am simply indicating that even within the field of mathematical physics rigorous thinking does not necessarily imply that conditioning of the present by the past carries with it the complete determination of the present by the past.

Third, in passage the conditioning of that which is taking place by that which has taken place, of the present by the past, is there. The past in that sense is in the present; and, in what we call conscious experience, its presence is exhibited in memory, and in the historical apparatus which extends memory, as that part of the conditioning nature of passage which reflects itself into the experience of the organic individual. If all objects in a present are conditioned by the same characters in passage, their pasts are implicitly the same, but if, to follow out a suggestion taken from the speculations about quanta, one electron out of two thousand sets energy free, when there are no determining conditions for the selection of this electron over against the other nineteen hundred and ninety nine, it is evident that the past as exhibited in the conduct of this electron will be of a sort that will not even implicitly be the same as that of the others in that group, though its jump will be conditioned by all that has gone before. If of two thousand individuals under disintegrating social conditions one commits suicide where, so far as can be seen, one was as likely to succumb as another, his past has a peculiarly poignant nature which is absent from that of the others, though his committing of suicide is an expression of the past. The past is there conditioning the present and its passage into the future, but in the organization of tendencies embodied in

(18) one individual there may be an emergent which gives to these tendencies a structure which belongs only to the situation of that individual. The tendencies coming from past passage, and from the conditioning that is inherent in passage, become different influences when they have taken on this organized structure of tendencies. This would be as true of the balance of processes of disruption and of agglomeration in a star as in the adjustment to each other of a living form and its environment. The structural relationship in their reciprocal balance or adjustment arranges those passing processes which reflect backward and lead us to an account of the history of the star. As Dewey has maintained, events appear as histories which have a dénouement, and when an historical process is taking place the organization of the conditioning phases of the process is the novel element which is not predictable from the separate phases themselves, and which at once sets the scene for a past that leads to this outcome.[4] The organization of any individual thing carries with it the relation of this thing to processes that occurred before this organization set in. In this sense the past of that thing is "given" in the passing present of the thing, and our histories of things are elaborations of what is implicit in this situation. This "given" in passage is there and is the starting point for a cognitive structure of a past.

Fourth, this emergent character, being responsible for a relationship of passing processes, sets up a given past that is, so to speak, a perspective of the object within which this character appears. We can conceive of an object such as, say, some atom of hydrogen, which has remained what it is through immeasurable periods in complete adjustment to its surroundings, which has remained real in the slipping

(19) of one present into another, or, better, in one unbroken, uneventful passage. For such an object there would have been unbroken existence but no past, unless we should revert to the occasion on which it emerged as an atom of hydrogen. This amounts to saying that where being is existence but not becoming there is no past, and that the determination involved in passage is a condition of a past but not its realization. The relationship of passage involves distinguishable natures in events before past, present and future can arise, as extension is a relationship which involves distinguishable physical things before structurable space can arise. What renders one event distinguishable from another is a becoming which affects the inner nature of the event. It seems to me that the extreme mathematization of recent science in which the reality of motion is reduced to equations in which change disappears in an identity, and in which space and time disappear in a four dimensional continuum of indistinguishable events which is neither space nor time is a reflection of the treatment of time as passage without becoming.

What then is a present? Whitehead's definition would come back to the temporal spread of the passage of the events that make up a thing, a spread which is extended enough to make it possible for the thing to be what it is.[5] That of an atom of iron would not need to be longer than the period within which the revolution of each of its electrons around the nucleus is completed. The universe during this period would constitute a duration from the point of view of the atom. The specious present of a human individual would presumably be a period within which he could be himself. From the standpoint which I have suggested it would involve a becoming. There must be at least

(20) something that happens to and in the thing which affects the nature of the thing in order that one moment may be distinguishable from another, in order that there may be time. But there is in such a statement a conflict of principles of definition. From one standpoint we are seeking for what is essential to a present; from the other we are seeking for the lower limit in a process of division. I will refer to the latter first, for it involves the question of the relation of time to passage-to that within which time seems to lie and in terms of whose extension we place time and compare times. The thousandth part of a second has a real significance, and we can conceive of the universe as foundering in a sea of entropy within which all becoming has ceased. We are dealing here with an abstraction of the extension of mere passage from the time within which events happen because they become. In Whitehead's treatment this is called "extensive abstraction," and leads up to an event-particle as mathematical analysis leads up to the differential. And an event-particle should have the same relationship to something that becomes that the differential of a change such as an accelerating velocity has to the whole process. In so far, extensive abstraction is a method of analysis and integration and asks for no other justification than its success. But Whitehead uses it as a method of metaphysical abstraction and finds in the mere happening the event, the substance of that which becomes. He transfers the content of what becomes to a world of "eternal objects" having ingression into events under the control of a principle lying outside of their occurrence. While, then, the existence of what occurs is found in the present, the "what it is" that occurs does not arise out of happening, it happens to the event through the metaphysical process of ingression. This seems to me to be an improper use of abstraction, since it leads to a metaphysical separation of

(21) what is abstracted from the concrete reality from which the abstraction is made, instead of leaving it as a tool in the intellectual control of that reality. Bergson refers, I think, to the same improper use of abstraction, in another context, as the spatialization of time, contrasting the exclusive nature of such temporal moments with the interpenetration of the contents of "real" duration.

If, on the contrary, we recognize what becomes as the event which in its relation to other events gives structure to time, then the abstraction of passage from what is taking place is purely methodological. We carry our analysis as far as the control of subject matter requires, but always with the recognition that what is analysed out has its reality in the integration of what is taking place. That this is the result of defining the event as that which becomes, is evident, I think, in the application and testing of our most abstruse hypotheses. To be of value and to be accredited these must present new events springing out of old, such as the expansion or contraction of the universe in Einstein's and Weyl's speculations on the seeming recessions at enormous velocities of distant nebulae, or the stripping of electrons from atomic nuclei in the center of stellar bodies in jeans' speculations upon the transformation of matter into radiation. And these happenings should so fit into our experimental findings that they may find their reality in the concretion of what is taking place in an actual present. The pasts which they spread back of us are as hypothetical as the future which they assist us in prevising. They become valid in interpreting nature in so far as they present a history of becomings in nature leading up to that which is becoming today, in so far as they bring out what fits into the pattern that is emerging from the roaring loom of time, not in so far as they erect metaphysical entities which are the tenuous obverse of mathematical apparatus.


If, in Bergson's phrase, "real duration" becomes time through the appearance of unique events which are distinguishable from each other through their qualitative nature, a something that is emergent in each event, then bare passage is a manner of arranging these events. But what is essential to this arrangement is that in each interval which is isolated it must be possible that something should become, that something unique should arise. We are subject to a psychological illusion if we assume that the rhythm of counting and the order which arises out of counting answer to a structure of passage itself, apart from the processes which fall into orders through the emergence of events. We never reach the interval itself between events, except in correlations between them and other situations within which we find congruence and replacement, something that can never take place in passage as such. We reach what may be called a functional equality of represented intervals within processes involving balance and rhythm, but on this basis to set up time as a quantity having an essential nature that allows of its being divided into equal portions of itself is an unwarranted use of abstraction. We can hypothetically reconstruct the past processes that are involved in what is going on as a basis for the cognitive construction of the future which is arising. What we are assured of by the experimental data is that we comprehend that which is going on sufficiently to predict what will take place, not that we have attained a correct picture of the past independent of any present, for we expect this picture to change as new events emerge. In this attitude we are relating in our anticipation presents that slip into others, and their pasts belong to them. They have to be reconstructed as they are taken up into a new present and as such they belong to that present, and no longer to the present out of which we have passed into the present present.


A present then, as contrasted with the abstraction of mere passage, is not a piece cut out anywhere from the temporal dimension of uniformly passing reality. Its chief reference is to the emergent event, that is, to the occurrence of something which is more than the processes that have led up to it and which by its change, continuance, or disappearance, adds to later passages a content they would not otherwise have possessed. The mark of passage without emergent events is its formulation in equations in which the so-called instances disappear in an identity, as Meyerson has pointed out.[6]

Given an emergent event, its relations to antecedent processes become conditions or causes. Such a situation is a present. It marks out and in a sense selects what has made its peculiarity possible. It creates with its uniqueness a past and a future. As soon as we view it, it becomes a history and a prophecy. Its own temporal diameter varies with the extent of the event. There may be a history of the physical universe as an appearance of a galaxy of galaxies. There is a history of every object that is unique. But there would be no such history of the physical universe until the galaxy appeared, and it would continue only so long as the galaxy maintained itself against disruptive and cohesive forces. If we ask what may be the temporal spread of the uniqueness which is responsible for a present the answer must be, in Whitehead's terms, that it is a period long enough to enable the object to be what it is. But the question is ambiguous for the term "temporal spread" implies a measure of time. The past as it appears with the present and future, is the relation of the emergent event to the situation out of which it arose, and it is the event that defines that situation. The continuance or disappearance

(24) of that which arises is the present passing into the future. Past, present and future belong to a passage which attains temporal structure through the event, and they may be considered long or short as they are compared with other such passages. But as existing in nature, so far as such a statement has significance, the past and the future are the boundaries of what we term the present, and are determined by the conditioning relationships of the event to its situation.

The pasts and futures to which we refer extend beyond these contiguous relations in passage. We extend them out in memory and history, in anticipation and forecast. They are preeminently the field of ideation, and find their locus in what is called mind. While they are in the present, they refer to that which is not in that present, as is indicated by their relation to past and future. They refer beyond themselves and out of this reference arises their representational nature. They evidently belong to organisms, that is to emergent events whose nature involves the tendency to maintain themselves. In other words their situation involves adjustment looking toward a past, and selective sensitivity looking toward a future. What may be called the stuff out of which ideas arise are the attitudes of these organisms, habits when we look toward the past, and early adjustments within the act to the results of their responses when we look toward the future. So far these belong to what may be termed the immediate past and future.

This relation of the event to its situation, of the organism to its environment, with their mutual dependence, brings us to relativity, and to the perspectives in which this appears in experience. The nature of environment answers to the habits and selective attitudes of organisms, and the qualities that belong to the objects of the environment can only be expressed in terms of sensitivities of these organisms. And the same is true of ideas. The organism, through its

(25) habits and anticipatory attitudes, finds itself related to what extends beyond its immediate present. Those characters of things which in the activity of the organism refer to what lies beyond the present take on the value of that to which they refer. The field of mind, then, is the larger environment which the activity of the organism calls for but which transcends the present. What is present in the organism, however, is its own nascent activity, and that in itself and in the environment which sustains it, and there is present also its movement from the past and beyond the present. It belongs to the so-called conscious organism to complete this larger temporal environment by the use of characters found in the present. The mechanism by which the social mind accomplishes this I will discuss later; what I wish to bring out now is that the field of mind is the temporal extension of the environment of the organism, and that an idea resides in the organism because the organism is using that in itself which moves beyond its present to take the place of that toward which its own activity is tending. That in the organism which provides the occasion for mind is the activity which reaches beyond the present within which the organism exists.

But in such an account as this I have been implicitly setting up this larger period within which, say, an organism begins and completes its history as there seemingly in independence of any present, and it is my purpose to insist upon the opposite proposition that these larger periods can have no reality except as they exist in presents and that all their implications and values are there located. Of course this comes back, first, to the evident fact that all the apparatus of the past, memory images, historical monuments, fossil remains and the like are in some present, and, second, to that portion of the past which is there in passage in experience as determined by the emergent event. It comes

(26) back, third, to the necessary test of the formulation of the past in the rising events in experience. The past we are talking about lies with all its characters within that present.

There is, however, the assumed implication that this present refers to entities which have a reality independent of this and any other present, whose full detail, though of course beyond recall, is inevitably presumed. Now there is a confusion between such a metaphysical assumption and the evident fact that we are unable to reveal all that is involved in any present. Here we stand with Newton before a boundless sea and are only gathering the pebbles upon its shore. There is nothing transcendent about this powerlessness of our minds to exhaust any situation. Any advance which makes toward greater knowledge simply extends the horizon of experience, but all remains within conceivable experience. A greater mind than Newton's or Einstein's would reveal in experience, in the world that is there, structures and processes that we cannot find nor even adumbrate. Or take Bergson's conception of all our memories, or all occurrences in the form of images, crowding in upon us, and held back by a central nervous system. All of this is conceivable in a present whose whole richness should be at the disposal of that very present. This does not mean that the aeons revealed in those structures and processes, or the histories which those images connote would unroll themselves in a present as temporally extended as their formulation implies. It means, in so far as such an unbridled conception or imagination can have meaning, that we should have an inconceivable richness offered to our analysis in the approach to any problem arising in experience.

The past in passage is irrecoverable as well as irrevocable. It is producing all the reality that there is. The meaning of that which is, is illuminated and expanded in the face of the emergent in experience, like (a+b) to the 25th power

(27) by the binomial theorem, by the expansion of the passage which is going on. To say that the Declaration of Independence was signed on the 4th of July 1776 means that in the time system which we carry around with us and with the formulation of our political habits, this date comes out in our celebrations. Being what we are in the social and physical world that we inhabit we account for what takes place on this time schedule, but like railway time-tables it is always subject to change without notice. Christ was born four years before A.D.

Our reference is always to the structure of the present, and our test of the formulation we make is always that of successfully carrying out our calculations and observations in a rising future. If we say that something happened at such a date, whether we can ever specify it or not, we must mean that if in imagination we put ourselves back at the supposed date we should have had such an experience, but this is not what we are concerned with when we work out the history of the past. It is the import of what is going on in action or appreciation which requires illumination and direction, because of the constant appearance of the novel from whose standpoint our experience calls for a reconstruction which includes the past.

The best approach to this import is found in the world within which our problems arise. Its things are enduring things that are what they are because of the conditioning character of passage. Their past is in what they are. Such a past is not eventual. When we elaborate the history of a tree whose wood is found in the chairs in which we sit, all the way from the diatom to the oak but lately felled, this history revolves about the constant re-interpretation of facts that are continually arising; nor are these novel facts to be found simply in the impact of changing human experiences upon a world that is there. For, in the first place, human

(28) experiences are as much a part of this world as are any of its other characteristics, and the world is a different world because of these experiences. And, in the second place, in any history that we construct we are forced to recognize the shift in relationship between the conditioning passage and emergent event, in that part of the past which belongs to passage, even when this passage is not expanded in ideation.

The outcome of what I have said is that the estimate and import of all histories lies in the interpretation and control of the present; that as ideational structures they always arise from change, which is as essential a part of reality as the permanent, and from the problems which change entails; and that the metaphysical demand for a set of events which is unalterably there in an irrevocable past, to which these histories seek a constantly approaching agreement, comes back to motives other than those at work in the most exact scientific research.

Note to CHAPTER 1[7]

Durations are a continual sliding of presents into each other. The present is a passage constituted by processes whose earlier phases determine in certain respects their later phases. Reality then is always in a present. When the present has passed it no longer is. The question arises whether the past arising in memory and in the projection of this still further backwards, refers to events which existed as such continuous presents passing into each other, or to that conditioning phase of the passing present which enables us to determine conduct with reference to the future which is

(29) also arising in the present. It is this latter thesis which I am maintaining.

The implication of my position is that the past is such a construction that the reference that is found in it is not to events having a reality independent of the present which is the seat of reality, but rather to such an interpretation of the present in its conditioning passage as will enable intelligent conduct to proceed. It is of course evident that the materials out of which that past is constructed lie in the present. I refer to the memory images and the evidences by which we build up the past, and to the fact that any reinterpretation of the picture we form of the past will be found in a present, and will be judged by the logical and evidential characters which such data possess in a present. It is also evident that there is no appeal from these in their locus of a present to a real past which lies like a scroll behind us, and to which we may recur to check up on our constructions. We are not deciphering a manuscript whose passages can be made intelligible in themselves and left as secure presentations of that portion of what has gone before, to be supplemented by later final constructions of other passages. We are not contemplating an ultimate unchangeable past that may be spread behind us in its entirety subject to no further change. Our reconstructions of the past vary in their extensiveness, but they never contemplate the finality of their findings. They are always subject to conceivable reformulations, on the discovery of later evidence, and this reformulation may be complete. Even the most vivid of memory images may be in error. In a word our assurances concerning the past are never attained by a congruence between the constructed past and a real past independent of this construction, though we carry this attitude at the back of our heads, because we do bring our immediate hypothetical reconstructions to the test of the accepted past and adjudge

(30) them by their agreement with the accepted record; but this accepted past lies in a present and is subject, itself, to possible reconstruction.

Now it is possible to accept all this, with a full admission that no item in the accepted past is final, and yet to maintain that there remains a reference in our formulation of the past event to a something that happened which we can never expect to resuscitate in the content of reality, something that belonged to the event in the present within which it occurred. This amounts to saying that there is behind us a scroll of elapsed presents, to which our constructions of the past refer, though without the possibility of ever reaching it, and without the anticipation that our continual reconstructions will approach it with increasing exactness. And this brings me to the point at issue. Such a scroll, if attained, is not the account that our pasts desiderate. If we could bring back the present that has elapsed in the reality which belonged to it, it would not serve us. It would be that present and would lack just that character which we demand in the past, that is, that construction of the conditioning nature of now present passage which enables us to interpret what is arising in the future that belongs to this present. When one recalls his boyhood days he cannot get into them as he then was, without their relationship to what he has become; and if he could, that is if he could reproduce the experience as it then took place, he could not use it, for this would involve his not being in the present within which that use must take place. A string of presents conceivably existing as presents would never constitute a past. If then there is such a reference it is not to an entity which could fit into any past, and I cannot believe that the reference, in the past as experienced, is to a something which would not have the function or value that in our experience belongs to a past. We are not referring to a real past event which would not be the past event we are seeking. Another way of saying this is

(31) that our pasts are always mental in the same manner in which the futures that lie in our imaginations ahead of us are mental. They differ, apart from their successive positions, in that the determining conditions of interpretation and conduct are embodied in the past as that is found in the present, but they are subject to the same test of validity to which our hypothetical futures are subject. And the novelty of every future demands a novel past.

This, however, overlooks one important character of any past, and that is that no past which we can construct can be as adequate as the situation demands. There is always a reference to a past which cannot be reached, and one that is still consonant with the function and import of a past. It is always conceivable that the implications of the present should be carried further than we do actually carry them, and further than we can possibly carry them. There is always more knowledge which would be desirable for the solution of any problem confronting us but which we cannot attain. With the conceivable attainment of this knowledge we should undoubtedly construct a past truer to the present within which the implications of this past lie. And it is to this past that there is always a reference within every past which imperfectly presents itself to our investigation. If we had every possible document and every possible monument from the period of Julius Caesar we should unquestionably have a truer picture of the man and of what occurred in his life-time, but it would be a truth which belongs to this present, and a later present would reconstruct it from the standpoint of its own emergent nature. We can then conceive of a past which in any one present would be irrefragable. So far as that present was concerned it would be a final past, and if we consider the matter, I think that it is this past to which the reference lies in that which goes beyond the statement which the historian can give, and which we are apt to assume to be a past independent of the present.


  1. For a fuller account of this theory of knowledge see "A Pragmatic Theory of Truth," University, of California Publications in Philosophy, Vol. 11, page 65 ff.
  2. "Space, Time, and Gravitation," page 51.
  3. Mr. Mead's recurrent discussion of Whitehead is based mainly on "The Principles of Natural Knowledge" and "The Concept of Nature," with some reference also to "Science and the Modem World." He did not include "Process and Reality" in his discussion.
  4. Cf. "Experience and Nature," chapters 3 and 7.
  5. Cf. "The Principles of Natural Knowledge," 2nd ed., page 22 ff.
  6. "Identity and Reality" passim.
  7. These pages were found among Mr. Mead's papers after his death. They seem to have been written later than the chapter to which they are here appended, possibly as a result of a critical discussion of it at the University of Chicago Philosophy Club meeting in January 1931.

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