Review of The Philosophy of the Present by G. H. Mead.
Evander Bradley McGilvary
THE PHILOSOPHY OF THE PRESENT. By George Herbert Mead. Edited by Arthur E. Murphy with Prefactory Remarks by John Dewey. Lectures upon the Paul Carus Foundation, Third Series. Chicago and London: Open Court Publishing Co., 1932. Pp. xl+199
We have here a posthumous work which the author was still rewriting when death put an end to the career of one of the most beloved teachers of philosophy and one of the most influential thinkers in contemporary American life. In the Introduction the editor has admirably succeeded in bringing together "same of its main ideas, in such order and relation as Mr. Mead might himself have adopted had he lived to complete the important work he had undertaken" (p. xxxv). The first half of the book consists of the lectures "in substance precisely as they were presented at Berkeley; but the whole has undergone verbal revision." More than two-thirds of the remainder contains material selected from manuscripts found among the author's papers after his death. There follow two papers previously published by Mr. Mead himself—one in the Proceedings of the Sixth International Congress of Philosophy on "The Objective Reality of Perspectives"; and one in this Journal, Volume XXXV, No. 3, on "The Genesis of the Self and Social Control." Under these circumstances it would be unfair to dwell upon inaccuracies, especially in the treatment of the physical theory of relativity-inaccuracies which the author himself would, without doubt, have discovered and which the editor properly did not feel justified in correcting. Fortunately, Mr. Mead had succeeded before his death in making dear his main positions. It is impossible in this
( 346) review to do more than indicate two or three of these, and even here any summary statement cannot do justice to the views presented. Everyone interested in present-day philosophical thought will, of course, read the book for himself.
The title of the volume has "an instructive ambiguity." By "the philosophy of the present" is meant not so much contemporary philosophy as the philosophy that maintains that reality "is always in a present. When the present has passed it no longer is" (p. 28). But what constitutes a present? That "which marks a present is its becoming and its disappearing" (p. I), "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" (p. 23)-in short an emergence of something new. "Given such a situation its relations to antecedent processes become conditions or causes. Such a situation is a present It creates with its uniqueness a past and a future" (p. 23). "Time can only arise through the ordering of passage by these unique events . . . The relation of the event to its preceding conditions at once sets up a history, and the uniqueness of the event makes that history relative to that event. The conditioning passage and the appearance of the unique event then give rise to past and future as they appear in a present. All of the past is in the present as the conditioning nature of passage, and all the future arises out of the present as the unique events that transpire" (p. 33). "And the novelty of every future demands a novel past" (p. 31).
By this is meant that any past is a construction erected within some present. "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 that is 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" (p. 29). We do not leave behind us "a scroll of elapsed events, to which our constructions of the past refer, though without any possibility of reaching it . . . .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. . . . Another way of saying this is that our pasts are always mental in the same manner in which the futures that lie in our imaginations ahead of us are mental" (pp. 30-31). "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 . . . . and that the metaphysical demand for a set of events which is unalterably there in an irrevocable past ... .
( 347) comes back to motives other than those at work in the most exact scientific research" (p. 28). Even if we could get back to such a past it would do us no good. "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 . . . . 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" (p. 30).
These quotations make it clear that what controls Mr. Mead's view of the past is his instrumentalism. The view of the past as something that has irrecoverably gone "belies the function of the past in experience. This function is a continual reconstruction as a chronicle to serve the purposes of present interpretation" (p. 48). Mr. Mead thinks that the belief that by any past event we mean that event "as it took place" is a "contradiction in terms" (p. 48). On the other hand, I cannot but think that Mr. Mead's view is a contradiction in terms. He denies the ability to recall his boyhood days as they occurred, and yet in the same breath admits that there were such days. He knows enough about such days to know that they cannot be recalled as they were, and yet according to his theory all that he ever has in his recall is these days as they are reconstructed in the present that recalls them. Like Dewey he gives up the quest for certainty, and then denies that we can refer to the past as it occurred because he is certain that we cannot be certain. of such a past. "The philosophy of the present" is a novel solipsism of the present moment. It is novel because the solipsism is not the assertion of the solus ipse of the subject of an experience, but the assertion of the sola ipsa of the experientia consisting of a present situation in which there is nothing but an organism with its environment and its reactions thereto and the ideational structure of the past that the organism in that situation raises with a view to adapting it to its ideational structure of the future.
We must now turn for a moment to what the editor calls "the most daring development in this theory" (p. xxix). This is the doctrine of the "social character of the universe" (p. 49). "Sociality is the capacity of being several things at once" (p. 49). "Now it is clear that such a social character can belong only to the moment at which emergence takes place, that is to a present. We may in ideation recall the process, but such a past is not a reintegration of the affair as it went on, for it is undertaken from the standpoint of the present emergence, and is frankly hypothetical." "Now what we are accustomed to call social is only a so-called consciousness of such a process, but the process is not identical with the consciousness of it, for that is an awareness of the situation. The social
( 348) situation must be there if there is to be consciousness of it." (p. 48). Mr. Mead gives as instance of such sociality the situation due to "the hypothetical approach of a stellar visitor" which separated from the sun the substances now found in the planets; there was a moment when these substances were passing from the sun to the orbits they now move in. This was the social moment: these substances were then in two systems (pp. 4.7-48). But, of course, all this is in the present of any "minded organism" that constructs (or reconstructs) that cosmogony. The same is true of the instance Mead constantly recurs to, the fact, namely, that in physical relativity a moving object is in two systems at once. "Passage from a system in motion to the same system at rest, while the rest of the world passes from rest to motion, means passage from the one to the other in what we call a mind. These two aspects exist in nature, and the mind is also in nature. The mind passes from one to the other in its so-called consciousness, and the world is a different world from the standpoint of one attitude from what it is from another . . . . All that we need to recognize is that the world has the one aspect from one point of view and that it now has the other aspect from another point of view, and that there has been the same passage in nature from the one to the other as has taken place in the mind" (p. 80). But "a train cannot be both moving and at rest, but the mind of the passenger can occupy in passage both systems, and hold the two attitudes in a comprehensible relationship to each other as representing the same occurrence from two different stand-points which, having a mind or being a mind, he can occupy. If he accepts the two mutually exclusive situations as both legitimate, it is because as a minded organism he can be in both"(p. 81). It would seem from this that where there is no minded organism there is no passage; but of course we must remember that the pasts in which there were no minded organisms are pasts ideationally constructed in the present of the minded organism. All such pasts and the minded organism that constructs them are "nature." The trouble Mead finds in the Minkowski world is that it treats the past as a scroll of events that has finality (passim).
All this, of course, is of a piece with the instrumentalist's intellectual habit of thought. Just as by definition he makes truth the character of successful guidance, so now by definition he makes the universe social, and the definition is made to cover the facts by regarding the facts as constructions in the present situation of a social minded organism that constructs the definition. The whole theory is too solipsistic in the sense above indicated. But, as far as the past is concerned, I think that Mr. Mead has got hold of half of an important truth. He had in his hands the key to a solution of the whole problem. I refer to his frequent reference to
( 349) "the objective reality of perspectives." But he could not use the doctrine of perspectives for all that it was worth because he made the fundamental reality of the physical object to consist in its contact-value, and then distance-value became something that had only an instrumental function (chap. iii). Suppose he had carried out consistently the contention that what a thing is in any perspective it really is in that perspective, and that therefore, because a thing is in time, what it is in the perspective of any date it remains that thing for that perspective, but it becomes something else in the perspective of some other date. In that way the past in the perspective of its contemporaries does not change, but in later successive perspectives it becomes different and thus changes as time goes on. But this is not the place to develop this point.
The readers of this Journal will be especially interested in the ethical implications of Mr. Mead's doctrine. I will close with a quotation: "We determine what the world has been by the anxious search for the means of making it better, and we are substituting the goal of a society aware of its own values and minded intelligently to pursue them, for the city not built with hands eternal in the heavens. This view frees us from bondage either to past or future. We are neither creatures of the necessity of an irrevocable past, nor of any vision given in the Mount. Our history and our prognostications will be sympathetic with the undertakings within which we live and move and have our being. Our values lie in the present, and the past and future give us only the schedule of the means, and the plans of campaign, for their realization . . . .This present is the scene of that emergence which gives always new heavens and a new earth . . . And because we can live with ourselves as well as with others, we can criticize ourselves, and make our own the values in which we are involved through those undertakings in which the community of all rational beings is engaged" (p. 90).
As one who had the good fortune to know George Herbert Mead, I like to think that I remember him as I saw him and knew him when he was living. That past now functions in my experience in just this way. But I believe that in the changing perspectives the future will bring, his personality and his work will continually acquire new and still richer meanings. Happily for us, he was both what he was when we were in his gracious presence, and also what he will ever come to have been.
EVANDER BRADLEY MCGILVARY
UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN