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The Nature of the Past


by George H. Mead

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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

*
Originally published as: George Herbert Mead. "The Nature of the Past", in John Coss (ed.), Essays in
Honor of John Dewey New York: Henry Holt & Co. (1929), pp. 235-42.
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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

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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

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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 role 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

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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.

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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

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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

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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.