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The Importance of the Past

  • Roger Teichmann (a1)


A bias against the past is a feature of our Zeitgeist, and has a number of manifestations. One of these is the dominant model of rational agency as geared towards producing effects or outcomes, a model which cannot make sense of the cogency of backward-looking reasons for action. I discuss the nature of such reasons, and the way of perceiving and understanding the past which goes with them. This mode of understanding the past is one of the things that gives substance to the idea that the past has a reality lacked by the future, a reality which among other things makes the past a possible object of contemplation (as in the study of history). Such contemplation is a crucial component of eudaimonia.


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1 All statements about large scale cultural tendencies are broad brush statements. They can nevertheless be backed up by evidence which is by its nature clearer and more precise in form; so readers who find the use of a broad brush distasteful in philosophy may prefer to focus on the post-introductory arguments of this paper.

2 The decision theorist may stipulate that the value you ascribe to Emily's receiving your flowers is equivalent to the smallest sum of money you would accept in lieu of her receiving the flowers. (And if you'd accept no sum, then you ascribe infinite value to the outcome.) But this manoeuvre obviously doesn't show that your ultimate reason for action was forward-looking, since it in no way removes or translates away the reason, ‘Because she drove me to hospital’. At best, it may show that another (forward-looking) reason could, hypothetically, outweigh the backward-looking one, as far as your deliberations went.

3 Broome, J., Weighing Goods, (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell 1995), 4.

4 The altruistic equivalent being, ‘I have found in the past that the pleasure people get from gifts is greater if they have done an earlier service to the agent than if they haven't; so I now calculate that if I send flowers…’

5 The case for such reasons, and for their centrality to practical rationality, is eloquently made by Anselm Müller, in his ‘Backward-Looking Rationality and the Unity of Practical Reason’, in Essays on Anscombe's Intention, ed. Ford, Hornsby and Stoutland (Harvard University Press, 2011), 242269. Müller argues that the notion of a backward-looking reason should not be taken as essentially concerned with the past, writing that the key idea is of ‘one's being prompted by an ostensible fact that is seen to call for a response’, in contrast to ‘one's being attracted by something ostensibly good that is seen to require implementation’ (n. 5, 245). For Müller, the rationality of voting relies on backward-looking reasons, in this sense (264–6): the ‘facts’ which call for the response of voting a given way here include certain ‘prospects’. But in this case there is an independently specifiable thing that is wanted and which lies in the future, namely, a certain party's coming to power – though Müller is right that this is not something which is aimed at in or by one's act of voting – and the case is thus different from the more ‘purely’ backward-looking examples of gratitude, etc. I agree with Müller that there is at any rate a significant kinship between purely backward-looking reasons and those he mentions in connection with voting and the like; but my concern in this paper is especially with the former, for which the facts prompting certain responses are past facts.

6 For a justification of this view of pleasure, and a more extended discussion of these themes, see R. Teichmann, Nature, Reason and the Good Life (Oxford University Press 2011), Ch. 3.

7 G. Santayana, Reason in Common Sense (1905), vol. 1 of The Life of Reason.

8 This phrase is of course not meant to imply that it is possible for human beings finally to sort out all the problems in the world.

9 Chesterton, Orthodoxy, ch. 4.

10 Prior, A.N., ‘Thank goodness that's over!’ in Philosophy 34 (1959) 1227; also in Papers in Logic and Ethics, ed. Geach and Kenny (London: Duckworth 1976, 7884).

11 Mellor, D.H., Real Time (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1981), 4852.

12 Can one feel gratitude for a future action? Don't we say things like, ‘Thanks so much for coming with me to the police station’, where the other person has promised to do that for which you are now thanking him? It wouldn't affect my argument if this could indeed be made out, since many forms of gratitude evidently relate to past actions. But the question is in any case rather tricky; for if your friend is prevented from accompanying you to the police station, your gratitude does not evaporate – nor does this seem to be because the ‘real’ object of your gratitude was his promising (or attempting) to accompany you. Perhaps we need to invoke that form of the past future tense that we find in ‘Mary and John were to be married next month, but now they've broken off their engagement’. You are grateful because your friend was to have gone with you to the police station.

13 Let alone the non-reason, ‘Because what I'm hereby saying/thinking is temporally later than her driving me to the hospital’.

14 Cockburn, D., ‘Tense and Emotion’, in Questions of Time and Tense, ed. LePoidevin, R. (Oxford University Press 1998), 7791; 86.

15 Nagel, The Possibility of Altruism (Princeton University Press 1970), 61.

16 Cockburn, op. cit. note 14, 89.

17 In ‘The Reality of the Past’ (in Metaphysics and the Philosophy of Mind, Oxford: Blackwell 1981, 104119), Elizabeth Anscombe argued persuasively that the way to understand how it is we can so much as think about the past is via a delineation of how we learn and use the past tense, and that this too is the key to explaining how the past has a reality lacked by the future. If Anscombe was right, it does seem that, as far as the present enquiry goes, it is an account of use, rather than of truth-conditions, that provides philosophical enlightenment. – A comparison of the learning of past and future tenses would suggest, by the way, that the faculty of memory is what is crucially needed by a learner, in both cases – see Teichmann, R., The Philosophy of Elizabeth Anscombe (Oxford University Press 2008), 170. This fact is connected with the asymmetry between past and future when it comes to the ‘significance’ of events, described in sec. II.

18 cf. 7–8 above.

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The Importance of the Past

  • Roger Teichmann (a1)


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