The Future and the Past

Practical interpretation is simultaneously forward- and backward-looking, as Ricoeur, Brandom, and Pippin have emphasized. Not only is the future not predetermined; for practical purposes, neither is the meaning of the past. The present is not a point, but a zone in which an incompletely determined past and an incompletely determined future overlap and fuse. (See Narrated Time; Hegel’s Ethical Innovation; Hegel on Willing.)

Personhood

We intuitively grasp a kind of unity of each human person, but have no special, privileged mode of knowledge of persons as individuals. Common sense tends to be rather dogmatic, and glosses over many distinctions in such matters. Plato compared the soul to a city, a sort of community of thoughts and desires — a kind of unity to be sure, but a relatively weak one. In Kantian terms, human persons seem to be distinguished from everything else by somehow being the nexus of combination of otherwise very distinct empirical and transcendental domains.

Considerations of change over time further complicate the picture, but may also provide a kind of guiding thread. A factual “me” is mainly a retrospective construction. A normative “I” on the other hand has both retrospective and prospective aspects. Brandom’s and Pippin’s readings of Hegel emphasize that we should think of agency and acts as always comprising both a partially constituted, retrospectively constructed past and a yet-to-be-determined future. Ricoeur has developed a temporally extended, retrospective and prospective notion of self as an ethical aim or promise rather than an existing actuality. Such an aim or promise, it seems to me, can have a much stronger unity than we could legitimately claim as an existing actuality.

Rather than conflating the empirical and transcendental, as in the Latin medieval notion of an “intellectual soul” — or inflating a notion of empirical self to fill the whole space of subjectivity, in the common modern way — we can tie the unification of empirical and transcendental elements to that prospective aim or promise, without asserting it in the present. (See also Empirical-Transcendental Doublet?; Two Kinds of Character; Narrated Time; Hegel’s Ethical Innovation; Hegel on Willing.)

Echoes of the Deed

“The kinds of doings [Hegel] is principally interested in are processes rather than events: writing a book, building a house, learning a trade, diagnosing or treating a disease” (A Spirit of Trust, p. 733). Not only that, such doings implicitly include future consequences that are not yet determined. Because of this, their evaluation and place in a normative synthesis may change over time. (The “echo” metaphor of this post’s title should not be taken too literally. I mean something related but relatively independent that happens later, may not have been expected, and possibly could not have been expected.)

Unlike mathematical provability or statically definable structures, what not only looks but (as a result of an enormous process of mutual recognition) genuinely is normatively correct or incorrect or good or bad as of one moment is not guaranteed to remain so as further consequences play out. In this sense, as long as there is a future, no deed and no story will ever be complete, or even necessarily have a predictable ending.

The future may move us to reinterpret the past, and this is as it should be. It gives cause for hope that situations beyond our control can always be better, and that we can play a role in making them so — that how we respond to them matters.