A Notation on the Problem of the Past—with Especial Reference to George Herbert Mead

Alfred Tonness

THE past has just recently come to the front as a problem. Upon some of its metaphysical and epistemological aspects such writers as Holt, Laird, Russell, Alexander, Whitehead, Broad, and Burtt have touched, while the Dewey-Lovejoy controversy accentuated certain logical considerations. More recently the late Professor George Herbert Mead in two public utterances brought his unique analytical procedure to bear upon it, which resulted in a more fully developed statement than hitherto expressed by philosophical contributors. Within a limited space I wish to sketch just one of the considerations to which this problem is entitled in the interest of better intellectual treatment and destiny.

Mead devoted a considerable portion of the Paul Carus Foundation Lectures[1] to the nature, the form, and the function of the past. In this statement the nature of the past is that of the conditioning of the present; the form of the past is that of a cognitive structure in the present; and the function of the past is that of a "chronicle" which is seen to lead up to, and thus explain, the present. Mead's conception of the form of the past furnishes the approach to this article. His contention was that the only past with which we are conversant is that of our cognition. This past is not a static metaphysical structure of such events as are said to have happened; for this structure, if it exist, we are unable to reach with our present equipment, and it has, therefore, no reality to us. Our past, any past of which we can conceive, is a construction of intelligence; this construction derives its characters from the present in which intelli-

(600) -gence is operative, and in these characters is projected out from the present. The present features variations and changes, as successive situations are unfolded; and the variations are reflected in corresponding changes in the form of the accompanying past. The variations which our pasts undergo are in accordance with our individual development, our increasing historical insight, and our advancing scientific achievements.

This phase of Mead's treatment of the problem of the past brings into view a distinction which I am urging, not from sheer love for philosophical distinctions, but because the failure to make it up to the present time seems to be responsible for much inadequate thinking with reference to this problem. The distinction to which I refer is that simple one between the metaphysical and the epistemological aspects of the problem; and the simplicity of the distinction makes it all the more urgent. In such writers as Alexander and Broad matters identified with these aspects are under discussion; nevertheless, the distinction seems to be disregarded, with the consequence that the outcome is less clear.

From the standpoint of the problem of the past the distinction may be urged somewhat as follows. The metaphysical aspect of the problem directs attention to the reality, if any, which can be ascribed to the past as existence, while the epistemological aspect presents the reality of the past as a means or field of orientation. The answer to the question, can both of these realities be predicated of the past, rests importantly upon the view of reality entertained by the individual thinker who seeks the answer; a tentative working definition is, therefore, desirable. Reluctantly hazarding the appearance of presumptuousness, I suggest a workable definition : Reality is that which functions in a reference system, including the system itself. This tentative definition does not equate reality with existence ;! it merely ascribes reality to the various reference systems and their functioning factors within the realm of existence. Each system features its own realities; but the realities of, say, an electro-magnetic system are not the realities of a chemical, a biological, or a logical system. A given particle of existence may relate various systems by being a part of each ; but its reality in each of the systems differs with and is determined by the system in question ; and as thus considered the various realities of the given existential particle do not overlap but remain distinct in each system. In the logical system of tables and not-tables, the logical reality of not-table is not the domestic reality of a comfortable chair; the realities are distinct, though they are aspects of what we may regard as one spatio-temporal occupation. Now, the genius of the metaphysical system is the actuality and structure of existence, and its realities are determined in these terms; the genius of the epistemological system

(601) is the possibility, implications, methods, and consequences of conscious orientation, and accordingly the realities of this system are determined by the characters of such orientation.


We may begin our brief consideration of the metaphysical aspect of the problem of the past by quoting the following propositions from the opening sentences of Mead's Carus Lectures : "Reality exists in a present. The present, of course, implies a past and a future, and t to these both we deny existence. " Mead regarded,existence as fundamental to any category of reality, including the metaphysical; the just-quoted propositions, thus, deprive the past of its metaphysical reality.

Mead was not the first thinker to whom this denial had occurred. Early in the modern period Hobbes maintained that the present alone has "being in nature," and that the past has being only in memory.[2] The latter half of the last century found Lotze suggesting that the only point of reality of time is the present, while the past is "an endless but imaginary arm."[3] More recently Laird has asserted that "the past does not exist now"; [4] and with a slightly different twist Alexander would have it that "the past event . . . does not exist now," though its reality "is to have existed then."[5] But there are thinkers of an opposite tendency, among whom may be mentioned Holt, whose "metaphysical manifold" consists, in part, of the actual facts or events at the point where they are intersected by "the recalling consciousness"; [6] here the intersecting past events and present consciousness are realities, each of its own kind. But the outstanding contention for a metaphysical reality of the past is probably that of Broad, for whom the happening event never ceases to exist.[7]

The position presented in the above-mentioned Carus Lectures may be epitomized as follows. Reality is found in the natural process. The focus of this process, that is, the point at which nature displays its processional character, is the happening- events where characters emerge and active esistences continue or break. This field of emergent events is the present; the structure of the present is the emergent events, and this structure is basic to time itself. Thus, by this definition, the present becomes the seat of reality. Now, if reality is identified with the process of nature, and if the actuality

(602) of this process is in the active and emergent happenings, and if these happenings define the scope of the present, then, of necessity, that which is not in the present because it is not a happening because it is not in the actuality of the process, must fall outside the field of reality. The former stage of the now on-going process is no longer in activity ; it has ceased to exist as process. To say that the former stage is left behind or is past means that its reality ceased when the happenings of that stage expired. The metaphysical reality of the past must, therefore, be denied. So far Mead.

The concept of time is an abstraction which has developed out of naïve racial habits of thinking; and it has continued to retain the large divisions inherent in this untutored thought, namely, the past, the present, and the future. It is obvious that the concept of time is based on realities; but upon consideration it seems equally obvious that these basic realities have taken on appearances in present-day thinking which demand a reconsideration, if not a revision, of the' concept. The origin of the concept is in the recognition of distinctive features as they occur in the activity of the natural processes; but to extend the concept beyond this existential activity on the tacit assumption that its extension is supported by the same existential value as its origin, is, it seems to me, a highly questionable procedure. We are here confronted with the necessity of distinguishing between the concept of time and that which I for the purpose of this distinction shall call time itself.

By "time itself" I mean the metaphysical reality of time, that is, its existential structure. The natural processes are characterized by activity and direction. The present has been defined above in terms of activity ; it is the featuring of distinct and distinguishable characters which mark the advance of the processes. "Time itself" is the direction taken by these activities ; it involves the durational relation which obtains between the distinct features in the active processes. That is, the nature of time is found in the direction of nature's processional activities ; or, differently stated, time is the natural processes in their direction. Time and nature's processes are not two metaphysical existences; on the contrary, the direction of the activities of the natural processes is that which intelligence calls time. The reality of time, then, is as actual as the reality of the natural processes in their direction; but the structural activity and direction which constitutes "time itself" does not admit into its constitution the past or the future. This inclusion has been effected by the concept of time, an inferential extension of present reality beyond its actuality.

The metaphysical reality of time, then, is the metaphysical reality of the direction of the natural processes. The formulation of an idea,

(603) the growing of a plant, the deposition of sediment in the river's bed, the flight of the comet across the sky, are instances of the natural processes whose directions constitute the reality of time. The staging of these activities is that which we identify as the present, while their direction is "time itself." Now, any present stage of an action may imply one or more of its previous stages; but this implication can not safely be equated with metaphysical reality as long as the positive grounds for such reality do not seem to be in evidence. The so-called earlier stages of an activity do not belong to metaphysical reality, as here understood, and, but for our inferential constructions, we could not even think them because of their absence from the active process. The completion of an activity also marks its extinction; as extinct it has lost its metaphysical reality. In terms of the reference system-the completion of the activity renders it inaccessible as a functioning factor of a metaphysical system in which the structural characteristics of actual existence is requisite to reality, where these characteristics are found in activity and direction. To say that the completed activities of the earlier stakes are past, is, from this viewpoint, tantamount to the declaration that they are not a part of metaphysical reality.


We now turn to the epistemological aspect of the problem of the past. It is this which Mead sought to stress, and to which he devoted a minor part of the first and the major part of the third Carus Lecture. In the latter he delineated the biological background of the cognitive cognitive structure of the past. A rapid review of these analyses may be phrased somewhat as follows.

At the lowest level of life the organic form selected "its appropriate stimuli" in accordance with its needs; this selection was due to certain sensitivities. The primary and mechanical activity of this low level advanced into a higher stage, when the animal began to react to its own organic processes, whereby its organism began to become a "part of the world within which it lives"; this was the level at which consciousness appeared. The further advance into a third stage came with the development of a neural mechanism of the "important distance centers" ; at this point delayed responses began to appear as the organism instituted control of its activities. This stage was the field within which ideation arose ; there was a "separation in the experience" of the organism between the content of the distance stimulation and the immediate response to it. Distance stimulation was identified with distance experience, and we had the rise of the perceptual object, that is, the object about which we could conjecture, in Mead's own words, "what we can do to it or with it or by way of it, or what it can do to us." Imagery developed when the

(604) organism, in responding to an object, also responded to tendencies and results of previous responses. Ideation was further developed into universals, when the organism evolved attitudes which selected "characters of things" by detaching them from the situations within which these objects originally belonged.

Mead now completed this analytical perspective. Ideas are in the present; but they "refer beyond themselves," and in this reference beyond the immediate present of the organism the things referred to are given characters with the value of the things themselves. Thus the outcome is that the life processes produce organisms so constituted that they reach out beyond themselves; thèse organisms seem to require a larger environment, and they satisfy this requirement by reaching beyond their own immediacy into spatial and temporal extensions which are built up and adorned by characters found in their own immediate present. Accordingly, the historian is seen to revise his account in order to correct errors in previous accounts; the historical past is in constant process of revision. The physical scientist is engaged in "finding rational order and stretching it back, that he may previse the future"; but this rational order meets with constant modification as necessitated by the success or failure of current hypotheses. In the case of memory we have an instrumentality for that specific orientation which is the demand of the individual present. Thus, to the "minded organism" the past is the satisfaction of the demand for complete rationality ; the organism requires the constant extension of its horizons; it makes this extension; and this "larger environment" takes the form of a cognitive structure, in which a complete rationality is projected as the background of the present.

Leaving Mead's account, the matter may be stated in terms of the reference system, as already suggested above.

The situation of consciousness is the field in which the individual, by means of intelligence, becomes identified with the on-going processes. By intelligence is meant, simply, the ability of organic adjustment with a view to better orientation. Intelligence is a phase of organic activity; it is organic activity developed to the point of a peculiar ability to make adjustments. These adjustments are effected by means of environmental characters, such as sense data, and the constructs which result from them, such as images and ideas. The characters are objectifications of this organic activity, and the constructs are the tendencies to reproduce these characters in a subsequent similar activity. Intelligence; then, is the distinguishing mark of the situation of consciousness, and this situation is definitely a behavior or activity situation.

Intelligence exhibits the ability to construct references and reference systems, which extend beyond the immediacy of the existing situation of the organism. An immediate organic situation with its

(605) environmental characters is also productive of the constructs of intelligence. The environmental characters are, of course, the fundamental features of the situation; the constructs are, in a sense, the additional elements furnished by the organism, which elements may either shadow the characters, as found in any familiar percept, or be a separate objectification thrown off by the characters, such as a memory-object or as a so-called picture produced by literary skill. Whatever the particular construct of intelligence may be, it always seems to contain a reference to something other than itself.

Intelligence being that peculiarly developed organic activity by which the individual becomes identified with the on-going processes, it affirms the object of this reference of another and not-present stage of these same processes. The individual is identified as being within that same larger totality of actions and patterns, within which also the implicit reference of the construct belongs. The object of the reference, however, is inaccessible, as its locus is relegated to an earlier stage in the process. What remains is the symbol of the allegedly original object; this symbol is a construct which becomes blended with similar constructs as the processes advance, with the result that its exact original lines tend to blur and even to disappear. But the validity of the modified construct is established by its functioning stability in the present organic situation.

The situation of consciousness, then, involves an extended continuity of processes, with which intelligence identifies itself. As such it exhibits itself as the field of orientation. Intelligence environs the immediate situation with a larger system; and this system extends beyond the metaphysical present. The reality of this system is determined by its ability to furnish a background for present activity ..and a schema of existence which will satisfy intelligence. It is a reference system of which the organic activities of the natural processes are the pivotal factor.

Such a reference system is the past, which portrays an order, or orders, leading up to the pivotal factor. The pastness of any item is established by its relation to or incorporation in the system in question. The reality of any system must be found in its pivotal factor, and the reality of the past must have this pivotal factor as its corner-stone. If the system, or factors within it, fail to fit, or function with, the pivotal factor, the system, or the factors, as the case may be, is said to be "unreal." The epistemological reality of the past, then, is not found in a reproduction of situations which are alleged to have had existence; for such reproduction is impossible. Its reality is found in the reference system which is symbolic of earlier situations in the processes which are still going on, and which reference system is in functional continuity with the present organic activity.


It is this very simple distinction between the metaphysical and the epistemological aspects of the problem of the past which seems to me important to bear in mind in future discussions of the problem. The recognition of this distinction will cause hesitancy in accepting such statements as that of Laird, that memory is "the mind's awareness of past things themselves;" or such as that of Alexander that the past object somehow can become "attached to or appropriated by myself." Such expressions seem to carry the implication that the past, that which supposedly happened in or belonged to earlier stages of the processes, is a metaphysical reality accessible to present activity. From the viewpoint here presented this is an error. The earlier stages of the processes are not accessible to present activity or investigation; they are not something which we can reach. The only past with which we appear to be conversant is our cognitive structures, which I have called epistemological reference systems. Epistemological reference systems are of various kinds, but they all are in the present ; and we call some of them "the past" in order to distinguish their function from that of other systems, such as, for example, the future.

There is in Mead's position no denial of the reality of time by drawing the world into a non-temporal ideality ; his concepts of passage, emergence, and the processional activity of nature safeguard time. There is, however, an explicit denial of a past as a metaphysical entity independent of the present. Any given past is the past of a definite present. This past arises with the activityform of its present. The quantitative determination of the present is as yet inadequate, for developments emerge which can not be, and could not have been, predicted. The earlier stages in the processes leading up to the present can not, therefore, be regarded as the past of these new emergents of the space-time-energy compound. What is the past, on the contrary, is that cognitive structure or system which this present extends back of itself to account for its own peculiarity and emergent character. This is that revisable past, which-yesterday, today, and for ever more—never remains the same.



  1. The Philosophy of the Present, Chicago, Open Court Publishing Co. 1932.
  2. Leviathan, Part I, Chapter 3.
  3. Metaphysics, Section 65.
  4. A Study in Realism, page 50.
  5. Space, Time, and Deity, Volume I, page 71 (New Impression).
  6. The Concept of Consciousness, pages 179, 182, 233, etc.
  7. Scientific Thought, pages 66, 69 (Reprint of 1927).

Valid HTML 4.01 Strict Valid CSS2