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Tallis in Wonderland
On Making and Keeping Appointments
Raymond Tallis introduces post-tensed time.
“We say a dog is afraid his master may beat him; not, he is afraid his master will beat him tomorrow.”
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations
In The Genealogy of Morals (1887) Friedrich Nietzsche famously characterized man as ‘the promising animal’. By this he meant not a creature who showed promise but one capable of making, and sometimes keeping, promises. He felt this capacity drew on something deeper.
That deeper something was hinted at in an earlier work, his Thoughts Out of Season (1876) when he discusses ‘The Use and Abuses of History’. Nietzsche invites us to “Consider the herds that are feeding yonder; they know not the meaning of yesterday or today; they graze and ruminate, move or rest, from morning to night, from day to day, taken up with their little loves and hates, at the mercy of the moment…” Beasts, unlike humans, live ahistorically, without a sense of extended time. The Promising Animal, by contrast, is steeped in individual, shared, and collective pasts, and is always reaching towards individual, shared, and collective futures. This seemingly ordinary fact about us is a reminder of our extraordinary relationship to time, quite unlike anything seen elsewhere in nature.
The making and breaking of promises is a serious matter; but the capacity upon which it depends is equally necessary for the most trivial of commitments – for keeping the appointments of the Appointment-Making Animal. The metaphysical requirements of the Promising Animal to commit to a life-time’s relationship also underpin the agreement to ‘see you next week’. At their heart is what in my new book Freedom: An Impossible Reality (Agenda, 2021) I have called ‘post-tensed time’. But before we get to post-tensed time, let us first think about tensed time – most obviously manifested in thoughts and utterances that refer to the past, the present, and the future.
Past Tenses Clock © Howard Lake 2010
Time & Thought
There is a consensus among physicists, and philosophers who take their metaphysical instructions from scientists, that while tenseless time is real, tensed time is not.
It is obvious why tensed time will have no place in the physical world as revealed to natural science: because tensed time is anchored to and revolves around a point of reference – ‘now’ – inserted into the flow of events by a conscious subject, aware of events taking place ‘now’. But the subject has no place in classical physics; and in the absence of a subject, no moment of time has the privileged status of being ‘now’ any more than a location in space is intrinsically ‘here’ – or, come to that, ‘there’ or ‘elsewhere’. And without ‘now’, there can be no past or future.
Although the absence of tensed time from the most authoritative account of the natural world is usually taken to mean that tensed time is not real, Albert Einstein, the most philosophically profound of all physicists, was deeply unhappy about this. While he accepted that past, present, and future must be counted by physicists as illusions, in a conversation with the philosopher Rudolf Carnap he famously expressed regret that ‘now’, and consequently the difference between past and future, could not be grasped by physics.
If, however we accept that there are things in the world that lie outside of what can be accommodated in physical science – most obviously those things that are imported into the world by conscious beings, who, among other things, make science possible – we may accept the reality of tensed time, even though the most authoritative account of the physical world does without it. Accepting the actual existence of consciousness, we can give ourselves permission to see what is in front of our noses: namely, the all-pervasive presence and influence of an explicit past, and, equally importantly, the future, in our lives as agents.
The question then arises as to whether non-human animals have a developed sense of tensed time. Nietzsche, as we have seen, was confident that they did not. Some observers of animal behaviour have claimed otherwise. Nicola Clayton, for example, has argued that scrub jays and other corvids (birds of the crow family) have a sense of the future. She has intensely studied the behaviour of these birds, who conceal food, intended for later consumption, from the competition. They hide their food differently if they’re aware of being observed by other jays. She concluded from this that they are anticipating a future in which food they have cached might be stolen by those other birds. Other ingenious experiments seemed to demonstrate that the birds have a capacity to anticipate their future food needs, even when they’re presently satiated, and to differentiate between food such as nuts that decay slowly, and faster-decaying food, such as worms.
There are less generous, and more plausible, ways of interpreting the jays’ behaviour than ascribing to them the kind of mental time travel that guides human behaviour. It is more relevant to our present purposes to acknowledge something that seems to be beyond dispute: namely that the destination of the birds’ supposed time travel falls short of the kind of future towards which human lives and actions are directed. For example, in contrast with humans, their intuitions of a future are not shared with other birds. Even less are they collectivized. Nor is that future structured, with many distinct locations at different distances, specified with different degrees of precision. Which brings us to post-tensed time – to a temporal sense that builds on, but goes beyond, tensed time.
Time for Post-Tensed Time
Human actions are prompted and guided by envisaged possibilities: things that might happen, and things we might do to make them happen or stop them from happening. In the case of promises and appointments, however humble, those possibilities are shared and entertained jointly or collectively. A striking reflection of this is in projects that are assigned a location in a collective or shared future as stabilized in timetables, diaries, or calendars.
These collective futures, set out in a publicly accessible space, are the most explicit expression of post-tensed time. I say post-tensed because, while the locations in the timetable, diary, or calendar may belong to a future – a realm of not-yet – or indeed a past – a realm of no-longer – their exact relationship to the present is not explicit. When I say ‘The appointment is 12th May’ there is no obvious future-orientation in the declaration (unless it is made explicit that the meeting is being planned in, say, April). The relation to ‘now’ as a reference point is not up-front, so it seems tense-neutral. Nevertheless, we can make this commitment only because we can each envisage a shared future related to and relevant to the present – to a shared now.
Post-tensed time is time as recorded or noted without reference to when, subjectively speaking, it is recorded or noted. ‘12th May’ seems tenseless, like time in the physical world, because the connection with a present ‘now’ is concealed. It is, nevertheless, a mistake to think that clock, diary, and calendrical time are a reversion to the tenseless time of the physicist’s natural world. Rather, they are built on tensed time. The sharing of futures and pasts (the latter most developed in history books) is the result of the sedimentation, through discourse, of tensed time into something that appears to be independent of the consciousness of an individual subject. Calendars and the like are a formalization, or collectivization, of tensed time, so they depend on modes of temporality not found objectively in nature. Clock, diary, and calendrical time are as much a product of human consciousness as ‘yesterday’ and ‘tomorrow’. They are aspects of the extraordinary journey taken by human consciousness from individual experiences and the memories associated with them to a realm of agreed, intersubjective facts. There is no calendrical time outside of human consciousness any more than there is a 5 o’clock on the sun (to steal an example from Wittgenstein).
Post-tensed time provides a stable, communal scaffolding to which future possibilities can be attached; a structure organizing the individual pasts and futures into a shared past and future which planning will draw upon. The public future of the calendar or its more local expression in, for example, appointment books, enables a vast expansion of the scope of cooperation, and hence of agency, between individuals and between groups, to realize common goals. By providing a platform for individually or jointly organizing our lives, post-tensed time helps us prepare ourselves to act more effectively on some anticipated future occasion. It forms a scaffolding to support schedules of activity: of rehearsal, practice, and training, for some action or opportunity I or we anticipate in future. In these sense, the diary, the time-table, and the calendar, are enabling constraints that create the conditions for structured self-transformation, or for contractually based cooperation on projects that lie beyond the reach of one person.
Post-tensed time pervades the entirety of human life. What may seem the work of a moment is the fruit of months of preparation; but the hours that I or we have set aside for preparation are the progeny of post-tensed time, of the sedimented structure of shared possibility. ‘Next Wednesday’, ‘12th May’, ‘late 2025’, marked in the calendar, the appointment diary, or the contract, provide an exoskeleton to help us to organize our joint and several lives and to maximize opportunities for coordinated activity, in which we pool our agency. And post-tensed records vastly extend our capacity to bind ourselves to each other (and indeed to ourselves), through the fundamentally human activity of making and keeping promises and appointments.
Highlighting the development of post-tensed out of tensed time helps us to deal with philosophers of a naturalist persuasion, who insist that future-directedness is a capacity widespread through the animal kingdom, and even beyond. Much animal and even plant behaviour, they will argue, can be explained only in terms of what will happen. That is, of course, true. What is happening now in a seedling makes sense as part of a journey to a full-grown tree. This does not undermine the uniqueness of human agency, which is vitally dependent on the role of entertained possibility whose actualization has a location in post-tensed time. By contrast, the forward-pointing behaviour in plants and beasts does not require a particular future to be envisaged or articulated, or set out in the spreadsheet of the collective future. The seed does not have to imagine the tree to be motivated to grow. The predator does not have to articulate the future benefits of eating the prey to be prompted to chase it. The parallel realm of as-yet-invisible but sharply-defined future possible events, set out in post-tensed time, illuminated by knowledge or hope or fear, and bespoke to the life of the individual, which underpins human action, is not available to non-human animals.
A final thought. Post-tensed time has so deeply entered our social life that something as biologically (as well as socially and culturally) fundamental as finding a mate is entangled with it. Mating often begins with dating.
© Prof. Raymond Tallis 2021
Raymond Tallis’s latest book, Freedom: An Impossible Reality was published recently.