The past is very important to us. It is where we find the origins of our culture as well as our own roots. There is a whole industry involved in finding out about the past. Bookshops are full of history books. Universities all have history departments. But we can never go back. We shall never know how the flowers smelled in the garden of Epicurus. Everything past is no more; it has fallen into the dark backward and abysm of time. How then do we know anything about it at all? How do we know whether a particular event has even happened? Philosopher Sophie Botros addresses these complex issues in her new book - "Botros (Sophie) - Truth, Time and History: A Philosophical Enquiry". As she considers these matters, she finds herself forced to wonder whether the past exists at all.
- Once we begin to think about it we may be struck by what a queer idea the apparently ordinary idea of the past existing actually is. It’s an idea played on in Orwell’s 1984 when O’Brien – an inner Party member – tries to persuade the hapless everyman – Winston – that the past isn’t set in stone but is infinitely manipulable by present interests. O’Brien asks “Do you really think there exists somewhere or other a place – a world of solid objects – where the past is still happening?”
- Today I am making this video and I know with absolute certainty that “I was making this video a year ago today” will be true in a year’s time. It will be true whatever the conflicting evidence states then.
- It is just conceivable that – suppose some catastrophe – that all our memories had been wiped out, including my own, and that the video was destroyed on completion. The sceptics who are confined to evidence existing then will have therefore to deny this obvious truth. The debate is inconclusive. It depends on how we weigh the truth-value link against moving platform considerations which, as we have seen, suggest very strongly that we cannot view other times from some timeless viewpoint other than the present. So we cannot vindicate the truth-value link claim that our true present-tense statement may also serve as a true statement about the past when made in the future.
- In my view, the belief that the past has some independent existence must – in the end – be given up. You might find this a little frightening, but I hope that I’ve persuaded you that trying to keep it gives us – gives philosophers – some problems and in fact getting rid of it solves some outstanding problems.
- So long as we believe in the past as existent we’re unable to resolve a paradox inherent in the almost banal idea of things persisting through change. Consider a green leaf turning brown in autumn. You will agree that it has to be the same leaf that was green that is now brown. If it was a different leaf – a brown leaf – it could not be said to have lost its greenness. But the great philosopher Leibniz stipulates – surely incontrovertibly – that a thing cannot be itself and yet have divergent properties. So it seems that the leaf must be the same leaf in order to lose its greenness; but, in order to be the same leaf it must retain its greenness, which is a paradox. Some people will say “well, this is just philosophers’ problems”. Of course things persist within limits, depending on the kind of thing they are. But to this, it will be replied, are you suggesting that it requires less than identity to persist?
- My proposal – which accords a crucial role to historians – affirms realism as regards presently-existing objects, including historical texts – the tomes you see lying on bookshelves – but suspends it as regards the non-existent past, which is their subject matter.
A treatment of fictional truth may illuminate. For example, the answer to the question “how can a proposition ‘Romeo loves Juliet’ be true since neither person exists?” It is plausibly replied “because it is actually about Shakespeare’s play, and that does exist.”
- This is analogous to how I approach a historical text. From one viewpoint it can function as a truth-maker, acceptable to presentists for the claims it contains. For example, “Henry V was the victor of Agincourt” is in my view about the historical text in which it figures. It would be a misunderstanding of historical discourse to insist on breaking this claim down and seeking truth-makers for its component elements. Its content, I suggest, is governed by coherentist principles.
- When realists protest “‘Henry V was the victor of Agincourt’ is about a real historical personage and a real battle and that history isn’t fiction or otherwise historians could make up whatever they liked”, I reply “that is not so; historians are held to extremely rigorous standards in interpreting their evidence.” And in any case, how can it possibly help to refer to that shadowy realm that O’Brien mocked, which no historian has ever been able to access, in order to check a single of his conclusions?
- My proposal asks you to respect the text in and for itself, not to look through it. It asks you to assess the coherence of the interpretations – to observe how compendious descriptions such as “The Hundred Years’ War” anticipate their outcome. To note the narrative art that is used in shaping and pacing events, bringing to the past its depth and resonance.
- Historians, I suggest, by both their narrative techniques and their intellectual powers play a crucial role in the creation and construction of the historical past, and perhaps the past more generally.
- “A Realist Present and a Coherentist Past”.
For the video, see Amazon: Sophie Botros Author Page.
- This is the Transcript of the shortened version of "Botros (Sophie) - Truth, Time and History - A Philosophical Inquiry with Dr Sophie Botros" which has been placed on Sophie’s Amazon Author’s page (Amazon: Sophie Botros Author Page).
- Passages uttered by the narrator are indented.
- I’ve made my own decision as to how the text spoken by Sophie should be segmented into paragraphs, though this is usually obvious from the video.
- The transcript cannot recreate the full audio-visual effect. The video is very professionally done, and very helpful as regards understanding the import of the book – "Botros (Sophie) - Truth, Time and History: A Philosophical Enquiry" – as a whole.
- Occasionally clarificatory text appears on-screen in the video. I’ve added this to the transcript – within quotation marks and in italics – where it doesn’t simply repeat what’s been said in the audio.
- The reason I’ve made this transcript differs from that for the full version: it is just to check that the video hangs together given the absence of the excised material.
Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)
- Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2019
- Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)