- Does the past exist, or is it merely a figment of our (collective) imagination? And if it does exist, how? Or, as O'Brien put it to Wilson1 in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (as quoted by Botros in the beginning of the first chapter): ‘Does the past exist concretely, in space? Is there somewhere or other a place, a world of solid objects, where the past is still happening?’ (4). These are the questions Sophie Botros attempts to provide an answer to in this book. She does so by drawing on and critically engaging with disparate intellectual traditions, from heavyweights in analytical philosophy like Michael Dummett to continental thinkers like Paul Ricœur and philosophers of history such as R. G. Collingwood, complemented by her own insights. The philosophical account that emerges out of this effort addresses the aforementioned perennial problem in the field regarding the reality or unreality of the past. As Botros notes in the title of the first chapter, ‘wars’ have been waged regarding this question among competing sides, the ‘realists’ and ‘anti-realists’. As the names imply, the former believe there is a past that can be said to exist as separate and distinct from the present, whereas the latter deny this (though there are variations in both positions which are discussed in great detail). As shall be seen, Botros’ sympathies lie with the anti-realists.
- Her argument is advanced in three steps, comprising the three parts of the book's title, ‘Truth’, ‘Time’ and ‘History’. In the first part, Botros analyzes at length Dummett's semantic anti-realism and the objections raised against it by realists. Dummett's position that ‘the past does not exist independently of our methods of verification’ but is rather ‘a construction out of our present, and shifting evidence’ (4, Botros’ emphasis) is used as the basis of her own presentist rejection of the past as an independent entity. In the second part, ‘Time’, this presentist position is explicated in part by distinguishing time from space. With respect to space an observer can be in a stationary position in relation to a moving object (e.g., imagine yourself standing still watching a cat walking along a road), but time precludes this: both the object and that observer are always already in time, in the present. But what about memory as a repository of past time and reflection of reality as it really was, and hence as a possible location of the past's existence as a separate entity? Botros rejects this too, for memory is always already subject to time as well, being always presentist in nature (there is only present memory), and is moreover subject to error and change (as with Dummett's ‘shifting evidence’), and hence cannot reflect past reality as it truly was.
- The final nail in realism's coffin is Botros’ rejection of the truth-value link. To understand what is meant by this consider that a present-tense statement of the kind ‘SB is sitting in her study today, 15 April 2009’ is also true in the future when uttered in the past-tense, ‘one year ago SB was sitting in her study’ (20). If this is the case, the truth-conditions for the statement being true are separate and distinct from evidence which can shift (memories, fingerprints, etc.). This jeopardizes Botros’ aforementioned presentist rejection of the past as an independently existing entity, for apparently there is a truth-value link that undergirds it. Botros responds by pointing out that the future past-tense statement referred to is in fact made in the present, a projection into the future of the present-tense statement. And it is this act of future-oriented projection that is invalid, for we can never know the future and how it will affect the present. In effect she is reiterating her claim that given that we are always already in time and in the present, there is no vantage point outside it (either in the past or in the future).
- Having done away with the notion of the past as an independently existing entity, Botros nevertheless wants to maintain some conception of it in her account. This is the subject of the third part of the book, ‘History’. After all, we all have some notion of the past which goes back millennia, to the Ancient Romans, Greeks and Egyptians and, millions of years beyond that, roaming dinosaurs. We also have memories of our own past experiences, from childhood to whatever we happened to do yesterday. So surely the past must exist in some sense. Here Botros harkens back to Dummett's conception of the past as being constructed out of the present, and focuses on two aspects of it: the personal or individual construction of it from present memories and, much more importantly for her, what can be called the social construction of it by historians and archeologists. Wading into the contentious realism versus anti-realism wars in relation to historical narratives (though as noted below in a limited sense), Botros takes the position that most fits her presentist stance as elaborated in the previous parts of her book, namely that historical narratives are separate and distinct from fiction as they are constrained by the available evidence, the specific norms for which emanate and are enforced by the community of historians. Moreover, the historical past is not fixed, but subject to revision based on changing evidence (and it is the job of historians and archeologists to unearth this evidence and do the revising). Botros persuasively argues that it is historians’ narratives that provide us with what can be called a historical sensibility, a sense of the past to which we can relate in a deep sense from the perspective of the present, wherein we are, after all, contained.
- There are some limitations with respect to the scope of her analysis in this third part of the book, which is surprising given Botros’ otherwise admirable ability to move beyond the confines of analytical philosophy (for example Barthes and Ricœur are superbly utilized and analyzed). The claim is made that even ‘postmodern’ philosophers of history avoid radical anti-realist claims about historical narratives (150), but this ignores the seminal work of anti-realist philosophers of history like Hayden White and Frank Ankersmit, who are conspicuous by their absence in the book, as are seminal realist historical theorists like Mark Bevir and Chris Lorenz. But these are minor quibbles. Botros’ book has the virtue of being both incredibly insightful philosophically on all the topics it covers – truth, time and history – and very accessible. Her case for presentism and a rejection of the past as an independent entity is a daring yet persuasive one, and philosophers (of history) and historians would do well to acquaint themselves with it.
Footnote 1: Sic: should be Winston Smith.
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