Past and Present

Why is a pure deterministic or causal view wrong? Because, in many cases, it neglects the nature of results, or rather it neglects the fact that the results, in order to be understood, must be seen from a different level.

What is a symphony or a musical piece in general? They are only bunches of sounds. For these sounds to transform into a symphony, a different level of understanding, as well as of being, is needed.

If you do not have the necessary education to recognize the beauty, or if humans do not have in general the education and the capacity to raise themselves from the horizontal level of the sound succession to the higher level of seeing or hearing how these sounds can unite into an organic entity, those sounds do not transform, do not lose their immediate condition of simply a collection of diverse sounds. 

This is Hegel’s perspective: he does not think of history as if immersed in the multitude of unlimited historical events, describing, so to speak, from the inside, the historical flux, but he positions himself deliberately on a superior level, in the present, evaluating how those events led to the present.

History is never a simple description of the past. Those who imagine that historical science is only such a description are in deep error. You cannot simply contemplate the past as if you did not know where the past is leading to or what the consequences of all those chaotic events were.

Such a perspective is possible only with respect to the present, only when the present is opaque to us, and its horizons are closed to us. The past has already passed into something else, and therefore it is no longer a simple past; it is the past of the present, that is to say, it builds a necessary unity with the present.

And this unity totally changes its condition. It only seems that the past is only a past. This mistake is similar to that of thinking of yourself as a child without seeing in that child the adult who you are: it is a sheer impossibility.

The adult that you are is tied with thousands of threads to that child, threads of which perhaps you are only aware of a few. Still, you are aware of them. You feel right now how a certain gesture, glimpse, or experience of the child still reverberates in yourself, how what you do today carries within itself that gesture or word from the past.

You are that child, and you are all the children and the young persons who you were in your own past. You are, in the present, a miraculous compound of all those past flowing identities. And when you try to understand yourself as you are today, you try to go back into your past and find out what was a possible reason for what you are.

This is why they say that the past continues to live in the present, and Hegel said, in the same sense that the next level of reality carries inside of itself, or, rather ‘hebt auf‘ (‘lifts up into itself’), the past, endowing it with new meanings.  

This unity of the past with the present makes it possible for the past to have different meanings, to be seen differently from one age to another, and, at humanity’s level, from one epoch to another. The present to which you belong constantly associates the series of the past with new environments, contexts, and networks.

You heard something in the past which you cannot forget, and, over time, that thing is associated with new experiences that give you new understandings of that memory. Sometimes this association is felt like a sort of prediction of what will happen later, as if that thing of the past announces the future.  

Modernity developed a mechanical way of seeing, as if the past is made of elements that are heterogeneous to each other, like links that only artificially build a chain. In fact, the past is part of the present, in the same way in which the child you were continues to live within yourself.

That child did not disappear, although it is no longer present. If it cannot be seen, it does not mean it has ceased completely to exist. But when we say that the child – or rather all the past children you were – continues to live inside the mature person, that does not mean that all those avatars of your identity are only a passive memory. It means that they continue to act, to exert an influence on the mature being like real entities.

The present being is similar to a folding fan, with the difference that the components do not exist separately, and their boundaries cannot be clearly traced. It’s an identity made up of a flowing diversity. But even such a metaphor cannot convey the real constitution of the relationship between this identity and its internal diversity since the latter is not something spatial and thus material.

Another good metaphor might be the relationship between a smaller number and a greater one that contains it: within the number eight, you cannot say where the number one or the number three starts and where it ends. The relationship is one of meaning and not of space. 

We have become accustomed to thinking of meanings as inert entities, as mental entities that have no internal life. However, the relationship of our memories with our present personality shows that mental entities can manifest real active energy, in that, similar to a flame, their simple presence next to a pot of water warms the water and changes its way of being.

In the same way, the presence of any mental or intellectual content seems to be ‘felt’ by the ‘material’ level of reality. Do our ideas not fire us with enthusiasm? And they are only present in our minds, not hitting our brains like billiard balls. The ancient Pythagoreans thought of numbers as spiritual driving forces that shape and set reality in motion.

It is true that, similarly to the impossibility of accurately determining the way in which our memories influence our personality, we cannot exactly establish how pure conceptual meanings have material effects or, expressed in a traditional philosophical way of speaking, how matter integrates the form within itself.

This is why nowadays philosophers prefer to refrain from speaking about such influences. The topic is rather one of amazement than one of logical determination. We do not separate matter anymore from form but take them rather as a unity, precisely because both these concepts taken separately lead to metaphysical paradoxes.  

However, we might imagine that the passive matter germinates in the presence of forms, similarly to how water starts warming near the flame. But, in the same way in which flame and water are not purely passive matter but a determined matter, one which is already in-formed and thus packed with a multitude of internally structured components, there is no pure form that does not contain within itself a potentially infinite number of forms.

Forms can be separated from each other only analytically, as when we subtract the number five from the number eight: the five existing otherwise indistinctly within the number eight. 

An in-formed matter – the water – ‘feels’ another in-formed matter, the flame, and thus it starts germinating another type of in-formed matter, the boiling water. The real process itself cannot be understood, as Hume put it long ago, when he maintained that we cannot understand the causal relationship.  

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