1902 Encyclopedia > Psychology > Present, Past and Future

(Part 48)

(G) Mental Association and the Memory-Continuum (cont.)

Present, Past and Future

We shall continue this inquiry to most advantage by now widening it into an examination of the distinction of present, past, and future. To a being whose presentations never passed through the transitions which ours undergo—first divested of the strength and vividness of impressions, again, reinvested with them and brought back from the faint world of ideas – the sharp contrasts of "now" and "then," and all the manifold emotions they occasion, would be quite unknown. Even we, so far as we confine our activity and attention to ideas, are almost without them. Time-order, succession, antecedence and consequence, of course, there might be still, but in that sense of events as "past and gone for ever,’ which is one of the melancholy factors in our life; and in the obligation to wait and work in hope or dread of what is "still to come" there is much more than time-order. It is to presentations in their primary stage, to impressions, that we owe what real difference we find between now and then, whether prospective or retrospective, as it is to them also that we directly owe our sense of the real, of what is and exists as opposed to the non-existent that is not. But the present alone and life in a succession of presents, or, in other words, continuous occupation with impressions, give us no knowledge of the present as present. This we first obtain then our present consciousness consists partly of memories or partly of expectations as well. An event expected differs from a like event remembered chiefly in two ways – in its relation to present impressions and images and in the active attitude to which it leads. The diverse feelings that accompany our intuitions of time and contribute so largely to their colouring are mainly consequences of these differences. Let us take a series of simple and familiar events A B C D E, representing ideas by small letters and perceptions by capitals whenever it is necessary to distinguish them. Such series may be present in consciousness in such wise that a b c d are imaged while E is perceived anew, i.e., the whole symbolized as proposed would be a b c d E; such would be, e.g., the state of a dog which had just finished this daily meal. Again, there may be a fresh impression of A which revives b c d e; we should have then (1) A b c d e – the state of our dog when he next day gets sight of the dish in which his food is brought to him. A little later we may have (2) a b C d e. Here a b are e8ither after-sensations or primary memory-images, or have at any rate the increased intensity due to recent impression; but this increased intensity will be rapidly on the wane even while C lasts, and a b will pale still further when C gives place to D, and we have (3) a b c D e. But, returning to (2), we should find de to be increasing in intensity and definiteness, as compared with their state in (1), now that C, instead of A, is the present impression. For, when A occupied this position, not only was e raised less prominently above the threshold of consciousness by reason of its greater distance form A in the memory-continuum, but, owing to the reduplications of this continuum, more lines of possible revival were opened up, to be successively negatived as B succeeded to A and C to B; even digs know that "there is many a slip ‘twist the cup and the lip." But, where A B C D E is a series of percepts such as we have here supposed – and a series of simpler states would hardly afford much ground for the distinctions of past, present, and future – there would be a varying amount of active adjustment of sense-organs and other movements supplementary to full sensation. In (2), the point at which we have a b C d e, for instance, such adjustments and movements as were appropriate to b would cease as B lapsed and be replaced by those appropriate to C. Again, as C succeeded to B, and d in consequence increased in intensity and definiteness, the movements adapted to the reception of D would become nascent, and so on. Thus, psychologically regarded, the distinction of past and future and what we might call the oneness of direction of time depend, as just described, (1) upon the continuous sinking of the primary memory-images on the one side, and the continuous rising of the ordinary images on the other side, of that member of a series of percepts then repeating which is actual at the moment; and (2) on the prevenient adjustments of attention, to which such words as "expect," "await," "anticipate," all testify by their etymology. These conditions in turn will be found to depend upon all that is implied in the formation of the memory-train and upon that recurrence of like series of impressions which we attribute to the "uniformity of nature." If we never had the same series of impressions twice, knowledge of time would be impossible, as indeed would knowledge of any sort.

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