Past, Present, and Future,
A Philosophical Essay

by Irwin C. Lieb,
Illinois University Press, 1991

Irwin C. Lieb (1925-1992), BA Princeton, 1947, MA Cornell, 1949, and PhD Yale, 1953, began teaching at the University of Texas, where I later knew him, in 1963. I considered attending UT in 1972, while Lieb was the Chairman of the Philosophy Department (1968-1972); and he seems to have remembered me when I did become a graduate student there in 1975. Meanwhile, he had become Vice-President and Dean of Graduate Studies (1975-1979). Nevertheless, despite the lofty administrative post, he was my advisor in the time until my dissertation committee was formed. He seems to have taken an interest in me because as a student he had read Leonard Nelson and was intrigued that I sought to promote Nelson through my work. His own work, however, did not seem to reflect any use of Nelson's Friesian philosophy.

In 1981, Lieb moved to the University of South California, where he had administrative and teaching posts, including Vice President and Dean of the College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences (1982-1986). He gained some general notariety in 1983 by negotiating the emigration of seven Soviet Jewish scientists, "refuseniks," who had been denied exit visas from the Soviet Union. Spending considerable time in Los Angeles and then living there after graduating in 1985, I saw Lieb two or three times before he came down with cancer and passed away in 1992 -- aged a year younger than I am now in 2017. I did not realize how bad he was until receiving an invitation to attend his memorial service. Lieb's friends called him "Chet," but I do not seem to have ever been that intimate.

In Austin, I had taken a seminar with Lieb on time, about which he was writing a book. The book took a while to complete, and it came out just a year before his death. His dedication apologizes for having taken so long. Since he had said a number of striking things about time in the seminar, I was looking forward to seeing the book when published. At first, however, I had some trouble getting into it. Later I met a philosophy professor from USC who had known Lieb and who didn't seem to think that the book was very good. However, perhaps with the greater wisdom of age, I am now finding it more accessible and interesting. It has its flaws but also its virtues, not the least of which is such a sustained effort to tackle the subject in the first place. I think that there are few efforts in the history of philosophy to develop an extensive metaphysics of time. Lieb has done that, with a fair number of provocative claims and arguments.

He also has written a book, without footnotes or bibliography, that pretty much ignores contemporary philosophy. Its argument addresses Classical philosophers from Plato to Alfred North Whitehead, with the only exception that I see of Paul Weiss (1901-2002); and while we get his thanks in the Acknowledgments to several academic colleagues, the only one of the sort who appears in the text, at least identified by name, is Charles Hartshorne (1897-2000). Some recent doctrines are discussed, but without attribution. This practice seems to contradict Leib's own advice to me, which is that my work didn't pay much attention to "current" problems and discussion. This, career-wise, wasn't "smart." Indeed, it wasn't.

But I did not find the popular preoccupations in academic philosophy either engaging or edifying, agreeing with Karl Popper's statement that recent philosophy involves a "concentration upon minutiae (upon 'puzzles') and especially upon the meanings of words; in brief .... scholasticism," and with Allan Bloom, who said, "Professors of these schools [i.e. positivism and ordinary language analysis] simply would not and could not talk about anything important, and they themselves do not represent a philosophic life for the students."

Thus, from the evidence of his book, Irwin Lieb did not practice what he preached. The result, however, does represent "a philosophic life."

A basic problem with Leib's book and his treatment of time is his unproblematic use of the divisions of time as "past, present, and future." This is accepted without question, without discussion, and without comparison to any alternatives. Indeed, most philosophers dealing with anything about time would probably express some perplexity at the idea that there are any alternatives to the division of past, present, and future. Isn't this self-evident? Yet Lieb himself lived in a time, both as a student and a professor, of so-called "linguistic philosophy," when the role of language was a matter of intense concern in Anglo-American philosophy, and elsewhere, with whole systems built around particular claims about language.

Since most of "linguistic philosophy" was actually ill informed about language and was little more than a smoke screen for the promotion of unrelated and generally discreditable philosophical doctrines -- the Logical Positivists were absolutely the worst in that regard -- I cannot count it as a fault that Lieb seems to ignore all of it in his book. Nevetheless, there is an area where informed knowledge about languages might help in dealing with time. This concerns the inflection of verbs for time, which may use a "tense" system of past, present, and future, an "aspect" system of aorist, perfect, and imperfect, both of those systems, or neither. Sometimes linguistic philosophers or people in linguistics like the idea that languages where verbs have no temporal inflection are used by people who have no awareness of time. This is absurd, but philosophers apparently have not carried that thought forward into the substantive and fruitful project of devoting attention to the aspect systems.

There is considerable irony in this. Languages with the most complete combination of tense and aspect systems include Classical Greek and Modern English. People in philosophy generally have some knowledge of one or the other of those languages. And this is nothing new. Greek philosophers themselves did not notice the aspect system in their own language but began the tradition of thinking exclusively in terms of past, present, and future. Yet in the subjunctive and imperative moods, Greek verbs are only inflected for aspect. Thus, Aristotle's analysis of "future contingency" in On Interpretation would have been stronger and made better sense as "imperfect contingency." Yet Aristotle overlooked, we might say, this aspect of the matter. And it is noteworthy that to some linguistic philosphers, this should be impossible. Aristotle would have been required and compelled by the grammar of his language to think about aspect as well as tense. But he didn't.

The further irony is that, while I have no idea how observant he was, Irwin Lieb was Jewish -- at least the memorial service for him that I attended was conducted by a rabbi -- and this probably means that as a child he studied Hebrew to some extent. But Hebrew is one of the languages that only inflects for aspect, in fact, as is typical, only for the perfect and imperfect (often called "perfective" and "imperfective") aspects. This is not unusual, and this type of inflection can also be found in the related language of Arabic and in the unrelated languages Russian and Japanese. Thus Lieb, in order to be insensible of aspect inflection, needed to ignore his native language as an American, the language of his religion, and the language, Greek, with which, as a traditionally educated philosopher, he may well have had some kind of familiarity. At least, if he had no interest in linguistic philosphy, that might be understandable. But the linguistic philosophers, sometimes openly contemptuous of natural languages (thanks to the Positivists), cannot have the same kind of excuse.

Well, one might think, so what? What difference does it make if we are aware of temporal aspect as well as tense? Well, time looks a bit different. The perfect and imperfect can both be used as present tenses. But then the imperfect stretches into the future, and can be used for the future tense; and the perfect stretches into the past, and can be used for the past tense. Where ambiguity would be a problem, Arabic uses particles, , qad, to specify the perfect as past, and , sawfa, to specify the imperfect as future. This actually fits into Lieb's analysis and system better than the tense divisions. An important contention by Leib is that the present contains two processes, the coming-to-be and the passing-away. Philosophers have mostly ignored the presence of the latter, and this duality is something that we just do not see in previous philosophy. So Lieb has an important insight.

But it is all the clearer what this means when we look at aspect rather than tense. There we already have the duality. Also, Lieb argues at length that the past and the future are real; but with the perfect and imperfect, the reality of the past and the future is already included when we affirm that the perfect and imperfect are real in the present. In the first place, this at least alters the terms of the metaphysical challenge. Thus, if we begin with the idea that things do not exist in the past and the future, then Lieb must argue that, in some sense, they do. On the other hand, if we allow that things exist in the perfect and imperfect, the problem contra Lieb, more challenging, is to argue how each aspect must itself be divided into the real and the unreal. The burden of proof has shifted.




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