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A Social and Environmental Philosophy: The Historical Dimension of Action by Kenneth Wilson

This is the last part of the first section on Action of Kenneth Wilson’s thesis “A Social and Environmental Philosophy”

The last two chapters set out to establish a biospheric and social context for the agent. This chapter develops this sense of context for the agent by arguing for, and describing the nature of, the agent’s historical situatedness. Thus I argue against those, such as John Elster,[1] who take the position that the historical influence on the agent in the present is to be ignored. This position is sometimes referred to as ‘methodological presentism’.

This chapter therefore examines an aspect of the temporality of the agent. The importance of this discussion for the crisis of modernity lies in the characteristic tendency of modernity to jettison the past. This is evidenced in revolutionary, “year zero” types of political change, in which the instigators believe that a truly fresh start can be made, as if history had never happened and as if its influence can be ignored.

historical dimensions of action

While I take the view that some sort of revolutionary change in world-view may well be required to avoid the demise of civilisation, such revolutionary change cannot usefully be conceived as a fresh start. This arises, as is argued below, because a primordial aspect of the agent’s ontology is that he or she is always and ineluctably historically situated or conditioned. Though we may attempt to escape historical influence, it has a habit of returning to haunt us. Therefore, if we wish to change the world we live in for the better, we have to work with history rather than reject it.

The meaning of ‘history’ as used here is somewhat different from that usually understood by historians, in that, the view taken here considers all agents to be historical beings. Though most agents are not involved, it may be said, in momentous, world changing events, there is nevertheless an important sense in which all agents are conditioned and influenced by the past. This is what is meant by describing agents as historical beings – however humble.

Thus, the sense in which all agents are historical beings arises from their special, mysterious and peculiar ontological status. Further, the relationship any given agent has with his or her past I see as a metaphysical topic, since historical influence arises not only through the ontological status of the agent but also through his or her epistemic relationship with that past.[2] That humankind has a history at all is a consequence of, “..the mode in which human beings exist,”[3] in other words our ontological reality. That we have knowledge of history forces the definition of the theory of history as metaphysical.

The case made here rests on the idea that the agent is causally implicated in the consequences of formerly existing states of affairs. Nevertheless, I do not intend to mean that such causal implication is always total. What I have in mind is a model in which the causal nexus the agent finds him- or herself located in can fluctuate, such that in some circumstances the causal influence of the past can be very strong, while in others it may be weak. This chapter examines that category of circumstances in which the influence is strong. To put more flesh on my position I would like to make a contrast between mnemic causation and discrete-time Markov processes. Mnemic causation, a term introduced by Russell, may be defined as, a type of causation in which, in order to explain the proximate cause of an organism’s behaviour, it is necessary to specify not only the present state of the organism and the present stimuli operating on it, but also the past experiences of the organism.[4]

Mnemic causation gives clear expression to the idea that a full understanding of the organism or agent must make reference to prior conditions (antecedent realities) through which he or she has lived. In contrast to mnemic causation, discrete-time Markov processes are a special case of stochastic processes. To quote from the Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy,

A simple example of a discrete-time Markov process is the behaviour of a person who keeps taking either a step forward or a step back according to whether a coin falls heads or tails; the probabilistic principle of movement is always applied to the person’s most recent position.[5]

In other words here we have a model in which the causal determinants of the agent’s actions are probabilistic and the cause of any given action is independent of previous conditions. Thus the contrast between mnemic causation and discrete-time Markov processes may be used to further strengthen the position in which the agent is both possibly free and possibly chained by circumstances, that is to say, the agent experiences degrees of freedom.

The future is, as it were, the converse of the agent’s historical situatedness. Though the past and the future hold in common a reference to the temporality of the agent, they are quite distinct in their properties, the former being immutable and the latter, at least to some degree, mutable. The dividing line in this opposition between mutability and immutability may be said to lie in the present.

As was argued in the Introduction, the agent’s actions are, of their nature, inherently future oriented. Therefore, since I believe this observation to be fundamental, it is too important not to explore its implications. The main implication at issue is the question of whether the agent fully takes into consideration the consequences of his or her actions. The analogy comes to mind of how many moves ahead can one think while playing chess?

environmental chess

As with the future outcome of a game of chess, the consequences of one’s actions may be either unknown, or imperfectly known, due to the fact that the agent’s knowledge of the future is often, at best, imperfect. Looked at from this point of view the nature of the consequences of the agent’s actions appears intractable. On balance this approach is unhelpful, because at bottom, it makes too much of the problem of induction. Though I take the problem of induction to be real, arising from imperfect knowledge of the future, at the same time, there are phenomena in reality which can be predicted with a high degree of accuracy – the time of a sunrise would be one example.

Thus the focus has to be on what can be known about the consequences of the agent’s actions. In addition, future generations – though they exist only in potentia and as such are an abstract reality – crucially depend on our actions in the present. Again, this is an important point since the worst possible scenario discussed in the Introduction, is that there may be no future generations at some point due to the consequences of, for example, nuclear war or overpopulation.

There appears to be something of a paradox here. For the agent who acts in the present, such actions are always oriented toward the achievement of some goal or aim at some given time in the future. However, at issue in this chapter, is the “carry over” or consequences from the past which impact on the agent in the present. It may be said that this amounts to an extension of the teleological model of action; in that, any given goal conceived in the present is conditioned and shaped by the consequences of formerly existing states of affairs. Thus, the conception of a goal for the agent in the present has to come about in relation to previous goals whose consequences the agent has to take into account.

Five arguments are now given against methodological presentism. The first of these focuses on language. The human use of natural languages is founded on a sophisticated form of action. Moreover, every action of this type is fundamentally historical in nature, since the form and content of any presently existing language is based on a process of evolution of that language stretching back millennia. I would suggest that this is one of the ideas Wittgenstein had in mind when he put forward his “ancient city” metaphor of language (See above, p. 60. ). Thus our every sentence is historically conditioned, and given the crucially important role language plays in our everyday lives, so our lives are historically conditioned.

More generally, the semiotic realm, which is a key feature of existence can only be accurately described by pointing to, inter alia, the fact that it has a historical dimension. The historical dimension of the semiotic realm must arise because whatever sense of meaning we experience is due, at least in part, to the transmission of meaning structures from one time to another. To extend this argument, everytime a meaningful utterance is made, it makes use of historically defined elements, that is to say, words. To emphasise the sense in which the agent is subject to degrees of freedom, it may also be noted that such historically defined elements may be arranged in novel sequences at the level of the sentence.

The second argument against methodological presentism runs as follows. As I have indicated the past is immutable. Therefore, there must be some determinate set of cause-effect relations which the agent finds him- or herself at the end of. (In Bubner’s words, often, “We want to know why history took just that course at the end of which we find ourselves.”[6]) One such instance is that the agent’s parents begat the agent. Clearly this type of condition can be extended backwards in time to the beginning of life on Earth.

If we are to believe the account of evolutionary biology, ultimately all agents have ancestors “who” were micro-organisms! In this way we can see how history becomes natural history. The relevance of this line of thought to the argument at hand lies in the fact that the agent’s genetic inheritance may determine such factors as to whether, for example, he or she is tall enough to play professional basketball. The types of historical cause-effect relation identified here are those which define the agent and his or her capacities qua evolved creature.

Third, it may be said that while the agent may be influenced by great changes of “historical” significance, there are many aspects of the agent’s actions in the world which are independent of historical influence, and that such independence is a condition of the expression of intention. While I accept that some form of independence from historical influence is a condition of the expression of intention and free will, I would add that such independence as exists is never complete. For example, consider that I quite intentionally decide to make myself a cup of tea. Prima facie, there appears to be nothing which is historically conditioned about this mundane set of actions. But, on examination, historical conditions may be identified.

For instance, that I am making tea to drink is shaped by the fact that Europeans borrowed the practice from the Far East at some point in the past. Similarly, suppose I use a china cup to drink my tea from. At some point in the past it was discovered how to fire and glaze clay to make such cups. Thus, even in apparently unhistorical actions one may identify historical factors which make such actions possible. I would generalise from this case to say that there is always a historical context which provides the ground on which even clearly intentional actions take place in the present. Often, for practical purposes, explicit, conscious reference need not be made to this context. I need not consider how tea came to Europe every time I drink a cup. Nevertheless, the historical context of actions is ever present.

Fourth, in relation to the discussion of the normative regulation of action in the preceding chapter, norms are phenomena which often have a very long history. Even to-day in Scotland there are customs which are thought to have their origins in pre-Christian history. Against this, since the Enlightenment there have been those who have argued that the modus operandi ought to be based on reason rather than simply custom, tradition or habit. This is a view which I am sympathetic to. Indeed the project of the Enlightenment may be described as an attempt to disengage modernity from its historical roots.

There are many areas in which the pro-Enlightenment thinker may suggest reform of the existing modus operandi, on the ground of an appeal to justice for example. The qualification I would add to this is that total, wholesale reform cannot become a stable reality, since the weight of historical influence is so great upon our actions in the present. Utopia I take to be unachievable and certainly overnight. Nevertheless, societies ought to be involved in the project of getting as close to it as possible. This has to be done by acknowledging historical influence rather than attempting to overthrow it. As I have attempted to argue, it is a basic feature of human existence – and the actions which are an expression thereof – that it is historically conditioned. Any attempt to isolate the agent from historical influence must end in failure.

Fifth, there is a sense in which anything the agent thinks or does is always in relation to formerly existing states of affairs. This is particularly noticeable in the observation of distant astronomical objects. For instance, when with care one looks at the Sun, the image one sees is about eight minutes old, this being the approximate time it takes light to travel from that star. More distant stars may offer the astronomer many light years of time lag. The more distant the object, the further back in time the astronomer’s observations refer.

cosmos and enlightenment

Thus the actions of those agents who may be described as astronomers are conditioned by the deep history of the cosmos. Moreover, even in the case of the humble philosopher and his or her proverbial table, qua source of sense-data, there is a time lag between the visual perception and the source of the sense-data which caused the perception. Granted, in this case, the effect is negligible, but it is nevertheless there. In traditional terminology the experience of the phenomenon is not coincident in time with its related noumenon. The experience of the phenomenon lags behind the noumenon.

A more noticeable effect concerns reaction times. The faster one travels in a car, the more important reaction times become. The point is that sense-data are not processed instantly. If one drives carefully then one is able to respond effectively and safely to changing road conditions. Yet even in this case there is always a time lag between perceptual stimulus and any response (action). Therefore, responses are always in relation to some reality which exists in the past due to the time taken by cognitive processing.

Having defended the reality of historical influence on action, the discussion now turns to consider how and why the dimension of historical influence exists at all. Present and future oriented actions[7] insofar as they are contingent on the past necessarily have their beginning in a historical dimension. I will define the historical dimension of action as being composed of all actions that once were, and though they themselves no longer exist, are nevertheless actions out of whose vestigial existence, we may act in the present.

My use of the term ‘vestigial’ is important here. Allow me to explain my intention with an example. Imagine walking along a sandy beach. As one walks one leaves footprints in the sand. The footprints may be thought of as vestigia of the action of walking. In this case the vestigia are patterns made in sand. Similarly actions may leave a vestige in consciousness itself. Memories would be the prime example of this. An action or actions may be remembered thus influencing some further action in the present or future. And it is this which may be transmitted across generations, thus creating a dimension of historical influence.

Thus a distinction is made here between two types of vestigia. Firstly there are those vestigia which exist external to ourselves such as footprints, buildings or written materials. Secondly there are those which are internal to the agent such as the aforementioned memories.[8] These different types of vestigia have in common that they are the consequences of actions which persist in reality for some given time. They are distinct in that they are each defined by different spatio-temporal criteria. Although this is a simplified model the point made is that it is useful to distinguish between those vestigia which persist in the external environment and those which persist internal to the agent.

If there were no vestigia, no consequences of our actions which persist for some given time, it would not be possible for the agent to have a connection with formerly existing states of affairs; that is to say, there would be no awareness of the past. In keeping with the case made in chapter 2, human actions are often conceptualised as not leaving an impact on the biosphere. This may help to explain why few people seem to have been concerned by the fact that many forms of packaging will not bio-degrade for hundreds of years. The fact is that actions often do leave an impact on the biosphere. The case of footprints in sand is a benign example of this. That actions do have an impact on the environment is in fact a condition of actions in the present being historically conditioned. For if actions were somehow isolated from the environment in which they take place, they would leave no vestigia which are required for historical conditioning to take place.

I would suggest that the most interesting examples of the role of vestigia are in cases where there are interactions between the internal and external forms which have been described. Consider the case of a stone circle such as that at Callanish in the Outer Hebrides. The stones of this ancient monument may be said to be external vestigia which have persisted for thousands of years. The size, position and shape of these stones are consequences of the actions of those who constructed them.

Given the time and effort required to make such a stone circle, the constructors, perhaps over several generations, must have had a clear idea of their purpose and significance. From the point of view of the late twentieth-century, it is far from sure why people would wish to build such things – though attempts are being made to improve our understanding of such ancient sites. The difficulty in explaining and understanding stone circles lies in the fact that presently existing agents have no surviving internal vestigia, relating to those stones, which have been transmitted from those who constructed them.

ancient script

Perhaps a more encouraging case would be that of Jean-François Champollion’s decipherment of the Egyptian hieroglyphic script of the Rosetta Stone, published in 1822.[9] Until Champollion’s work, Egyptian hieroglyphic script was undeciphered. While it must have been suspected that the script embodied some aspects of the thoughts of ancient Egyptians, its meaning was unknown. The Rosetta Stone is a vestigium of the thought processes of those who constructed it; and Champollion enabled Egyptologists to reconstruct the connection between internal and external vestigia, thus dramatically expanding the field of Egyptology.

A third case concerns the poet Robert Browning. When he was once asked what one of his poems meant, he replied that when he wrote it both he and God knew what it meant. But now, some time after its composition, he continued, only God knows. Whether this anecdote is apocryphal or not, the point is clear. As with the two previous cases, some match or correspondence is required between internal and external vestigia for historical influence to have effects on our actions in the world in the present. As I hope I have shown the role of vestigia as phenomena which connect us with formerly existing states of affairs is complex. As a general rule, there is never a perfect match between internal and external vestigia. This “slippage” means that history and its influences are never given to us in pristine completeness.

A final case is now considered by way of emphasis. Early in childhood most people learn that chairs are for sitting on rather than jumping on. It may be supposed that one retains some vestigia in consciousness of this learning experience, which is reinforced everytime one sits in a chair or sees someone else doing the same. The chair in my study is of unknown provenance. I do not know who designed it, who built it (if not a machine), or indeed who put it in my study. Nevertheless, the chair being in my study is a vestigium of the actions of the designer, the builder and the person or persons who put it there.

Moreover, there is sufficient connection between internal and external vestigia such that I know what it is and what it is for. By contrast, one can consider a trip to a junk shop. On investigating the shop’s contents, one discovers an object which may be say one hundred years old, but one has no idea what it is or what it is for. In principle, it is quite possible that even though one may be indefatigably curious, a trip to every museum curator in Scotland may not solve the puzzle. It is for reasons such as these that I have said that the influence of the past on the agent’s present is special, mysterious and peculiar.

The status and role of vestigia is relative to cultural realities in many different ways. One such factor relates to whether a culture is sedentary or nomadic. Nomadic cultures leave few external vestigia of their existence, since all they need must be mobile; while western cultures have not been nomadic for millennia – but for the few gypsies – and the relics of a sedentary existence are all around us. A second factor influencing the status and role of vestigia is whether the culture concerned is pre-literate or literate. The presence of a writing system crucially changes the relationship that culture may have with its past. I wish to draw attention to these factors because the facts that western culture is sedentary and literate condition the types of historical influence which are possible and this in turn impacts on the world-view.

Moreover, scholarly historiography as it is known in the West would not be possible in a nomadic or pre-literate culture. As we move forward in time one can see that it is at least a possibility that action in the present would become increasingly historically conditioned, because there would be an increasing reservoir of possible historical causes – vestigia. One can consider an upper limit to this which would be brought about by the finitude of consciousness. I would argue we have already reached a point whereby the history of human civilisation is so vast that any single consciousness cannot encompass it in its entirety. This is one reason why historians must specialise.


Thus the form and content of the modern, western form of historical conditioning is importantly influenced by the facts that it is a literate and sedentary culture. What is known of history tends not to be transmitted by oral tradition, rather historiography focuses on documentary evidence. So for most modern agents the relationship with the past is one which is mediated by a body of professional historians, rather than via participation in an oral tradition. Thus, in a sense, the connection the modern, western world-view has with the past is only as strong as the role historians play in society.

Paradoxically, as western culture has aged it may be said that it is more directed toward what the future may hold as opposed to the importance of the lessons of the past. The greater the extent to which modernity appears to dislocate itself from the past, so also the greater the extent to which history’s influence becomes an unconscious one. (This theme is examined in more detail in chapter 5.)


[1] John Elster, “Ethical Individualism and Presentism”, The Monist, Vol. 76, 1993,

pp. 333-348.

[2] Taking the term ‘metaphysics’, as applied here, I wish to consider that branch of philosophy which deals with both ontology and epistemology together. This is no accidental ‘collocation’ of branches of philosophy, rather, what we know is connected to what is. Indeed for metaphysics to be viable there must be connections between these perspectives. With respect to the case at hand we are interested in what is known about the past (what was), and its influence on the present of the agent (what is).

[3] Rüdiger Bubner, EHCT, p. 214.

[4] Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, (Hereafter CDP), General Editor Robert Audi, (Cambridge: CUP, 1995), p. 499.

[5] CDP, p. 768.

[6] Rüdiger Bubner, EHCT. p. 230.

[7] It may be said that all actions by their very nature are future oriented. However, I have retained the distinction between present and future actions to draw attention to the observation that actions may vary according to whether their performance is aimed at immediate states of affairs or those at a greater distance into the future.

[8] Care must be taken with this distinction. It is clear that a footprint in sand is external to the agent who made it; and, this is an example of a general class of such vestigia. By contrast the same agent’s memory of the footprint he or she made is clearly internal. My memories are internal to me. But equally, my memories are external to the point of view of, say, my friend.

[9] David Crystal, The Encyclopedia of Language, (Cambridge: CUP, 1995), p. 199.


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