Past and Future in Augustine and Heidegger

I recently read through Augustine’s Confessions in its entirety for the first time. While in school, I read excerpts, but there were parts of it that I never got to. The part that most struck me was the part during which Augustine discusses time. In particular, reading Heidegger at the same time led me to question Augustine’s analysis differently than I otherwise would have.

Augustine argues that only the present exists. The past was, and the future is not yet, according to Augustine. When we think of past or future, what we are really thinking about is our memories of the past and expectations of the future, both of which are present to us in our minds. In this way, Augustine equates being with presence, effectively defining the past and future out of existence.

What made this striking to me is how it makes such a good example of what Heidegger criticizes in Being and Time. Because Augustine’s definition of being is too narrow (i.e. he equates being with presence), he has to claim that certain things which clearly are, in at least some sense, are not. Instead, we end up with a purely psychological account of past and future, which is hardly satisfying.

I’m not okay with saying that the past exists only in memory. Likewise, I’m not okay with saying that the future exists only in expectation. Both past and future seem to have some kind of phenomenal reality that does not depend on memory or expectation. While it is true to say that past states of affairs no longer are and future states of affairs are not yet, the past and future are not equivalent to the sum total of all past or future states of affairs. Phenomenologically, they are something entirely different.

To use Heideggerian language, I think past and future are existentiales. This means that the past and the future are essential features of Dasein’s being, which can vary in their character but are always “there” in some form. Other existentiales include the World and Being-in. Every Dasein has a past and a future, otherwise it is not Dasein at all. I’d say that the past is related closely to Dasein’s facticity, while the future is tied to Dasein’s potential for being.

“Facticity” is a somewhat obscure Heideggerian term. As such, it is hard to provide a definition for it. But I will try. Heidegger uses the term specifically to describe Dasein’s being, and not other kinds of being. The merely factual does not demand action, as facts are not always relevant to what one does. But the factical does demand action; its very existence is necessarily of some concern. Dasein’s being is factical. By the very fact that Dasein exists, Dasein is required to act, and he is required to act within the factical World in which he exists.

The past is connected to facticity in that the past has a partial role in producing the World in which Dasein is. The particular factical conditions that demand Dasein to act at any given moment are products of the past, even if that past is unremembered by Dasein. Moreover, Dasein’s own response to the factical situation in which it always is must always be shaped by the past, as well. This, too, does not depend on memory, however. Much of what Dasein does is habituated; we incorporate skills into our being until we exercise those skills unconsciously. I do not remember learning how to speak English, and yet I speak.

The future, on the other hand, is that upon which Dasein projects its possibilities for being. Heidegger is fond of saying that Dasein is its own possibilities. Thus, Dasein has a peculiar relationship with the future such that the future as such exists for Dasein, even if future states of affairs themselves have no being. Whereas the past partially creates the factical conditions of Dasein’s being, the future is what allows Dasein’s possibility to be realized. A possibility which cannot be realized is no true possibility. Thus, without the future, Dasein can have no possibilities for being, and thus cannot be Dasein.

As the future conditions of the World will always be relevant to Dasein’s being, the future has a bearing on the World’s possibilities, as well. However, the World does not project its own possibilities in the way that Dasein does. Rather, when Dasein projects its possibilities, it always projects the possibilities of its World as well. Dasein needs its World in order to be Dasein. While the possibilities for Dasein’s being, along with the possibilities for the being of its World, are not present, they certainly are, in some way. And the future is a necessary condition for the being of possibilities.

I like my Heideggerian account of past and future above better than Augustine’s account, mostly because it avoids Augustine’s psychologism. Because Augustine claims that there is no such thing as the past or the future, he has to offer an account of why it seems that such things exist. And his account relies purely on memory and expectation, which I take to be insufficient to explain our experience. The past conditions our existence even when we are not consciously aware of the past. Likewise, even unexpected future possibilities are possibilities which have implications for our being. A phenomenological-existential account allows us to say that past and future exist without making the clearly false claim that past states of affairs and future states of affairs are present.


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