Is it possible to continue thinking "the past", "the present" and "the future" as valid historical and philosophical categories?
From its beginnings, the historical discipline acknowledged the tense relation between human beings and temporal categories. Past, present and future are intertwined in the concern of Herodotus and Thucydides to avoid forgetting the past and ensure its persistence and repercussion in the future. In his inaugural proem, Herodotus affirmed that his work was nothing more than "the exhibition of the research results of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, to avoid that, over time, human facts remain in oblivion and that the remarkable and singular undertakings carried out, respectively, by Greeks and barbarians – and, in particular, the reason for their mutual confrontation – are left without enhancement". Thucydides, more precise in his language and method, was close to this original intention when stating that the usefulness of his research was that "all those who aspire to have an idea of past events and those, more or less similar according to the laws of human nature, may occur in the future." Although he believed in the existence of a kind of law of history that would make it repeatable and cyclical, his seminal preoccupation of where historization starts was honest: to keep the past in the memory of a present and to project it onto the present avoiding its obsolescence and loss; anticipating, in a certain way, the possibility and existence of future. Centuries later, and from another philosophical and theological point of view, Augustine of Hippo will delve into this concern by proposing in his Confessions that temporality is a distension of the soul in the present, put in tension by, on the one hand the memory of the past and on the other the hope of the future. For Augustine there is a past-present, a present-present and the future-present; there is not for him, as François Dosse warns, but past and future for the present.
Antonio Millán Puelles, in his Ontología de la Existencia Histórica distinguishes, between the category of simple past –temporarily elapsed– and historical past, virtually contained and preserved in the present, gravitating in a certain way in it. On the other hand, Collingwood considered that, although unrepeatable and unique, the past events are included in those presents. By being part of them, he infers that the knowledge of the past becomes essential for the understanding of the present insofar as that knowledge reveals the forces that guide it. These distinctions between a simple and successive temporality and the experience of historical time, have had an important role in the work of authors such as Paul Ricoeur, Reinhardt Koselleck and François Hartog, as decisive reflections for contemporary theory and philosophy of history. In recent decades the distinction between a practical past and a historical past has been rethought in the light of the distinctions offered by Michael Oakeshott, first, and by Hayden White, later, insinuating a difference not theoretical or ontological but ethical, in its relation to action in the present and the role of historiography.
The problem of thinking temporal categories as historical categories puts us before the dilemma of historical consciousness: not only of the historian who wants to save the past from being forgotten in its present and project it into the future of upcoming generations, but also the subject, understood as an agent of history -the historical being, according to some- who stands in the present and contemplates and considers past and future. But that past and present escape from the present, putting in tension his active and present deliberation between memory and projection, making his action in relation to the temporal categories denser; categories that, otherwise, would be hopelessly delivered to their inactuality. By being engaged in historical action, are they constituted in historical past and future respectively? Can past, present and future as temporal categories thus be qualitatively transformed into, making of the past a historical past; of the present, a historical present; and, what seems more paradoxical -and contradictory-, of the future, a historical future? For if an action, defined as historical in its present, ceases to be when that present is changed into the past, it retains, nevertheless, its historicity. Hence, nothing more appropriate, in principle, than to refer to this action of the present, now past, as a historical past. But it seems more difficult to assign this quality of “historical” to a future whose lack of actuality is not due to the loss of it, as is the case of the past, but to the fact that future has not yet come, has not yet become present. So, while there is a distinction between a future that will come, as it is a field of projection of a historical action of the present, and a simple future, could it allow this qualitative difference to be considered as historical? Could we consider, in this perspective, that the past remembered and brought to the present by the original action of the current subject and agent in the present, acquires a virtual actuality that save it from its own obsolescence as past?
From the questions raised here, and from an interdisciplinary dialogue between history, philosophy and other humanistic disciplines, we encourage the reflection and discussion of the problems of the historical categories.