We are all aware – sometimes painfully so – that the past influences the present. If we have not studied we will not do well on our exam. If we don’t practice our instrument we will not play well in the concert. What we did yesterday created possibilities and limitations that we experience today, and what we do today will do the same for our future present moments.
We are less aware that the future also has an influence on the present. The American Pragmatist philosophers were particularly interested in the nature of the influence that the future has on the unfolding of the present. Charles Sanders Peirce made this a central element of his evolutionary philosophy and it became central to the thinking of William James, John Dewey and George Herbert Mead as well.
George Herbert Mead described in detail how future actions begin as sensations in the nervous system. Certain stimuli in the environment will awaken inner urges that will energetically tend to lead us toward the fulfillment of a possible future. I can relate to this when I think about the urge to smoke cigarettes. I was smoking at one point although I quit many years ago. I almost never have any desire to smoke a cigarette. In fact the only time I ever feel the rug to smoke is on rate occasions when I find myself in a smokey bar room. In that circumstance I feel the urge to smoke a cigarette arise in my mind and body. Usually I first notice the smell of the smoke, then I become aware of my right hand and have some vague memory of the feeling of a cigarette pinched between my fore and index finger. The urge culminates in a memory of what it feels like to lift the cigarette to my mouth and take a long slow drag. On those occasions when I feel this urge I never actually follow through on it and actually smoke, but Mead’s point is that the stimulus of the smoke filled bar initiates a response in my nervous system that is the beginning of the action of smoking. If I don’t counter act that initial tendency toward action then I will find myself smoking. The smoke filled bar is calling me toward the future possibility of smoking.
Mead is really describing the same mode of being that Martin Heidegger talked about as ‘ready to hand.’ Let’s take the example of a chair. If you walk into a room that has a chair in it your nervous system will be stirred by the possibility of sitting down. If you are tired you will not block that stirring and the action of sitting will take place. If you are not tired, or do not want to sit down for some reason you will block the action of sitting that was initiated by the sight of the chair.
The picture of reality that the Pragmatists were creating was one of constant flow. As human beings we are part of that flow and the things and people around us are constantly presenting us with possible futures that call us to action. The sight of a chair initiates a stimulation in the nervous system that is the earliest stage of the act of sitting. A friend calling you on the phone and asking if you want to go out to see a movie excites the nervous system with the initial stirrings of the act of going out to a movie.
The world and all of its objects and all of the people in it are forever calling us forward toward possible futures. There is a pull forward in time that is inherent in reality as we know. This pull of possible futures is the source of all intentionality. We live in an intentional universe the sweeps everything along into the future. Our human intentions are not then so much intentions that initiate in us, they are rather intentions that exist in the world system that includes us. We tend to think of ourselves as individual sources of intention. When we sit down and decide to do something we tend to imagine that we are sitting an generating a “personal” intention. That intention is seen as originating inside of us and existing independent from the rest of reality. The American Pragmatists were painting a different picture. The universe is itself intentional and we are constantly presented in the form of stirrings in our nervous system with different possibilities for how that intention could manifest in action and form. Our agency resides in our ability to choose to allow ourselves to couple with some of those intentions and manifest them in action while denying others.
We are not the source of intention as much as we are the gate keepers that liberate certain intentions by allowing them to flow freely into action and form while denying others by not allowing them access to the world. The vision that the prior function of a human being is as a choosing agent can be found in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay Spiritual Laws when he defines a human being as a selecting principle. And this same sentiment is expressed in William James’ essay Are we Automatons? when he claims that the brain is an organ of selection.
As an experiment try to see yourself not as an acting agent that generators of intentions and then acts on them, but as a selecting principle that recognizes certain of the world’s intentions as stirrings of the nervous system and then allows some of those to pass freely into action and manifestation.