Home > Philosophy > 1997 After Postmodernism Conference > Matsuno (specific 3)

The Present Tense: An Impossible Dream?

Koichiro Matsuno
Department of BioEngineering
Nagaoka University of Technology
Nagaoka 940-21, Japan

Despite our irresistible habit of making and referring to statements in the present tense in almost all cases, the mode of the present tense provides itself with a queer temporal character. In particular, any affirmative and definite statement in the present tense claims its positiveness at any present moment, thus rendering itself to be atemporal and ahistorical. This grammatical stipulation in turn comes to affect our serious endeavor for describing dynamics of whatever sort, since the description has to observe the grammatical tense in any case. Describing dynamics and the dynamics thus described are already under the influence of the grammatical tense that the description is to succumb to. Ubiquity of the present tense raises a serious question on the likelihood of accomplishing a legitimate description of dynamics because of its intrinsic incommensurability with the present tense.

Dynamics, on the other hand, grounds its description upon statements in the present progressive tense instead of in the present tense because of its progressive nature. However, statements in the present progressive tense are multi-agential in their implication in that what is responsible for making those descriptive events progressive is not limited to the author of the statements, though the possibility that the author could eventually monopolize the agential capacity could not totally be eliminated. Unless such a monopoly of the agential capacity by the monologic author comes to be vindicated on some grounds, the multi-agent character latent in the present progressive tense would remain unproblematic. Nonetheless, there is a dim possibility that some aspects of real dynamics in progress could be dealt with by the monologic author boasting of monopolizing the agential capacity. That is about the record of the dynamics already in the present perfect tense, since the record has no capacity of changing itself any more.

Statements in the present perfect tense to be associated with the record is about completed progression. Although the completed progression is related solely to what has been completed, the author of these statements in the present perfect tense can transform the completed progression into a progression in the present if the memory of the completed progression is available in the present. In addition, if the author can further remain anonymous while maintaining the integrity of the memory of completed progression in the present, the notion of progression in the present could be objectified among those potential authors who admit and share the anonymity in the first place.

Consequently, the memory of completed progression in the present and the anonymous objectivity of progression in the present based upon the memory, when combined together, yields a likelihood of a dynamics to be described in the present tense. This dynamics is about progression in the present or in any present moment. If such a dynamics in the present tense is really dynamic, it would have to give rise to a dynamics in the present progressive tense. That is to say, progression in the present tense would have to be equivalent to progression in progress or in the present progressive tense. As a matter of fact, a conventional association of progression in the present with progression in progress comes to invoke the notion of time as a factor relating the perfect, the present and the progressive tense. Newtonian time is a typical example of equating progression in the present to progression in progress while further letting the progression be homogeneous and uniform in progress.

Kantian vindication of Newtonian time in essence rests upon our linguistic practice of salvaging statements in the present tense while starting from those in the present progressive tense. Time as an associative factor between both progressions in the present and in progress can be seen as a condition of our shared memory of completed progression to be described in the present tense. In this regard, Kant is quite right in saying that time is not something to be abstracted from our experiences but is prerequisite to forming our experiences to be described.

Nonetheless, Kantian-Newtonian time based upon the linguistic association of progression in the present with progression in progress is extremely limited in its capacity in the respect of maintaining the memory of completed progression invariant. Once our memory of completed progression loses its shared objectivity among those of us as anonymous potential authors, there would be no invariant memory to guarantee invariant progression in every present moment. However, time as an associative factor between the present tense and the present progressive tense is by no means limited to Kantian-Newtonian time. Even if the memory of completed progression does not remain invariant, time as an associative factor between the two tenses does survive since the condition of letting a dynamics in the present tense be equal to a similar one in the present progressive tense gives birth to such a time as an associative factor.

Dynamics is not a consequence of time. Rather, time is a linguistic consequence of the dynamics to be described in the present tense in the manner being consistent with its description in the present progressive tense. Kantian-Newtonian time is simply an extreme case enabling a dynamics in the present tense to be equivalent to a similar one in the present progressive. What still remains is the possibility of those dynamics that time as an associative factor between the present and the present progressive tense may vary its implication in progress. This possibility is already latent in dynamics in the present progressive tense alone in the sense that it can be multi-agential. If one intends to describe such a dynamics in the present tense as employing time as a factor associating the two tenses, the resulting dynamics would remain indefinite in the present tense since the author of the description can exercise no power over those internal agents residing within the dynamics. Despite that, statements in the present tense are to be sanctioned.

Time as an associative factor between the present tense and the present progressive tense urges us to admit a possibility of those affirmative statements in the present tense that remain indefinite in their implication. Admitting affirmative and indefinite statements in the present tense is a consequence of our sturdy linguistic practice aiming at dynamics in the present tense. The cost we have to pay is approval of indefiniteness in the present tense, and it is certainly worthwhile paying.

Still, time as an associative factor between the two tenses, though legitimate in its own light, relies exclusively upon the user of a natural language carrying the memory of its preceding usages. Association of progression in the present with the present memory of completed progression cannot be objectified on its own unless, for instance, the memory is claimed to remain invariant. If objectification of time as an associative factor between two tenses is further intended, one possibility may be to refer to the record of completed record itself instead of to its present memory on the part of a language user. Since the record of completed progression remains invariant, the association of completed progression in the past perfect tense with the following progression in the past progressive tense comes to yield time in the past observing an invariant nature of the record during its progression.

This association of the past perfect with the past progressive tense does not assume the invariant memory in the present, but rather seeks its foundation upon a synchronization between the two tenses for the sake of the existence of a consistent record. The agential factor for the synchronization is the very existence of the invariant record, which is certainly objective. Synchronization between the past perfect and the past progressive tense is objective.

Time as a factor relating two different grammatical tenses, when applied to the record of completed progression in the immediate past, now approaches time as a synchronization factor between the present perfect and the present progressive tense. It certainly remains objective in the sense that the record remains invariant while being different from the case of time as an associative factor between the present tense and the present progressive tense. Time as a synchronization factor between the present perfect and the present progressive tense as a limiting case of time in the past, however, cannot be described in the present tense. This is a cost we have to pay for objectifying time.

We thus come to recognize both advantage and disadvantage of utilizing statements in the present tense especially as facing the issue of how to describe dynamics in progress. If one wishes to maintain statements in the present tense and their invariant objectivity at the same time, approval of Kantian-Newtonian time would become inevitable with a necessary consequence of eliminating the generative capacity latent in time altogether. An alternative alleviating the stifling objectivity would be to have recourse to employing indefinite affirmative statements in the present tense that can legitimately appreciate the generative capacity of time, while it is quite existential. If one further wishes to maintain both objectivity and generative capacity of time as a factor associating two different grammatical tenses, such a possibility could be envisioned within the scheme employing only those statements either in the present perfect or in the present progressive tense while excluding those in the present tense. At issue is our existential decision on which to choose, either stifling objectivity, generative capacity while risking objectivity, or both objectivity and generative capacity at the expense of the present tense.

[After Post-Modernism Conference. Copyright 1997.]

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