Fixity of the Past. The Past Changes but Events Dont

Later addition: In short, if relation R holds between events E and E* (where E* is later than E), to say that E gains new property at the moment when E* happens is to say that the Earth gains the property of being 384 400 km from the Moon at the location where the Moon is located. This is nonsense.


Is the past fixed or does it change as time goes by? If it changes, is this change due to our ways of thinking about the past (whatever that means)?

To me, it seems obvious that the past is fixed. Once it happened, it is what it is. I think this idea is so central to all our thinking that I am not sure how it could be rejected. Who could we find out who committed a particular crime? How could it be that the present depends causally on the past if the past can change? Different pasts should have different causal effects. However, the present is what it is and can only follow from a very, very, limited range of different pasts.

However, in this post, I go beyond these simple arguments to the philosophical discourse about the issue. After all, most people are interested in the discourses, not my intuitive reasons.

In this post, I discuss the issue by going back to the classical thought experiment about an Ideal Chronicle. While going back to the roots of the issue, my interest in writing about it comes from the fact that the issue of “metaphysics” of the past has gained much interest recently in the following works:

Roth, P. (2020). The Philosophical Structure of Historical Explanation

Currie, A. & Swaim, D. (2022). Past Facts and the Nature of History. Journal of Philosophy of History.

Roth, P. & Dewulf, F. (2022). Real True Facts: A Reply to Currie and Swaim. Journal of Philosophy of History.

Currie, A. & Swaim, D. (2022). Minimal Metaphysics vs. Maximal Semantics: A Response to Paul Roth and Fons Dewulf. Journal of Philosophy of History.

Mitrovic, B. (2022). A Naïve Realist Rumination on the Roth-and-Dewulf versus Currie-and-Swaim Exchange. Journal of Philosophy of History.


Danto (1962, 152) asks us to imagine an Ideal Chronicler. “He knows whatever happens the moment it happens, even in other minds. And he is to have the gift of instantaneous transcription: everything that happens across the whole forward rim of the Past is set down by him, as it happens, the way it happens. The resultant running account I shall term the Ideal Chronicle”.

Roth (2020, 8) argues that

“This thought experiment establishes that statements true of a particular time t cannot be comprehensively known at t, not even by someone capable of recording all that happens when it happens (the Ideal Chronicler). Danto’s now canonical example is this: “The Thirty Years War began in 1618.” This statement is true of what happens in 1618 but is not knowable in 1618, not even by an Ideal Chronicler. Danto calls these “narrative sentences,” and they demonstrate that there will be truths about any time t not knowable at t; truths about time t continue to accumulate after t.”

We should ask what the thought experiment really indicates.

First, it is important to point out that the issue cannot be how we refer to some historical event or object. “The man who built the atomic bomb worked at a patent office” refers to Einstein but the description is not true of him. The way we refer to some event or object is independent of what is true of that event or object.

Secondly, the Ideal Chronicler cannot write down anything that requires a cross-temporal relation (i.e. a relation that holds between events located at different times). Most notably, as Danto (1962, 159) points out, “’is a cause of’ would not be a predicate accessible to the Ideal Chronicler”. This is important because there exists a natural distinction between properties and relations.

Properties hold of things while relations hold between things; they are not relations of anything. Given that a cross-temporal relation holds between two events, it is not the case that the relation in question is a relation of the earlier event. One could argue that the difference between us and the Ideal Chronicler is not that we know statements that are true of an event that the Ideal Chronicler does not know; the difference is that we know truths about cross-temporal relations that the Ideal Chronicler, by definition, is not allowed to capture. Truths about time t are not accumulating after t but truths about the past (part of which t is). The truths that accumulate are truths about cross-temporal relations.

While the considerations above do not, of course, show that truths about the past are not accumulating as we move forwards in time, it shows why there might be no mystery in the accumulation. If it is true about the past that a cross-temporal relation holds between C and E, this is true only if C and E both exist. That “the description of the past does not come closer and closer to an ideal chronicle but departs further and further from it as more descriptions become available which were not earlier available even in principle” (Mink 1987, 139) is a consequence of the natural assumption that historiography captures cross-temporal relations (unlike the Ideal Chronicler).

Notice also that the Ideal Chronicler is not compatible with any theory of historical explanation. Given that explanation requires some sort of relation holds between the explanans and the explanandum, all possible theories of historical explanation require that we posit something that the Ideal Chronicle does not contain. In a sense, all explanations are retrospective: that C explains E requires that E is the case and an explanatory relation between C and E holds. These cannot be known at the time when C is the case.

The Ideal Chronicler thought experiment appears to be loaded with assumptions about truth, propositions, properties, relations, and reference which deserves clarification. It appears like a good strategy to spend energy on such clarification before drawing strong conclusions about the thought experiment – conclusions that might damage the overall defense of historiographical explanation, a topic discussed below. There is a decision to be made whether philosophy of history should follow its canonical arguments to their strongest conclusion or rethink the arguments by using the most powerful conceptual tools developed elsewhere. At the same time, the thought experiment also indicates that there are, at the core of historiography, issues that those conceptual tools need to resolve. The foundations of historiography should serve as a critical case for the presumed power of those tools and the philosophy of historiography does not deserve its marginalized position in this respect.

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