New Presentation: Augustine of Hippo & William James on the Specious Present

I’m happy to report I’ll be presenting at the 2019 Cheiron Conference on the History of the Behavioural & Social Sciences. This time, my topic will be the debate about the “specious present” in Augustine of Hippo & William James.

While that might sound like an anachronistic comparison, the ancient African Christian and the modern American psychologist actually tend to ask quite similar sorts of questions. In this case, the parallel lies in the present. Both thinkers asked themselves: is there such a thing as a “present moment?”

Augustine answered in the negative. James mostly answered in the positive, though he admitted that ‘in reality’ the present probably did not exist. And yet he cautioned that the psychologist must presume a present, insofar as the scientific psychologist relies upon the notion of a ‘present state of consciousness’ in order to make a judgment, offer a diagnosis, and so on.

The goal of my paper, then, will be both to highlight this distinction between Augustine & James and to explore some consequences of this distinction. We could, for example, ask: might there be any psychological consequences if we presume from the beginning, not that we occupy a specious present, but rather that there is no present at all? And if so, can we continue to speak intelligibly of spontaneity, a moment of decision, an instant of change, or perhaps even a ‘present mental state?’


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