It's language, stupid!

Can the past live outside of language? Is our history anything but a set of sentences cobbled together whenever we need to talk about it? We know that something happened in the past. But each time we talk about it, are we re-writing our history with new words and descriptions?

But if we describe past actions in ways in which they could not have been described at the time, we derive a curious result. For all intentional actions are actions under a description. If a description did not exist, or was not available, at an earlier time, then at that time one could not act intentionally under that description. Only later did it become true that, at that time, one performed an action under that description. At the very least, we rewrite the past, not because we find out more about it, but because we present actions under new descriptions.


Hacking, I. (1998). Rewriting the soul multiple personality and the sciences of memory. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

In the above quote, the Canadian philosopher, Ian Hacking, puts intentionality at the centre of our understanding of the past. If we act intentionality when doing something, then there is a description for that action: a way of conceptualising it. All intentional actions are ‘actions under a description’. There may be certain actions however for which there is no description at the time. If we later describe the past action under a new description, can we say that it was an intentional act if this description did not exist?

It seems that intentionality is important for the human mind and relations. If I am due to be picked up by someone and given a lift to work but at the last minute there is a snowstorm, I understand that the person did not intend to abandon me at home. But if I subsequently learn that my friend actually left for work an hour before the snowstorm and deliberately abandoned me, then the whole situation changes. I now attach intentionality behind that persons actions whereas I did not for the snowstorm. And that intentionality matters – it hurts.

In the first case, I might describe the action as ‘Pete got caught in a snowstorm and couldn’t pick me up’. But the second case I might describe as ‘Pete abandoned me’. The word ‘abandon’ assumes some intentionality on behalf of the actor. And for me, a human mind, that is important. That is the thing that nags away in my mind until I meet Pete again at work and get some explanation or apology. Because Pete has a mind like mine, I ascribe intentionality to his behaviour even if I am wrong in this assumption. I don’t ascribe intentionality to the snowstorm.

Much of our recall of history is of ascribing intentionality – adjusting it, removing it, changing it. We rewrite the past with our language in order to get the right intentionality. So after meeting with Pete and receiving an explanation, I may change the past to ‘Pete forgot to pick me up’ or ‘Pete was late and had to get to work’. I have not found anything more about the past (in terms of the physical processes), but I have rewritten it under a new description. And language is the describer.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create your website with WordPress.com
Get started
%d bloggers like this:
close-alt close collapse comment ellipsis expand gallery heart lock menu next pinned previous reply search share star