Prolepsis and Psychological ExplanationRoger D. Carlson
Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Western Psychological Association, Seattle, Washington, April, 1997. Permission is given for quotation.
AbstractThe specific significance or meaning of an event might better be understood in the context of the outcome to which it led--the future into which one is drawn is important knowledge to have in order to understand the significance of the past. Yet psychologists use past determinants or present contemporaneous circumstances to contingently predict subsequent events. This paper argues that better predictions might be made by understanding the significance of an act in the context of where it fits into the future--that is, if one assumes that instead of being propelled by discrete events of the past, one is drawn into a meaningful future. Prolepsis is conceptually associated with postdictive, ad hoc and ex post facto explanation. Implications of this argument change the conception of being human from an agent upon which events act, to an agent which is dynamically changing and evolving as one is drawn into the realization of the future. The non-volitional pull of the future in understanding past significances may be more informative than past events observed in contingent relationships to subsequent occurrences. Such contextual imbeddedness of understanding is consistent with post-modern consciousness. The assumption of temporally isolated non-contingent occurrences as having regular predictable outcomes robs human action of the context of meaning and thus our human understanding of the meaning of human action.
The later "ordinary language" philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein(1) argued that rather than language being representational whereby a word or concept signifies or "stands for" an "object" of reality, the meaning of a word is derived from its actual uses in accordance with tacit rules within the language-using community. Meaning therefore heavily rests upon the context of the use of language. Over time, contexts of language use and meaning change. Historians of knowledge and post-modernists such as Michel Foucault(2) have shown how knowledge, far from representational, is a constructive process done within social context and historical epoch.
In everyday life, we often observe that the specific significance or meaning of an event named in language is better understood in retrospect or hindsight. For example, the significance of a particular play in a football game is often better understood after the game is over. A particular incident as understood by the reader of a mystery novel changes in its significance after the entire novel is completed. Unlike capturing an event on photographic film, eye-witness testimony construes what is "observed" into the psychological context of the meaning system of the eye-witness.(3)
Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy observed that "our understanding of the past is altered because it initiates a new future."(4) Working from post-modernist perspective, Walter Brueggemann illustrates how characterization rather than definition may be the only intellectually honest way to depict an event or situation.
If we ask what the Gulf War of 1991 was, we may take it
- as a maintenance of order by the international community,
- as the protection of self-determination for Kuwait,
- as the defense of cheap oil,
- as George Bush's act of machismo, to shed the "wimp" label,
- as a mop-up for the British Empire in the Middle East, or
- as the defense of the state of Israel.
Formally, any one of these "ases" has as much credence as any other. None has privilege, and there is no ultimately right definition. Each is an act of interpretive construal that is in part argued and in part simply asserted, but which becomes a basis and warrant for policy decisions. A postmodern climate recognizes that there is no given definition and that the rival claims must simply be argued out.(5)
Implications of this argument change the conception of being human from one upon which events act in predictable ways, to an agent which is dynamically changing and evolving as one is drawn into the realization of the particularly understood future.
Ted Peters(6) suggests that a proleptic or anticipatory view of the present in relationship to the future gives one a glimpse of what the future might be like. Wolfhart Pannenberg asserts that human beings "are on the way to becoming what they are intended to be."(7) People live in a dilemma: in their egocentricity people strive to overcome that egocentricity and thereby unite experientially with the world. The dilemma is that one works through the ego in order to assert oneself into the world, but it is that very assertion of ego which keeps one separate from the other! At best, we get glimpses at what the non-egocentric world outside of one's self is like, but only in the moments following union in those occasions where we truly are open and non-ego involved enough to be receptive to the world outside of ourselves. The afterglow is short lived because of the attempt to recapture the moment by re-asserting the self (i.e., ego). For Pannenberg, the human ideal and destiny is peace or harmony between the ego and reality.
The Buddhist conception of dependent co-arising in which there is no separation between thought and the object of thought, led to interesting implications in the Sarvastivada school of Buddhism. Since the Sarvastivadins claimed that all thought had to have an "objective" referent in reality, they therefore assumed that thoughts about the future gave that future the status of being real. Edward Conze, in describing the Sarvastivadin logic, states: "Without an object no knowledge can arise, and all our knowledge would be restricted to the bare present."(8) If an idea can be thought of, the object of that thought including what is possible or what the future might be like must have a referent, albeit mental, in reality. Therefore, for the Sarvastivadins, time moves backwards from a realized, albeit mental, future to an incomplete and partial material present.
Similar to the Savastivadins, Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy reverses the order of time for the historian from future to past. ...The unfolding creation of humankind is not simple reading of the "facts" of history. Rather, it is an account, a historical narrative, that is governed by a "sense of the ending," a sense of the common horizon towards which the whole of humankind moves. In this way, then, the past can be appropriated as our collective autobiography.(9)
Destiny becomes the realization of one's future. Whatever the full realization will be, all of life leading up to it is partially shaping that realization. The meaning and significance of all events leading up to that future will only be partial and incompletely understood until the future is realized and the significance of past events can be understood in light of where those events have led.
In a broad way, then Sigmund Freud helps us to understand the significance of any act. All human actions ultimately lead to the same place--albeit by circuitous routes. In Freud's words: "The aim of all life is death."(10) In theological terms, one might say that the aim of all life is to leave the Self and to come into union with the forces of creation or one's Creator. Sigmund Freud's concept of "Thanatos" helps us to re-conceive of the determination of human action as both prediction and postdictive. Freud suggested that our actions are not only the result of the push from our origins--the "life instinct" or Eros--but each action thus "propelled," must also be conceived of as "pulling" us closer to our own deaths (Thanatos). Thus physical exercise, for example, not only builds strength and endurance, etc., but also moves along in the aging process. Of course, ultimately the forces of life are overcome by the forces of death to which we are drawn. Each action in our lives then represents being propelled by the energy of the life force (Eros), as well as represents being drawn into death (Thanatos).
The process of current "understanding" of the meaning of an event is differently understood when that event is absorbed into its future context. Given such a conception, the idea of "real," "true," or "ultimate" meaning of an event can only be relative to a point in time and the context accrued at that time in history. Any statement about meaning is always partial and given an incompleted context of understanding. How can psychologists use such insights and understanding in explaining human action?
David Rapaport(11) has suggested that there is value to postdiction in scientific understanding. Postdiction is used in both the social and natural sciences (e.g. history, the theory of evolution). As Rapaport states: "A theory is not invalidated by being postdictive, as long as postdiction is carefully distinguished from ex post facto explanation.(12) In light of vast cross-cultural, historical, and temporal variances, I suggest that even analyzing idiographic post-hoc or ex post facto explanations are legitimate in understanding how an event fits into its future, and that such analyses might be more helpful than the development of a nomothetic predictive calculus.
Past events are necessary conditions to understanding, but sufficient conditions for understanding are only possible after the event is drawn into future context. The problem for psychologists is that one cannot know the significance of any particular present event until the future--any particular future--into which it is drawn has materialized. That future, too, may have very local meanings depending upon the context of understander--that is, just as in the case of the Gulf War of 1991, the meanings may not be necessarily mutually exclusive.
The problem of knowing the future before it occurs will not be overcome. However, to presuppose that the future is a "blank slate" and is infinitely malleable may be a view that needs reexamination in light of the constraints of the world and living--namely the confines of reality. Rather than being past determinants of the future, reality, and more importantly, our encounter with it, may be better conceived as partial glimpses of a future already becoming yet incomplete. Understanding human behavior, rather than merely elucidating antecedent conditions, is intrinsically a problem in the interpretation of meaning or significance. The meaning of any given event or action in one's life is not ascertainable without the context of the future into which the behavior is drawn. It might be more instructive to the psychologist to attempt to discern the meaningful whole toward which the behavior is moving in order to gauge a behavior's qualitative significance, rather than to attempt to isolate it as a discrete event with local contextual meaning which is the culmination of antecedent conditions. The future, and hence the significance of the present in light of the future, may be known in partial but fully contextual ways in the same way as we know about what the Gulf War was about (see Brueggemann above). Our knowledge, while malleable as history progresses and our understanding of the significance of the Gulf War changes, is not incomplete--our understandings are as complete and total as our realized present context allows us to understand the past. Our current knowledge of the significance of the Gulf War in history is no more inferior than will our understanding of the significance of the Gulf War will be in another decade--as a not yet and becoming history unfolds. The problem is always one of ascribing "ultimate meaning" to the present, given an incompletely realized future. To assume meaning and significance is endurable is to be epistemologically and hermeneutically presumptuous.
Therefore, when it comes to understanding human action, it seems that understanding needs to occur within the current context, given glimpses of what the significances of the act might be in the future. A thoroughgoing understanding of an action's significance based upon past determinants does not account for the constructive malleability of meaning as time passes. At best, meaning qualified by coordinates of time and place is the only guaranteed authenticity that the reporter and interpreter of human behavior can give. Likewise, future understandings need to be similarly qualified by time and place. Lastly, the seriousness and gravity of meaning as represented by human action ought to be also qualified by the appropriateness of such a response in light of the time and place of both the actor and the interpreter.
Brueggemann, Walter. Texts Under Negotiation: The Bible and Postmodern Imagination. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993.
Bryant, M. Darrol. "The Grammar of the Spirit: Time, Speech, and Society," in Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy: Studies in his Life and Thought Toronto Studies in Theology, ed. M Darrol Bryant and Hans R. Huessy, Vol. 28. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen, 1986
Buckhout, Robert. "Psychology of the Eyewitness." In Psychology and Life, 9th ed., P. G. Zimbardo. Glenview, Ill.: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1977
Conze, Edward. Buddhist Thought in India: Three Phases of Buddhist Philosophy. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1962.
Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things. New York: Pantheon, 1970.
Freud, Sigmund. Beyond the Pleasure Principle. New York: Liveright, 1928; Bantam, 1959.
Pannenberg, Wolfhart. What is Man?: Contemporary Anthropology in Theological Perspective. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1962.
Peters, Ted. God--The World's Future: Systematic Theology for a Postmodern Era. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992.
Rapaport, David. "The Structure of Psychoanalytic Theory: A Systematizing Attempt," Psychological Issues, No. 6, New York: International Universities Press, 1960.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. 3d ed. New York: Macmillan, 1953.
1. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, 3d ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1953)
2. Michel Foucault, The Order of Things, (New York: Pantheon, 1970)
3. Robert Buckhout, "Psychology of the Eyewitness," in P. G. Zimbardo, Psychology and Life, 9th ed., (Glenview, Ill.: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1977)
4. M. Darrol Bryant, "The Grammar of the Spirit: Time, Speech, and Society," in Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy: Studies in his Life and Thought, Toronto Studies in Theology, 28, ed. M Darrol Bryant and Hans R. Huessy (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen, 1986), 240
5. Walter Brueggemann, Texts Under Negotiation: The Bible and Postmodern Imagination (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), 14-15.
6. Ted Peters, God--The World's Future: Systematic Theology for a Postmodern Era. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992).
7. Wolfhart Pannenberg What is Man?: Contemporary Anthropology in Theological Perspective (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1962), 54.
8. Edward Conze, Buddhist Thought in India: Three Phases of Buddhist Philosophy (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1962), 139.
9. Bryant, ibid., 237.
10. Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle (New York: Liveright, 1928; Bantam, 1959), 70.
11. David Rapaport, "The Structure of Psychoanalytic Theory: A Systematizing Attempt," Psychological Issues, No. 6, New York: International Universities Press, 1960.
12. Rapaport, ibid., 15.