The future and the future tense

Since it first occurred to me that there was a real difficulty with the assumed freedom to decide how to act and so with grounding moral responsibility, which was in my year off between school and university, it has been, along with the connected mystery of consciousness, the philosophical problem which has preoccupied me above all others. It was Kant who understood the centrality and difficulty of this problem and for that reason he has been to me a touchstone of excellence down the years. Some thirty years ago I read a paper by Martin Gardner, The Mystery of Free Will, which was perhaps all the better for being by a non-philosopher, and his position, that the question could never be resolved, seemed likely to be as good an answer as there would ever be for those of us who saw compatibilism as totally inadequate for providing a basis for moral responsibility. I now think that both Wittgenstein and Heidegger have a rather different take on the problem which arises from their immense respect for the largely anonymous collective achievement that is our natural language. I vaguely remember too the admonition of the Oxford philosopher, Austin, not to suppose we can determine linguistic usage from the depths of an armchair. I have probably misquoted, I cannot locate the sentence, but I do so love the sentiment.

In an inflected language, such as Latin or Greek, the future tense is distinctly different from the present or past tenses. I believe that there is some evidence that during the long twilight of the Roman Empire, the use of the Latin future tense also declined. Whether this was from a general fatigue or an habitual preference for nostalgia will I suppose remain unknown. The future tense of the romance languages shows evidence of being an agglutination of the root verb and an attached auxiliary (have – avoir/aurai Fr. avere/avro It.). Long after my school days, I was amused to learn that one could avoid using the future tense in French by the simple expedient of a rather inelegant construction with aller. For example, “I am going to buy some roast chicken” becomes “Je vais acheter du poulet roti.”

Dipping into Fowler”s Modern English Usage, one finds oneself in the presence of a conservative spirit, who cares passionately about the English language. He seems constantly to be fighting a losing battle against a coarsening of sensibility through the erosion of shades of meaning. I will not (NB not ‘I shall not’) attempt to summarise here Fowler’s extensive entry on Shall and Will (also should and would), but it is, in my opinion, astonishing both in its commitment to preserving a discriminatory feature of our language and in its philosophical significance. I will however continue this discussion in my next post on “Ordinary Language”.

Published by davidcookpoet

I am a husband, father and grandfather. I retired from a busy working life as an adult psychiatrist in 2014. My interests are in literature, philosophy, modern jazz and horse racing. I might represent those four fields by Shakespeare, Kant, Charlie Parker and Lester Piggott. Like nearly all of us, I can identify a number of formative experiences, one of which was a psychotic episode in my first year as a psychiatrist. This reinforced an already established interest in mystical experience, and a sense of how little human beings know. My intellectual bugbear is reductive materialism, and I am surprised at the lack of moral imagination of those who promulgate such views. It seems to me they need to consider ,perhaps by exposure, just why totalitarianism is so horrific.

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