Can We Intend the Past?

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In the burgeoning literature on the rationality of regret, Jay Wallace’s
The View from Here has played an important role. It is a book full of provocative and gripping ideas. One such idea concerns the way in which our love
and attachment may, and often do, implicate us in the wrongs and evils of the
past. In particular, Wallace argues that our love and attachment involve something like a willingness to bring about the necessary conditions for the existence of their objects, even when those conditions involve wrongs and evils that we should not be willing to bring about. Therefore, the persons and things that are most important to us implicate us in their morally dubious genealogy.
Wallace calls the backward unfurling of intention due to one’s present attachments the affirmation dynamic. Some have found the affirmation dynamic plausible and offered further defense of it. Others have found plausible a qualified version of the affirmation dynamic. I argue that the affirmation dynamic is impossible, at least as Wallace construes it. In particular, I argue that the idea that we may have intention-like attitudes about the past is fundamentally confused. It betrays a misguided conception of retrospection as involving a choice between courses of history. As an alternative to this timeless conception of retrospection, I briefly propose that retrospection is diachronic: it begins after the moment of choice or action has passed and unfolds over time and in accordance with its own standards of appropriateness. Contrary to Wallace’s view, affirming and regretting the past involve no longer viewing it as a matter of choice.
Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)304-311
JournalJournal of Ethics and Social Philosophy
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2017


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