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Benjamin Herborth

Temporality and Agency: A pragmatist perspective

Triggered by ideas of Bergson and Heidegger in particular, there has been abundant work on questions of time and temporality. Only rarely, however, have the methodological implications of different conceptualizations of time been reflected. The issue of temporality has, by and large, remained a purely philosophical one - interesting in itself, but without any ramifications for practical research. Based on the internal relation between contingency, agency, and temporality - as opposed to the internal relation between law-like generalization, determinism, and subjectivism in neo-positivist accounts -, we will argue that different conceptualizations of time are well-suited to illustrate the differences between two fundamentally different perspectives in social science methodology, namely a logic of subsumtion and a logic of reconstruction.
From the perspective of a logic of subsumtion scientific explanation consists of the subsumtion of particular events under general covering laws. Research thus essentially becomes a quest for empirical generalization. Correspondingly, causality comes in the form of general laws, agency, contingency and creativity end up in the "error term", and change is conceived of as the observation of different synchronic values of a particular variable over time. Apart from the fact that such a strategy of comparative statics deliberately fails to grasp what actually accounts for the difference between two synchronic observations (a problem we will discuss in more detail below), the subsumtionist understanding of change apparently hinges on a Newtonian understanding of time, "which conceived of all bodies as points of mass that could be unequivocally located in an absolute space, time was thought of as a mere standard, external to physical objects, for the measurement of movement" (Joas 1985: 171).
A logic of reconstruction, in contrast, replaces the focus on law-like generalization with an interest in complexity of structures of "meaning-in-use" (Milliken 1999, Wiener 2004). The task of research is then to reconstruct how in a particular context a horizon of possibilities (objective possibilities in the Weberian sense) is constituted and how and why one of the possibilities is then selected, or maybe rather "acted out". This involves a crucial shift in the concept of observation. While a logic of subsumtion relies on a statistical concept of observation and thus calls for maximizing observation points even in so-called qualitative research (cf. King/Keohane/Verba 1994), a logic of reconstruction starts from the contingent observation of particular actors in praxis, or to put it more in more general terms, from praxis that leaves traces in the form of protocols, which then allow for a second-order observation. While a logic of subsumtion assumes that theories need to reduce complexity, a logic of reconstruction seeks to trace how complexity is reduced in practice in the first place. In this context, Niklas Luhmann, although not necessarily considered a proponent of interpretive empirical research, has pointed out that consequently theory does not need to reduce complexity in a second turn, for the infinite complexity of the world as already been made intelligible through first-order observations in practice.
It follows from the rejection of the assumption of an independent point of observation that time, too, is relative on the contingent perspective of an observer. A correspondent understanding of time, inspired in fact by the theory of relativity and the irritations it had caused, has been presented most explicitly in George Herbert Mead's Philosophy of the Present. Mead rejects both a philosophy of the past, characterized by a mechanistic determinism represented in Newtonianism, and a philosophy of future, characterized by teleological philosophy of history. "In Mead's view, a philosophy of the past regards the present and the future as mere concatenations of effects, resulting from causes which are effective now and for all time ... In contrast, a philosophy of the future turns such mechanistic determinism on its head and sees the present as merely a stage in t a process, the final goal of which was fixed prior to all history" (Joas 1985: 168). Mead thus starts in a rather straightforward manner: "The subject of this lecture is found in the proposition that reality exists in a present. The present of course implies a past and a future, and to these both we deny existence" (Mead 1959: 1). The proposition that "reality exists in a present" does not, however, lead to a conceptualization of time as the "mere succession of now-points" (Merleau-Ponty cf. Joas 1985: 171). It is instructive, in this context, how Joas (1985: 172) traces the conceptual history of the corresponding notion of a "specious present".
First used by "Edmund Clay, a proponent of a punctual present in the sense of an unavoidable deviation of human perception from the exactitude of measurement", the term acquired the opposite meaning in William James, who conceives of the specious present as "the true present, form which the punctual present was only an abstraction, which might be justified for certain purposes of measurement and science, but which could not claim to represent the character of time. This step opened the way for the idea of a non-punctual time that instead flowed; in addition the insight that physical time was constituted directed attention to the question of the temporality of the constituting dimension itself."
While Mead shares an interest in these constitutive aspects with James (and Bergson), he forcefully rejects their focus on "introspective experience". Where Bergson and James propose a subjectivist understanding of temporality, Mead begins to search for a theory of the intersubjective constitution of temporality; and this is where his discussion becomes particularly interesting in relation to questions of methodology.
Temporality, according to Mead (1959: 33, emphasis added), is constituted through emergent events. "These events always have characters of uniqueness. Time can only arise through the ordering of passage by these unique events". Emergent events are capable of structuring time precisely because they thrust themselves forward, as Joas has put it. Mead (1959: 33) is interested in events because he sees them as representing novelty, which in turn allows him to conceive that from "causal nexuses effects can emerge which are not reducible to their causes."

While it is clear that the present follows from the past, the question of how precisely it does so is indeterminate, contingent upon its particular reconstruction, or rendition, in the present. Hence, "reconstruction of the past is begun by the new event. New events constitute new pasts. A definitive reconstruction of the past would be possible only if no more new events could occur, in other words, only under the condition that history were concluded, if there were no future." (Joas 1985: 178). While past and future are constituted in the present, at the same time (past) experience and (future) expectations thus shape any particular reconstruction in the present. Mead thus rejects both an idiographic view of history as represented in a naive Ranke-type historicisim that seeks to unravel "wie es eigentlich gewesen ist", and a nomothetic view of science that seeks to subsume particular events under general laws. Despite the agency Mead attributes to (re-)constructions of past and future in the present, he does not propose an agentic anything goes, for any particular reconstruction has to stand a test of practice, has to prevail in a competition among alternative reconstructions (more on this below). Giving up the notion of a "past in itself" is thus by no means a scientific deficiency, it rather allows for an adequate incorporation of the constitution of temporality. Historians might still agree to a considerable degree about "the past", but still, they would hold a "truth which belongs to this present, and a later present would reconstruct it from the standpoint of its own emergent nature" (Mead 1959: 31).
It is precisely on account of Mead's focus on the intersubjective constitution of events (cf. Jackson 2004) that the present is not as infinitely specious as James and Bergson seemed to assume. "The emergence of a common time-perspective", as Joas (1985: 191) puts it, "is, then, bound to the constitution of a common world through common praxis ... The reason why a common time-perspective can be constituted in a common praxis is that time is structured in an action taking place in the present." This, finally, allows Mead to recognize what Joas (1985: 192) calls the "temporal structure of self-reflection. In self-reflection the actor does not turn back upon himself in a frozen present - as in a mirror - but reflects upon the future possibilities in the present conditions, which issue from the past. Selfhood for Mead does not consist in immobilely remaining identical with oneself; rather, it is the continuously active, reconstructive processing of occurrences and the planning of actions." Re-interpretations of past and future thus pertain to the transformation of an actor's very identity.
It should be noted that attributing significant agency to such re-interpretations does not entail the neglect of long-term structural effects. Instead of depicting the longue durée as essentially static, however, they are conceived of as sedimentations of social practices. The metaphor of sedimentation indicates that social practices as they persist over time constitute layers of routinization. Even the most deeply routinized practices, however, need to be reproduced in actu - and thus might become problematic and subject to change. Hence, in this context the pragmatist distinction between problematic and routine situations corresponds to the distinction between a politics of history - where history is made problematic and explicit - and a sedimentation of social practices where routinized patterns of action are reproduced without being made explicit. Disclosing how these problematic and routine aspects are interwoven requires a focus on concrete, specific transactions - and thus, methodologically, a logic of reconstruction.


Jackson, Patrick Thaddeus 2004: The Present as History, mimeo.
Joas, Hans 1985: G.H. Mead: A Contemporary Re-examination of his Thought, Cambridge, MA.
Mead, George Herbert 1959 (1932): The Philosophy of the Present, La Salle, IL.
Milliken, Jennifer (1999) 'The Study of Discourse in International Relations: A
Critique of Research and Methods', European Journal of International Relations
5(2): 225-54.
Wiener, Antje 2004: Contested Compliance: Interventions on the Normative Structure of World Politics, in: European Journal of International Relations 10: 2, 189-234.