On Thur, Feb 24, 2011 at 17:12:01
Brian asked this question:
President Obama used the phrase 'the fierce urgency of now'. I understand 'now' likely functions rhetorically as being current times. However, can the now be urgent? The present is the present.
My first reaction to this question was, 'How typically Obama, to over-egg the pudding. What could be stronger, rhetorically, than 'the urgency of now'? Why does the urgency have to be 'fierce'? 'Urgency' is already an urgent word. Then I saw the U-Tube clip Senator Obama on the stump in Milwaukee MI on 15 February 2008 and caught the attribution to 'Dr King'.
Here is the original quote, from Dr Martin Luther King's famous 'I have a dream' speech, delivered 28 August 1963, at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC:
We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children.
Whoever has transcribed the speech has taken care to capitalize the word 'Now'. When Dr King spoke, his audience didn't need persuading that this was a truly momentous time, a turning point in American history. This was a time over which battles had been fought and were continuing to be fought, a time for anger, heroism, and fierce resolve. The words are apposite.
That doesn't get Obama off the hook. Obama offers as an example of why now is so fiercely urgent while the audience of supporters and party workers wildly cheer him on the fact that 'people... have never paid more for gas at the pumps'. One feels there ought to be a law against this kind of thing. A historical and literary treasure, studied in schools up and down the land, pillaged for sound bites!
No matter. I'm not taking into account the wider context, American politics, where theatricality and going over the top is part of the hallowed tradition. Overlooking the banal example (chosen for 'ordinary folks'), maybe it did seem to those caught up in the emotion of the hustings that this was a 'defining moment in American history', even though such defining moments seem to occur rather more frequently than a defining moment ought to do.
OK, but what's this got to do with philosophy? I picked Brian's question because it has a strong resonance for me. There is an issue about now which admittedly has nothing to do with the question whether this particular time has any special historical significance. Every now is urgent, at the time when we consider it. This very moment, as I tap the keys on my computer keyboard and watch these words appear on the screen, is a unique time, the time that I have reached in 60 years of life on this planet. The rest of my life begins now.
I have wrestled with this question for as long as I have had an interest in philosophy, and that's two thirds of my life.
Paradoxically, the very fact that you have singled out one particular now amongst all the nows you could have singled out, already gives it a special significance, regardless of external considerations. We fill our minutes, hours and days with activity, we don't notice the perpetual birth and death of each individual now. Yet if you just stop to reflect, just for one moment, the train crashes to halt. This time is unique, and special, as no other time in the history of the universe could possibly be.
There is an existential resonance. I can change the entire course of my life if I choose to, now. Maybe that's part of it?
The technical term for the property which the word 'now' has, which it shares with terms such as 'this', 'that', 'he', 'she', 'I', 'you', 'here', 'there' is indexicality. An indexical expression derives an essential part of its meaning from the actual circumstances of utterance. 'Now' refers to the time of utterance. These circumstances resist definition in general terms. It is generally agreed that natural language could not function without indexical expressions, even though it is possible to replace particular occurrences of indexicals with a non-indexical description.
The semantics for indexical expressions is an issue in the philosophy of language. We need indexicals, yet there are some quite tricky issues to resolve if one is seeking to give a systematic account of how these expressions are used, as part of a theory of meaning for natural language. However, what the various theories of indexicals have in common is a form of generalization which applies to all 'thises', all 'nows' etc. That's what makes it a theory. The individual cases, actual examples of the use of 'this' or 'now', are its 'theorems'.
What this all boils down to is that there is no possible way in which I could express in words the 'specialness' or 'uniqueness' of now which doesn't automatically translate into an explanation of why every 'now' is unique and special. Or, equivalently, why leaving aside contingent historical circumstances, no now is either unique, or special. As I state laconically in Ch.18 of Naive Metaphysics, 'Every time gets its turn to be now.'
Brian concedes that a tautology can sometimes serve a rhetorical purpose. Wittgenstein comments in an often-quoted passage, ''War is war' is not an example of the law of identity, either' (Philosophical Investigations p.221). What is meant by the remark, 'War is war' is something like, 'What do you expect? In war, innocent people die.' When your boss says, 'Now is now' in that particular urgent tone of voice, what he means is, 'I want you to do the task I set you now, not in half-an-hour's time!'
Typing these words, I think of the number of times I have looked at this question and not made one inch of progress. I feel I know that of all the times that have been or will be, this time, now, is different and yet nothing I can say suffices to convey that difference. 'What you can't say, you can't say, and you can't whistle it either' (C.D. Broad, commenting on the last paragraph of Wittgenstein's Tractatus the allusion is to Wittgenstein's skill at whistling entire concertos, note perfect). In half an hour's time, reading these words back, the metaphysical urgency will no longer be there. What I referred to as 'now' will be merely 'then', one of many nows that I have threaded my way through as I progress through my life, like so many beads on a string.
When I started composing my answer to Brian, just for a moment I thought, or imagined, that it was possible that this time will be different, this time I will succeed in thinking something about nowness of now that I have never thought before. I haven't. I didn't. It all comes back to the same thing. I don't see this as a defeat, but rather as assertion of my vigilance as a metaphysically minded philosopher. There are certain problems, certain questions and this is one of them which you must never let go of. It's part of experiencing the wonder.