"The changeability of the past. A hidden connection between Peter Damian and Hans Jonas."

February 15, 2011 - 16:30 - 18:15
Zrinyi u. 14
Event type: 
Event audience: 
György László Geréby

The CEU Department of Philosophy cordially invites you to a talk

(as part of its Departmental Colloquium series) by

György Geréby (CEU Medieval Studies)


"The changeability of the past. A hidden connection between Peter Damian and Hans Jonas."


The lecture attempts to substantiate the following theses: 1. that under his own theological assumptions Hans Jonas’ (1903 - 1993) argument for the existence of an absolute mind implies that the past is changeable, 2. that in this he joins the club of an interesting group of scholastics theologians, like Peter Damian (c. 1007 – 1072) who argue to the same effect, 3. that their arguments show that the past is changeable under certain conditions, 4. that history is fundamentally a normative discipline even if its program is about objective truth, and 5. in a non-theological context in can still be maintained that the best objective account of the past is the best possible retroactive extrapolation of presently available facts.  

The joint concern of Jonas and Peter is the necessity of the past. Since the past does not exist anymore, it can not be otherwise, therefore it seems to be necessary. However, the non-existence of the past makes truth-claims about the past mysterious. History, therefore, runs the risk to become solely rhetoric, or just politics of the present.  

Jonas in a 1990 article argued that the objective truth of the past needs a guarantor by which the truth of the past can be retained. Knowledge about the past can be annihilated, but the facts of the past ought to resist annihilation. From this Jonas concludes that there has to be an absolute intellect which safeguards the possibility of true/false distinction about the past. Jonas, however, also says in another article that it is inconsistent to maintain together the following three divine attributes: absolute goodness, absolute power (omnipotence), and comprehensibility (intelligibility). I will show that he also has to concede that his God must be capable of changing the past.  

Jonas’ ideas will be for the first time compared to similar scholastic problems. Peter Damian maintained that past facts, being elements of a created past are fundamentally contingent. If the past were simply necessary, this necessity of past truth (and its consequences for the present) would imply a compromise on divine omnipotence and freedom. Since God’s omnipotence for most scholastics was only limited by the law of non-contradiction, the question was transformed into the problem whether changing the past would infringe on this principle. Peter invents an ingenious new argument to refute the standard position to the opposite (suggested e.g. by Augustine).