What we can know, and what we can understand, is so influenced by our location in time that it is impossible for us to disentangle that influence and get a clear look at it. It governs not only our knowledge of our present history and our present future but even our present knowledge of our present society. We cannot see it in perspective.

[Ultimate questions, Bryan Magee]

I don't know the use of "present" before "future". Does it mean "happening"?

Anyway, what does "in perspective mean" in the last sentence?

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    He is discussing our 'location in time'. Our present future is the future that we contemplate in the present, and is contrasted with our 'present history' (the history we have now). Jul 24, 2022 at 14:57
  • Consider being in August 2001 and contemplating the future for the US. This was before the events of 9/11. The "present future" in those days did not include "the war on terror" or the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq. Then the future changed
    – Flydog57
    Jul 25, 2022 at 16:44

2 Answers 2


The paragraph before provides important context:

The future is full. We just do not yet know what it is. The events that will fill it are as concrete, factual and specific as those that fill our past.

The "full" future will have as much substance as every moment we experienced in the past, but we cannot know what will happen. The "present future" in this context is the future as best can be predicted from what we know in the present. (Similarly, the "present history" is history as we know it now in the present, after some details have been lost to time.)

If we were able to see things in perspective we would be able to take a (metaphorical) step back and get the big picture, which is much more than we can see in the present. But of course we can't — we're stuck in the present so that's the only way we can see things.

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    @XVI This is a good answer; you should give it and other helpful answers to your questions a check. I'll just add, in case it's not obvious, that "present future" is not a term that's in general use - it may have been made up by this author for his own purposes.
    – cruthers
    Jul 25, 2022 at 14:06

I cannot say that I find this to be well written at all.

Strictly speaking, the “present future” can only imply a total rejection of determinism. If, however, that is the intended meaning, it is a very vague way to convey it.

“see in perspective” is often used as a catch phrase to mean “understand what is important and relevant.” The meaning here is that, amidst the overwhelming number of observations of the immediate present, it is impossible to know which will turn out to be important in the future.

What I expect is meant by “present future” is “present expectations for the future.”

The passage is a deliberately obscure and pretentious way to say that

Anyone’s understanding of the future significance of current events is at best imperfect.

That is so obviously true that no one would buy a book that says that plainly.

EDIT: I have looked up the author. He was, among other things, a poet. Poets should stay away from philosophy.

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    I find it quite plain and not at all badly written. I started listening to his BBC broadcasts in the 1970s. Jul 24, 2022 at 14:59
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    You and I shall have to disagree on this one. I can make no sense whatsoever out of “present history.” Jul 24, 2022 at 15:08

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