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  • Writer's pictureFred Guerin

On The Manifold Understandings of Time and the Phenomenology of Temporality

Gollum's Riddle

This thing all things devours:

Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;

Gnaws iron, bites steel;

Grinds hard stones to meal;

Slays king, ruins town,

And beats high mountain down.

The Ancient Greeks and Time

Did time have a beginning? If so, will it have an ending? Is time experienced differently in different parts of the universe—or in distinct cultures or different historical epochs? Is time ‘real or just an illusion? Perhaps time, like history and life is just ‘one damn thing after another’!

In Greek mythology Chronos is the (three-headed!) god who emerged at the dawn of time and was thereby understood as the personification of time—three heads, past, present, future! But, interestingly, the ancient Greeks had two words for time: Chronos and Kairos. ‘Chronos’ can be understood in a modern sense through words like chronological or chronology, where time is measured serially and quantitatively in seconds, minutes or hours. Kairos, by contrast, is not quantitative time but qualitative time—for example we often say ‘there is a right time’ to say or do something.

Ancient Greek philosophy turns away from mythic origins in order to discover natural explanations of the world of nature and the universe. Initially, they were much more interested in the notion of change than they were in the idea of time. How was it possible, they wondered, for the same thing to change and yet still remain the same? Plants, trees, insects, reptiles mammals, all change but yet remain the same. When we look at old photos of ourselves over the span of years, we see how much we’ve changed. And yet, in some important sense we are still the same person in every one of those pictures. There seems to be a kind of psychological or existential constancy ‘inside’ of us that allows us to presume we are the same person despite the gray hair or false teeth!

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus is said to have claimed that we cannot step into the same river twice. What did he mean? I think he meant that a river, like everything else in the world is always in a state of flux—a river, much like a human body, a dog, a tree, a mountain, a continent undergoes constant change. But what does change itself presuppose? For Plato, the fact that things are always changing meant there could be no knowledge, because knowledge can only be of that which is stable and does not change. He was unhappy with Heraclitus’s conclusion because he believed we could in fact know the world despite the fact that things change. He argued that there was a real world behind the changing world—a realm of essential and universal Forms that were stable, unchanging and the condition for the possibility of knowledge. For Plato the world of human time was not ‘real’ but a mere copy of the ‘Real’ or Ideal Form of Time understood as ‘timelessness’ or eternity.

By contrast, Aristotle believed time was real and that it was tied to motion and change. To say something has changed was for him to say that it changed from ‘something’ to ‘something else’—there was the thing ‘before’ the change and the thing ‘after’ the change. The interval between the ‘before’ and the ‘after’ is precisely ‘time’—that is, time as a continuous succession of ‘instants’ or ‘now’s’ that can be counted. Accordingly, Aristotle would say that change involves motion, and motion presupposes time—things move in time. Indeed, without the presupposition of time, the notion of change would make no sense. Thus, for Aristotle, time is the condition of possibility for any natural phenomena.

To Everything there is a time...

To everything turn, turn, turn There is a season turn, turn, turn And a time to every purpose Under heaven

A time to be born, a time to die A time to plant, a time to reap A time to kill, a time to heal A time to laugh, a time to weep

Back in the 50's Pete Seeger took a page out of the book of Ecclesiastes, but he ended it with a very Seegerish plea for peace in a time of cold war and looming hot war: "a time for peace, I swear it's not too late." Seeger wanted us to turn towards a time for the embrace of peace. The establishment refused to listen. Their incapacity to hear what young people were saying in protests on the streets was what in inspired Bob Dylan in the 1960's to warn politicians, writers, mothers and fathers to wake up to the fact that ‘the times they were a’changin’.

That was time in the time of politics. What of time itself? Is time a universal constant, or does the very concept of time vary in different epochs, different social contexts or cultures? We often talk of time in multiple ways: linear clock time, nature’s cyclical time, the timelessness of great art, the vast immeasurable expanse of cosmological time, the eternity of God or gods versus the transient time presupposed in human finitude. Below are just a few of the many faces of time.

The View from Physics: Cosmological Time

Both Plato and Isaac Newton believed in absolute time, a concept independent of space—and indeed of objects. In the Principia Mathematica Newton claimed that ‘absolute’ time exists independently of any perceiver, and progresses at a consistent pace throughout the universe—it was imperceptible and could only be understood through mathematics. By contrast, ‘relative’ or ‘human time is perceived through objects in motion—like the sun or moon—and can be measured. From Einstein’s relativistic perspective, time is not a constant—indeed it is not ‘time’ that is absolutized but rather the observer who perceives time! Einstein’s theories merge time and space into a single fabric—spacetime. The implications of such a conception are quite bizarre, and yet can be measured empirically with atomic clocks. For example, time passes slower for objects moving near the speed of light. Thus, if your twin sister were to travel (close to the speed of light) to a distant star and return again, less time would have elapsed for her than for you who were left behind on earth. Einstein’s special and general theories of relativity displaced the notion of absolute time in favor of spacetime and curved spacetime. Yet even Einstein’s relativity theories are not the last word on time from the perspective of physics and cosmology. With quantum mechanics new ideas about time begin to emerge that conflict with general relativity, and present a world even more bizarre than curved spacetime—to the point where time seems, once again, to be illusory. We need not delve into the complexities to conclude that the debate about time rages on in physics!

Einstein thought that time was an illusion. But illusion or not, time passes for human beings: it disciplines, orients, defines and as Gollum would have it, finally devours us! The problem is that while physics can tell us how things vary as a function of time, it does not really tell us what time is, or what it means. Could it be that this is where philosophy can give us a clue? Despite the arrogant claim made by some scientists that science is the one and only true path to knowledge, truth and reality, the scientific method is but one way of looking at the world—and as we shall soon discover, not the only way we can understand the phenomena of time. There is also phenomenological time—or time understood through human lived experience. In addition to the traditional conception of linear sequential time as a feature of nature we will also begin to see time as embodied in our social practices, self-interpretations, natural rhythms, ethical reflections and spiritual meditations.

The Human Experience of Time

How does time fit into the human equation? Is time a necessary illusion that we just assume for certain pragmatic purposes? Physically, or at least biologically, we undergo constant cell renewal in different tissues over time—we get taller and sometimes wider (!), our fingernails grow, our hair grows—even our ears grow! As we age over time, our skin dries out and wrinkles, our hair turns grey and our bones become more brittle. So, from a human embodied perspective it seems time does, in fact, exist in a very real way.

What about time as a psychological or existential phenomenon? Does being conscious presuppose the existence of time? If being conscious is being aware of a present moment as distinct from a past or future moment, then the answer must be: ‘yes’! Human awareness, human consciousness presupposes time’. But what exactly is it that we are ‘aware’ of when we are aware being ‘in time’? Is it not a series of instantaneous ‘now’ moments? If so, how are these ‘now’ moments related to each other? Do we somehow gather them into a unity? If so, it would be a very unstable unity, since the moment we gathered all the instants together, many more moments in time would have occurred. Is the past moment I experienced a second ago the same, or entirely different from the present moment I now experience? Will it be different again from the future moment I anticipate? It certainly seems that all three moments—past, present and future are in some sense related.

But the ‘moment’ I experience right now cannot be exactly the same as the ‘moment’ I experienced previously—otherwise it would be pointless to talk about the ‘now’ moment as distinct from the moment before or the moment after. If it were exactly the same, then each moment would appear to be like every other moment. If every moment were like every other moment, then it seems we would be experiencing one simultaneous moment. However, if this is really the case, would we not then have to conclude that, at least in our ‘conscious’ experience, time stands still? Now, if we conclude that ‘time stands still’ are we not simultaneously saying that time really does not exist? Moreover, if time no longer exists does not consciousness as the consciousness of moments of sequential time also cease to exist? If every moment is the same as every other moment, then are we not left with the absurd conclusion that time is just an illusion after all?

But Wait! If there were no such thing as time would not everything happen at once? Is that not just an absurdity? Moreover, how could I even write the sentence I am now writing, and how could you make sense of it if the writing and reading of it did not occur over a span of time? Does not the very existence of language testify to the reality of time? If time is an illusion, then so is logic—for we can only assume that logic exists if we assert that a premise is prior in time to the conclusion it entails. It takes time to go from premises to conclusion: If all men are mortal, and Fred is a man, then Fred must be mortal. It took you about three or four seconds to logically move from the universal premise (All men are mortal) to the particular conclusion, ‘Fred must be a mortal’.

How about this then: Even though it may appear as if the present moment seems very much like the past moment, the existence of time must presuppose that every present moment be regarded as something absolutely new—something we can newly experience in each succeeding ‘now’ moment. Not only would this ‘now moment’ be new, it would have to be, as new, unforeseeable—each present moment would be characterized as the springing up of a fresh new moment, distinct from the last moment. This has to be true…doesn’t it? Well, one way to test the truth of a proposition is to falsify it.

Assume then, that each new moment is not a wholly new, distinctive and unforeseeable moment. If this is indeed the case, then each new moment would not be new, but very much like the last moment. But now we are back to our old problem: time would be a repetition of the same moment over and over again. As we said, if time were the same moment over and over again, time itself it would cease to exist—once again it would be as if we were just ‘standing still’ in an eternal ‘present’ moment. Both past and future would have been entirely abolished.

Okay, so we can conclude that each moment of time is somehow new and distinct from every other moment—each moment is new and never to be repeated again. Have we now figured out the elusive relation between consciousness and time? Well, not really. After all, does it not seem kind of ‘crazy’ or irrational to say that each present moment must be a new fresh moment distinct from and entirely unlike the last moment? Would not saying this be saying that there could be no such thing as continuity? In other words, must not the present moment be in some way continuous with or related to the previous moment? If there were no such a thing as continuity how could we relate the present to the past or the future? What kind of a legal system would we have if we could not decide cases based on the contrast between distinctiveness and similarity? What sort of an ethics would we be left with if we could not assume that the future will be continuous with the present—even if it is not exactly the same? How could we predict with any certainty that the train will be on time; that it will probably rain tomorrow, or that John will keep his promise and show up for dinner?

It seems we are trapped in a paradox—we must hold to two contradictory notions: 1. That each moment in time is distinct, unrepeatable and different from every other moment; 2. That moments in time are somehow connected, repeatable and continuous with each other. Perhaps there just are no such things as ‘moments’ in time—time just flows continuously and we arbitrarily break it up into discrete moments. However, if there are no ‘moments’ in time, then what sense can we make of the notion of experiencing a ‘now’ or a ‘then’ or a ‘to be’? Somehow, it must be the case that the moment I experience ‘now’ is both different from yet continuous with the moment I experienced in the past, and the one I will experience next. In other words, the present moment must be able to stretch out into the past and also extend out into the future. But how? By what means or mechanism do we bring two seemingly contradictory notions of time together? What is it that allows us to think that moments in time can be distinct yet continuous, repeatable yet new? Is it logic? Imagination? Faith?

Perhaps from the perspective of human consciousness what can both distinguish and bring such moments together in some kind of continuity is simply meaningfulness. In other words, we can say that human conscious experience not only presupposes the existence of time, but must also presuppose meaning. From the perspective of meaningfulness, time as a human phenomena does not just mark the passage of successive moments, but allows the latter to becomes meaningful to us because it allows us to understand in the present moment who we have been, who we are and where we wish to be. To put this in another way, our lived experience is ‘moment to moment time’ as ‘temporality’—that is, time as a ‘present’ that both stretches back into the past, and reaches out toward a possible future. How does this work?

Time and Narrative: The Temporal and the Ethical

So, is there another kind of time—a humanizing or existential time? Here, I think, is where can first begin to talk of time phenomenologically as ‘temporality’—that is, as human ‘lived time’ understood through notions of remembrance, anticipation, promise-making and articulated through narratives or stories of remembered individual and collective pasts, and anticipated futures. That, at any rate is what what both Martin Heidegger and Paul Ricoeur, among others have tried in different ways to articulate.

While linear time is about the flow of time as a continual series of present ‘now’s’, temporality is a notion of time that assumes the present moment is not separate from but permeated with both past remembrance and anticipated future. In fact, it is through the latter notions of time as temporality—memories of what was or what should have been and anticipations of what is or should be—that human experience, personal identity and ethical responsibility begins to become intelligible and important to us.

From the perspective of linear sequential time the ‘past’ and the ‘future’ do not really ‘exist’ like a table or a rock ‘exists’. From the perspective of temporality, however, the past and future are what we might call, following Martin Heidegger, equi-primordial within the present. All three, past-present-future, are inextricably bound together. They give human existence temporal depth, and they give human beings a meaning-oriented ethical identity as persons who are responsible for their past actions and their future decisions. The past and the future are indeed imaginative constructions and reconstructions. Yet they are no less ‘real’ to us when it comes to the lifelong struggle to understand ourselves—to grasp ‘who’ we are, and where we are going, to understand what is demanded or expected of us in the future. We reach back and gather fragments from the past and attempt to imaginatively reconstruct these latter into a coherent present picture. We imaginatively project ourselves into various future possibilities.

Both kinds of imaginings are interpretive retrievals and projections—fictional and factual, created and found. It should not then surprise us to discover that time can be ‘temporalized’ through the human artifice of narrative and story. To put it another way, in human terms, we write stories about ourselves and the stories we read and construct, form or ‘write us’. Time, as it were, becomes temporalized through such narrative dialogical undertakings—it is no longer merely a series of linear and discrete ‘now’s following one after another, but an active ‘present’-ing’ that stretches back into the past and reaches out toward the future, and an active critical interpreting, in the to and fro movement of dialogue that defines our engagement with a text.

Mother Nature and Father Time

The planet earth and the natural world of plants, trees and flowers had a beginning and will have an ending. In this sense nature is subject to linear historical time. In linear time the future is different from the past and each successive moment is qualitatively different from the one before—there is, in other words, no repetition of things in linear time. However, the world of plants, trees and flowers are not merely subject to linear time. They are also oriented by natural cycles. In cycles of time what is apparent is that things are repeated—night follows day, tides rise and fall, the seasons move through the cycle of spring, summer, fall and winter in endless repetition. This is not mechanical clock time but what we might call ‘organic time’. A tree does not rush to get its buds out in order to ‘be on time’ to meet the spring. Yet somehow a tree ‘knows’ within the cycle when it is time to shed its leaves, and when spring buds should now begin to emerge. It seems that time is not something that is imposed from the outside but rather exists ‘within’ nature.

What about us? Are we not part of nature and therefore subject to cyclical time? There is a natural and profound connectedness or interrelation between human beings and nature under the rubric of cyclical time—this was much more apparent before the advent of agriculture and the invention of the electric light bulb. Our bodies functioned in accord with natural rhythms that derived from the Earth rotating on its axis once every 24 hours. For a good long period, we did not live in artificial light, wake to an alarm clock or sleep according to a blue light iPhone app! In the past, we planted and harvested according to the cycles of nature. Not so much anymore. It seems that human linear time oriented by industry, progress, technology and production has little respect for nature’s ecological cycles. The need to ‘progress’ often appears to trump the need to preserve the cycles of natural growth. Perhaps then, one way to understand how we might become environmentally conscious is simply to get in touch once again with organic time as it unfolds through the natural and organic cycles of nature.

Clock Time, Scientific Management and the Commodification of Time

What are the philosophical features of linear or clock time? Three words: inexorable, unidirectional and irreversible. Linear time goes on to infinity in one direction and there is no going back. Seems like a rather limited notion of time, does it not? Despite this, it is quite evident that in the present day we are dominated by clock-time. It is not all bad—clock time makes possible social coordination and it increases productive efficiency. The clock controls transportation, assembly-line production, the flow of information—everything we do alone or with others. However, there is a price we pay when we are oriented exclusively around clock-time. When clock time is used to control, discipline and regiment our lives—when it makes efficiency into a virtue that trumps everything else then it becomes disconnected from any deeper, more abiding ethical, aesthetic, spiritual and other meaning-giving frameworks. Being dominated by clock time is never having the time to actually notice and appreciate the world around us. In the modern world clock time is ‘calculative’, time registered in terms of what we believe to be the continuous progress and technological innovation. From an economic perspective ‘time is money’.

Here, clock time is time understood as a currency or a ‘commodity’—where social goods are valued through a profit perspective in a continuous series of quarterly results, and where human bodies are disciplined by way of time management regimes that press them to replicate the efficiency of a machine. One of the most famous examples of this sort of commodification of time is called Taylorism or scientific management. Under scientific management work is divided up into discrete pieces or tasks, and managers closely observe and record work activities, carry out time and motion studies and look for ways to make human beings more productive and efficient. The idea was to take thinking, innovation, creativity and indeed anything ‘human’, out of the production line. Perhaps, it was inevitable that the machine would ultimately appear more productive, efficient and cost-effective than the human being. In a productivity driven capitalist age where new technologies become outdated as soon as they are produced, where more and more people are being replaced by computers and machines, and where the pace of life seems always to be accelerating, it may appear that ‘we have no time to lose’. But perhaps in a world where we are dominated by technology, the real problem is not that we have no time to lose but that we have no time at all for the things that ultimately matter.

Spiritual Time: Living Fully in the Moment

However, now I want to propose yet another kind of human time—a notion of time where the present moment does not stretch out temporally into a past or a future, but deepens and widens the present moment’s significance and meaningfulness. One might refer to this as ‘living in the moment’ or ‘mindfulness’. It is not a stretching out of the present time to past and future, but more a suspension of time itself—an effort to become aware of the significance of ‘now’. Mindfulness is a way of fully attending to what one is experiencing in this moment. It is experienced as a moment of liberation from time and self, from hope and fear—and most especially liberation from the world of commodified, calculative and economic clock time.

Living in the moment is not something only the ‘mystic’ can experience. Nor is it something that can only be arrived at through meditation. We can be ‘in the moment’ of music, of art, of nature, of dance—a moment where we do not just know or look at the art, listen to the music, move to the dance or see the forest—but where we are the music, we are the art, we are the rhythm, we are the forest that surrounds us. When we give our ‘self’ over to this moment, we let go of self in order to experience a deeper sense of being-with that which is not oriented around self. A more significant presence is thereby shown to us. Simone Weil said, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity”. Living in the moment is a kind of ‘attentiveness’. Attention as generosity can unfold both in the context of ‘care for the other’ as the selfless attending or giving oneself over to another who is sick or in need, and in the context of ‘care for the other’ that manifests as the release of the self in the attending or giving oneself over to the significance of a present moment—a present moment that carries within it neither fear nor anticipation of what comes next but, simply the intensification of love for what is in this moment of now.

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