What is time? Many a philosopher has wrestled with this question, resulting in rather diverse results. Famous is Aristotle’s definition, which can be stated most simply as, “the measure of motion” (though, in truth, his claims are more complex than this). Famous also are the struggles to understand time in Book XI of Augustine’s Confessions and the posit of time as the unlimited and infinite a priori pure intuition grounding the possibility of all appearances by Immanuel Kant.
Most people, however, simply take “time” for granted. Primarily, this taking-for-granted comes from a default subjectivism. We speak often of “my time”. In speaking this way, we imply time is a possession or a resource. Indeed, many people worry about “wasting” and “spending” time. Thus, we schedule our days, our motions, by the clock and the calendar. We take an abstract representation of days, hours, and minutes and adjust ourselves to fit our living into that abstraction. Clock and calendar thereby become imperial forces that rule our lives.
But must we live this way: under the tyrannical reign of the calendar? Has our taking-for-granted of time allowed us to fall under the sway of bad ideas, bad theories, and to instill in ourselves therefore bad practice?
What is time? Who can explain this easily and briefly? Who can comprehend this even in thought so as to articulate the answer in words? Yet what do we speak of, in our familiar everyday conversation, more than of time? We surely know what we mean when we speak of it. We also know what is meant when we hear someone else talking about it. What then is time? Provided that no one asks me, I know. If I want to explain it to an inquirer, I do not know. But I confidently affirm myself to know that if nothing passes away, there is no past time, and if nothing arrives, there is no future time, and if nothing existed there would be no present time. Take the two tenses, past and future. How can they ‘be’ when the past is not now present and the future is not yet present? Yet if the present were always present, it would not pass into the past: it would not be time but eternity. If then, in order to be time at all, the present is so made that it passes into the past, how can we say that this present also ‘is’? The cause of its being is that it will cease to be. So indeed we cannot truly say that time exists except in the sense that it tends towards non-existence.Augustine c.395, Confessions XI, xiv (17).
We talk about time all the time. But we do not think about it. Thus, we talk about it—but never about what it is, or what it means. And not thinking about time, we allow false beliefs about it to creep in sideways, to steal time away from us. Ordering ourselves by the clock and calendar, we turn the measured into the measure. Instead of moving ourselves, we time ourselves. We impose time. Does it change the way we move ourselves?
Perhaps, therefore, we should think about time more—and talk about what it is. Is it something subjective, personal—rendered by our own minds, our own passing through experience? A dimension that extends throughout all corporeality? Is it “a number of motion fitting along the before-and-after?”
Come join us this Wednesday at our Philosophical Happy Hour to talk about what time is—and how we can have a better practical relationship with it through such theoretical clarifications!