Time, Science, and Society in China and the West

By J. T. Fraser; N. Lawrence et al. | Go to book overview

The Origins of Time

Nathaniel Lawrence

Summary The temporality of our experience is not an item in that experience, but rather an aspect of it. Our experience is so diverse that pervasive aspects of it cannot be framed in a way that is both comprehensive and literal. Instead we use metaphorical concepts of time for which there is no corresponding "literal" language. These metaphors gain their generality in that they mutually refer, each one invoking the others when we pursue them critically. They perform their task of description not as colorful substitutes for precise statements, but rather by recalling or embodying aspects of the experience of temporality where that experience is put to some particular use. For example, we translate time into space in temporal charts, calendars, appointment pads, and so on, where temporal sequence is presented as spatial seriality.

The paper discerns four metaphors embodied in concepts of time: time as number, time as space, time as activity, time as telos. I aim at making these metaphors, collectively, as comprehensive of temporality as is possible. The procedure is to use both small-scale expressions in English speech and large-scale conceptions in systematic thought. There is a suggestion, at the end of the paper, that the least familiar metaphor, time as "telos," may be a kind of primum inter pares.


1. The Sense of Temporality

Below all our refined and reflective concepts of time there is a basic sense of temporality, something felt rather than thought. It pervades experience and is usually no more attended to than is the background hum of machinery in the basement, which we also accept and for the most part ignore. This sense of temporality is the raw material from which we derive, by a kind of extraction, the various concepts of time that serve us so well in limited ways. In physics, for instance, when we concentrate on the analogy between space and time in describing motion, we cover only a fraction of our direct experience of temporality. Success in this area tempts us to stretch such concepts beyond their original useful function and to reduce all the aspects of temporality to the one in hand. Our temporal experience is too rich, however, to yield a single systematic view.

The history of the idea of time is punctuated by efforts to make one aspect of temporality do for all. Monocular approaches to the subject are the rule. Even before the Christian era, philosophers had begun to create single--or at most dual--aspect models of time which physicists would later adapt to their particular needs and interests. In Parmenides, for instance, we are told that our ordinary idea of time is a mistake, an impossibility, since time continually changes and would therefore come from something that is not and must pass into something that is not. We are, Parmenides urges, therefore talking about the existence of nonbeing, a manifest contradiction. This argument can be made more difficult to get

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