Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Aristotle on Parts of Time and Being in Time

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Aristotle on Parts of Time and Being in Time

Article excerpt


ARISTOTLE BEGINS HIS DISCUSSION of time in Physics 4.10 by presenting doubts and puzzles one might raise about its reality. The first puzzle turns on a familiar-sounding conflict between what look like some straightforward assumptions about time and about existence:

   For some of it [sc. time], on the one hand, has been and is not,
   while some is going to be and is not yet. And both infinite time
   and any given time are composed of these. But it seems impossible
   for what is composed of nonexisting things to share in being.
   Besides these concerns, of anything with parts, should it indeed
   exist, necessarily when it does, either all or some of its parts
   exist. But, of time, though it is divided into parts, some of them
   have been and some of them will be, but no one of them is. Nor is
   the now a part; for the part also measures, and it is necessary for
   the whole to be composed of its parts. But time does not seem to be
   composed of nows. (1)

The opening puzzle, then, presents a challenge to the reality of time that runs roughly like this: the future and the past do not exist; if these are the only parts of time, then, since the "now" does not constitute a further part, it follows that there are no parts of time that exist; hence, the whole cannot exist either. Aristotle then moves on to discuss puzzles raised by the concept of the "now" (to nun), since we seem to land in difficulties whether we say it is always "one and the same" or "other and other." (2) By the end of his discussion it is clear that Aristotle thinks that time is real, and that he thinks he has said enough to establish its reality. (3) Notoriously, he nowhere argues for these claims, nor does he say how one might put one's doubts about time's existence to rest.

At their broadest, these puzzles raise challenges to a familiar notion of time as constituted by the past and the future with a now in between. How does Aristotle respond? If he were to follow his own prescribed method of inquiry, as he does elsewhere in the corpus and even in the preceding discussion in the Physics about place, (4) he would at some point in these chapters either show how to solve the puzzles in light of our more developed understanding of time, or show what confusion produced them, and he would indicate what features of our pretheoretical understanding of time survived the inquiry. (5) While he does return to the concept of the now, and attempts to describe it in a way which will dissolve the puzzles raised about it, (6) he does no such thing for the puzzle about the parts of time, which was the one that most directly raised the question of realism.

Thus, we are left with Aristotle's discussion of time itself to attempt a reconstruction of his reasoning as to (1) why we should accept that time is real, and, more importantly perhaps, (2) how his grounds for rejecting the puzzle's conclusion would impact our overall understanding of time.

These two goals are distinct, and in general the first has received more attention than the second. That is, most commentators who have addressed the first puzzle about time have offered various ways in which Aristotle might offer a counterargument to the effect that we should agree that time is real despite these (evidently crude or crudely stated) arguments to the contrary. Some commentators, for example, suggest an implicit defense of realism arising out of Aristotle's famous account of time (chronos)--usually considered a definition--as "the number of change in respect of the before and after." (7) Since time is to be defined as a number or feature of change, we can then claim that insofar as we have reason to believe that change exists, we have reason enough to believe that time does as well. (8)

If this type of response broadly captures Aristotle's attitude, however, it is dissatisfying. Supposing we can make good sense of this definition, we may have established that time exists in some acceptable but seemingly narrow sense, but we have not yet done anything either to recover or to correct our broader understanding of time as involving the existence of a past, a future, and something in between, (9) and it is not clear how the seemingly narrow notion relates to the broader one with which we began. …

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