Time, Science, and Society in China and the West

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

The Emergence of Time: A Study in the Origins
of Western Thought

Denis Corish

Summary In early Greek literature time is represented in terms of temporal experience. The word time, χρóνος, always signifies for Homer and Hesiod a length of time. The poet Pindar was the first Greek to use time to signify an instant as well. From Homer to Aristotle time gradually emerges from the realm of concrete experiential description to become an abstract entity that can be discussed in terms of its own properties. It is possible to trace some stages of this emergence--for example, Pherecydes and other sixth-century writers personified time, and Parmenides used expressly temporal argument. The emergence of time as an abstract entity, the "abstractification" of time was not the work of a single thinker or school. It appears to have been a gradual expression, through the medium of many minds, of the genius of the Greek language itself.

What I want this paper to convey is some notion of how time became transformed for the early Greeks from an experience or group of experiences to an abstract object to be studied scientifically. Time was made into an abstract entity, became abstractified. Time started out as an experience, or rather as a multiplicity of experiences; at first, it did not exist as a single entity with a single name. But that group of experiences coalesced into that entity with that name--or rather, that name became singled out as the name for that group of entities. Indeed not only did time become a label, a general term, in the course of that process; it also, by that same process, became an entity to be studied in its own right, in terms of its own properties. Time, as opposed to temporal experiences, which had always existed, was gradually discovered.

I am using the emerging discovery of time as an example of the growth of scientific thinking, of the growth of the scientific mind, in the West. The example is a particularly apt one for our Society--but I must begin by saying something in general about that early growth of scientific thinking so that the example can do its proper work.

Bruno Snell says in "The Discovery of the Mind" that "European thinking begins with the Greeks. They have made it what it is: our only way of thinking; its authority, in the Western world, is undisputed."1 Snell is certainly right. There were influences on the Greeks themselves, Egyptian and Babylonian, for example. And there were non-Greek additions vital to Western thought, for instance the Indian mathematical inventions of place notation and the number zero. There were also genuinely modern, non-Greek sciences, such as dynamics. But there is no doubt that the original Western formative force of that knowledge we call scientific is Greek. The influence felt at the beginnings of specifically modern

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