What is time? This the kind of question which appears simple, even banal, but after a moment of reflection it leaves us dumbfounded, breathless. Time is all. It is what was, is, will be.
There is, of course, a prosaic, straightforward way to understand time. Time as social phenomena. Socially-constructed time. From the hexadecimal seconds, minutes and hours of the Babylonians we get recordable (and recorded) time. Along with writing, this gives us history. History and time, as rational objects, are thus born at the very beginning of civilization. They are, along with agriculture (which creates its own sense of “cyclical” time…), what defines “civilization”.
We move on from this point (in rational, linear fashion) to devices for keeping time broadly, like sundials and calendars (some, like Stonehenge or the Mayan temples, that happen to be very concrete). The deep human desire to try and answer the above question is imprinted in the archeological record and the history of astronomy (recently synthesized through “archaeoastronomy“).
As the years pass (and humanity develops) technologies emerge that attempt to capture the dynamic, moving nature of time. Water clocks (clepsydra), some elaborate beyond imagination, like the one built by Su Song in China in the 11th century AD, give way, finally, to the simple mechanical contrivances of medieval Europe.
This has dramatic social and philosophical consequences. For one, the ancient “cyclical” conceptions of time are transcended by “linear” time. Historians like Jacques Le Goff and E.P. Thompson argue that the move from “Church’s” to “merchant’s” time, and the appearance of the clock tower in the centers of the late medieval town, changes our perceptions, introducing work-discipline. Mechanical, linear time continues to shape and form the modern mind, laying the foundations of industrial capitalism.
The easy abstractions of mechanical time, however, are conceptually shattered by Einsteinian relativity. Yet how significant is this shift in the larger social sphere? In fact, our communal arrangements regarding time remain pedestrian, conformist. As the modernist era begins, a sense of the immensity of the past dawns. Paleontology and Darwin’s ideas push this door ajar, but atomic physics smashes it open. From an earth thousands or even millions of years old, we move to being young beings on a planet billions of years old.
Philosophers grapple with this. Henri Bergson’s Creative Evolution (1907) gives us “duration” (durée) and a notion of “lived” time. For the neo-vitalist Bergson, mechanical time ceases to have real significance in a post-Darwin world. Early 20th century philosophy witnesses a flurry of interest in the living, vital nature of time. Hans Driesch revives Aristotle’s entelechy, a purposive, goal-directed quality embedded in the universe, inseparable from life. Time here becomes the framework of existence. It’s the fuel within which the living burns. Notions of being (or what Heidegger identifies as “Being“) are paramount.
Simultaneously, analytic modes of philosophical thought led by logical positivism try to tame the mess of the physical, reimposing a mathematically, logically-sound neo-Kantian synthesis.
Yet humanity continues to grow and change. A Heraclitan flow of existence and death surges under the calm seas of science-based thought. We find ourselves in constant flux. The rigidities of mechanical time and its disciplining force reign in our conscious minds. But instinctual life is inured to this. Time is more satisfactorily captured in the growth, transformations and mutations of a myriad microscopic living beings.
Time is not an arrow, linear; it sprouts off in all directions, oozing out as it literally “creates space”. Like bacteria in a Petri dish, it jumps across geometrical constraints almost gleefully. Time is disease…Without cure.
Our rational, conscious mind breaks time into distinct, manageable units, but we sense, instinctually, that this is an unsatisfying illusion. We live and breathe time — our life, all life, is immersed in its totality. Perhaps this is its essence; without life, organisms, living, breathing, perceiving beings, time is meaningless. Like an inert gas. It only takes shape, manifests, in the event. Moment. Action.
At the same time, it is beyond us. The idea that things are coming together — the dream of “singularity” as imagined by Kurzweil, et. al. is absurd (and really only a shadow of Teilhard de Chardin’s “omega point“). There is no arrival, no destination, no “there”.
There is only the unending, ever-changing, innumerable “here” of the living and life. All life.
We are time, but it is beyond us.