Vitalism and Time

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.

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7 Responses to “Vitalism and Time”

  1. nursemyra Says:

    I can’t think of anything to say except I enjoyed Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis. Which has nothing much to do with your post…

  2. The Necromancer Says:

    Not trying to leave you at a loss for words. Just trying to get you to think about time a little differently than you probably do.

  3. nursemyra Says:

    Thanks xx

  4. Ricki Says:

    Time is nothing. Timing is everything.

  5. kerrjac Says:

    Cool post, especially the part about time expanding. I suppose one would have to say that time is subjective, relative, and objective all at once.

    It reminds me of one of my favorite passages from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (it’s a bit long but I think worth posting):

    “At first the truths Phædrus began to pursue were lateral truths; no longer the frontal truths of science, those toward which the discipline pointed, but the kind of truth you see laterally, out of the corner of your eye. In a laboratory situation, when your whole procedure goes haywire, when everything goes wrong or is indeterminate or is so screwed up by unexpected results you can’t make head or tail out of anything, you start looking laterally. That’s a word he later used to describe a growth of knowledge that doesn’t move forward like an arrow in flight, but expands sideways, like an arrow enlarging in flight, or like the archer, discovering that although he has hit the bull’s eye and won the prize, his head is on a pillow and the sun is coming in the window. Lateral knowledge is knowledge that’s from a wholly unexpected direction, from a direction that’s not even understood as a direction until the knowledge forces itself upon one. Lateral truths point to the falseness of axioms and postulates underlying one’s existing system of getting at truth.

    To all appearances he was just drifting. In actuality he was just drifting. Drifting is what one does when looking at lateral truth. He couldn’t follow any known method of procedure to uncover its cause because it was these methods and procedures that were all screwed up in the first place. So he drifted. That was all he could do.

    The drift took him into the Army, which sent him to Korea. From his memory there’s a fragment, a picture of a wall, seen from a prow of a ship, shining radiantly, like a gate of heaven, across a misty harbor. He must have valued the fragment greatly and thought about it many times because although it doesn’t fit anything else it is intense, so intense I’ve returned to it myself many times. It seems to symbolize something very important, a turning point.

    His letters from Korea are radically different from his earlier writing, indicating this same turning point. They just explode with emotion. He writes page after page about tiny details of things he sees: marketplaces, shops with sliding glass doors, slate roofs, roads, thatched huts, everything. Sometimes full of wild enthusiasm, sometimes depressed, sometimes angry, sometimes even humorous, he is like someone or some creature that has found an exit from a cage he did not even know was around him, and is wildly roaming over the countryside visually devouring everything in sight.”

  6. The Necromancer Says:

    kerrjac: Amazing quote. Totally relevant to what I was getting at. There are indeed things you will never see or understand when you look directly, straight ahead at them. The last bit of the quote reminds me of this, from an autobiographical work by the above mentioned Teilhard de Chardin:

    Throughout my life, by means of my life, the world has little by little caught fire in my sight until, aflame all around me, it has become almost completely luminous from within…Such has been my experience in contact with the earth — the diaphany of the Divine at the heart of the universe on fire…Christ; his heart; a fire: capable of penetrating everywhere and, gradually, spreading everywhere.”

    Captures what you are suggesting in the above, I think. From a western, Catholic perspective, admittedly, but spiritual nonetheless. Something the Thomist Lonergan used to call “Insight”.

  7. kerrjac Says:

    Great quote as well.

    People often call fiction (or, nowadays, politics) the “art of the possible”. At times I think that title is best applied – without any hyperbole – to regular non-fiction, particularly science and history.

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