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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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Time in Contemporary Philosophy and Science. The
radical reaffirmation—or as George Boas called it—the
“acceptance of time,” had to wait until the end of the
last century. The main intellectual obstacle to it was
the static determinism of the Spinoza-Laplacean type,
which only a few “heretical” thinkers dared to ques-
tion. Among them was Charles Renouvier who
suggested the existence of absolute beginnings (les
commencements absolus
) in nature; Émile Boutroux
who in his De la contingence de la nature (1874)
suggested that physical determinism is valid only on
the macrophysical scale and that there may be micro-
physical indeterminations too small to be detected by
the methods available at that time (op. cit., Ch. IV).
C. S. Peirce expressed a similar view about the merely
approximative character of classical determinism (“The
Doctrine of Necessity Examined,” The Monist, 2 [April
1892], 321-37). Meanwhile William James also argued,
as Peirce had, for the objectivity of the chance-element
in nature (“Dilemma of Determinism,” 1884); his re-
jection of determinism, though motivated mainly by
ethical reasons, was also based on his rejection of the
timeless “block-universe” which strict determinism


implies, and which is incompatible with genuine
plurality as well as with real succession.

A far more systematic formulation of James's
pluralistic temporalism took place later, in his A
Pluralistic Universe
(1909) and his posthumous Some
Problems in Philosophy
(1911). In these books James's
debt to Renouvier is still acknowledged, but far more
decisive and explicitly acknowledged was the influence
of Henri Bergson. In his first book Essai sur les données
immédiates de la conscience
(1889), Bergson reached
a conclusion similar to a pivotal idea in James's Princi-
ples of Psychology
(1890), namely, the continuity of
introspective experience—“the stream of conscious-
ness” or “true duration” (durée réelle)—which both
thinkers stressed against artificial conceptualization and
atomization. (It is fair to stress that some of the philo-
sophically most important sections of Principles of
had been published previously in Mind
[1884] under the title “On Some Omissions of Intro-
spective Psychology.”) The dynamic continuity of
psychological time is both unity and diversity; but it
is neither the abstract homogeneous unity of mathe-
matical time nor the dust-like multiplicity of the
externally related durationless instants; it is the mnemic
continuity in which no sharp separation can be drawn
between the successive phases, despite their qualitative

In his later books Bergson generalized his intro-
spective analysis by applying its results to duration
in general. Every duration, he held, is essentially in-
complete in the sense that each of its moments intro-
duces an element of novelty not contained in the past.
In ignoring this irreducible element of novelty—
previously stressed in Boutroux's contingentism and
Peirce's tychism—radical determinism as well as radi-
cal finalism virtually and sometimes even explicitly
eliminate time altogether in fusing the successive
phases into a single instantaneous unity of the
Laplacean formula or of the immutable Absolute. In
such a “block universe”—whether of the naturalistic
or idealistic kind—“everything is given” (tout est
) which is contrary to the most obvious experi-
ence. Equally false is radical indeterminism, which, in
positing creatio ex nihilo of each moment, ignores the
dynamic continuity of duration and thus makes both
memory and causation impossible. Mathematical
continuity (infinite divisibility) belongs only to the
spatial segment by which duration is inadequately
symbolized, not to duration itself. In other words, the
durationless present is a fiction not only in psychology,
but in physics as well; even the physical processes have
a fine pulsational structure, even though their temporal
span is enormously shorter than that of mental events
(Matter and Memory, Ch. IV). This view is also shared
by A. O. Lovejoy, although he insisted against Bergson
that the temporal segments must have sharp boundaries
if the genuine difference between the successive phases
should be preserved. Although critical of some aspects
of James's and Bergson's thought, Lovejoy shared with
them their temporalism—the term which he himself
coined for doctrines which took time as an essential
category of all existence.

Another outstanding temporalist or “process philos-
opher” is Alfred North Whitehead; his metaphysics of
events with its emphasis on “the creative advance of
nature,” “the immortality of the past” (from which the
irreversibility of Becoming follows), and the denial of
durationless instants was very close to the views of
James and Bergson. Besides acknowledging his affinity
with Bergson's views, Whitehead also stressed his debt
to Samuel Alexander's work Space, Time and Deity
(1920), and, to a lesser degree, to Lloyd Morgan and
C. D. Broad. Like Alexander, and also under the influ-
ence of the relativity theory, Whitehead stressed the
inseparability of space from time; but unlike Alex-
ander, Morgan, and Broad, Whitehead regarded, in the
later phase of his thought at least, his own concept
of novelty as incompatible with classical determinism.
Broad's original view about “the reality of the past
and the unreality of the future” was given up later
by his belief in precognition which requires the pre-
existence of the future in some form. John Dewey, who
was one of the first to welcome Peirce's rejection of
classical determinism (“The Superstition of Necessity,”
Monist, 3 [1893], 362-79), unlike other process philos-
ophers, did not regard the reality of all-pervasive
change as the source of cosmic optimism: “change is
nothing to gloat over—” (Experience and Nature,
Chicago [1925], p. 71). It is, however, fair to state that
the term “meliorism,” coined by William James, de-
scribes far more accurately than “optimism” the view
of the process philosophers mentioned. An even more
pessimistic view of time is that of Heidegger; his
connotation of becoming is completely divorced from
that of evolution and creativity; time is viewed only
in its tragic and destructive aspects.

The interest in the problem of time was not confined
to process philosophers only. Thus Josiah Royce used
the durational present as a model for understanding
the relation of time and eternity; the divine conscious-
ness, “Eternal Now,” is still temporal, although its
temporal span is incomparably wider than that of the
human specious present. Bertrand Russell, who favored
the concept of mathematical instants in his Principles
of Mathematics
(1903), gave it up in his article “On
the Experience of Time” in Monist (25, 1915). Husserl's
phenomenological analysis of time in Die Phänomenol-
ogie des inner Zeitbewusstsein
(1966) was in his own


view in many respects similar to the introspective
analysis of Bergson (cf. Roman Ingarden, “L'intuition
bergsonienne et le problème phénoménologique de la
constitution,” in “Bergson et nous,” Bulletin de la
Société Française de Philologie
[1959], 165-66).

The development of physics in the twentieth century
profoundly modified the classical concepts, including
that of time. The theory of relativity proposed the
union of space with time; the significance of this union
is still being discussed. According to the widespread,
but very questionable view, it means an assimilation
of time to the fourth dimension of the static, becoming-
less continuum—“space-time.” Serious objections have
been raised against such interpretation not only by
philosophers like Meyerson, Bergson, and Reichenbach,
but also by scientists like Eddington, A. A. Robb, and
Whitrow. Occasionally Einstein himself stressed that
even within the relativistic “space-time” the time di-
mension is not equivalent to the spatial dimensions.
It is far more correct to speak of the dynamization
of space rather than of the spatialization of time; the
relativization of simultaneity means that “instanta-
neous space,” that is, the class of simultaneously exist-
ing events, cannot be unambiguously carved out of the
four-dimensional world-process. It is also significant
that while the succession of causally related events
remains a topological invariant within relativity phys-
ics—i.e., the world-lines remain irreversible in any
frame of reference—it is not so for the spatial distances;
thus the relativity of simultaneity can equally appro-
priately be called the relativity of justaposition. It has
been correctly pointed out that in the relativistic phys-
ics the past is separated from the future not by the
durationless three-dimensional “Now” spreading in-
stantaneously across the universe as in the physics of
Newton, but, even more effectively, by the four-
dimensional region of “Elsewhere.” It can also be
shown that an event which is in the causal future for
a certain observer cannot be in the causal past of any
conceivable observer. This follows from Minkowski's
formula for the invariance of the world interval:

I = s2 - c2(t2 - t1)2 = const.

s is spatial distance separating two events, (t2 - t1)
being their separation in time.

The most common source of the antitemporalistic
misinterpretations of the relativity theory is the confu-
sion of the metrical invariance with the topological
invariance of time; while the latter is preserved, the
former is not. This can be shown when we analyze
the popular relativistic paradoxes. Some of these
“paradoxes” are due to sheer ignorance; for instance,
under no circumstances can anybody or anything
“travel backwards to the past” as it follows immedi
ately from the relativistic space-time diagram. Even
the famous “paradox of twins,” first mentioned by Paul
Langevin in 1911, implies the metrical, not the topo-
logical relativity of temporal intervals; the twins aging
at different rates, both move in the direction of the
future and it is a misunderstanding to claim that one
can make an exploratory “round trip” to the future
and back.

Dynamization of space is even more conspicuous in
the general relativity theory which fuses the physical
content with the variable spatiotemporal continuum,
and thus challenges the classical container-like charac-
ter of absolute space and time. Thus time is inseparable
from concrete physical events in a sense much more
radical than the classical relational theory of time
suggested. Thus the gravitational and inertial field—
both being according to the principle of equivalence
two aspects of the same phenomenon—are not in
space-time; they are nothing but certain local irregu-
larities of space-time, and the changes in the local
curvature of space-time appear to us as the displace-
ments of bodies in the allegedly inert space. The reces-
sion of the galaxies which suggested the idea of the
expanding space shows how far modern cosmologies
are from the immutable space of Newton.

Significant changes of the concept of time are also
suggested by the quantum theory and wave mechanics.
The implications of these changes point in the same
direction as those of the relativity theories. The quan-
tum character of the microphysical processes makes
probable the view that physical time—like psycho-
logical time—is not divisible ad infinitum: that is, that
there are the minimum intervals of time which are not
further divisible since they coincide with the elemen-
tary events of nature. This is the meaning of “l'atome
du temps
” of Poincaré, of “quantum of time” of
Whitehead, and of “chronon” of some contemporary
physicists. It is always possible to assume that under-
lying the temporally indivisible events of microphysics
there is the mathematical, infinitely divisible duration
of Newton and Locke; but this view implies the abso-
lutist distinction between homogeneous container-like
time and its concrete physical content, which the pres-
ent trends in physics make improbable. It is true that
for practical purposes, that is, on the macrophysical
level where the magnitude of Planck's constant h can
be disregarded, and where the interval of chronon is
practically equivalent to a mathematical instant, time
remains very approximately continuous. The chronon
theory would remove the distinction between physical,
infinitely divisible duration and psychological time—or
rather it would reduce this distinction to that of degree
only, the physical “chronons” being of incomparably
shorter temporal span than the temporal minima sen


sibilia in psychology. But since these temporal minima
cannot be conceived as sharply separated, a serious
difficulty arises as to how to synthesize conceptually
the individuality of events with the continuity of be-
coming. It is probable that without a radical modifica-
tion of our conceptual tools this will be impossible.
Such modification is suggested by some recent attempts
at constructing “topology without points” or “fuzzy
set theory.”

Another even more important philosophical conse-
quence of the existence of Planck's constant is the
indeterminacy of the microphysical processes, formu-
lated by Heisenberg (1927). The two different names
of this principle—“uncertainty principle” or “indeter-
minacy principle”—suggest two radically different
interpretations of it. The first interpretation, more
conservative in its outlook and favored more by tradi-
tionally oriented philosophers than by physicists, re-
gards microphysical indeterminacy as a result of the
interference of the process of observation with the
process observed. The second interpretation, more
favored by physicists, regards it as a manifestation of
objective indeterminacy in nature. The first inter-
pretation leaves the Laplacean determinism intact; the
second one suggests the objective status of chance in
the sense of Boutroux and Peirce, that is, of the “open
world” (H. Weyl's term), forever in growth and forever
incomplete, in which the future remains genuinely
ambiguous and, though influenced by the past, is not
predetermined by it. While the first interpretation is
more congruous with the philosophical tradition glori-
fying static and immutable Being, the second inter-
pretation is viewed with sympathy by the process-
oriented thinkers. Thus the discussion concerning the
interpretation of this principle is merely the most
recent phase of the ancient dialogue between Par-
menides and Heraclitus.