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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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Time in Modern Philosophy. Modern views of time
(1500-1900) were shaped by the merging of two
influences: of the previous philosophical tradition and
of the nascent classical science. The Greek and medie
val dualism of two realms, eternal and temporal, was
retained in various systems of pantheistic monism and
its echoes can be found in other systems too. The
transcendent eternity of the medieval God was re-
placed by the impersonal immanent order of nature
which was as much beyond time and change as the
Eleatic Being, Plotinus' One, or Aristotle's and Aquinas'
God. From Giordano Bruno to F. H. Bradley this basic
pattern remained the same. “Thus also the divine mind
contemplates everything in one altogether simple act
at once and without succession, that is, without the
difference between the past, present and future; to Him
all things are present” (G. Bruno, Opera latine con-
Florence [1889], I, 4, pp. 32-33). “In eternity
there is no 'before' and 'after'; for it follows exclusively
from the divine perfection that God's decrees cannot
be different and could not have been different” (B.
Spinoza, Ethica, I, prop. 33).

The second quotation shows that the immutability
of the eternal order of nature implies the strictest
determinism. In this respect the ancient deterministic
tradition was strengthened by the mechanistic physics
of the seventeenth century. Galileo, like Bruno before
him and Spinoza after him, upheld the dualism of
timeless divine perfection and of imperfect, time-
consuming human knowledge: “We proceed in step-
by-step discussion from inference to inference, whereas
He conceives through mere intuition.... The divine
intellect... grasps the essence of the circle without
any temporal discourse (senza temporaneo discorso) and
thus apprehends the infinite array of its properties”
(Opere, Florence [1855], VII, 129). Galileo still speaks
of God; Spinoza speaks of Deus sive natura, while in
Laplace the timeless order of nature is already thor-
oughly secularized and depersonalized: what was the
omniscient divine insight in theology becomes in his
thought the universal cosmic formula containing all the
details of the cosmic history—past, present, as well as
future (Essai philosophique sur la probabilité, Paris,

Neither Bruno nor Spinoza, nor certainly Laplace,
ever denied temporal succession on the “lower” or
phenomenal level; it was only on the “higher” level
of the ultimate reality that time was abolished. This
dualism of two realms, timeless and temporal, was
retained by post-Kantian idealism. It was prepared by
Kant's view that time is a mere form of sensibility,
applicable legitimately only to the phenomenal, but
not to the noumenal realm. This explains why the
“Absolute Ego” of Fichte, in spite of his verbal em-
phasis on its becoming (Werden) and activity (Urtätig-
), remains timeless (cf. Grundlagen der Wissen-
Berlin [1845], p. 217: Für die blosse reine
Vernunft ist alles zugleich
). From such a point of view


it was only consistent for Fichte to adhere to the most
rigorous form of determinism (Die Bestimmung des
Menschen, Sämtliche Werke,
Berlin [1845], II, 182-83),
while Kant used Laplacean language prior to Laplace
when he claimed that a complete insight into the
character of man would make his thoughts and actions
as predictable as the solar and lunar eclipses (Critique
of Practical Reason,
trans. T. K. Abbot, 6th ed., London
[1909], p. 193).

Schelling's view of time is similar, at least in that
first phase of his thought which accounts for the close
kinship of his Identitätsphilosophie with the thought
of Bruno and Spinoza. The position of Hegel was far
more ambiguous. On one side he stressed explicitly his
agreement with Heraclitus; on the other side, he
stressed the timelessness of his Absolute Idea. Hence
two divergent interpretations of Hegel's dialectics: one
interpreting it as the dynamic, historical process
(Benedetto Croce, J. N. Findlay), the other, represented
mainly by McTaggart, according to which the dialec-
tical movement is merely in our mind, being nothing
but a series of successive approximations by which we
come closer to the timelessly realized “Infinite End,”
or Absolute Idea (J. M. E. McTaggart, Studies in the
Hegelian Dialectics,
2nd ed., Cambridge [1922], p. 171).

On the other hand, Schopenhauer's view of time was
quite unambiguous. Under the influence of Kant, he
regarded time as only phenomenally real; the thing-
in-itself which, according to him, is the Universal Will,
is, despite the apparently dynamic connotation of this
term, beyond both space and time, and he explicitly
assimilated it to the Eleatic One and All (ἕν καὶ πα̃ν).
Only later, in the second edition of his main work
(1844), did he realize that this view is incompatible
with another of his basic claims, viz., that we directly
intuit the cosmic Will in our own consciousness; how
can we perceive the timeless reality directly through
our essentially temporal introspection? He then cor-
rected his view by saying that the will of which we
are aware is not the thing-in-itself, but an appearance,
even though somehow more basic (Urphänomenon)
than other appearances. The same distinction between
temporal appearances and the static substratum
underlying them is found in F. H. Bradley, one of the
most outspoken defenders of static monism in the
twentieth century. In his main book, Appearance and
(1893), he tries to show the contradictory and
therefore unreal character of change and of time as
well as of diversity in general; the transcendent Abso-
lute must be free of these contradictions.

The denial of time was frequently but not always
associated with monistic tendencies as different kinds
of static pluralism show. That the dynamic character
of Leibniz's monad is more apparent than real is clear
from its nature: the substance which contains in itself
all its future states as its own predicates (Discours de
la métaphysique,
8). His view that somebody with a
sufficient insight “would see the future in the present
as in a mirror” (“On Destiny or Mutual Dependence,”
Leibniz Selections, ed. P. P. Wiener, New York [1951],
p. 571 followed from his theory of pre-established
harmony and fully anticipated the passages of Kant,
Fichte, and Laplace, quoted above. Far more explicit
was the elimination of succession and change in J. F.
Herbart and J. M. E. McTaggart. Herbart's immaterial
units, Die Realen, are qualitatively different, but
absolutely immutable; the illusion of succession and
change arises because to our shifting attention they
appear in different aggregations. In McTaggart's
monadism true reality belongs only to a timeless series
of which the temporal series is merely apparent
perspective representation. More recently, Bertrand
Russell's “logical atomism” bears a clear similarity to
the static pluralism of Herbart, as one historian of
Anglo-American pluralism has noted (Jean Wahl, Les
philosophes pluralistes d'Angleterre et d'Amérique,

Paris [1920], p. 217). Wittgenstein's explicit denial of
the passage of time (Tractatus Logico-philosophicus
[1921], 6. 3611) is a consequence of his logical atomism.

These prevailing static tendencies explain why the
concept of absolute time, upheld by Gassendi and
Newton, has not been accepted by philosophers as
unanimously as it has been by scientists. Closest to
Newton's view was John Locke; but even Locke, in
pointing out the impossibility of comparing two
successive intervals of duration (which cannot be
superposed because of their very succession), antici-
pated the later criticisms of Bergson and Poincaré in
this regard. The most outstanding opponent of Newton
was Leibniz, who was engaged in a long polemic with
Newton's disciple, Samuel Clarke, about the status of
space and time; Berkeley's objections were directed
mainly against the concept of absolute space.

Both Berkeley and Leibniz upheld the relational
theory of space and time;
time is “the order of succes-
sion of perceptions,” and as such it is inseparable from
concrete events. From this standpoint the “flow of
empty time” is without meaning. But while Berkeley
claimed that the infinite divisibility of change and time
(both being inseparable) is a mere fiction, since math-
ematical durationless instants are never perceptible
and are therefore unreal, Leibniz—like Descartes—
believed that both time and any concrete change is
divisible ad infinitum, i.e., consists of ever-perishing
instants. (It should be recalled that the alleged inde-
pendence of perishing temporal instants was used by
Descartes as the basis for his view that the world is
maintained in existence by continuous divine creation.)


While David Hume accepted Berkeley's view of
indivisible temporal moments (minima sensibilia), Kant
sided with Leibniz in accepting the mathematical
continuity (infinite divisibility) of all phenomenal
changes. Thus for Berkeley and Hume, time shared the
discreteness of perceptual changes, while for Leibniz
and Kant concrete changes shared the infinite divisi-
bility of mathematical time. Locke adopted an inter-
mediate position in drawing the distinction between
immediately experienced qualitative duration and the
homogeneous duration of the physical world (Essay
Concerning Human Understanding,
Book II, Ch. 14).
This distinction became the ground for another widely
accepted distinction between the durational “specious
present” in psychology and the mathematical present
of physical and physiological time. On this point both
Leibniz and Kant remained completely Newtonian and

The introspective approach to the problem of time,
initiated by Locke, Berkeley, and Hume, led to two
divergent developments: (1) to Kant's epistemological
analysis of time in the Critique of Pure Reason, and
its subsequent modifications in neo-Kantianism and
phenomenology; (2) to the systematic investigation of
temporal awareness in the empirical and experimental
psychology of the nineteenth century. According to
Kant, time is an a priori form of inner—and indirectly
of outer—sense which is both “empirically real and
transcendentally ideal”; it guarantees by its own nature
the a priori and synthetic character of arithmetical
operations, whose universal validity is independent of
experience precisely because they take place in the
ideal medium of time. But while time is a necessary
condition of all experience—both introspective and
sensory—it does not apply to transcendent “things-
in-themselves,” including our “intelligible character”
which underlies our “empirical ego.” In phenome-
nalizing both physical and psychological time, Kant
greatly strengthened static modes of thought as the
subsequent development of German philosophy

Empirical psychologists in the nineteenth century
were opposed to Kant's a priori view of time; they
pointed out that the consciousness of time is subject
to development and to individual and even pathologi-
cal modifications. This view was strengthened by the
theory of evolution and its applications to psychologi-
cal phenomena; Herbert Spencer's Principles of Psy-
(1855) contains long polemical passages show-
ing the incompatibility of Kant's view with the
observations of genetic psychology and psychopathol-
ogy. But despite their opposition to Kant, empirical
and genetic psychologists eventually reinforced the
tendency to phenomenalize time and thus to weaken
its ontological status. Arthur Schopenhauer's combina-
tion of the Kantian and of the empirical-psychological
approach was only apparently paradoxical; he saw in
the abnormal modifications of temporal awareness an
additional corroboration of the phenomenal, and,
ultimately, of the illusory character of time.

This is related to the fact that the theory of evolu-
tion, in spite of its emphasis on the historical aspects
of reality, was not—in its initial impact at least—
opposed to the static and substantialistic view of the
world; on the contrary, since for some time it even
strengthened it. Darwin's theory of the origin of species
was strictly mechanistic and in this way fitted perfectly
into the Laplacean framework of classical physics.
Herbert Spencer, unquestionably the most influential
philosophical interpreter of evolution in the last cen-
tury, made an ambitious attempt at deriving “the law
of evolution” from the law of conservation of energy.
This law itself was regarded by him, as well as by
Helmholtz, Häckel, Ostwald, and others, as the basis
of the law of causality. Conversely, classical principles
like ex nihilo nil fit and causa aequat effectum guided
Robert Mayer (1814-78) in his experimental search for
the law of the conservation of energy. Friedrich
Nietzsche, in spite of his contempt for static concepts
such as “substance,” “Being,” and others, did not find
it incongruous to combine the evolutionary philosophy
of Overman with the eternal return of all the events
(Die ewige Wiederkunft der Gleichen) in which becom-
ing, in virtue of its own circularity, was subordinated
to Being.