MUSING | The Question of Acknowledging Time


“Time is the substance of which I am made. Time is a river that bears me away, but I am the river; it is a tiger that mangles me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire that consumes me, but I am the fire. The world, alas is real; I, alas, am Borges.” – Jorge Luis Borges, A New Refutation of Time

Time, as a theory, notion, an impression even, has proven to be astonishingly indefinable and hard to grasp. Constant and constantly moving forward, each second is anticipated, experienced, and lost: never to be regained, both celebrated and mourned. Throughout the centuries, it has teased and stymied philosophers and artists alike, both attempting to identify and comprehend its essence and then to articulate it conceptually. It is such an essential feature of our reality and so fundamental to our experience; yet time is not corporeal, is complex in its definition, and more often than not, eludes us in part if not wholly.

As a belief , time is simultaneously defined in itself[1] and, often interpreted through its relationship with us through memory. I begin this exploration to investigate the temperaments, definitions and virtues of time, though we will always presuppose that it does exist. As Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote, “Time presupposes a view of time,”[2] so it makes no point for this essay to question that existence. Instead, it is more interesting to query into how it is defined and how I perceive its character. In fact, I will also presuppose that within time, there is a past, a present and a future; and further, that there is an inherent ambiguity to our lived experience, and that we aid in that ambiguity through our bodies, souls, and memories. These specific aids will consume a my examination, as they are far more in depth than their surfaces would emanate. Finally, I will also presuppose that the mind, body and soul all exist as well; however, I will search for their distinct significances in addition to what correlates among the three.

It is also important to note, that there will be no final resolution to any of these ideas. This is not the intention of this essay; however, by delving into time’s relationship to us and how it affects our notions about space and of ourselves – it is hopeful that simply more questions will be raised, as undoubtedly they will. I will compare and contrast theories from established philosophers such as Aristotle and Maurice Merleau-Ponty as well as contemporary thinkers such as Monika Langer and Edward S. Casey in my efforts of investigation. And so I begin with Immanuel Kant.

Kant’s proffered idea that ‘time is a form of apprehending phenomena’[3] suggests that we have no direct perception of time, but only the ability to experience things and events in time. The Persian Philosopher Avicenna doubted the existence of physical time altogether and argued that time exists only in the mind due to memory and expectation.[4] Combined together these two wildly varying philosophies are a far more interesting dialogue. Perhaps then, we do have a direct perception of time thanks to our memories and by the same token are still able to experience time in time. Our perceptions must dictate how we experience time.

We are not neutral observers. Merleau-Ponty writes that we must return to the pre-objective realm if we are to understand what it really means to see, to hear and to feel; rejecting all attempts to decompose perception into sensations alone and to reconstruct experience out of determinate qualities. We must abandon the belief in an external world in itself, which all the sciences share with common sense.[5] In the introduction to Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty imposes the idea that we must go back to the actual experience; and in doing so; we are truly in ‘a process of transcendence.’[6] Further, in the final chapter of his introduction, he repeats: ‘It is therefore essential that we break with uncritical perception and the classical presupposition of determinate being; that we go back to our actual experience of the world and rediscover the dialectical process of living experience whereby we ourselves, other people and things come into being. He designates this reawakening of perception and rediscovery of phenomena as ‘ the first philosophical act.’[7]

Classical psychology has recognized that our body itself has permanence unlike that of mere objects; moreover, an object cannot be removed from our perceptual field. We cannot detach ourselves from our bodies, nor take up various perspectives on it, thus we cannot dislodge it from our perception. Our body is permanently present for us and we cannot alter the angle from which we view it; yet its’ permanent and invariable presence is what allows us to view objects outside ourselves. Our bodies are permanent and primordial, and the lack of it is inconceivable; and it is through this fixed, permanence that we are able to discern the world and its’ objects, and subsequently grandiose concepts like time.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty said, ‘We are our bodies.’ We are ‘lived bodies, ‘ where the body experiences itself to the extent that it perceives something else. The body is our locus of experience. Our body is in fact the sine qua non of perceptual experience and we thus encounter considerable difficulties in regarding it as an object. Then the body becomes our ‘point of view upon the world’ instead of an object, the spatio-temporal structure of perceptual experience will be revived and objective thinking undermined. The problems posed by objective thought will lead us to recognize the body as a project rather than an in-itself.[8] “Moreover, my awareness of my body is inseparable from the world of my perception. The things, which I perceive, I perceive always in reference to my body, and this is so only because I have an immediate awareness of my body as it exists ‘towards them.’[9]

If we are to collaborate with Merleau-Ponty, we will agree that the mind [which many interrupt as the facilitator of perception] is connected or “in-fleshed” with our bodies, and so that our perceptions of everything, including time, is made through not only our memories, but also our bodies. Time must have a “lived” quality,[10] but do we ourselves [our bodies] or our memories provide that “lived” quality?

Aristotle regards the soul [mind] not as the product of the physiological conditions of the body, but as the truth of the body—the substance in which only the bodily conditions gain their real meaning. This is an interesting idea, the tangible only gains true definition in that which is intangible; but do the two have to be separate in order for meaning to be conferred? What if the two are meant to exist as one point of perception instead of two parts simply making a whole? He goes further, in Physics, Aristotle raised the metaphysical question, “...whether, time would exist or not, if no soul existed; for, if no one can exist to do the numbering, no thing can be numbered and so clearly no number can exist, for a number is that which has been numbered or that which can be numbered. So if nothing can do the numbering except a soul or the intellect of a soul, no time can exist without the existence of a soul.”[11]

Thus, time exists because our soul exists. Can it really be that simple? Does time only exist because we are here to perceive it, and if so, does the question still matter if we remove ourselves from it? Merleau-Ponty would say no, (presupposing that there is perspective), time comes into being from our relationship to the world and has no existence apart from that relation. Further, since subjectivity is the act of transcendence towards a world that thereby comes into being as world, we can say that we ourselves are time.[12] He goes further; suggesting that time is neither undergone nor constituted by us, because it is itself our living relationship with the world. He elaborates, however, that we cannot account for our consciousness of pastness and futurity by the projections of memories; and additionally, that the present and the future cannot be ‘explained’ by the past, nor cannot they exist apart from it. We cannot exist in a single temporal dimension, but we always exist as a living synthesis of all three.[13] We are subjects situated in time – our reflection of time itself is situated in time.

In time – what does that mean? Let’s look at the impression of the instant, or the moment rather, to further understand our awareness of time. While it seems as though time cannot be simply equated with our perceptions or with change, “neither does time exist without change.”[14] In Time without Change, Sydney Shoemaker quotes Aristotle stating, “...if the ‘now’ were not different but one and the same, there would not have been time.”[15] He uses this argument to illustrate McTaggart’s concepts of time: it would seem “...that certain related truisms imply that there are changes that occur with relentlessness. Thus, the date and time of day is constantly changing, it is constantly becoming later and later, whatever exists is constantly becoming older and older (whether or not it “shows its age”), and not a moment goes by without something that had been future becoming present and something that had been present becoming past.”[16]

Henri Bergson agrees, “Bergson was quick to assert, however, that no moment can possibly be identical to any other moment; there is always one’s memory that differentiates one moment from another...a consciousness which could experience two identical moments [instants] would be a consciousness without memory.”[17] So, are a moment and an instant the same and how do these define time? By definition, an instant means a very short space of time: a precise moment (Oxford English Dictionary), but what is it’s exact role in defining memory (and subsequently our gathering of time) and is that role important or merely an act of perception? Scientifically, an instant is a member of duration, not a part; and a duration is infinitely divisible and can endlessly divide into more intervals, but never instants. The singleton set of an instant is a subset of the duration, and provides the boundaries for durations. They are locations in time, but they are “in” time as members are in sets, not as parts are in wholes.[18] How does this micro-level of delineation determine our understanding of time? Is it necessary to reduce time to infinite subsets or boundaried durations? Am I even capable of being present enough in each second of each minute of each hour to be able to make the distinction? And, if so, it would seem it would become a purely suffocating, immeasurable endeavor.

Aristotle offers an alternative, more holistic approach: he defines the moment as “The [present] moment is a continuity of time, as it was stated, for it makes the past and the future continuous; and it is a limit of time, for it is the beginning of the one [the future] and the end of the other [the past]. But this is not evident as it is with the point, which persists. The moment divides potentially, and, qua such, it is always distinct, but qua connecting, it is always the same, as in the case of mathematical lines. For, in thought, a point is not always one; for if the parts [of a line] are divided, it [the point] is distinct, but qua one, the point is in every way the same. So too with the moment: In one way, it is potentially a division of time; in another, it is the limit and the unity of both [parts]. Both the division and the union are the same and with respect to the same, but in essence they are not the same.”[19]

So, could it be said, that the point is able to persist. By our act of deeming something a memory (captured time), something we remember as opposed to all the things we allow ourselves to forget; can the moment become both? It renders the division necessary to make it a memory and becomes defined, yet remains as a divider between the past, present and future; but in the act of recollection, it impacts our immediate present and connects the three. Is memory, then, the glue that binds?

I would argue yes, the notion of memory as the defining factor to prove the existence of time fits within relational theories of time suggesting that time does not exist independently of physical events, objects, change or the spatiotemporal relationships among them;[20] and further propounds that time exists because of these changes and through the benchmarks of specific memories; time is even measured. “The world grows by accretion of facts.”[21] Reality “grows” with the coming into being of determinate reality from an indeterminate or potential realty. Aristotle prescribed to the growing and I agree – past theory argues that not only is the present real, but also that the past is real. Through study of his texts on memory, it is apparent that to define the the existence of and our experience of time, memory plays a significant role. And as I am full of memories, I contend that Borges was right all along, time is indeed the substance of which I am made.

Images (from top to bottom): June 19, 1967, 1967, from “Today” series, No. 108, 1966 - ?, photo: David Zwirner New York/London; 23 JUL. 1982, 1982, from “Today” series, 1966-201, acrylic on canvas, 8 x 10 inches, photo: David Zwirner New York/London; Paintings from “Today” series, exhibited at David Zwirner New, photo by Lucy Hogg; I Am Still Alive, 1973, ballpoint pen on four telegrams, 5 7/8 x 8 ¼ inches each, Collection of MOMA, The Judith Rothschild Foundation Contemporary Drawings Collection Gift (purchase, and gift, in part, of The Eileen and Michael Cohen Collection), © 2015 On Kawara; Pages from One Million Years (Future), One Million Years (Future), 1980-1998, 10 leather hardbound volumes, 2,000 pages, photo: David Zwirner New York/London; Wednesday, Dec. 12, 1979, 1979, synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 18 1/4 x 24 3/8 inches, Collection of MOMA, Blanchette Hooker Rockefeller Fund, © 2015 On Kawara

*Author’s note: Artist On Kawara was a Japanese artist who I believe was conceptually addressing the personal and historical consciousness of place and time in very interesting ways and this is why I posted several images of his work with this musing. My thoughts should in no way be interpreted as critique of or description for his work. If you would like to know more about On Kawara, visit: www.moma.org/collection/artists/3030 or www.davidzwirner.com/artists/on-kawara

Footnotes: [1] Gilbert Voyat, “Perception and Concept of Time: A Development Perspective.” The Personal Experience of Time. eds. Bernard S. Gorman and Alden E. Wessman (New York: Plenum Press, 1977) 135.; [2] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, Ltd., 1962) 411.; [3] Bradley Dowden, “Time.“ Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2005. California State University, Sacramento. 11 February 2006 <http://www.iep.utm.edu/t/time.htm#H3>.*Though, it is interesting to note that the term “memory” does not occur once in Kant’s entire book The Critique of Pure Reason, illustrating his theory of demoting memory’s importance in the human experience to the point that we reach a point where it has even lost its own name. (See Edward S. Casey, Remembering: A Phenomenological Study, p. 17); [4] Bradley Dowden.; [5] Monika Langer, A Guide and commentary on The Phenomenology of Perception by Maurice Merleau-Ponty (Tallahassee: The Florida State University Press, 1989) 5.; [6] Monika Langer, preface, xvi.; [7] Monika Langer, 17-18.;[8] Monika Langer, 25-26, see M. Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception 67-72 where he discusses the problem of the body.; [9] Monika Langer, 41, see M. Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception 98-147 where he discusses the spatiality of the body itself and motility.; [10] Gorman and Wessman, p. vii; [11] Hippocrates G. Apostle, Aristotle’s Physics, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1969) Book D, Chapter 14.;[12] Monika Langer, 124.; [13] Monika Langer, 126, see M. Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception 410-433 where he discusses temporality.; [14] Apostle, Book IV, Chapter 11, 218b.; [15] Sydney Shoemaker, “Time without Change.” The Journal of Philosophy LXVI.12 (1969) 363 -quoting Aristotle, loc.cit.; [16] Sydney Shoemaker, 364.; [17] Thomas J. Cottle, “The Time in Youth.” The Personal Experience of Time. eds. Bernard S. Gorman and Alden E. Wessman (New York: Plenum Press, 1977) 164 - quoting H. Bergson from Matter and Memory, New York: Humanities Press. 1964, 140.; [18] Bradley Dowden.; [19] Apostle, Book D, Chapter 13.; [20] Bradley Dowden.; [21] Richard Jeffrey, “Time.“ Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2005. California State University, Sacramento. 11 February 2006 <http://www.iep.utm.edu/t/time.htm#H3> 25.

Bibliography: “Aristotle (3840322 BCE): General Introduction.” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2006. 10 April 2006 <http://www.iep.utm.edu/a/aristotl.htm#H6>.; Apostle, Hippocrates G. (transl.) Aristotle’s Physics. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1969.; Casey, Edward S. Remembering: A Phenomenological Study. Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1987.; Cottle, Thomas J. “The Time in Youth.” Gorman and Wessman 163-189.; Dowden, Bradley. “Time.” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2005. California State University, Sacramento. 11 February 2006 <http://www.iep.utm.edu/t/time.htm#H3>.; Frampton, Hollis. “Incisions in History, Segments of Eternity.” ArtForum October 1974: 39-50.; Golomb, Jacob. In Search of Authenticity, From Kierkegaard to Camus, Problems of Modern European Thought. London, England: Rutledge, 1995.; Gorman, Bernard S. and Alden E. Wessman, eds. The Personal Experience of Time. New York, NY: Plenum Press, 1977.; Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason. New York, NY: E.P. Dutton, 1934.; Langer, Monika. A guide and commentary on The Phenomenology of Perception by Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Tallahassee, FL: The Florida State University Press, 1989.; Madison, Gary Brent. The Phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty, Series in Continental Thought: V. 3. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1981.; McConkey, Lynn. Truth in Memory. New York, NY: The Guilford Press, 1998.; Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception. London, England: Routledge & Kegan Paul, Ltd, 1962.; Prior, A.N. “Thank Goodness that’s Over.” Philosophy: The Journal of the Royal Institute of Philosophy No. XXXIV (1959): 12-17.; Reynolds, Jack. “Maurice Merleau-Ponty.” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2005. University of Tasmania. 11 February 2006 <http://www.iep.utm.edu/m/merleau.htm>; Shoemaker, Sydney. “Time without Change.” The Journal of Philosophy Volume LXVI, No. 12 (1969): 363-381.; Slife, Brent D. Time and Psychological Explanation: SUNY Series, Alternatives in Psychology Albany, NY: State University of NY Press, 1993.; Sorabji, Richard. Aristotle on Memory. Providence, RI: Brown University Press, 1972.; Taylor, Mark C. nOts. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1993.; Voyat, Gilbert. “Perception and Concept of Time: A Development Perspective.” Gorman and Wessman 135-160.

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