Opening the Phenomenon of Time



Can science study time? Is time an object of scientific inquiry? Can scientific methods and experiments scrutinise time in a way similar to the study of an instance of matter, a movement or an organism? Defining time has been an intellectual mystery in all societies, and one may arguably concede that in the western tradition of scientific thought, the understanding of time has been set more through postulates and metaphysical assumptions than via a procedure of experimental inspection. The popular definitions available for time reveal this blind spot: ‘time is that which is measured by clocks’ or ‘time is the dimension through which events pass from the future, through the present and to the past.’ Such definitions lead to circular arguments: a clock is defined as the object that measures time, but it cannot account for, or describe time independently, and future, present and past are also concepts that rely upon time as a reference. Even if time remains an enigma, science can still function: one can shift the speculative gaze towards other elements, other parameters. However, naturally, across the centuries, a few major families of thought have come out, to defend a limited number of particular conceptions of time.

Modern science emerged in the 17th century, and we can indeed notice the two most prevalent theories of time emerging from this period. On the one hand, Sir Isaac Newton postulated the existence of time as an integral part of the universe, a dimension belonging to the real, whether actual events occur through it or not. Here, time ‘flows’ and it constitutes a ‘container’ for events, with the ‘instant’ as a unity for this containing frame.

Countering this realist view, Immanuel Kant suggested that time, just like space, are parts of the intellectual apparatus of the human being. Both time and space are unquestionable and inevitable ‘dimensions’ through which the human needs to think, in order to comprehend any possible cognitive object. It is impossible to think something that would not be in a temporal context. There, time does not exist outside of the human being; it does not ‘flow’ or ‘contain’ events.

guill top right

A quantitative amount of time can be thus measured, but the operation does not provide any qualitative information on time. Time remains, here, a fundamental unit, one from which other units can be generated, but which itself seems to prevail independently from its possible manifestations in any of these other forms.

guill bottom left

The ambiguity of time is still sensible in today’s science. For instance, time can be equated with a ratio of distance and speed: speed is distance by time, which means that time is distance by speed. In other words, time can be observed or marked by the relation of the distance between two points and the speed of the movement that connects them. A quantitative amount of time can be thus measured, but the operation does not provide any qualitative information on time. Time remains, here, a fundamental unit, one from which other units can be generated, but which itself seems to prevail independently from its possible manifestations in any of these other forms.

Science uses time, but does it comprehend it? What could ‘understanding time’ mean? We have already asked whether time can be an object of scientific knowledge. The next step is the following: can time be an object of knowledge at all? Can time be cognised? Or are we bound to mention representations of time, or temporal objects, whenever we are asked for the quality of time as such? This option seems perhaps more defeatist, less ambitious or less amenable to a general, universal and absolute account of time, but it may also provide more intellectually fruitful outcomes. After all, the ‘omniscient’ account of the universe, which Newton was still visibly looking for, could not manage to implement any non-dogmatic theory: there is, always, ultimately a metaphysical postulate behind any proposition. The authority of the church, which these intellectuals rightfully fought, was only soon replaced by the authority of the scientist. By the 19th century, the natural science would observe the emergence of a new focus throughout their disciplinary offspring: the social sciences. The human would become the new element of reference for all possible enquiries about the world. Marx, Nietzsche or Freud would, in their own respective way, prioritise the human factor within a number of worldly processes that were earlier discussed only through larger principles. Psychology would be one of such disciplines, pushing the nascent cognitive science set by Kant to enquire on the way human’s mental faculties function.

It is in this context that an approach named phenomenology would take birth in the late 19th century, with Franz Brentano and Edmund Husserl. According to the phenomenologists, the world and the human being have to be investigated through the specific evaluation of human consciousness. Husserl would soon realise how, unlike in physical science, a study of consciousness must directly address the question of time. Phenomenology, from the start, would be — among other things — a discourse on time. It is this discourse that I hope to explore in the current paper.

As we shall see, the cognitive nature, and limitations, of Husserl’s project are still visible through his understanding of time. The main challenge, for him, remains to account for the state of consciousness of future and past events, with a special insistance on the latter. His most brilliant student, Martin Heidegger, would expand his teacher’s method as an introspective look onto the subjective consciousness of the individual, but he would add to it an existential tone, placing each subject in a historical and spatial context that transcends her. Time, here, takes the form of a certain awareness of the individual’s liberty to control her life, gaining, optimally, the serene awareness of her inevitable, ultimate death. And we shall continue the exploration of this heritage of thought by looking into a less known and acclaimed phenomenologist: Emmanuel Levinas. In the works of the ‘thinker of ethics,’ time plays an unexpectedly important role. The influence of Heidegger is evident, but Levinas avoids the self-affirming tone of his teacher’s thought, to develop, instead, a more hospitable attitude towards alterity, connecting one’s Other and one’s future. Through the decades, phenomenology became more and more speculative, and less and less experimental. In the course of this essay, I shall try to evaluate the relevance of the conclusions drawn by such an intellectual tradition, to bring lights into the theoretical and practical assumptions of modern science on time, and its attempts at maintaining the dialogue with philosophy.


Image courtesy: Beegs