chapter  2
27 Pages

Philosophies of time

In one of his most famous sayings, Saint Augustine worried, ‘What, then, is time? I know well enough what it is, provided that nobody asks me; but if I am asked what it is and try to explain, I am baffled’ (1961: 264). His puzzlement has been translated and retranslated and passed down over centuries, itself constituting a reiterated, and thus temporal, expression of our immanent experience of time, and of the sheer impossibility of speaking of time from anywhere but within its lived texture. Time eludes language, definition, understanding, yet is all-pervasive in our experience. This, perhaps, is the central dilemma of temporality that the present book investigates: how to understand something which informs the most intimate fabric of our experience, whose dynamic we cannot escape, and whose underlying identity we perhaps persist in misapprehending even as its constitutes us? The previous chapter sketched a drama played out from the

early modern period to the postmodern age, in which the flow of time was calibrated by increasingly accurate time-pieces, and its elusive character supposedly pinned down by a system of quantifying measurement. Yet that drama also highlighted the slipperiness of time and the refusal of time-keeping devices or systems to agree

among themselves. What is evinced in this temporal agon of measurement and immeasurability is the age-old attempt to grasp the nature of time, to encompass it within the limited parameters of human understanding. By the same token, however, time itself appears to generate and erode that understanding, perhaps, as I will intimate in the final sections of this chapter, not because it is beyond human experience, but because it is identical with the very dynamism of life itself. This chapter begins with an account of the Presocratic

philosophers’ sense of time as change, overlapping in many ways the notions of immanent, multiple temporalities with which the chapter concludes. It then reviews a series of temporal knots: the Christian tension between time and eternity; the early modern struggle against devouring time; the Enlightenment notion of absolute time and its complication by theories of relativity; and the attempts by phenomenology to replace absolute time by an ‘internal’, subjective time that, however, dwindles in importance as multiple human/non-human temporalities come into view.