Early Greek And Later Philosophical Theories Of Time

Greek philosophers in the sixth- and fifth-centuries B.C. identified dual aspects of time (being - the "continuity" aspect of Parmenides; and becoming - the "transcience" aspect of Heraclitus) that, to this day, are concepts that are unreconciled. According to these early philosophers, time extends continuously from the past to the future (the being aspect), and things change in time (the becoming aspect). In the history of language, words for time are long preceded by words for past, present, and future, and the theoretical concept of time makes a relatively late appearance. The first attempt in the world to define and study, systematically and theoretically, the concept of time (and motion) derives from the ancient Greeks, primarily by the Eleatic school (a pre-Socratic philosophical school at Elea in Italy) founded by Parmenides (c.515 B.C.- ?) whose philosophy denied the reality of change on the basis that things either do, or do not, exist. The important notion of change is a fundamental assumption in modern-day theoretical treatments of temporal experience. Par-menides' point of view asserting that there are no "in-between" or "mediating" stages (such as the concept of change implies) served as an issue of debate among the early Greek philosophers, most notably Heraclitus (c.535-c. 475 B.C.) who taught that there is no permanent reality except the reality of change, and that permanence is an illusion of the senses. Although the early Greek philosophers apparently took the notion of time for granted, they generated significant questions involving time. In addition to the concept of change and its influence on the concept of time, the speculations of Pythagoras (c.582-c.507 B.C.) regarding the notion of number had a direct formative influence on Aristotle's (384-323 B.C.) later philosophy of time, and paradoxical problems such those posed by Zeno (c. 490-c.430 B.C.), directed attention critically toward the concept of time. According to an account by the Greek biographer and historian Plutarch (c.46-c.120 A.D.), when asked what time was, Pythagoras replied that it was the soul, or procreative element, of the universe. The degree to which Pythagoras and his followers were influenced by earlier conceptualizations of time - such as Asian/Oriental notions - is open to speculation. However, the Orphic (6th century B.C. religious cult in Greece) conception of kronos [related to Cronus - a Greek legendary figure (probably a god of agriculture of a pre-Hellenic people) who fathered mythologically the great gods Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades, among others] has features common with the Iranian notion of "Zurvan Akarana" (infinite or unending time). The concept of "Father Time" is believed to stem from Cronus, and later Greeks referred to him as Chronus, the god of time who - with his sickle - cuts down the passing years. Today, "Father Time" symbolizes the end of the year. Apparently, though, before the 5th century B.C., and the writings of the Athenian tragic poet Aeschylus (525-456 B.C.), the concept of time was relatively unimportant for the Greeks. Zeno of Elea - Parmenides' famous disciple - used a series of paradoxes (Zeno's paradoxes) to show logically the indefensibility of commonsense notions of reality [e.g., an arrow shot toward a target theoretically never reaches the target because a moving body (the arrow) can never come to the end of a line (the target) as it must first cover half the line, then half the remainder, and so on ad infinitum]. Although Zeno's paradoxes were concerned primarily with the problem of motion, they raised theoretical difficulties both for the notion of time as continuous or infinitely divisible, and the notion of temporal atomicity. Xenocrates (396-314 B.C), Ana xagoras (c.500-428 B.C.), and Democritus (c.460-c.370 B.C.) originated and advanced the atomic theory which occasionally figured in temporal problems and solutions of Zeno's paradox: if time consists of the indivisible moments, often referred to as "chrons," motion consists of imperceptible jerks that may explain how the arrow actually strikes the target. Plato (c.427-347 B.C.) conceived of time as a reality that is an "absolute flowing" apart from the events filling it. Parmenides' and Zeno's influence on Plato is apparent in the different treatment of space and time in Plato's various cosmological references: space exists in its own right as a given basis for the visible order of things, whereas time is merely an aspect of that order based on an "ideal" timeless archetype and involves static geometrical shapes ("eternity") of which time is the "moving image" and is governed by a regular numerical sequence occasioned by the motions of the heavenly bodies. Thus, Plato's intimate pairing of time with the universe led him to consider time as being produced, essentially, by celestial sphere revolutions (cf., Aristotle who rejected the idea that time is identified with any particular form of motion). It may be noted that time per se is nowhere contemplated psychologically by Plato; time is not one of Plato's "five categories" (Being, Rest, Motion, Sameness, and Difference). Among the Scholastic philosophers of the Middle Ages, St. Albertus Magnus (c.1193-1280 A.D.) held that natural philosophy, rather than metaphysics, is the primary discipline in which time is properly studied; he argued that because time is an attribute of the events of the physical world, time's mode of being is analogous to motion's. Magnus asserted that time does not possess enduring being (as do rocks, trees, and stars), but time does have successive being which flows and is always losing what was had and gaining what is to come. Magnus argued, also, that the present moment or "now," which is all of time that exists, is a flowing reality that is the end of the past and the beginning of the future. Magnus' concern was with the being and nature of time ("chronos"), rather than the measurement of time ("chronometrics"). Another Scholastic, St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) -like his mentor St. Albertus Magnus - attempted to "Christianize Aristotle" by introducing Aristotle's scientific treatises and methods to Europe. Characteristic of the discussions of time during Aquinas' life were determinations of - and the differences between - time, eternity, and "aevum" (i.e., an attribute of the heavenly bodies and the angels; cf., eternity which is predicated only of God). Aquinas' best opinion was that eternity is a totality without the beginning, end, or succession essential to time and capable of being conjoined with "aevum." The most im portant theoretical theme in Aquinas' writings involving the notion of time is a divine eternity or "timelessness;" he interpreted the Biblical opposition between time and eternity in terms of its elaboration by neo-Platonic writers, notably St. Augustine (354-430). The last of the Scholastic philosophers, Francisco Suarez (1548-1617), made a distinction between "physical time" that measures the motions of the heavens, and "spiritual discrete time" that is composed of the indivisible, successive instants of change in the intellections and volitions of the angels, and is measured by the thought of the Supreme Angel. Suarez suggested that the seemingly successive parts of an action, and hence their real duration, may be conceived as a whole in a form that is nonsuccessive; he also considered the idea of time as a sort of space flowing from eternity as purely imaginary, and the location of a given duration in such a space as a purely mental act. However, Suarez did not seem to grasp the radical conception of time in totality as a mental construction. With the succeeding philosophers - such as Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, Leibnitz, Berkeley, Hartley, Hume, Kant, Fichte, Hegel, Schelling, and Herbart - the notions of succession, duration, intuition, subjectivity, objectivity, and consciousness take on additional meaning and importance for a cumulative and balanced understanding of the theories of time. See also ARISTOTLE'S TIME THEORY/PARADOX; BERGSON'S THEORY OF TIME; GUY-AU'S THEORY OF TIME; PLOTINUS' THEORY OF TIME; ST. AUGUSTINE'S TIME THEORY/PARADOX; TIME, THEORIES OF. REFERENCE

Roeckelein, J. E. (2000). The concept of time in psychology. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

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