Time as a Datum of History


Lloyd, A. H. (1899). Time as a Datum of History. The Philosophical Review, 8(1), 40. https://doi.org/10.2307/2176765


The real is the organic and the organic is the real.


AS one of the data of history, of any history, time is a matter of peculiar interest these days, when the historical method is so prevalent. To comprehend history fully one must know just what time is. Thus, is time an independent thing, external to the events or experiences that appear in it, or is it in some way intrinsic even to its content? Is it real in and of itself, even when empty, or in such reality as it has is it dependent on the nature of things, being, when taken for itself, only an abstraction of something involved in the very relations of things or in what makes and determines things, or let us say in the activity that the relations of things presuppose? Is it, in short, a mere formal condition of history, or is it a material condition?


In its existence, in its peculiar character and in its function, it will be found to be determined by such other data of history as causation and individuality and environment, and they too by it. So at the start we may as well recognize the vivisection that we are engaged in, and, with the recognition leave the case of time open until we have studied history in all its data, and so made the living whole stand and move before us. But all real studies have to be partial, or abstract, and in the present paper we are asking only what time is, and particularly, to begin with, upon just what grounds the self-existence or the formal character of time is to be denied.


Of course this question of the dependence or self-existence, of the material or formal character of time is to be seen as only a special case of the general inquiry, with which modern thought has been so thoroughly imbued, as to whether the one and the many, unity and differences, are or are not intimate functions of each other. Are differences essential to unity, or is unity an abstract, external something that is altogether independent of the differences in whatever is unified? In the conception of the organic, we have the one and the many, unity and differences, presented to us as absolutely interdependent and underdetermining, but even in these days not everybody, not even every biologist, is willing to accept all the consequences of this conception. As regards time, then, it is only one of the ways or media through which differences are unified. It is, to be sure, an extremely physical form of unification, but herein is nothing to place it out of the category to which I have assigned it. Space is another so-called physical form of unification, and philosophy is still asking about it, as about time and about unity, in senses much less physical, if it is external or intrinsic to the things that it unifies. Our present problem, then, is no peculiar problem; it is not isolated; and simply to have seen it in its larger relations, or in its general character, will surely be of some help in the solution.


But now to turn directly to the business of this paper, suppose we consider the conclusions that naturally spring from regarding time as self-existent or formal. Four conclusions, which all merge into one as they are understood, have seemed to me worthy of mention.


Thus, in the first place, if time is merely formal, all events in time are necessarily external to each other, and a history of merely dated happenings, a history that makes no study of laws or 01causes or of an organizing process, is justified. Indeed, no other history than that of separate events with dates would be possible. To appeal at once to the general case, if you make the unity of things external to their differences, you are bound therewith to separate completely the things themselves. This is stupidly commonplace. But, specifically, if you make time external to events, you turn history into nothing but a broken series. I say a broken series, for continuity even in the most physical sense would be undiscoverable in it. A self-existent purely formal time, by taking continuity to its empty self, denies it to the mere content of time.


Secondly, if time is formal, the things in time are sudden. Here, quite evidently, we have but another way of viewing the isolation referred to in the previous paragraph. Nations, men, institutions are to be thought of as arising out of nothing and, after persisting in a certain fixed form, disappearing as suddenly as they come. Whatever is at any time is only that particular thing which it is, being without any changing or adapting or differentiating nature or power to relate it to other things. No doubt we are sometimes given to living as if time were only a formal condition, and life-histories are often written on the same assumption ; but the result is to make the time pass without any real achievement of ours, life for us being as empty as the time containing it, or in the case of a life-history to have to explain the changes through some external cause, a brutal chance, perhaps, or a lawless miracle. In a formal time, history is not a record of positive achievement, but a record of only sudden happenings or miraculous interventions.


In other words, thirdly, if time is formal, the events in time are naturally and necessarily under the control of some wholly external, and therefore wholly arbitrary agency. To a people, for example, subject to some absolute monarch, or to some infallible church, where monarch or church is supposed to get its authority from a world or a nature wholly alien to this world and to human nature, time is a mere form, the present having no positive significance, and the past and the future being unreal just because past and future. What wonder that through the Middle Ages, when absolutism otherworld’s was so general, the things of time were so illusory, and predictions of an early millennium were very common, and the real or the spiritual was made antithetical to the temporal!


But, fourthly, in the illusory character of time that follows from thinking of time as formal, self-existent, or external, lies perhaps the most serious, the most thoroughly condemning conclusion of any that have been mentioned. The isolation of events from each other, the sanction of suddenness in things, and the positive recognition of a controlling agency without, are condemnatory enough, but for my own part I find the notion of time, or of anything else for that matter, as an illusion peculiarly offensive. Those other conclusions stood at least for the moment without question, but here the need of a radically different view of time is absolutely imperative. To find an illusion is hopelessly to unsettle the point of view from which it is found, and to enforce adoption of another point of view. Summarily, if time is ever an experience, then the real and even the spiritual, if there is any difference between the two, must be temporal. But the real or the spiritual, somebody reminds me, must be eternal. Very true, and in consequence there must be a sense in which the temporal and the eternal are not mere opposites or mere negatives of each other, and can we not find this sense? Can we not bring eternal reality or eternal spirit into the temporal? Can we not find in time, not something that is self-existent, since the self-existence ends in an illusion, but something which will conclusively show time to be only an abstraction of some essential character in the sphere of the real? If we can, to say no more, history will be transfigured.


To make time essential to the real is to relate events positively or organically, to do away with all sudden beginnings and endings, to find the control of changes, not in an external, and therefore arbitrary agency, but in the actual nature of that which changes and is controlled, in an indwelling and only self-realizing process of things, and, above all, to make both the past and the future actual in the present, and at one with it. Obviously, a self-controlling process, a process that has its own determinations within itself, within its own natural conditions, can manifest only such differences as are organically, which is to say concretely, related, and it can have only such a past and such a future as are not external to the present and so illusions, but actual contents or relations of the present. At every moment of its expression, a self-controlling process must both recapitulate its past, and anticipate its future.


What the foregoing means is to be found, at least in part, in that to which it is opposed. Negations always afford important help in interpretation. Still the direct or positive statement calls for more than mere statements. So just what are related events? What is involved in the elimination of sudden changes? How can control be from within? And what is it to have past and future also present? Can it really be that paradoxes such as these four are true?


Related events, which are of course sequent, are in principle like the successive experiences that one has when taking a walk. The stages of one's progress, whether of future or past, are always present in the form of actual relations in the sphere of the activity. The walking is somehow only the temporal expression of spatial relations, the fulfilment of coexistences in sequences roof sequences in coexistences, and such expression of fulfilment would be impossible were there not an actual and complete organic unity in all the differences involved. The action, I say, or the walking, can be but the expression of already existing and ever-existing relationships. Were the expressed relations not rooted in some permanent organizing unity, were they not existing and persistent, it is hard, nay, it is impossible to see how the activity could ever come about, or how the agent could ever know what he was doing. Merely that he may know what he is doing, an agent needs an environment as a sphere of coexisting things or objects, in whose relations he has repeated to him the past moments of his progress and foretold to him the future moments. Without the knowledge, moreover, the action itself cannot be.


And in the circumstances of the illustration, we see also what is meant by the elimination of sudden changes. The peculiar relation between the sequent and the coexistent that the conditions of activity evidently require, makes continuity, as that alone in which the two can be at one with each other, a necessity. Indeed, continuity is only a physical conception of relationship. Here, however, we do well to broaden our view by thinking of the long historical process of evolution, which is not essentially different from the process of walking. The larger facts of evolution will help us to a still clearer understanding, both of the relationship of events, and of the continuity of change. Evolution has occurred not only in a creature that has evolved and is still evolving, but also in a vitally related environment by which the creature’s past and the creature's future are made concretely present Moreover, a consciousness of the environment is as necessary condition of the evolutional process in any one of its stages, as was the pedestrian's recognition of his coexisting surroundings constantly necessary condition of his progress. Evolution needs consciousness, and consciousness, in our larger illustrations in our smaller, means both a relational unity of coexistence and a continuity of sequences.

In the primary importance of consciousness to evolution, there is to be had still another view of what now interests us. In award, life and consciousness cannot possibly be thought of as apart from each other. Consciousness is as original as life, or as the organic, and in their common origin or, as the same thing, in their constant contemporaneity, is evidence of the unity of life and consciousness. Life, because it is life, is conscious. Consciousness is intrinsic to life; it is not under any conditions epiphenomenal. To make consciousness a sudden appearance in the evolution-series is to separate it, not only at its origin, but also forever, from the life to which it is attached. Some scientists, whose eyes must be closed to their own visions, seem to enjoy the strange conceit that science, as the best expression of man’s consciousness, is solely for science's sake; but the same blind gazers, as if unwittingly correcting their unseen error, have beerwort to raise animals to man's level by making the animal-consciousness also epiphenomenal or for its own sake, and to raise the still "lower" forms of life to the animal's level by denying consciousness to them altogether ; but the very evolution which they unwittingly justify in this indirect way is impossible on their scheme. Evolution demands a consciousness, or, if you will, a science, or a thought, or a mind, or a useful sensitiveness of some kind that is intimate with the nature of whatever evolves. But time as the form in which the sequences of evolution appear is a peculiar condition of consciousness, so that in identifying life and consciousness we do in just so far make time essential to reality. True, somebody is likely to turn about and say that life itself is not essential, that life began in time by some process of abiogenesis, or spontaneous genesis, and is not an ultimate fact in the reality of the present, and that time, therefore, is not of such a nature as to make the temporal and the eternal one. But to such an objector it seems necessary to reply only that he means much less by life than we do. For us the life that can evolve is not the special and peculiar endowment of any isolated body, or of any group, large or small, of isolated bodies; it is a property or an activity in the universe as single and indivisible. With life so established and conscious in and of itself, the idea of time as essential to reality is unassailable.


Now, in summary, life or action in its temporal sequences is but the continuous expression of the persistent relationships of coexistences. Confessedly this formula is not exactly a Pleasanton, but it is at least intelligible to all who walk, or run, and to all also who, knowing the story of their evolution, look out upon their present environment, which is so obviously at once the recapitulated but contemporized past and the anticipated but contemporized future. Furthermore, that life under this formula is self-determined and can now go without anything more than the mere statement. Simply there is no creation implied to make determination from without necessary. There is neither an external and bygone past, nor an external and unborn future to act upon the present and make it helpless.


But of the need, involved, as has been seen, in making time so essential to reality, of finding the past and the future actual in the relations of the present, still more may be said profitably. Perhaps we are not accustomed to look upon a creature's environment as its past and future organically contemporized with the present, but in other ways we are at least indirectly familiar with the idea. Memories are recognized as states of mind that are to be referred to present organically related physiological processes, and the same is true of prophecies or foresights. Also, as evolutionists or historians, we are wont to explain in their accounts of human achievement and progress. That laws, however, or principles are always contemporizing agencies, bringing the past and the future to which they are applied into the present, is all but axiomatic. So, we are brought back to the view of environment already given, since environment is not only the sphere of life's coexisting conditions organically related, but also, as an object of consciousness, the very incarnation of a more or less clearly recognized law. Exactly that law, which environments, is that which contemporizes past, present, and future. The biological doctrine of recapitulation, if taken for what it is in reality, a doctrine of a lawful contemporizing environment, as well as of the organic unity of an individual creature, offers a very good concluding indication of what is meant by time as essential to reality, or by any of the consequences of this essence-theory of time, by the relation of events, the continuity of change, the indwelling nature of control or determination, and the contemporaneity of past and future with the present.


And now again the question with which this paper began: What is time? Plainly time is nothing in itself. An abstract definition of it, however, may be derived from the foregoing, although I should almost prefer to let what has been said stand without this addition. Time in and for itself alone, time as mere duration, is definable as a physical or quantitative abstraction; for organic unity in so far as organic unity involves change; or, differently and somewhat metaphorically put, it is the change or motion that is inherent in the organic, projected upon the plane of mere measurable quantity. Similarly, space is the permanence of the organic on the same plane. But, in a statement which is possibly a shade less abstruse, time is the factor in experience that, taken by itself, expresses at once the necessity the past and the opportunity the future that a world of related differences naturally affords; no mere form of life, then, self-existent and formal, but even a force, or a phase of a force, in application of which or in identification with which life consists. Those who live do not live in time; they live time itself; they use time; and a life that uses time is as eternal as it is temporal. The past or the future by appealing to principles that we look upon as independent of any of the distinctions of time. Evolutionists to-day are in so many ways relying on mechanics, or chemistry, or physics, which in so far as they are exact sciences are also timeless sciences, and historians use nature and nature's laws.


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