“The decision to break time into past, present, and future reflects a tendency to see time as more or less analogous to space.“
“Ah, Faustus, Now hast thou but one bare hour to live, And then thou must be damn’d perpetually! Stand still, you ever-moving spheres of heaven, That time may cease, and midnight never come; Fair Nature’s eye, rise, rise again, and make Perpetual day; or let this hour be but A year, a month, a week, a natural day, That Faustus may repent and save his soul!” – Christopher Marlowe in The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus
hilosophers ancient and modern have long known that there is a close proximity between how an epoch conceived of time and its politics. This is because there is close association between how we conceive of time and the sense of meaning we have about life. Often, philosophers responded to vulgar conceptions of time by trying to sting the body politic into embracing a more holistic or complex vision. Plato famously insisted that the wise person saw past the doxa of temporality to understand the eternal world of the forms, including that of the beautiful city. In The Confessions, St. Augustine spent an entire book anguishing over the nature of time as perceived by eternal God, lamenting “What is time? Who can easily and briefly explain it? Who even in thought can comprehend it, even to the pronouncing of a word concerning it?” Augustine vacillated on whether even inquiring into such questions could provide us with spiritual insight into the sacred mind of God—or if it approached sin by trying to exceed the limits of finite human understanding. Faith was ultimately required to solve the dilemma.
Modern philosophers since Kant have tended to take a different tack. While their peers in antiquity—and through the Christian epoch—wanted to understand the relationship of eternity with the more unreal realm of transient temporality, Kant insisted that such was truly impossible. The transcendental structure of the mind was such that time, along with space, was a pure intuition projected onto the empirical world. It may well be that time existed in itself, or it may not. Hegel reformulated this argument to present time as the progressive unfolding of history. In earlier epochs, human beings saw meaning in life as flowing from the eternal world of the gods or God himself. However, we moderns liquidated eternity to say all such meaning needed to emerge from our selves, as historical beings gradually taking responsibility for our freedom and morality. For Hegel, when we understood time as just history we recognized that we, and we alone, create the sense of moral meaning needed to give life purpose. As Robert Brandom put it in his epochal A Spirit of Trust: A Reading of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit:
“Where for the Greeks the norms had been part of the natural world, for Faith they are part of the supernatural word. But that is a specific difference within a general agreement that norms are grounded in ontology and matters of fact, in something about how the world just is antecedently to its having human beings and their practical attitudes in it. Those norms and their bindingness are not understood ad products of human attitudes and activity, though they in fact are instituted by people acting according to the pure consciousness of faith. Believers institute these norms by their attitudes, but they do not understand themselves as doing that. Faith has not embraced the fundamental, defining insight of modernity: the attitude-dependence of normative statuses.”
Dealing with Nihilistic Time
Of course, the fact that modern and now post-modern morality is “attitude dependent” becomes a source of serious existential anxiety. If there is no eternal world of permanent morality that provides meaning to our lives, then where can it come from? Where can we moor ourselves while traversing the swift rivers of ever-changing time? This is one of the most serious issues in political thinking, which modern thinkers have struggled to respond to. While the eternal realms of beautiful forms or God seem unreal to many of us, they provided a source of permanent moral meaning that was external and permanent, compared to transient internal human attitudes. Without appealing to such eternal forms, we are left with morality and meaning as a fickle “attitude” human beings alone can take responsibility for.
Many different answers to this problem have been given. Kierkegaard examined different “spheres” of life and concluded that each is constrained by its temporal finitude; even the conservative “ethical” realm of tradition and values had to recognize that its highest values were merely historical and contingent. Heidegger insisted we needed to break from the modernist obsession with “clock time” and embrace the ecstatic holism of our experience of temporality. Past, present, and future are joined into one by an individual’s care for their life as a whole, rather than just each moment of it. But even such an ecstatic approach to the time of our lives becomes limited—since all human beings are doomed to death and a return to the timeless and meaningless nothing from which we emerged. Heidegger’s own response to this limitation took him to some very dark places and, in doing so, demonstrates the inadequacy of his vision of ecstatic time to resolve the fractured temporality of modernity and post-modernity.
Patrick Deneen on Making Whole our Historical Sense
Finally, Patrick Deneen, the greatest living conservative thinker, proposes another vision. In his seminal—and too little read—essay “Progress and Memory-Making Whole Our Historical Sense,” Deneen politicizes modern approaches to time according to ideology. He sets up a quadripartite taxonomy of how the major political ideologies orient themselves to historical sense. Liberals tend to focus on the present as the most relevant dimension of time and consequently emphasize immediate satisfaction of desires. Progressives emphasize the future, seeing the present as radically deficient relative to some utopian moment yet to come. And nostalgists pine relentlessly for a fantasized past, where our sense of meaning was untroubled—and which has decayed due to decadence and vulgarity. Each of these positions has something to it, but Deneen insists they ultimately fracture our historical sense. As such, only a sincere Burkean conservatism, respectful of the past, focused on the present, and hopeful for the future can restore the wholeness of time for modern individuals:
“The conservative disposition conserves time in its full dimension—past, present, and future—and above all defends those forms of culture that provide safe transmission of the past through the present and into the indefinite future. Conservatism misunderstands itself when it considers itself as solely or exclusively about the past—though, of course, it gives a special pride of place, centrality and importance to inheritance, memory and tradition. It was none other than Burke who articulated the essential wholeness of time, positing—against the likes of Hobbes and Locke—that the social contract was not merely ‘a partnership between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead and those who are to be born.’”
I think Deneen is right that we need to restore a sense of time “in its full dimension” to help solve the problem of meaning in today’s post-modern culture. The post-modern conception of temporality is fractured, with individuals conceiving of time through an evermore subjectivist lens. Time in post-modernity is invariably phenomenological: What matters is how the individual perceives it in relation to his or her own life experiences. But without a sense of integration into the fullness of time beyond themselves, an individual cannot find deeper meaning. People need to see themselves as part of a fuller history than just that of their own private life. It is only through generating such a holistic sense of continuity within temporality that we can begin to heal the fracturing which has taken place within the post-modern conception of time.
Unfortunately I do not think Deneen’s answer is ultimately the correct one. This is because—for all its ingenuity—he is still philosophically committed to a fundamentally modernist conception to time. For Deneen, the most important thing to consider about time is not what it may be in and of itself—but our experience and relationship to it. To get out of this paradigm, we need not just to ask what a proper “historical sense” would be but what the nature of time is independently of our experience of it. At the same time, we cannot give into the nostalgist impulse to simply retreat back to the conceptions of time and eternity offered in antiquity. These faltered for a variety of cultural and philosophical reasons and are unlikely to prove persuasive to individuals brought up in post-modern cultures. We need philosophical and cultural resources that are modern and even post-modern but go beyond the limitations of either. Here, I think the French philosopher Henri Bergson offered some very helpful philosophical resources to start thinking through an answer to this question.
Bergson’s tremendous insight was offering a philosophical way to think of time as existing independently of human experience—but in which we participate in a very unique way.
Bergson insists that we need to take the reality of time—what he calls duration—more seriously. For Bergson, this comes in part by ceasing to think of time in purely spatial terms. The decision to break time into past, present, and future reflects a tendency to see time as more or less analogous to space. This moment exists for a certain time, then passes into another—much like a yard stick extends for a certain space and then ends. It also tends to reinforce the sense that time is important only insofar as it exists for us, much like an object in space only seems to be relevant when we can see it in three dimensions. As Bergson puts it in Time and Free Will:
“Now, let us notice that when we speak of time, we generally think of a homogenous medium in which are conscious states ranged alongside one another as in space, so as to form a discrete multiplicity…That which goes to confirm this opinion is that we are compelled to borrow from space the images by which we describe what the reflective consciousness feels about time and even about succession; it follows that pure duration must be something different.”
The problem with such thinking is that it leads us to the conclusion that the past ends when the present begins, and the present ends when the future arrives. When we think of time in a nonspatialized way, however, we recognize it as a continuity of progress and heterogeneity, where the past will always be conserved in whatever future arises through the process of duration. This is the process of evolution, where genetic information is fundamentally changed through history but still carried forward in new species which emerge. Bergson’s tremendous insight was offering a philosophical way to think of time as existing independently of human experience—but in which we participate in a very unique way. He also emphasizes how looking at time as duration helps heal the fractured understandings of time characteristic of modern philosophy since Kant.
One might say this is all well and good in hifalutin philosophy, but what is the consequence for our political life? Perhaps it is true that we should not just understand time according to our relationship to it but, rather, treat it seriously as an independently existing force. But, surely, it is still permissible to ask what such a new conception of time would say to us. Bergson, of course, takes this question seriously as well. For the French philosopher, the realization that time is not broken into past, present, and future but exists as a holistic process of duration should lead us to worry less about preserving an authentic relationship to what has been. The reason is that it is as wrong to think that the past has faded away as it is wrong to think the past is entirely determinative—the latter a temptation that comes from feeling the past always generates the present and hence the future. By treating time like deterministic motion in space, we think of the past as rather like a physical object that interacted with other physical objects and determines everything that happens to them—like a cue ball rolling inexorably down the table after being hit. For Bergson this is seriously wrong. While the past is always carried forward in duration, it is not rigidly determinative of our acts in the present and so does not set the future. Morally and politically, this can be very liberating. Bergson believed in free will after all. So we can recognize our freedom to remake an inheritance that will evolve and change with us—hopefully becoming richer and more worthy as time carries on.
Matt McManus is Professor of Politics and International Relations at Tec de Monterrey, and the author of Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law and The Rise of Post-Modern Conservatism. His new projects include co-authoring a critical monograph on Jordan Peterson and a book on liberal rights for Palgrave MacMillan. Matt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or added on twitter vie @mattpolprof