Issue #70 March 2024

Time Explained

Norman Zammitt, Untitled, (1967)

What I write here had many sources of inspiration. To restrict myself to the most obvious, I will mention Augustine, Kant, Hegel, Husserl, Heidegger, and P. F. Strawson. But none of them got the matter quite right, and I am impatient with slithering my way around entrenched positions to find a tiny, crooked corner that is unoccupied yet. Impatient for myself and for the relevant others: I believe readers are entitled to a straightforward, unencumbered account of what is already, in and by itself, a knotty, labyrinthine issue, so that they can take it in and judge it for what it’s worth. If they so wish, they can then also contrast it and compare it with any variety of other accounts; occasionally, I will drop a hint to that effect.1placeholder

My starting point is, as always, Kant’s Copernican revolution, which amounts to a reshaping of logical space: at its foundation is no longer the concept of substance—or object, or thing—as in Aristotle, but that of a (re)presentation, or Vorstellung.2placeholder Crucially, a presentation, though primitive, is not logically simple: just as, in the Aristotelian framework, a substance comes with, among other things, qualities and quantities, so does a presentation come with something presented (an object) and a point of view from which it is presented (a subject). Neither are, however, independent of the presentation: they are parameters internal to it, features of it if you will. An analogy, which I will belabor below, is a frame in a movie: it presents us with, say, a table seen from a certain angle, but there may be no table, in the movie or in reality, corresponding to what is presented, nor anything looking at the table (or whatever) from precisely that angle—table and angle are just part of what frame that is. They are coordinates identifying the frame, or (via the analogy) the presentation, and I repeat: among others. For the beginning of what I am about to say that is new is: there are indeed other coordinates that contribute to spelling out its identity. The presentation, and the frame, are also situated in a particular time (and a particular space; but that is not to be addressed here): they come with their backstory as well as, to coin a neologism, their forstory. (Don’t be confused by this novelty: it is related to “forward,” not to “before.”)

Imagine a presentation of a friend. It contains a lot of baggage, including memories of things we did together, or he did by himself, in the past, and anticipations (for example) of our next meeting, and of what we are to do then. (Here Husserl’s retentions and protentions are pertinent.3placeholder) All this baggage determines the identity of the presentation; with different baggage, it would be a different presentation—it would have a different emotional flavor and intellectual meaning. It might be useful to introduce other terms to refer to this more complex understanding of a presentation: terms I have used before, like “scene,” as invoking something that has a spatiotemporal character, or “pattern” (whose significance I will explore below). But note something of fundamental importance: though my scenes “invoke” time (and space), and contain a time (and a space) parameter, they are not in time (or space). To put it otherwise, the time in which they are situated does not flow. It may be flowing when someone tells their back or forstory; but there is no flowing in them. They are instantaneous occurrences, in the sense in which an instant is out of time. Back and forstory are parts of a sealed package, which (so far) cannot be opened or connected with anything else.

Everything in the universe, including twigs attacked by flames and drops of water hanging from the bottom of a surface, has, according to Giordano Bruno, a desio di conservarsi (a desire for survival),4placeholder and this is the key element that I find it necessary to add to the Kantian picture.5placeholder That an act (of synthesis) be responsible for existence he is, of course, perfectly clear about, but to me the grammar of that act must be brought down to the atomic level. There is a dynamic aspect to a presentation, or scene, which is the very foundation of synthesis. And that is because, going back to Bruno, the desio di conservarsi is not an inclination to stay put in one’s own state but a craving for self-transcendence (“no one is satisfied with his own state, except some stupid blockhead”6placeholder) that he calls amore (love), and of which fire is the most vivid metaphor: “as love turns the loved object into the lover, fire is, among the elements, most active and powerful in turning all the others, simple and composite, into itself.”7placeholder (It imparts a tinge of sadness—or is it triumph?—to remember that Bruno, for views such as these, was burned alive at the stake.) So a scene has an unquenchable, built-in desire to reach out to other scenes, and capture them in a synthetic unity with itself. To the extent that it is successful, it will grab some of them and incorporate them into its back or forstory (once again, I am leaving aside the space structure here), making them fall into a consistent pattern (this is where the term reveals its appropriateness: every scene is a potential pattern of scenes, aspiring to fulfill this vocation). And, to that extent, it will constitute the flowing of time, which is made to be through the stepping of one scene onto another, and consequent bringing out of both their distinctness (their being distinct scenes) and their continuity (their being linked together, unified, by an exercise of love).

None of this is apparent through most of our daily life. Some scene has taken charge there and time flows seamlessly, from one stage to another of the same story, expressive of the same pattern. Except when we find ourselves in suspense, suddenly thrown back onto the instant, suddenly living a scene that, though it may have its own past and future (back and forstory), is totally disconnected from what, in the flow of time, came before and might come after. Mysteries, and especially film mysteries (due to their rich perceptual content), offer the best instances of these developments: this is why they forcefully grab our attention, interrupting the conventional, mechanical grabbing of ordinary existence and creating the need for some other grabbing, and it is why every (good) narrative is at bottom a mystery.

Take a masterpiece of the genre: Hitchcock’s Psycho. Time is set in its comfortable (metaphysically), highly uncomfortable (emotionally) pattern as the movie opens, with Marion devoting her lunch hour to a tryst (and skipping lunch), in a relation that shows no promise of a future. The first scene (in a theatrical sense) or scenes (in my sense) definitely have a backstory, which spectators are not privy to, but their forstory is quite clear, as it is melancholy and trite. A little bit later, however, Marion finds herself with forty thousand dollars in her hands, and the forstory of that scene (or scenes) changes dramatically from the previous one, providing a radically disparate grabbing and pattern. This flows for a while, until everything breaks down again and the flow is halted in the shower scene. A new pattern and a new flow are painfully established, and they take us almost to the end of the movie: to the point when Lila gets to the cellar and turns Norman’s mother’s chair around, instantaneously demanding of herself and us a rearranging of back and forstory, and the inception of yet another pattern and flow. For an even bolder step in the same unsettling direction (with no wise psychiatrist calmly explaining how things are to be seen), look at the ending of the next Hitchcock masterpiece, The Birds, where the movie does not resolve the suspense and we are left hanging there (like a drop of water?) with no clear way forward.

“What, then, is time? If no one asks me, I know; if I want to explain it to someone who asks me, I do not know,” says Augustine,8placeholder and I can agree with the letter, if not necessarily with the spirit, of his pronouncement. If no one asks, we can unconsciously pursue whatever pattern we have subjected our life to, and then the flow of time will feel like the most natural, the most evident of circumstances; but raising a question about it is conjuring the crumbliness of it, its openness to disintegrating into components that are no longer recognizable as time, since they do not flow. We read in the Critique of Pure Reason: “Space and time are quanta continua, because no part of them can be given except as enclosed between boundaries (points and instants), thus only in such a way that this part is again a space or a time. Space therefore consists only of spaces, time of times. Points and instants are only boundaries, i.e., mere places of their limitation.”9placeholder But instants are not only the limits of time (as points are of space): they are also its nemesis. Time collapses into instants; its flow collapses into single scenes and is thereby interrupted. Experientially, this happens when we are stopped dead in our tracks, suspended, haunted by some peril—or perhaps overwhelmed by ecstasy, though that is more rare, and much less frequently represented in film (try the ending of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc). And, if we are trying to respond to some annoying questioner and, more or less discerningly, are unpacking for him time into untime, we find ourselves unable to explain what time is without losing touch with time itself.

The love available to every scene is finite. Operating as a force, it can grab and unify, but only to a point (!). There are boundaries to what it can do. On the one hand, that means that suspense is inevitable: sooner or later, the flow will stop, having run out of gas. On the other, and from a more cosmic point of view, it means that flowing time, what we call chronological time, is inevitably finite.10placeholder Kant taught me to look at infinity with suspicion: though reason has an irrepressible tendency to (desire for?) it, when it abandons its modest, contextual operation within boundaries (its operating as intellect) and attempts to work in an infinite realm, it faces antinomies and its quest becomes meaningless. I take this Kantian lesson to heart, and therefore decry the popular characterization of time as infinite. There is no such thing. There is the flow of time: the labored exercise of love in extending the pattern of a scene onto others—and that extends as far as the labor lasts. There are the scenes themselves, which, though containing time parameters, are not in time, just as a memory is not in the past and a prediction is not in the future. And then there may be equations on a piece of paper (or a computer screen) that allegedly refer to an infinite time; but they are nothing other than signs which, if they are lucky (if the relevant flow of time has not yet broken down) are set in the same finite time as everything else.

Another way of looking at this is to see that the flow of time is itself a limit: it expresses how far a pattern can go in asserting itself. “Reach” is a verb, and as such I used it when I said that a scene reaches out to others; but it is also a noun, and then my reach is how far I can get, and no further. So this is what time is: the finite scope within which a presentation (or scene, or pattern) can assert itself, before its love is exhausted and its effort suspended. As often happens, there is a use of the word “time” that is revealing of this logic: one that, as often happens with such revealing uses, is forgotten in philosophical discussions of time. It is the one that circulates in sentences like “My time has expired,” “My time is up.” As indeed it is, now.

Ermanno Bencivenga is a Distinguished Professor of Philosophy and the Humanities, Emeritus, at the University of California. The author of seventy books in three languages and one hundred scholarly articles, he was the founding editor of the international philosophy journal Topoi (Springer) for thirty years, as well as of the Topoi Library. Among his books in English are Understanding Edgar Allan Poe: They Who Dream by Day (Newcastle upon Tyne UK: Cambridge Scholars, 2023); Kant’s Copernican Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987); The Discipline of Subjectivity: An Essay on Montaigne (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990); Logic and Other Nonsense: The Case of Anselm and His God (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993); A Theory of Language and Mind (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997); Hegel’s Dialectical Logic (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000); Ethics Vindicated: Kant’s Transcendental Legitimation of Moral Discourse (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007); Theories of the Logos (Berlin: Springer, 2017).


Though I have never provided such an analysis of time as I offer here, there are many precursors to it. I will mention at least the following: A Theory of Language and Mind (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997), where the term “pattern” first occurs; Parole che contano (Milano: Mondadori, 2004), where “pattern” is temporarily replaced by the Platonic “forma” (“form”); Return from Exile: A Theory of Possibility (Lanham MD: Lexington Books, 2013); Meditazioni metafisiche: contro Cartesio e in nome di una cagna gravida (Napoli: Guida, 2023).


Readers of Epoché can find an articulate summary of my understanding of the Copernican revolution in “The Quantum Synthesis of the World: A Kantian Resolution of the Mystery of Quantum Mechanics”, Epoché 67, November 2022. Note that, after pointing out several times that “representation” is the wrong translation of “Vorstellung” because no repetition is implied, I have decided to opt here for the more accurate, but less common, “presentation.”


See his On the Phenomenology of the Consciousness of Internal Time, translated by John Barnett Brough, in Collected Works, vol. 4 (Dordrecht NL: Kluwer, 1991).


See for example his De l’infinito, universo e mondi, in Dialoghi italiani (Firenze: Sansoni, 1985), 520.


It is also the key element that distinguishes my account from those proffered by timeless physics (for which see, for example, Julian Barbour’s The End of Time: The Next Revolution in Our Understanding of the Universe, Oxford, Oxford UP, 1999). Lacking anything like Brunian desire (and love), they are inevitably stuck with regarding time as an illusion. But there is no illusion here: there is, rather, the constant effort of putting together finite bits of time, which, as they are put together, are as real as they can be. That, in fact, is how broken, transitory (empirical) reality is constituted; timeless dreams belong in an unreal abstraction.


De gli eroici furori, in Dialoghi italiani 975; translation mine.


De gli eroici furori, in Dialoghi italiani 964; translation mine.


The Confessions, in The Works of Saint Augustine, vol. I/1 (Hyde Park NY: New City Press, 1997), 295.


Translated by Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998; 292.


It is also, as should be clear, inevitably multiple, as distinct scenes do their individual work of making it flow. We don’t all live in the same time.


March 2024


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by Andrei Ivan Mamal

What Makes a Syllogism Perfect in Aristotle’s Assertoric Syllogistic?

by Minxing Huang

Time Explained

by Ermanno Bencivenga

Semiotics of the End: After the End of All Things

by Alessandro Sbordoni