Everyone knows what time is: don’t they? But perhaps, when we look more closely, we will find that our initial confidence is not entirely justified. St. Augustine wrote around 397 AD: “What… 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.” (Confessions, book XI) Augustine is not alone in his bafflement; the nature and perception of time are things thinkers have struggled to explain ever since.
In his Principles of Psychology (1890), William James conducts an interesting and insightful analysis of the ‘Perception of Time’, but proceeds to his investigation of “why we perceive time at all” without much hope of success. James felt that we perceive time as part of a ‘personal consciousness’, but, in words similar to those of Augustine, James allows that even this concept is bafflingly elusive: “Its meaning we know so long as no one asks us to define it, but to give an accurate account of it is the most difficult of philosophic tasks.”
Yet some sort of understanding of the way we perceive time would seem to be necessary to account for the possibility of any sort of knowledge or experience. For Immanuel Kant, time is an a priori or essential precondition which, along with space, is necessary for all human experience of the world: “All actuality of appearance is possible only in time” (Critique of Pure Reason). Roger Scruton, commenting on this aspect of Kant’s thinking, suggests that “to give reason for this has proved to lie beyond the powers of philosophers, perhaps … because the temporal nature of experience is so deep a fact, that it can never be explained without assuming it” (The Aesthetics of Music).
So where does this leave us? Is an understanding of time a hopeless quest which we should just give up? It may be that the ‘deep’ explanation of the nature of time is beyond enquiry; but even if it is not possible to speak directly about time itself, perhaps we can make some progress by discussing some of the events which occur in time and how we perceive these. For this reason, let us begin by looking at the way we experience music.
Consider a melody. It seems obvious that the listener can hear only one of the notes in the sequence at a time. We can even subdivide this: each note has a duration, so the listener can only directly experience the beginning, or the end, or a sequence of points in the middle. However, let’s for the sake of this argument take one note as occupying a single moment in time, so that the note which is being heard is occupying the present moment.
But according to Augustine, the present has no duration:
“the only time that can be called present is an instant, if we can conceive of such, that cannot be divided even into the most minute fractions, and a point of time as small as this passes so rapidly from the future to the past that its duration is without length.” Confessions
What has no duration cannot exist, so that the present cannot be said to exist. But the past has gone and no longer exists, and the future does not yet exist, so that no point of time actually exists in which we can perceive the notes of our melody! The implication is that all perceptual experience is impossible, whether it be of music, speech or any other event. Yet we certainly do have perceptual experiences which seem to occur in the present. Edmund Husserl wrote in his snappily titled The Phenomenology of Inner Time Consciousness (1905): “the assumption that the intuition of a temporal interval takes place in a now, in a temporal point, appears to be self-evident.” It seems to be ‘self-evident’ therefore that our experience of the notes which make up our melody can only take place in a present which has temporal duration in some sense, despite what Augustine suggests; and further, that each note (heard sound) must itself have duration. This last notion is supported by Thomas Reid’s observation (somewhat reminiscent of Zeno’s paradox of the Arrow) that “if ten successive elements are to make duration, then one must make duration, otherwise duration must be made up of parts that have no duration, which is impossible…”
Also, in order for us to make any sense out of our perceptions, we must experience these events in a sequence: we do not hear our melody backwards or with all the notes sounding simultaneously, but in the order in which they are actually played. Husserl continues: “The evidence that consciousness of a tonal process, a melody, exhibits succession even as I hear it is such as to make every doubt or denial appear useless.”
For us to experience this succession, it seems the present we experience must have sufficient extension to contain not just one but a sequence of notes, each of which can only be understood in its context as part of a melody. The fact that the listener is able to appreciate the melody context seems to imply direct present access not just to the note presently sounding, but also to that part of the sequence which has already been played, along with a developing ability to predict the part of the melody which has not yet been played (we will return to this last point presently).
For James this means that we are driven to accept that “the sensible present has duration.” He points out that Augustine’s duration-less present is “an altogether ideal abstraction… reflection leads us to the conclusion that it must exist, but that it does exist can never be a fact of our immediate experience.” Our actual experience of the present is therefore not a “knife edge, but a saddleback on which we sit… and… look in two directions into time.” Perhaps it is here that we seem to come up against the limits of our ability to engage with the reality of time itself: we might rationally agree with Augustine’s duration-less present, while at the same time realising this would make all experience impossible. The very act of thinking about a non-existent present is itself an event which must have duration and also must take place in the present: or, the very nature of a duration-less present makes thinking about the present impossible. Even the fact of my own existence seems impossible to explain on Augustine’s view: when is it that I exist? In the fleeting instant of the present, or in the past as a memory? Yet, I do exist and I am thinking about the present. Perhaps we may paraphrase Descartes here: I think therefore I have duration.
James seems to see this paradox perfectly well, and seeks to circumvent this seemingly insoluble conundrum by developing a pragmatic explanation of our psychological experience of time. He suggests that the present we experience is really a sort of sophisticated illusion which is memory-dependant and actually exists as part of the past. This false or illusory present is described by him as the ‘specious present’, a phrase which he borrows from E. R. Clay, who points out that “all the notes of a bar of a song seem to the listener to be contained in the present” – so that the duration of the specious present must be sufficient to contain them. Husserl concurs with this view: “on the basis of a temporally extended content of consciousness a unitary apprehension takes place which is spread out over a temporal interval … That several successive notes yield a melody is possible only in this way.”
How long, in that case, is the specious present? It must be long enough for us to be aware of the context of a current event, but not so long as to contain a confusing amount of information. When listening to the verse of a song for example, we place each word in the context of its line and each line in the context of its verse; but although we may be aware of the whole song as a general experience, we can only really pay attention to, at most, one verse at a time, perhaps less than this. James looks at tests carried out by researchers in this field, and comes to the conclusion that the most reasonable estimate for the duration of the specious present is about 12 seconds “plus a vaguely vanishing backward and forward fringe.” Given that the average duration for the verse or chorus of a popular song is between 15 and 35 seconds, this would allow us access to at least one, perhaps two or three lines as a unity of experience. Yet for this to make sense, each event of which we have been cognisant over the last 12 or so seconds, whether a word sung or a note of music played, must somehow be represented to us simultaneously within an act of cognition. This is what Husserl means by the term ‘unitary apprehension’. But how in this case do we retain the idea of a succession of events? After all, if we simultaneously remember a musical phrase, we do not imagine that the notes themselves were all sounded simultaneously.
A possible answer to this is reached by way of James’ notion of consciousness as a stream:
“such words as ‘chain’ or ‘train’ do not describe it fittingly… it is nothing joined; it flows. A ‘river’ or a ‘stream’ are the metaphors… let us call it the stream of thought, of consciousness, or of subjective life.”
The notes of our melody are not joined together, but form part of a flow through time, so that the idea of succession is embedded in the experience as a relationship between the notes. To some extent, James is here refuting an influential notion of David Hume’s, who wrote that “all our distinct perceptions are distinct existences… the mind never perceives any real connection among distinct existences” (A Treatise of Human Understanding, Appendix.) For Hume, therefore, consciousness is nothing but an unconnected ‘bundle of perceptions’ which just happen to occur in juxtaposition. But against this we might argue that the mind does perceive at least one real connection between our perceptions: that of temporal succession.
Here James deploys one of his most beautiful and poetic analogies; that of the bird. He suggests we compare our stream of consciousness to a bird’s life, so that we imagine our consciousness as “an alternation of flights and perchings.” The ‘perches’ are what James calls the ‘substantive’ parts of the stream of thought, while the ‘flights’ are spaces or ‘transitive’ parts of the stream, which are “filled with thoughts of relations” between the individual events. The substantive parts of consciousness “can be held before the mind” either as an individual event – a musical note, for example – or as several events which make up a unitary whole – a melody. But the notes will not combine to form a melody in mere juxtaposition; they are held in their context as part of the stream by the transitive flights, which create/represent the relationships between them.
We could see such relationships in terms of cause and effect. Roger Scruton suggests that:
“A tone is heard as the response to its predecessor, as tending towards its successor, as continuing an action which makes sense as a whole… The causality that we hear… is therefore the ‘causality of reason’ which, for Kant, was the ground of human freedom.” The Aesthetics of Music
However, the causal relationships between musical notes are much more difficult to analyse consciously than the individual notes as perceptual events. James feels that such apprehension may, in fact, be impossible; the transitive flights which represent the relationships are defined by their movement from one substantive perch to another, so that “stopping them to look at them… is really annihilating them.” Trying to examine a transitive thought as it flows through the present moment is like “turning up the gas quickly to see what the darkness looks like.”
Perhaps it is the extreme difficulty of any sort of introspective examination of transitive thoughts as relation-creators which has led many thinkers to concentrate on the perceptual events themselves, and to deny that anything other than such events exists. James suggests that:
“Unable to lay their hands on any coarse feelings corresponding to the innumerable relations and forms of connection between the facts of the world… they have for the most part denied that feelings of relation exist, and many of them, like Hume, have gone so far as to deny the reality of most relations out of the mind as well as in it.”
James is here referring to Hume’s theory of ‘constant conjunction’: an extreme view which altogether denies the concept of causality, ie a relationship between any events other than just constantly occurring together. This would, of course, render Scruton’s idea of the causal relationship between musical notes incoherent. Not only this, but without such causality we might argue that the freedom of logical thought itself is denied. It seems that we need the transitive flights of James’ bird in order to be rationally conscious of anything at all.
Let us now return to an idea mentioned earlier, that the listener has a developing ability to predict the future part of a melody. Within the ‘specious present’ the listener analyses the sense of the developing melody as each new note is experienced in its relationship to the previous notes, just as the sense of a spoken sentence is built up as each new word enters the present. We begin to guess what the next words or notes may be, often by induction – that is, by remembering the relationships of words or notes which have followed each other in our past experience. This predictive element of our intellect may of course mislead us: a composer may have a surprise in store for the listener in the form of an unexpected turn in the melody. But the fact that we may be surprised proves that we have made some sort of prediction and that we have some sort of access to the future potentials of the melody – otherwise there would be no contradiction between what we expected and what actually occurs, and therefore, no surprise.
The surprise might be jarringly wrong or illogical, which would mean that a melody which seemed to have meaning becomes meaningless. In a sentence, this distortion of sense might be in the form of an absurd word or phrase which would rob the first part of the sentence of its potential meaning. Let’s look at two sentences, the first of which is made absurd by its ending:
1. Come with me and I will you write.
This is an illogical surprise. We may struggle to find meaning here, but if there is any meaning, it is hidden from us.
Compare the following logical surprise:
2. Come with me and I will show you how to write a message in the clouds.
In this case, we may be surprised by the notion of writing a message in the clouds, yet we are intrigued in a way which we could not be with sentence 1. The surprise in sentence 2 seems like poetic imagery with a poetic logic: if it is possible to read a message in the clouds (signs, portents etc) perhaps it is somehow possible to write one there?
Franz Kafka often implies in his novels that the things which surprise us most often turn out to be exactly what we might have expected. Perhaps what he meant by this is that what we really expect to experience in any given situation is a logical and meaningful sequence of events – a sequence which can only be logical when we experience its substantive events flowing within a stream of transitive causal relationships. Of course, we cannot have full access to the sequence until it is completed. Only then is the meaning of the whole made clear, allowing us to transcend the individual moments of direct perceptual experience in the full context of their relationships. Only when the whole of the sentence is simultaneously present to us so we can see its relationships of causality and temporal sequence can we say something like, “Ah! Now I understand.”
The synthesis of events and relationships which forms our complete experience of a temporal sequence is presented to our consciousness as a kind of ‘memory’ existing in the specious present. This may then form the memory basis of a re-experiencing of the sequence – when hearing the music again, or re-reading the novel or poem – thus providing a context in which we are able to explore further layers of meaning. We may now realise, for example, that a certain combination of notes in the first part of the melody actually unconsciously prepares the listener for the surprise development in the later part. In this way, as we hear the melody for the second time, the developing experience of our second listening is made deeper and broader by the simultaneous remembrance in our consciousness of our first experience of the melody. Finally, both experiences are combined in a new and even more meaningful synthesis.
It seems that the experience of music, along with other aesthetic experiences, lets us revisit the past in a way which allows us a freedom of movement not often encountered in other forms of experience. We do not expect to be able to travel where we will in time, yet the presence of the past in the ‘specious present’ is not, for all that, an illusion. We have also seen how the future is actively present in its potentialities. James seems to agree: “The knowledge of some other part of the stream, past or future, near or remote, is always mixed with our knowledge of present things.”
It seems therefore that what some regard as the flow of time is really the flow of our consciousness as it extends itself through duration. Augustine suggested that “time… is an extension of the mind itself,” an idea which presages Kant’s notion that time is not something self-subsistent. Time is not independent of our subjective experience, but to Kant is “nothing but the form of inner sense.” It also seems therefore that no real explanation of the nature of time is possible because time is the very condition on which any such explanation must be based. As Scruton suggests, “time can never be explained without assuming it.”
Nevertheless, perhaps our brief exploration of the perception of time has allowed us to glimpse the freedom which we may achieve by refusing to be trapped in the present. By transcending the moment, our consciousness can explore the dimension of time, just as we physically explore the dimension of space.