What is Time?

There’s a famous passage in the Critique of Pure Reason where Kant delineates the positions which one can take with respect to the status of space and time. It goes as follows:

Now what are space and time? Are they (1) actual entities? Are they (2) only determinations or relations of things, yet ones that would pertain to them even if they were not intuited, or are they (3) relations that only attach to the form of intuition alone, and thus to the subjective constitution of our mind, without which these predicates could not be ascribed to any thing at all? (Critique of Pure Reason, A23/B37-38, my enumeration).

It is common to view the first (actual entities) as representing Newton, the second (relations of things) as representing Leibniz, and the third (forms of intuition) as representing Kant’s own position. One can quibble about their accuracy, but in any case, I’m more interested in whether these positions are exhaustive. Of course, there are different views of time than those mentioned here, narrowly understood. But do we have any theories of time that are not permutations or combinations of these views, understood more broadly?

I can only think of two. To give some examples of philosophers that I see as staying within the boundaries delineated here by Kant: Badiou’s time is a variant of (3), a subjective time generated in the aftermath of an event. Heidegger’s time is also a (non-subjective) variant of (3), or perhaps (2) if you want to “object-orient” him (see here and here for some interesting discussion of his theory of time, or lack of it). Deleuze’s time…… well, it’s some strange combination of (2) and (3), or so it seems to me. As for the space-time of general relativity, it seems to be a (dynamic) variant of (1).

The first example would be the position that there is no such thing as time, that time is merely an illusion. Mach, McTaggart and more recently Julian Barbour defends this view, but it has been around since long before Kant’s time for sure. I find Barbour’s argument quite fascinating, though I’m not quite sure what to make of it. In any case, it is tempting to see this view as a radicalization of (2) and/or (3), adding only that time is a misunderstanding of the relations of things, or a non-veridical form of intuition, or something like that.

So I think that the most interesting example of someone who proposes a theory that is incompatible with all the three positions above is Quentin Meillassoux. How so? My reading of Meillassoux’ position is that

(4) Time is a modal principle.

That is to say, time is the principle of the exclusive necessity of contingency. Let me explain why this view seems to fall squarely outside of the three other positions. With respect to (1): It can sometimes sound as if the time Meillassoux describes is a supremely powerful entity of some sort. For instance: “Only the time that harbours the capacity to destroy every determinate reality, while obeying no determinate law – the time capable of destroying, without reason or law, both worlds and things – can be thought as an absolute.” (After Finitude, p. 62). However, according to Meillassoux, a necessary entity is impossible. And the time which he describes is necessary. So it clearly cannot be an entity. With respect to (2): It might seem as if Meillassoux’ time is precisely a determination of things, namely, their property of being necessarily contingent. However, the fact is that Meillassoux goes on to deduce, from the principle of time, that there must be something rather than nothing, that the thing-in-itself must exist. And moreover, the principle of time holds for the non-existent just as well as for the existent. And it holds not only for things, but also for determinations of things, relations, and laws. “Everything could actually collapse: from trees to stars, from stars to laws, from physical laws to logical laws” (After Finitude, p. 53). It seems clear, then, that time is “ontologically prior” to things, not a property of them. With respect to (3): It is quite obvious that there is nothing subjective about Meillassoux’ time, and that it is not correlational but absolute.

I remember Hägglund claiming something along the lines of “Meillassoux is trying to establish something that has power over time, rather than a conception of time”, and you could definitely argue from linguistic convention and say that he’s right. (I’ve written about Hägglund and Meillassoux on time before, here) But I’d rather say that Meillassoux has the first novel conception of time in quite some time.

At least as far as I am aware of. My general impression is that whereas we’ve seen a proliferation of philosophical theories of time in the last 100 years or so, Meillassoux’ proposal is qualitatively different.

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4 Responses to What is Time?

  1. deontologistics says:

    I think that the weird thing with Meillassoux is that he seems to conflate, or at least combines standard alethic modality and temporal modality. This is clear from the way in which he articulates his arguments regarding the impossibility of necessary entities in terms of coming into existence and changing within time, when it’s arguable that there could be eternal entities that aren’t strictly necessary (and potentially necessary entities that aren’t eternal). I personally don’t like the idea of either eternal or necessary entities, and I do think that there is an intuitive link between the two. However, it’s a link that needs to be explicated, rather than simply talked about in terms of vanilla ‘possibility’.

  2. inregard says:

    Yep, I definitely agree. I don’t necessarily find it all that weird, though, I guess I am already accustomed to Kant’s combining of alethic and temporal modality in the Schematism, where possibility is existence at some indeterminate time, actuality is existence at a determinate time, and necessity existence at all times. In fact, it seems that Meillassoux wants to establish pretty much everything Kant establishes in the Analytic as holding for the thing-in-itself, except the analogies of experience. One could also see Badiou and Meillassoux as each “emptying” one of the two terms of Sein und Zeit, with Badiou explicating being in terms of ZF set theory and Meillassoux explicating time in terms of a particular alethic modality.

    As far as I’m concerned, though, there’s no sense in speaking of “past” or “future” with respect to Meillassoux’ time…. doing so seems inconsistent with what he says about his own “mad time”, and leaves him wide open to the kind of objections Hägglund offers. The “physical past” can change just as much as the “physical future”, i.e., eruption ex nihilo might as well happen in 1900 as in 2100, so there’s no temporal modality proper separate from the alethic modality of necessary contingency. In the terms of contemporary philosophy of time, both the “A-series” and the “B-series” of time (whichever of them actually holds) are mere contingent facts, subordinate to the absolute alethic time.

    BUT, I don’t think Meillassoux is at all clear with regards to this, nor with regards to the consequences this actually has. How can we think the absolute power of this time without thinking of it in terms of a “before” and an “after”? What does it mean to say that a physical law, for instance, can be abolished if we are not to think of it in terms of it being a fact “before” and the ceasing to be a fact “afterwards”? I’m wondering whether the problem might be to define what existence means within this framework….

  3. Pingback: Deontologistics on Tour: Conferences, Posts and Comments « Deontologistics

  4. Toby Simmons says:

    Hmm. Very, very interesting indeed. I enjoyed reading it!
    A great blog all-round, by the way. Let me know what you think of mine . . .
    Keep on posting!

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