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Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy on Time

As I read and reflected on ERH’s ideas on time, I tried to capture some essential
thoughts that helped me to think about ERH on time. This is probably more like a
jazz rendition of his ideas rather than an abstract of his thought. So I willingly
confess I may interject too much of myself at some points in trying to express
what I understand to be ERH’s ideas on time. – Doug Floyd

1. Time and Space as seen through the eyes of infants.

ERH demonstrates how time is much more than a chronological account. He talks
about prehistoric man or the pre-speaking man who does not define time and space.
Think of an infant. For the infant, time is simply a flux of moments without
particular distinction. In the same way, space is boundless. For no boundaries
have been defined by speech.

Speech connects this flux of moments together through the power of naming epochs
or periods of time. We may define periods as hours, days, and weeks. We may also
define periods as “business days” vs. “calendar days.” We may define periods as
Advent, Christmas, Epiphany or fall, winter, spring and summer. There are endless
variations of how we might connect this flux of moments.

2. There are three ages in the life of the human: past, future and present.
Without naming, there is no present only past and future. As soon as I try to
grasp a future moment in the present, it slips into the past. Without a name to
mark the beginning and end of period, I am caught between past and future.

Thus, the past and future create the present. The period that has passed combined
with the period that is to come, gives me the power to act now. For example, a
college student’s primary and secondary school training exist in the past. That
training teaches them how to read and speak and write. On the basis of this past
platform, the student looks toward the future and declares, “I am going to earn a
degree in English.”

Now the past and future combine to give the student the necessary strength to act
in the now and choose an English curriculum.

3. A cosmic vision of connecting past, future and present.

By connecting past and future to create present, we establish epochs or periods.
ERH envisions that man ultimately will connect all moments together in one grand
epic from creation day to judgment day.

Ephesians expresses this vision of connecting/integrating all moments and all

spaces together in Jesus Christ. (Ephesians 1:10 – “…that in the dispensation of
the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ,
both which are in heaven and which are on earth—in Him.”)

While ERH does not site that passage, it seems to extend the vision of integrating
all things. This points toward the resolution of the ancient (and still
contemporary) problem/paradox of the one and the many or the universal vs. the

ERH presents a vision of all particularities integrated into one universal while
not canceling the relevance of each particularity. (More on this later.)

So connecting past, future and present happens on a multiple scales: on a personal

level (each persons acts through the power of bringing these three ages into one);
a social level and ultimately a cosmic level. This idea of connecting the three
can be extended and developed into business, family, culture, society, and on and
Once again, speech is the power to connect these three ages.

4. These 3 ages/tenses (past, present and future) correspond with three powers:
play, serious, divinity.

The Past
The past reveals the power of play. The past has already happened, so I cannot
change it. But I can relive it, view it from different angles, enlarge it or
diminish it. I can sing a 3-minute song about a person who lives 80 years. By
playing with past time, I’ve shrunk 80 years into 3 minutes. The past can be
manipulated in varying ways by looking at time through the four-fold cross of

The cross of reality intersects time with space. Space includes inner space and
outer space. Time includes past and future (or backward and forward). Applying
past time to the cross of reality gives me:

Analytical Time - Outer

Lyrical Time - Inner
Epical Time - Backward
Dramatic Time – Forward

All four times can help orient me in looking at the future and acting in the

Analytical time focuses on outer time, exact time. In a race, we count the exact
milliseconds of the champions. This attention to exact details of outer space is
analytical time. Analytical time is precise.

Lyrical time focuses on inner time. Think of a poet gazing at a tree and writing a
song. The poet loses all sense of time. And the listener who is later inspired by
the poet also loses all sense of time. The lyrical is no time or free time. Time
disappears. In a good conversation, two people talk and talk and talk. Suddenly
they realize hours have passed but it seems like just a few moments elapsed: this
is lyrical time.

Epical time looks backward. This is rhythmic time. It counts and repeats and
recycles. Everyday the alarm goes off at six o’clock, the sun rises, and breakfast
is eaten. Rituals are part of epical time. They provide continuity from one moment
to another.
Epical time provides security. Children cannot thrive without epical time. It
gives them the security to rest and live in lyrical time.

Dramatic time ends one epic and begins another. Dramatic time changes. Dramatic
time brings new seasons, new words, new languages. All things become new in
dramatic time.

All four times exist simultaneously through different people. Think of a marriage
ceremony. The minister comes with reading ancient texts and reciting vows handed
down (or a variation thereof). He (she) is operating in epical time. He stands for
past time. The time of the community handed down from parent to child across ages.
He wears a uniform that connects him to the past, as that officiate he oversees a
service where everyone honors the tradition through dress, repeated words and
actions, and focus on family.

The bride is operating in dramatic time. During the ceremony, she breaks with the
past. She changes names; she enters (and leads her family) into a new era.
The spectators relax and watch and possibly cry. They are not worried about when
and who and where, they are simply present. Thus they are in lyrical time: no
time. For some, the ceremony seems to go fast, whereas others may feel it is
dragging on and on. Both are living outside of time in lyrical time.

The wedding planner is making sure everything is happening when it is supposed to

happen. The wedding planner is functioning on analytical time. Her willingness to
count every second and make sure everything happens when it is supposed to allows
guests to remain in lyrical time.

So in one wedding all four times are present. The past allows us to define these
times, move between the times, think about the times, discuss the times, and learn
from the times.

We can apply these four times to church, business, family, culture, history,
personal life and more. We must have all four times represented to live in the
fullness of time.

The Present
This is serious time. I cannot alter it. I can only act in the now moment. So the
present is serious time. It is the time where I live and react and respond. It may
bring unexpected circumstances that change the world before. I simply act in the
moment without the freedom to manipulate or control.

The Future
The future is divine time. This is the power to create the world through speech.
“I am going to the store.” By declaration, I set in motion the future and I go to
the store. Isaiah speaks (sings) the future, “He will judge between the nations
and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into
plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword
against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.” (Is 2:4), and the world is
still reaching and moving toward the vision he proclaimed. His words set in motion
actions that move toward peace.

5. By uniting the past and the future (through the power of speech), we know what
to do now. Thus we act in the fullness of time (three times united). It takes
three generations to change the world. The father, grandfather and grandson must
all come into agreement to change the world.

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