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Abstract Time

Joel A. Herr

March 12, 2003


Abstract Time

Time is an abstract, yet ever-present idea. It has always had a role throughout the

history of humanity, but the exact definition of time is still unclear. One can surely

experience time when it passes. Similarly, a person can interpret or perceive time

through memory. This essay will touch on some of these issues.

Historically, time’s definition is variable. This may be a result from how humans

perceive time. “[Time] is something different from events, we do not perceive time as

such, but changes or events in time. But, arguably, we do not perceive events only, but

also their temporal relations.” (Le Poidevin, 2000) Therefore, we perceive time as the

“space” or relation between the occurrences of events.

In the past, time, as a unit, was considered much longer than it is today. For

example, Native American tribes related time to the moon cycle. Early agricultural

societies defined time by the harvest season. Perhaps a reason for the old definitions of

units of time to be so long is the fact that the events, themselves, happened far apart. The

moon would be full once a lunar cycle. Likewise, the harvest occurred at specific

intervals. “It is clear that different cultures have elaborated different and sometimes

extremely heterogeneous concepts of time.” (Tortarolo, 1994) This may be a result of

what I stated above: early cultures related time to familiar events. Therefore, not all

cultures would be familiar with the same events and, as a result, would have different

conceptions of time.

The invention of the clock gave a physical vessel for time. The ticking of the

clock and the movement of the hands allowed a visible relationship of time to be seen.

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However, earlier civilizations utilized similar technology. The sundial shows the

progression of the sun relative to positions on the dial. This aligned the perception of

time to the movement of the sun, but time unit itself was still “lengthy.”

It was not until technology allowed for faster travel and communication that the

value of time began to exponentially decrease. Time went from meaning weeks to days

to hours to minutes and now, even less. Computers can process algorithms at fractions of

a second. With a fast connection to the Internet, communications can take place almost

instantaneously.

I mentioned earlier that time was the perception of an event and its relation to

other events. “For what we perceive, we perceive as present -as going on right now.” (Le

Poidevin, 2000) However, when we perceive an event, that event is no longer in the

present. The actual “present” exists only for an instant; the event becomes memory.

Therefore, it follows that we perceive the past to experience the present. In fact, it could

be said that the past and future (anticipation of events) truly exist, while the present is

only a variable instant.

This notion contradicts the philosophy of carpe diem; that is, living each moment

as if it is the last. The thought of “seizing the day” was integral to the Romantic style of

poetry and literature. In Romanticism, the present (especially in the company of others)

was valued above all else. And while we are no longer in the Romantic era, the effects

are still evident: “There is no future; there is no past. I live this moment as my last.”

(Larson, 1996)

Regardless of whether past, present, and future exist; time is the perception of an

event that has become a memory. In fact, memories are the driving force behind the

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concept of time. In his novel, Catch-22, Joseph Heller wrote this conversation where one

character is giving his opinion on time:

‘Do you know how long a year takes when it's going
away?’ Dunbar repeated to Clevinger. ‘This long.’ He
snapped his fingers. ‘A second ago you were stepping into
college with your lungs full of fresh air. Today you're an
old man.’
‘Old?’ asked Clevinger with surprise. ‘What are you
talking about?’
‘Old.’
‘I'm not old.’
‘You're inches away from death every time you go on a
mission. How much older can you be at your age? A half
minute before that you were stepping into high
school...Only a fifth of a second before that you were a
small kid with a ten-week summer vacation that lasted a
hundred thousand years and still ended too soon. Zip! They
go rocketing by so fast.’

Surprisingly, those events described in Catch-22 could seem far in the past as opposed to

seconds ago. For example, it seems like it was yesterday when I started college. At the

same time, however, it seems like I first started college a very long time ago. In that

respect, memory can be fooling. Because a person can easily remember the details of an

event “like it was yesterday,” does not meant that event happened yesterday. Similarly,

the amount of memories between the event and the present give the illusion of a large

passage of time.

To further this point, I will give another personal example. While this current

week is technically the length of any other week (i.e. seven days, 5 weekdays), it seems

like it is the longest week I have ever experienced. The reason for this is I have a

multitude of events that have already occurred (the past) and will occur (the future).

However, once this week is over, I am certain that it will only be a small blip in my

memory.

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Since time is the perception of events in memory, could time actually be memory

in any application? When a person remembers something like a past event, an abstract

concept of when it occurred accompanies the memory. In fact, “…many things come to

be thought by us as past, not because of any intrinsic quality of their own, but rather

because they are associated with other things which for us signify pastness.” (James,

1890) Then when another memory is recalled, its occurrence is relative to the previous.

This could be why concepts like nostalgia exist: appreciating the past in memory.

However, time is not only the past, but also the future. The future being the

anticipation of events or knowing an event will happen. In this regard time is based in

thought. One thinks about the event and when, in time units, it will occur relative to

other events.

So time, then, is a combination of two abstract concepts: thought and memory;

and, as I mentioned at the beginning of the essay, time is abstract. As we mentioned in

class, language is not suited to represent abstract ideas. Defining time is like defining

love or anger or sadness. But time always exists and it always affects us. Humans are

born, mature, and grow old over time. My best suggestion for a language definition of

time is this: time is a natural progression of existing.

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Works Cited

Heller, Joseph, Catch-22, 1961.

James, William, “The Perception of Time”, The Principles of Psychology, Ch. XV, 1890.
Available: Classics in the History of Psychology, Christopher Green, York
University, Toronto, URL =
http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/James/Principles/prin15.htm

Larson, Jonathan, “Finale B”, Rent, 1996.

Le Poidevin, Robin, "The Experience and Perception of Time", The Stanford


Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2000 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =
http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2000/entries/time-experience/

Tortarolo, Edoardo, “Time Perception in Historical Writing (1/44)”, Humanist Archives


Vol. 8, Elaine Brennan (ed.), URL =
http://lists.village.virginia.edu/lists_archive/Humanist/v08/0046.html

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