By Gilbert Pleuger
new perspective Vol 5, No 2
Within a few weeks readers, students and teachers, will find their own way to celebrate the start of year 2000. There is a good deal of anticipation of the occasion and the Royal Mint has arranged for double the usual number of banknotes to be available so that shortage of cash can not spoil the party. I would not want to spoil your party, even if I could, but this is a good opportunity to take a look at the concept of time. It is a concept we tend to take for granted.
Our sense of time
Readers will have a sense of time but this is not a sense like our other senses, sight, sound, touch. … We are not born with this so-called sense but we develop it. A baby lives in a constant ‘now’ and slowly develops temporal awareness. A baby sees a toy but it is out of reach and, in time, crawls to reach it. The duration between seeing, wanting and crawling until reaching develops the sense of duration. Only around the age of eight are ideas of temporal order, before and after, associated with duration and a common time in which all events happen.
Time has a history
The idea of time accepted in our culture is an evolved idea. Ancient civilisations, Sumerian, Iranian, Mayan etc, had different concepts of time. The ancient Iranians, for example, had a dualistic view: indivisible time, the eternal present which created the spirits of good and evil, and time divisible, into sequential parts, that brought decay and death. In classical Greece the idea of cyclical time was widespread. After the end of the Roman Empire until well after the start of early-modern period the thoughts on time of St Augustine (354-430), author of City of God, were dominant. For him time was an aspect of theology, the duration in which God’s purpose for the world unfolded. Although there had been a few proponents for the modern, secular view of time before the nineteenth century, by the Italians, Machiavelli and Guicciardini, in the sixteenth for example, it was two revolutions, the industrial (circa 1750-1850) and the French, which secured the foundations of the contemporary concept of time. It is noteworthy that this development coincided with the growth of historical study: when political, social, economic and technological life changed with increased speed, and the notion of progress became widespread, there was a greater wish to know about life before the changes.
What’s in a date?
It will seem bizarre to students to question the significance of dates when many have consolidated their factual knowledge on a topic by learning a list of dates. The date of an event, however, is not an intrinsic property of the event: it is a position on a socially agreed common register and enables correlation with other events and the charting of sequence. The agreed language of dates enables members of a society to communicate efficiently, with precision and simplicity.
Dates may deceive
According to Immanuel Kant, who is thought by many to have given the most comprehensive exposition of what we call knowledge, space and time are foundation categories with which we think. It is because people have the same categories that we have the same language of knowledge. Agreement about the temporal register enables the placement of events in sequence, before and after, but the sequence itself does not provide an understanding of the past. William instituted a type of society, feudalism, in Normandy and fine tuned the construction of motte and bailey castles before his cross-Channel visit but unless a connection can be demonstrated between the Normandy developments and the outcome at Hastings and, separately, the capture of the English kingdom, the sequence, as sequence, has no significance. Historians use the temporal register but seek the connection (some call this the causal connection) between events. In modern complex societies, where governments and corporations have refined the skills of secrecy, the historical detective work to trace the trail of policy origin through to its implementation is not easy, as recent work on the Holocaust has shown. It is demonstrated connection between one event and another which legitimises the description of an event as important.
One time or times?
Any given period of history, the nineteenth century for example, can be looked at from many points of view; social, economic, cultural, gender, religious, political and so on. All are legitimate subjects of study even if some may have more immediate use. Taken together, the different subject perspectives add to the richness of History and contribute to a more complete account of the past. In a not dissimilar way, pluralities of temporal perspectives add to our understanding of the past. This approach is illustrated by Fernand Braudel’s The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Reign of Philip II, in which he charted change over three time spans: la longue durée (geophysical and climatological change), the more rapidly moving time of institutions and, lastly, the rapidly moving time of events. An historian’s choice of events which have significance will be influenced not only by the subject perspective but also by the time span chosen. There is nothing special about a three time-span division: time may be proposed in as many lengths as suits the purpose of presenting a good account of the past.
This has been heavy stuff. Perhaps its time to chill out and lighten up with preparations for the millennium party.