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Time Alone

Benjamin Woodard


Can two people ever experience the same now? The question can immediately strike us as naive, or not worth asking. Yet, for the British Idealist F.H. Bradley (1846-1924), the answer was a firm ‘no.’ The possible reasons why are numerous but, for Bradley, the two important reasons have to do with the nature of experience and the nature of time.

It certainly seems true that, because each person is an individual with unique feelings and perceptions, two people cannot share precisely the same experience e.g. you may find hot food unbearable because of having more sensitive taste buds or I might crave jalapeños because they remind me of homeMemories, upbringings, cultural backgrounds, and a whole slew of other conditions make it near impossible to have any sense of complete sameness when it comes to experiences.

Does this mean that two people can’t share the same moment of time? If some perceptual differences are already at work then we their experience of time will likely differ too. An unpleasant memory of about a car accident may colour future experiences of driving in such a way that everything ‘seems to be happening too fast.’ Hearing a song that reminds us of a past romance may seem to slow time while listening. In other words, the content of our experiences may reform the basic temporal structure of experiences with similar content.

But Bradley goes even further than this. Bradley argues that our limited understanding of time does not even guarantee that our private experiences happen in the same temporal order because everyone has a separate present structurally isolated from everyone else’s notion of self. Thus, for Bradley, there is the structure of our self which is split from what we wish to call that structure’s content (soul, mind, person). However, Bradley is also hesitant to view  the universe as merely produced by our experiences, or that the only real content in the world is human experience.

For these reasons Bradley cannot accept many of the standard models of time available to him at the turn of the century. Presentism (only the present is real) has too little structure, while eternalism or four dimensionalism (past, present, and future are real) requires ‘leaving experience’ and thereby is too structural or artificial i.e., four dimensional seems rational but imposed upon experience for the sake of ease. Bradley provides a peculiar image of how he views time as a response to rejecting the above options:

“If it really is necessary to have some image, perhaps the following may save us from worse. Let us fancy ourselves in total darkness hung over a stream and looking down on it. The stream has no banks, and its current is covered and filled continuously with floating things. Right under our faces is a bright illuminated spot on the water, which ceaselessly widens and narrows its area, and shows us what passes away on the current. And this spot which is light is our now, our present. We may go still further and anticipate a little. We have not only an illuminated place, and the rest of the stream in total darkness. There is a paler light which, both up and down stream, which is shed on what comes before and after our now. And this paler light is the offspring of the present.” (Logic, 54)

Memory is notoriously unreliable but it does seem to have a direction, at least in terms of an increasing accumulation of memories, if not a necessarily clear order. For example, if I am trying to think of the heaviest I’ve ever been caught in, a basic order of at least before and after will emerge as I compare the various instances. And the future, at least in our mental world, is constructed from what seems to be a coherent present. In essence Bradley does not claim that time is unreal, but that we have no reliable means for using it to understand our own experiences as fundamentally related to the experiences of others.

The dangers of such a fragmented world are illustrated in Christopher Priest’s novel The Affirmation which enters on a character writing a fantastical story while attempting to write his autobiography. As a result we are never sure whether we are reading fantastical autobiography or autobiographical fantasy. In the seemingly more fantastical manuscript the narrator wins a lottery in which he can receive immortality but at the cost of permanent retrograde amnesia. As part of the process he must submit his autobiography but he instead submits a text of which we must assume is his ‘real life’ since he no longer remembers.

As in Bradley, no hard division is maintained in The Affirmation between the wreck of our past, and the creative trajectory of the future. We cannot simply step out of the world-structure for a sense of ‘true’ perspective. Because of the radical division between selves, between presents, time cannot be only the measure of change but is the limit of the constructive power of the self which requires a collectivisation of presents to actually know, or build, a shared present. This affirmation (the book, the world) is where each narrative can coherently pass time together.

Benjamin Woodard – Time Alone

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