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Paper given at the international conference Time - New Perspectives, Einstein Forum, Potsdam, May 24, 2003.

Mike Sandbothe

Linear and Dimensioned Time

A Basic Problem in Modern Philosophy of Time

The noun ‘time’ (just as ‘truth’, ‘reality’ or ‘identity’) is a so-called reflective concept. In contrast to many other nouns such as ‘table’, ‘chair’ or ‘number’ the word does not designate an object, either concrete or abstract. Rather it refers reflectively to our use of language, that is, it is one of the ways we talk about language. ‘Time’ stands for the different time vocabularies that we use. One of these time vocabularies is the so-called ‘dimensioned’ or ‘modal’ time vocabulary (McTaggart’s A series; in the analytic tradition also called ‘tensed time’). We are familiar with the temporal modes of verbs from grammar and make use of the situation-dependent distinction that underlies them – that between ‘past’, ‘present’ and ‘future’ – in both everyday matters and science. Alongside this dimensioned time vocabulary a second set of terms – the linear ones – plays an important role for us. This comprises the series of adjectives ‘earlier’, ‘later’, and ‘simultaneously’, and serves in particular to characterize situation-independent relations between events (McTaggart’s B series).

The question as to the interrelationthat exists between the linear and dimensioned time vocabularies represents a central basic problem for modern philosophy of time. In the course of modernity two paradigmatic argumentative strategies have been developed in answer to this question. The first is found in Martin Heidegger’s early masterpiece Being and Time (1927). The other is formulated in exemplary fashion by Immanuel Kant, the pioneer of modern philosophy of time who formed both the point of departure and basis of demarcation for Heidegger’s analysis of temporality.

In the ‘Transcendental Aesthetic’ of his Critique of Pure Reason (1781/87) Kant defined time in a transcendental philosophical manner – i.e. with recourse to the finite basic constitution of human knowledge – as a ‘pure form of sensible intuition’.1 According to this view, time is neither an external object nor attached to things in a way that might be scientifically investigated and determined in its essence as other properties of things (colour, hardness, smell etc.) are. On a Kantian view, time is to be defined rather as a condition of possibility of the objectivity of objects altogether. For, although itself not perceptible, it is a constitutive ordering schema of sense perceptions on which human knowledge, as finite knowledge, is dependent in its reference to objects.

If one’s reading of Kant’s account is guided by the question of the interrelationsexisting between the two different time vocabularies, it turns out that the time vocabulary which Kant claims to be providing with a transcendental philosophical justification is the linear series ‘earlier’, ‘later’, ‘simultaneous’. By contrast, from a Kantian perspective the dimensioned time vocabulary (‘past’, ‘present’, ‘future’) appears as a derivative type of time. Kant’s strategy is to derive dimensioned time, as the empirical concept of time that describes our individual experience of time, from the linear time that underlies Newtonian physics and which Kant grasps as the transindividual, i.e. intersubjectively binding, form of inner sense.

Kant’s strategy finds expression explicitly in his formulation of the ‘law’ that ‘all empirical time-determinations must stand under rules of universal [i.e. the transcendental, M.S.] time-determination . (...).’2 On this basis Kant tried to show in his Anthropology (1798) that determinations of the dimensioned time vocabulary can be defined using, and to this extent reduced to, determinations of the linear time vocabulary. In linear terminology the past is thus determined as ‘what no longer exists’ and future as ‘what does not yet exist.’3

An alternative to the Kantian strategy is the suggested derivation developed by Martin Heidegger in Being and Time. Kant had taken as his outset the human as a knowing ‘subject’ and had investigated the conditions of possibility of human knowledge. By contrast, Heidegger starts with humans as a being that, as ‘Dasein’ thrown into the world, always stands in a practical relation to its concrete environment. With regard to the existential thrownness of human Dasein Heidegger defines self-consciousness, which Kant had presupposed as the timeless authority of the ‘I think’, in a temporal manner.

According to Heidegger we relate to ourselves in a temporal process in which we project ourselves towards our own future. Everyone can , I think, follow this from their own concreteexperience. As subjects we do not have a fixed being that we could hold out before us purely, here and now, in the present and which we could conceptually grasp. Rather, we continually redefine ourselves anew through the possibilities in terms of which we project our own future, as well as order and understand our everyday interactions in the world.

Heidegger’s derivation strategy takes this phenomenon, human existence’s fundamental reference to the future, as its outset. The dimensioned basic structure of the ‘temporality’4 of human Dasein is described by him as a two-part temporalprocess. The first partial movement in this process consists in anticipation of the future, the second in coming back to the present as an openness for the world encountered as determined by the past.

In the first partial movement, which is the very basis of the whole process, the concern is not the concrete future, determined by certain substantive aims, but the future in general.  Heidegger describes the pure anticipation of one’s own future as a ‘Being-towards-death’. He believes that the anticipation of the ‘possibility of the measureless impossibility of existence’5which death represents for Heidegger, allows a kind of ‘authentic’ existence. Heidegger opposes this distinguished basic feature of human temporal existence – the so-called ‘authentic temporality’ - with the negative pictures of what he called ‘inauthentic temporality’6 on the one side and the ‘ordinary conception of time’7 on the other.

His idea is that we can only remain within the realm of authentic temporality in distinguished moments of our Dasein. In the normal run of things we proceed into a future whose content we determine through our concrete needs and plans, and from which we exclude the final horizon of death. This reduced, practical everyday form of double-movement, which is both usual and more convenient than authentic existence, is what Heidegger calls ‘inauthentic temporality’.It differs from authentic temporality, above all, in that in inauthentic temporality the future no longer functions as the distinguished dimension, in terms of which past and present are disclosed; rather, the present serves instead as a fixed point from which past and future (as no-longer or not-yet present) are determined.

Whereas the inauthentic form of temporality, as a deficient mode of the time dimensioned in future, past, and present, still faintly ‘reflects the ecstatical constitution of temporality’,8 in the ordinary conception the origin of time within the temporality of human Dasein is occluded. Heidegger clarifies this difference with reference to our use of clocks, namely in the paradox that ‘Precisely that Dasein which reckons with time and lives with its watch in its hand – this Dasein that reckons with time constantly says “I have no time.”’9 For the methodical time strategist, time has congealed to a pure now-sequence of interchangeable seconds, minutes, days, weeks, months and years; that is, to an objectified, external temporal power that lies before him as an endless line which he can never succeed in actually filling out.

According to Heidegger it is the inauthentic conception of dimensioned time that Kant had in mind as he attempted to derive dimensioned time from linear time. The mistake in this derivation consists, according to Heidegger, in that Kant did not recognize the conception of dimensioned time mantled in linear time as the inauthentic version of the dimensioned time vocabulary. Instead, by uncovering the linear grid behind the dimensioned time vocabulary, Kant thought he was able to establish the transcendental philosophical basis of our everyday and scientific understanding of time in the linear time vocabulary. Thus, in Heidegger’s view, Kant had missed the decisive connection between our time vocabularies.

To bring this to light, Heidegger chooses an alternative foundational strategy. According to his view, both the linearly mantled version of the dimensioned idea of time (‘inauthentic temporality’) and the linear idea of time itself (‘vulgar conception of time’) are founded in the double movement of human temporality. In the latter the temporal dimensions appear in their non-linearized shape as an internally interlinked temporalizingprocess.

To get to the core of the current state of modern philosophy of time against the background of these two paradigmatic argumentative strategies, a further step is required that points beyond Kant and Heidegger. It does this by taking account of the possibility, not considered by Kant and Heidegger, that ultimately neither dimensioned time can be reduced to linear time, nor linear to dimensioned.

In this sense Michael Theunissen has attempted to reinterpret Heidegger’s analysis of temporality with recourse to the ancient and Christian traditions so that for Theunissen it emerges ‘that time breaks down into two series which cannot automatically be copied onto one another’.10 Heidegger’s thesis of the derivability of linear time from dimensioned temporality is replaced in this way by an equiprimordiality thesis: ‘we canhumanly, i.e. as subjects, only exist by incessantly transforming the linear time order [...] into the order of time dimensions.’11

In Theunissen’s view, however, the execution of this permanent transformation process is possible for us only because the subjectively dimensioned time of our individual lives refers to the objectively dimensioned time of an eschatologically conceived world history. Theunissen attempts to make clear that this fact is disclosed not only to theologically founded thinking by using, among others, the examples of Proust’s involuntary memory, phenomena of aesthetic endurance, or certain forms of psychopathological experience of time.

Theunissen’s point, that neither can linear time be derived from dimensioned time (Heidegger), nor dimensioned time reduced to the linear (Kant), can of course also give rise to other inferences. Whereas Theunissen takes the dialectically conceived ‘unity of time’12 as a phenomenon sui generis, Peter Janich urges understanding ‘“time” as a reflective concept’.13 In place of an object-language use comes the metalinguistic usage of the word ‘time’ which I mentioned at the beginning and which permits questions such as: Are both time vocabularies parts of a comprehensive time language-game (dependency thesis), or is it a matter of independent language-games that serve respectively different purposes (independence thesis)?

In his ‘methodical reconstruction of temporal distinctions’14 Janich sketches a picture of our learning of language which emphasizes the dependencies that result in the process of ‘acquisition of a first language’15 from the internal logic peculiar to actions as actions. Against this it seems appropriate to point out that the independence thesis makes the intertwinements and transitions between the vocabularies understandable in a manner requiring fewer presuppositions than the dependency thesis advocated by Janich. In addition, if one assumes a broad concept of definition, the independence of different purposes can relatively simply explain the fact that one time vocabulary can be defined in terms of the other.

Presupposing the purpose served by a language-game A, and by considering the links existing between the two language-games, language-game B can be functionalized for the purposes of language-game A and defined on this basis. Of course, this does not mean that language-game B is grasped in its peculiarity; rather it is grasped only with respect to its reinterpretability in terms of the logic of language-game A. The same applies in reverse, and not only to Kant and Heidegger, but also to our usage of ‘temporal words’16 as this is reconstructed, following the late Wittgenstein, by Janich. From this results the question as to which concrete purposes we can relate to the different time vocabularies.

With the dimensioned time vocabulary we link the possibility of understanding ourselves and the community in which we live biographically and ethnographically, and on this basis perhaps redescribing and creatively transforming these. With the linear time vocabulary we link the possibility of coordinating our actions with the actions of other people in order to shape and change reality and to interact with the environment in an intelligent manner.

Both the main forms of Heidegger’s temporality realize the purpose of the dimensioned time vocabulary in respectively different ways. In inauthentic temporality we accentuate the stabilization of our culturally embedded life projects. In authentic temporality we delimit the individuality of our self-projection from the cultural moulding that determines our origin, and try out the ironic self-transcendability of biographical and cultural narratives.

With a view to both forms of realization of dimensioned time, as well as to the linear time that Heidegger described as the ‘ordinary conception’ of time, we can say that the time vocabularies respectively attributed to these fulfil functions that make an important contribution to successful human living. None of these functions can be reduced to its respective others; each, however, can be respectively interpreted and functionalized in terms of the others. This, in any case, might be a modest conclusion resulting from the argumentative strategies developed by Kant and Heidegger in order to solve one of the basic problems in modern philosophy of time.

Translated by Andrew Inkpin


1 Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, London: Macmillan 1933,  75 [A 31/B 47].

2 Ibid., 210, [A177/B 220].

3 Immanuel Kant, Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View, trans. by Mary J. Gregor, The Hague: Nijhoff 1974, 56 f.

4 Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (trans.), Oxford: Blackwell 1962, 374.

5 Ibid. 307.

6 Ibid., 378.

7 Ibid., 472.

8 Ibid., 461.

9 Martin Heidegger, The Concept of Time, translated by William McNeill, Oxford: Blackwell 1992, p. 15E.

10 Michael Theunissen, Negative Theologie der Zeit, Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp 1991, 302.

11 Ibid., 304.

12 Ibid., 43.

13 Peter Janich, ‘Die Konstitution der Zeit durch Handeln und Reden’, in Ars Semeiotica 19 (1996), 133-147, here 139.

14 Ibid., 140.

15 Ibid.

16 Ibid., 139.

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