Temporal Concepts: A Schematic Analysis

by Peter Miller

Peter Miller is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Winnipeg, Winnipeg, Manitoba.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 22-29, Vol. 9, Numbers 1-2, Spring or Summer, 1979. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


It is difficult to answer what time is because of the paradoxes of being and non-being, the experiential and emotional weightiness of the subject and the metaphysical centrality of time in understanding such things as substances, events, causation, and consciousness. Dr. Miller explores especially the existence of a plurality of sometimes discordant temporal concepts.

Discussions of time frequently echo Augustine’s perplexity: he knew perfectly well what time was until someone asked him what it was. The reasons for the difficulty in answering what time is are several, including the paradoxes of being and non-being; the experiential and emotional weightiness of the subject (consider, for example, the temporal character of hope, despair, regret, satisfaction, and boredom); and the metaphysical centrality of time in understanding such things as substances, events, causation, and consciousness. The array of analyses of time in response to these difficulties in turn suggests an additional difficulty: the existence of a plurality of sometimes discordant temporal concepts. It is this latter difficulty which I wish to explore in this paper. I hope to bring some preliminary order to the confusions that thought about time engenders by sketching a schematic analysis of three groups of temporal concepts pertaining to temporal passage or transience, temporal order or chronology, and the temporal modes of past, present, and future. The analysis is diagrammed in FIGURE 1.

The resulting schematization, I suggest, can be helpful in a number of ways. It enables us to distinguish and characterize some of the more salient elements and alternative conceptions of time. It thereby also allows us to identify battlefronts between rival conceptions of time as well as to establish some of the relationships between the different concepts. The analysis further suggests that the language of time consists of systematically ambiguous terms, each with several interpretations, and that in particular the notion of time itself can indicate any of the distinguished elements of time, the alternative ways of conceiving of these elements, and their several combinations. Somewhat programmatically, the analysis sets the conditions for an adequate, integrated, and comprehensive theory of time, which must either include in some synthetic way all of the elements and their relations or else demonstrate how one or more of these can be successfully reduced to other concepts.

1. The Elements of Time.

I begin my analysis by identifying the three temporal elements with which we shall work: temporal passage, temporal order, and the temporal modalities. Each of these has its champions, thinkers who make it primary in their analyses, and each is itself internally complex, as we shall see, and thus only relatively elemental. But for our purpose of getting the ‘big picture" of time in short compass, this intermediate level of analysis seems most suitable.

The process philosophers begin with the generalized intuition that ours is a changing world marking the passage of time. The Aristotelian analyzes this process of change over time in terms of the coming to be of some entities, qualities, and relations; the passing away of others; and the endurance or persistence for a while of yet others. The passage of time is thus marked by becoming, perishing, and duration. As a matter of common sense, we might see a given instance of temporal passage primarily in terms of just one of these facets of temporal passage and think of them as three different types of process that might transpire in different locations and at different times. Yet these concepts can be suitably generalized such that every instance of temporal passage can be conceived to be an instance of each of these. Thus a Platonist might be most impressed with the ravages of time, its continually nugatory effect to make all temporal things transient and thus only half real, existing only in a perpetual process of perishing. Even an enduring object continually ceases to be at the past moment when it just was. An Aristotelian, on the other hand, is more impressed with the durability of things. Every process of change of any variety presupposes an enduring substratum which gains or loses substantial forms, magnitude, qualities, or relations. Time as the number of motion and change measures both the duration of the process of change and the parallel duration of objects at rest during the same interval. And the universe as a whole endures forever.

Finally, modern process philosophers like Bergson and Whitehead focus upon the process of coming to be (or genesis, creativity, creative evolution, becoming) and find this to be a universal feature of the world process. Bergson couples becoming with duration with the result that time for him has a cumulative snowballing character, whereas White-head combines the processes of becoming and perishing to yield an ontology of atomic events. In general we can observe that things that pass away do so by displacement, the coming to be of a contrary state of affairs in their place. Things that endure from one moment to the next must come to have a different temporal locus, i.e., come to exist at later times and establish whatever relations with later coexistents this might entail. Hence genesis is an aspect of every temporal process. There is a continual and universal "production of novelty," even where the "production" is a destruction of what existed previously or the "novelty" is merely a new reiteration of what went before. The terminology of ordinary language is stretched somewhat in intelligible ways for the sake of metaphysical generalization. Thus because it contains in every instance at once a passing away, a coming to be, and a change in what endures, "time [in the sense of temporal passage] makes a difference."

The second complex element of time is temporal order, the chronology of events. This can be described as the complement of temporal passage, since whatever comes to be, perishes, or endures does so as a part of a particular order, i.e., it becomes, perishes, or endures before, after, or alongside of other things, events, and their times. Thus at any moment we can speak not only of what then exists or is occurring, but also of what not yet or no longer exists or occurs. Times and the things of time are sandwiched between other times with their existents and occurrences. However, some philosophers of time like Herman Weyl, Adolph Grünbaum, and J.J.C. Smart, who are preoccupied with problems of chronology and chronometry as they emerge in physics, take temporal passage to be either an inessential or a nonsensical feature of time. The most basic intrinsic feature of time for Grünbaum appears to be a chronology of events determined by causal sequences, some of which, at least, have anisotropic properties. Irreversible causal sequences or increasing entropy in one direction of closed systems over time create "time’s arrow." No reference to temporal passage is required to account for the chronology of events and the direction of time, says Grünbaum.

Finally, and most briefly, let us identify the temporal modalities of past, present, and future together as the third complex element of time. The modalities are featured most prominently in phenomenological accounts of human experience, in some analyses of action, and in the pragmatic and temporal factors of knowledge such as prediction and verification. Our present actions shaped by unalterable conditions of the past in turn help to shape in bringing closer an anticipated and projected future, which is thereby partially under our control.

2. Intrinsic and Relational Characterizations of the Elements.

The three complex elements of time, having been identified in a preliminary way, can further be explored by examining their relations to one another. Each, I propose, admits of both an intrinsic characterization and characterizations relative to each of the other two elements of time. The diverse and sometimes rival conceptions of time fasten upon one or another of these differing characterizations. The resulting nine characterizations (One intrinsic and two extrinsic for each of the three elements of time) are diagrammed on the matrix in FIGURE 1.

Thus temporal passage might be characterized intrinsically as an élan vital, creativity, durée, or perpetual perishing known through a fundamental intuition of the dynamical character of existence. However, it can also be characterized in relation to the chronology of events as the course of actual existence (Or consciousness, in mentalistic conceptions of temporal passage) traversing the temporal order of events in the direction from earlier to later. And in terms of the temporal modes, temporal passage can be regarded as that dynamic present activity which gnaws at the edge of the (indeterminate) future and transforms possibilities into facts that are subsequently cast off as determinate past events.

Then, too, temporal order, including "time’s arrow," admits of both intrinsic and extrinsic characterizations. Candidates for intrinsic ordering properties include such things as the course of biological evolution or organismic development (Bergson), the direction of increasing entropy or of irreversible causal processes (Reichenbach), or the asymmetrical relations of prehension (Whitehead). That is, those events which are later than others lie in the same direction as the more evolved stages of the biosphere, the more developed stages of individual organisms, the more entropic states of closed physical systems, or the events of a causal chain which can be the effects but not the causes of a given event on the chain.


Alternatively, however, the direction of time has been characterized without comparison of the specific contents of different times but rather by reference to the other features of time, such as the modalities and becoming. In terms of the modalities of past, present, and future, events in the past which are closer to the present are later than those which are more remote, whereas the reverse holds true for future events, i.e., those nearer the present are earlier than those more remote. In other words, the relationship of earlier to later can be described in terms of the temporal modalities and the concept of comparative temporal distances. Or temporal passage, the process of becoming, can be used to discriminate the earlier from the later in terms of the order in which they come to be. On this account of temporal order, yesterday’s sunrise was earlier than today’s, not because of some detectable intrinsic difference between the two but simply because it came to exist first.

And finally the temporal modalities of the past, present, and future admit of intrinsic and extrinsic or relational descriptions. The most prominent intrinsic characterization, albeit one disputed by the determinists, identifies the future as the realm of the incompletely determinate possibilities of what shall occur; it is an open future. The past, by contrast, is fully determinate but inactive and nonactual, while the present is that actual process or activity by which the indeterminate future is made determinate in being realized.

On the other hand, there are other, extrinsic ways in which the distinctions between the modes have been drawn. Some accounts, such as those associated with Minkowski representations, treat the modes just as relations between events. That is, one event is future (Or past) to another event just when it is later (or earlier) than the other. In other words in this type of account, the temporal modalities become assimilated to the relations that determine the temporal order of events. There is no single past, present, and future which is everchanging in content as universal history is generated, but rather a distinct past, present, and future relative to each event. A further variant of the temporal modalities defines them relative to temporal passage, the process of coming to be and perishing. The present, on this view, is the domain of things which have come to be but not perished, i.e., actual existents and occurrences. Future and past are the domains of the not yet and the no longer, what has yet to come to be and what has already perished. Augustine seems to have held a psychologized version of such a view.

Figure 1 summarizes the several explications of the three sets of temporal concepts that we have been considering. The three rows represent the concepts being explicated, and the columns indicate the type of concepts used in the explications. Cells (P,P), (O,O), and (M,M) on a diagonal of the matrix represent the explications in terms of the intrinsic properties of the temporal category being explicated, whereas the other cells represent explications of the concept in terms of their relations to one another.

3. Implications and Applications of the Scheme.

Now that we have constructed a chart of this variety of temporal concepts and their relations, what can we make of it? I shall make some suggestions and invite you to add your own.

1. First of all, the chart reminds us of some of the variety of temporal concepts and helps us to keep them distinct while at the same time cataloguing them in a systematic way. At the very least it provides us with a useful summary of more detailed expositions for didactic and other purposes. If someone accosts you with Augustine’s question, "What is time?" you can haul out the chart, show it to him, and ask if he has any further questions.

2. J. B. Lucas holds the thesis that our concept of time is "often . . . made to serve purposes that are not altogether compatible."1 His point is illustrated if we consider the differing salience of the basic elements of time from three different mental frameworks. The passage of time is evident even in a passive, receptive mood in which the noises and motions of the ambient world and our changing inner states create an awareness of the ebb and flow of time without particular effort of intellect or will. But though time’s passage is evident even in a near stupor, a chronology of events requires an active memory and/or intellectual reconstruction of the order of passing things now past. No longer absorbed in the present, we seek the larger context for this and former presents. Finally, it is as agents that we are most concerned with the modalities of time: the given past, the present in which we act, and the open future for which our present actions might make a difference. But since we are at once experiencers, thinkers, and agents, we seek to relate and integrate these distinct elements of time. Our schema thus summarizes important features of a psychology of time.

3. Moreover, the chart helps to explicate other time-bound concepts and to explain rival interpretations of these. For example, in standard contemporary philosophy of science causation is characterized in terms of law-exhibiting sequences in the order of events, whereas more traditional and common sense views often conceive of causation in terms of a generative and governing force or power. These rival conceptions of causation can be seen to be affined to rival interpretations of "time’s arrow." Causation as a law-exhibiting sequence of events is allied with the intrinsic interpretation (O,O) of the temporal order independently of concepts of temporal modality and passage. The more dynamical traditional views are more likely to treat law-like regularities, when they occur, as secondary to or derivative from generative causal powers exhibited in temporal passage as described by (P,P), (P,O), and/or (P,M).

4. Because the same terms have differing explications, the chart establishes that the language of time is equivocal. Not only are the terms which indicate what I have called the elements of time equivocal, but so is the notion of time itself multiply, but systematically equivocal inasmuch as it refers to different elements and different combinations of them in different contexts.

5. In distinguishing while holding together variant temporal concepts, the scheme can provoke attempts to explain the relations diagrammed. Are some of the concepts more basic than others, and if so, in what ways? Can some be reduced or eliminated in a more adequate account, and if so, how? Are there ways to synthesize the several concepts into a comprehensive metaphysics of time which can interpret the real status of whatever is characterized by each of the descriptions? Some of the relational explications describe ways in which reductionist attempts have proceeded or might proceed, as for example in cell (M,O) where the modalities are assimilated to concepts of temporal order. However such an attempt at reduction will fail unless it also deals successfully with the remaining concepts of modality, (M,P) and (M,M), by showing either that they too can likewise be reduced or that they fail to signify features of reality or experience.

In the first part of this paper, I introduced the three complex temporal elements of passage, modality, and order in a broadly descriptive fashion suggestive of the pervasiveness of the temporal phenomena they characterize. With Kant I would further propose, but without argument here, that they are so basic to our experience and conceptualization of the world in which we live as to be inexpugnable in some form or other so long as we experience and conceive the world; they are, in short, existentially necessary. In the presence of the three intrinsically distinct, intelligible, and existentially necessary primary notions of temporal passage, modality, and order together with their derivative relations, and in the absence of any successful reductions known to me of one of these to the others, I am inclined to regard a synthetic metaphysics of time which has a place for each of the nine cells of the matrix as the only kind which could be adequate to all the facets of time.

6. The preceding claim is both highly speculative and highly programmatic. It is speculative because no rigorous defense has been given. It is programmatic because it sketches what must be incorporated into an adequate conceptualization of time without working out how these shall fit together. Let me illustrate this latter point with one question it would seem desirable to answer. The future may be described relative to temporal order by combining (M,O) and (O,O). That is, like later than, the direction of the future is the direction of greater entropy in closed systems or of one direction in certain irreversible causal chains. Yet the future may also be described by combining (M,M) and (M,P) as the direction taken by a process of actualization of previously unactualized possibilities. The question is, why should the future, if defined in these two different ways be the same? Could their relations be reversed such that the order of coming to be was from greater to less entropy, from more evolved and developed to less evolved and developed, or from downward falling to upward falling objects in a gravitational field? It might seem foolish or nonsensical to ask if time could be reversed if we had but one characterization of the future. The response might be just that it is an analytic truth that one direction of time is the future. But if in fact we speak of the future under two or more descriptions, the basis of their correspondence becomes problematic.



1 R. Lucas, A Treatise on Time and Space (Scranton, Pa.: Barnes and Noble, 1973), p. 91. I owe this reference to Professor J. M. Crombie.