Developmental Temporality

6 January 2014


Time flies, as we say, and as it flies we develop temporally, passing through stages of time consciousness.

Time flies, as we say, and as it flies we develop temporally, passing through stages of time consciousness.

The Idea of Developmental Temporality

The idea of developmental temporality seems very simple to me, but I have learned from experience that the things I find to be intuitively obvious are anything but to others, in the same way that the ideas that others take for granted come slowly to me, and I often must pass through my own developmental process of misunderstanding another’s ideas in several different ways before I can begin to really focus on the intended meaning.

There are many theories of developmental psychology to describe the life of the individual, and there are also many theories of civilizational development to account for the life cycle of a civilization — though the theories of development applicable to entire civilizations are not usually conceived in developmental terms. There is, in fact, a reason that civilizations are not usually viewed in a developmental light, which is because it has become morally unacceptable in our time to make a distinction in the level of development of civilizations because this implies comparison, and comparisons among civilizations evoke the idea of colonialist paternalism. To speak of civilizations in developmental terms runs the risk of encountering moral outrage for ranking civilizations at a time when all civilizations are understood to be equal (though some are more equal than others).

Most well known among these theories of development are Piaget’s cognitive developmental stages, Erikson’s psychosocial developmental stages, and Vygotsky’s theory of zones of proximal development, all of which I have discussed in other contexts (cf., e.g., The Hierarchy of Perspective Taking). Piaget’s cognitive approach has come in for a lot of criticism because it focuses on intellectual development and does not concern itself with emotional or social development. Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development still have a bit of currency, though many more sophisticated theories have refined the work of Piaget, Erikson, and Vygotsky.

I don’t know of anyone who has formulated a developmental psychology of time-consciousness, although such a schema is implicit in Husserl’s phenomenology of time consciousness and in other accounts of time and history. (I cite Husserl because it is his account of time that has most influenced me.) The idea of developmental temporality is that our time consciousness, like our intellect, our emotions, our social life, and other aspects of the individual personality, passes through stages of development, and given that the temporality of social wholes emerges from shared temporality, the temporality of social wholes also undergoes a developmental process (cf. The Origins of Time).

Time consciousness at its greatest extent passes imperceptibly into historical consciousness, which is an extension and expansion of time consciousness; there is no absolute distinction between time consciousness and historical consciousness. It would be possible to write a minute-by-minute history of a single day (some works of literature are famous for this technique) so that a period of time within the scope of human time consciousness is treated in terms of historical consciousness. This relationship between time consciousness and historical consciousness is not strictly symmetrical, since there are limits to the extent to which we can expand time consciousness, and the longest spans of time studied by scientific historiography — the time scales of biology, geology, and cosmology — cannot equally well be treated in temporal and historical terms.

The Seven Ages of Man ('As You Like It', Act II Scene 7), 1838,  William Mulready, born 1786 - died 1863

The Seven Ages of Man (‘As You Like It’, Act II Scene 7), 1838,
William Mulready, born 1786 – died 1863

Ontogenetic Developmental Temporality

The time consciousness of the individual unfolds as ontogenetic developmental temporality. How are we to understand the temporal development of the individual? There are many ways to do this, but I will start with Shakespeare.

Shakespeare’s famous evocation of the seven ages of man, which comes from the “All the world’s a stage” monologue from the play As You Like It. Here, in the language of the first folio edition, is the monologue:

All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women, meerely Players; They haue their Exits and their Entrances, And one man in his time playes many parts, His Acts being seuen ages. At first the Infant, Mewling, and puking in the Nurses armes: Then, the whining Schoole-boy with his Satchell And shining morning face, creeping like snaile Vnwillingly to schoole. And then the Louer, Sighing like Furnace, with a wofull ballad Made to his Mistresse eye-brow. Then, a Soldier, Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the Pard, Ielous in honor, sodaine, and quicke in quarrell, Seeking the bubble Reputation Euen in the Canons mouth: And then, the Iustice In faire round belly, with good Capon lin’d, With eyes seuere, and beard of formall cut, Full of wise sawes, and moderne instances, And so he playes his part. The sixt age shifts Into the leane and slipper’d Pantaloone, With spectacles on nose, and pouch on side, His youthfull hose well sau’d, a world too wide, For his shrunke shanke, and his bigge manly voice, Turning againe toward childish trebble pipes, And whistles in his sound. Last Scene of all, That ends this strange euentfull historie, Is second childishnesse, and meere obliuion, Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans euery thing.

Taking Shakespeare’s seven ages of man as a convenient point of departure, let us consider each in turn as a stage in the development of historico-temporal consciousness:

● Mewling infant The time consciousness of the infant is confined to the immediately present moment; here time consciousness extends over several seconds, and at most over several minutes.

● whining Schoole-boy With the development of personal autonomy, the individual transcends the immediacy of the moment and begins to be conscious of lengths of time from minutes through hours to days. The whining school-boy hates to go to school because his captivity within the walls of a school for a few hours seems interminable, and the idea of summer seems like an impossibly distant future.

● Sighing lover The signing lover expands his temporality not only diachronically, but also synchronically, and his perception of time expands into a social community. The object of his love is understood to be possessed of a similar temporality to himself, and those impediments to their being together become temporal agents in their own right.

● Bearded soldier In a man’s productive years, whether as soldier or farmer or whatever trade he has taken up, time consciousness necessarily expands to the seasons of the year, and the round of activities appropriate not only to each day, but also to each season, is forced upon the awareness of the individual, and this life according to the seasons eventually expands to comprise years.

● Severe justice The severe justice, the man of the community who takes seriously his role in maintaining the order of his social milieu, finds his historico-temporal conscious expanded to comprise the cycles of years experienced in the growth on cities and industry, the business cycle, and rise and fall of families and their fortunes, and the larger engagements of states and empires that must be counted in years and decades.

● Lean Pantaloon It is only in later life, when the immediate needs of self and family and community have been served that the individual begins to look to his legacy and begins to think in terms of his place within a multi-generational time scale. Although the “pantaloon” is a figure of fun from commedia dell’arte, concerned almost exclusively with money but often fooled and the butt of jokes, the pantoloon figure does rightly indicate a concern for the long-term investment of capital, which is one function of multi-generational thinking. Outside the schematic world of commedia dell’arte, the man who has survived into old age with his intellectual faculties intact plans not for the morrow, or even for the decade, but for generations, and perhaps for centuries. The monuments he sponsors and the legacy that he endows he desires to be a perennial contribution to the ages, and not merely a passing fancy of the present, which latter may have contented him in earlier life.

● Second childhood The deterioration of mental faculties returns the individual to a second childhood, and in this second childhood the individual’s time-consciousness is incrementally reduced to that of the infant — a consciousness of the present moment only, mewling and puking in his nurse’s arms.

This above account of the development of individual time consciousness is only a first rough sketch, and should in no sense be considered definitive or exhaustive. There is much work to be done on ontogenetic temporal consciousness.

stages in the development of civilization

Phylogenetic Developmental Temporality

The time consciousness of social milieux unfolds as phylogenetic developmental temporality. How are we to understand the historico-temporal development of the social wholes? I have several times employed a tripartite division of human history between pre-civilized nomadic hunter-gatherers, agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, and industrial-technological civilization. I will take this schemata and divide each of these stages in two yielding six stages of social development in human communities. These communities experience the development of historico-temporal consciousness as follows:

● Early Nomadic-Foraging Societies In the earliest nomadic-forager societies life was continuous with the prehuman past and communal time-consciousness was primarily restricted to the immediate present. This is the infancy of historical consciousness, bounded by the length of a day.

● Late Nomadic-Foraging Societies Once a uniquely human modus vivendi was established, building on newly available cognitive capacities, a fully articulated hunter-gather society emerged in which communal time-consciousness embraced an awareness of annual seasons, and planning looked forward to this annual cycle, anticipating, for each biome, the necessary preparations for ongoing survival for a given biological context. Such preparations in temperate climates often became a form of transhumance when a social group migrated twice a year between winter and summer encampments. This particular period of human development corresponded with the climatological period of melting glaciers with the beginning of the current interglacial period and onset of the Holocene, so that each year offered a steadily warmer climate and the opening up of further lands freed from glaciation.

● Early Agrarian-Ecclesiastical Civilization With the advent of civilization in the most extended sense of that term, comprising organized settled agricultural societies and their urban centers, planning for the future becomes systematic. Agricultural production is linked to climatological and astronomical cycles, and time-consciousness expands beyond that annual cycle to become historical consciousness in an explicit form for the first time in human history. Early imperial states — Egyptian Kingdoms, Sumeria, Akkadia, Assyria, etc. — record the dynasties of their kings and begin to keep chronicles and histories of human events.

● Late Agrarian-Ecclesiastical Civilization From approximately the Axial Age to the Industrial Revolution, agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization consolidates its institutions in increasingly mature and technically sophisticated ways, including its institutions of time keeping, calendrics, and rational planning for the future of social institutions. These efforts are, however, hampered by conceptual and technological limitations.

● Early Industrial-Technological Civilization The violent break with the agricultural past that resulted from the industrial revolution meant a slight setback for historical consciousness, but to a certain extent, this setback was necessary, because the largest historico-temporal context industrial-technological civilization had available was a pre-industrial mythological account of the world dating to the Axial Age, which many heroically sought to apply to the changed human circumstances of the post-industrial world, though all such attempts have either been failures or have been maintained only at the cost of bad faith (i.e., Sartrean self-deception). The means of industrial-technological civilization directly addressed those conceptual and technological limitations that held back the development of historico-temporal consciousness in the previous level of social development. the advent of scientific historiography extended concepts of time to geological, biological, and cosmological scales that no human being had previously conceived. The dialectic of the pressing immediacy of industrial society and the newly expanded time scales of scientific historiography has resulted in an incompletely resolved tension; he have yet to fully contextualize the 24/7 world of industrial society into its biological and cosmological place in nature. It is at this juncture that we stand today.

● Late Industrial-Technological Civilization The next level of historical consciousness will be to fully integrate industrial-technological civilization into the time scales conceptualized in scientific historiography, and to understand ourselves and our civilization in this historical context.

As with the stages of individual time consciousness outlined above, this attempt at a schema of civilizational development is in no way definitive or exhaustive, though it is a little more systematic than the series of stages taken from Shakespeare. I also would not want a developmental account of civilization to be understood as the necessary or inevitable path to development of a civilization. In future work I hope to show the possibility of many different forms of civilization that would have been possible but were never realized — what I have elsewhere called Counterfactual Conditionals of the Industrial Revolution.

What's that on the horizon? What does the future hold for us?

What’s that on the horizon? What does the future hold for us?

The Future of Developmental Temporality

A collapse of our civilization into some subsequent ruination (i.e., the realization of an existential risk) may well lead, as in the case of the second childhood of ontogenetic developmental temporality, to the level of historico-temporal consciousness found in early nomadic-forager societies, in which the scope of time-consciousness has contracted to that of the immediate needs of the immediate present, and the struggle to live has become so challenging that there remains no remaining intellectual capacity to place human activity within a larger time scale. In such a scenario we would take no thought for the morrow. Of such individuals in such a state it could be rightly said:

“Man, that is born of a woman, hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery. He cometh up, and is cut down, like a flower; he fleeth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay.”

On the other hand, the continued existential viability of our civilization would yield further expansions in the scope of historico-temporal consicousness. In the event of transhumanist extensions of individual lifespans by several orders of magnitude, individual consciousness may reach an intimate and personal familiarity with historical periods of time denied to the three-score-and-ten of our current biological embodiment. We may, then, pass beyond Shakespeare’s seven ages and establish new ages of ontogenetic developmental consciousness that embrace larger spans of time, even as our science is defining scales of time beyond those known today. Thus there remains much scope yet for historico-temporal consciousness, which would address, to a certain degree, the asymmetry mentioned above between historical consciousness and temporal conscious. This asymmtry, and the possibilities of further development, suggest many lines of research.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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