A medieval illustration of the four humours: melancholic, choleric, phlegmatic, and sanguine (clockwise from upper left).

What is a definitive formulation?

Recently on my other blog I discussed the philosophical pursuit of definitive formulations. What is a definite formulation? The reader will, I am sure, immediately see that giving a concise and accurate idea of what constitutes a definitive formulation would itself require a definitive formulation of a definitive formulation.

I don’t yet have a definitive formulation of what constitutes a definitive formulation. I could simply say that it is a formulation of a concept that could serve as a definition, but this wouldn’t be very helpful. Here is how I characterized it in my other post:

“…a handful of short, clear, concise, and intuitively accessible sentences…”


“…to put this in clear and simple terms, if I have a definitive formulation, that means if you stopped me on the street and asked me to explain myself while standing on one foot, I could do it. Lacking definitive formulations, the attempted explanation would go on a little too long to be comfortable (or safely balanced) on one foot.”

Lacking a definitive formulation of an idea that is central to our thought means that we can only say what Augustine said of time in his Confessions:

What then is time? If no one asks me, I know: if I wish to explain it to one that asketh, I know not: yet I say boldly that I know, that if nothing passed away, time past were not; and if nothing were coming, a time to come were not; and if nothing were, time present were not. (11.14.17)

quid est ergo tempus? si nemo ex me quaerat, scio; si quaerenti explicare velim, nescio. fidenter tamen dico scire me quod, si nihil praeteriret, non esset praeteritum tempus, et si nihil adveniret, non esset futurum tempus, et si nihil esset, non esset praesens tempus.

In some cases, I think that we can move beyond this Augustinian limit to definition, and it is when we hit upon a definitive formulation that we are able to do this.

It seems appropriate that I should give a concrete example of something that I would identify as a definitive formulation, and since I have recently hit upon a formulation that I rather like, I will try to use this to show what a definitive formulation is.

Call it what you will… temperament, personality, disposition… but people are not all the same.

What is temperament?

I have written several posts about temperament, including Temperamental Diversity, A Third Temperament, Intellectual Personalities and Temperament and Civilization. I don’t think that philosophy, science, or socio-political thought has yet done justice to the role that temperament plays in the world.

But what is temperament? The seventh of ten definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary (which of the ten is the closest to the sense of “temperament” as I have been using the word) defines temperament as follows:

“Constitution or habit of mind, esp. as depending upon or connected with physical constitution; natural disposition”

The sixth of the OED definitions defines temperament in terms of the four humours recognized in medieval medical theory and practice:

“In mediæval physiology: The combination of the four cardinal humours (see humour n. 2b) of the body, by the relative proportion of which the physical and mental constitution were held to be determined; known spec. as animal temperament; also, The bodily habit attributed to this, as sanguine temperament, choleric temperament, phlegmatic temperament, or melancholic temperament (see the adjs.).”

In traditional philosophical parlance, a dictionary definition gives us a nominal definition, but as philosophers what we really want is a real definition. While the philosophical distinction between nominal and real definitions is ancient and widely familiar, and therefore probably ought to remain untouched, I think it is more intuitive to call these two kinds of definition formal definition and metaphysical definition. A formal definition situates the meaning of a term within a formal system, perhaps within the system of language, whereas a metaphysical definition situates the meaning of a term within the structure of the world. So I guess what I am saying here is that one function of a definitive formulation is to give a metaphysical definition — but to be able to do so without requiring the exposition of an entire metaphysical system. You can imagine why this might be difficult.

So, what would I offer as a definitive formulation of temperament, that (hopefully) goes beyond the formal (i.e., nominal) definition in the OED? I define temperament as follows:

Temperament is the intellectual expression of individual variability.

I hope that the reader doesn’t find this too anti-climactic. I’ll try to explain why I find this to be a fruitful formulation.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, former Russellian, later anti-Cantorian

The charm of an idea

A definitive formulation, as I understand it, has an aphoristic quality: it is brief, concise, sententious, and pregnant with meaning. It also has a certain indefinable “appeal” that, like most forms of appealingness, is compelling to some even while it leaves others cold.

Wittgenstein formulated this appeal by calling it the “charm” that some proofs in mathematics and the foundations of mathematics possess. The later Wittgenstein was concerned to criticize the whole Cantorian conception of set theory and transfinite numbers, and much of Wittgenstein’s later philosophical of mathematics has this purpose implicitly as the center of the exposition. (In connection with this, I have previously mentioned Brouwer’s influence on Wittgenstein in Saying, Showing, Constructing, and more recently wrote more about Brouwer in One Hundred Years of Intuitionism and Formalism.)

Here’s what Wittgenstein said about mathematical “charm” in his lectures of 1939:

“The proof has a certain charm if you like that kind of thing; but that is irrelevant. That fact that is has this charm is a very minor point and is not the reason why those calculations were made.–That is colossally important. The calculations have their use not in charm but in their practical consequences.”

“It is quite different if the main role or sole interest is this charm — if the whole interest is showing that a line does cut when it doesn’t, which sets the whole mind in a whirl, and gives the pleasant feeling of paradox. If you can show that there are numbers bigger than the infinite, your head whirls. This may be the chief reason this was invented.”

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Wittgenstein’s Lectures on the Foundations of Mathematics, Cambridge, 1939, edited by Cora Diamond, University of Chicago Press, 1989, p. 16

With this in mind, I am well aware that the “charm” that I find in my definitive formulation of temperament may well be lost on others. The fact that an idea that has a certain charm for one person has none for another is itself a function of temperament. Individuals of different temperaments will find an intellectual charm in different formulations.

Theoretical contextualization

Part of the charm that a formulation has (or fails to have) is the connections that it forges to familiar theories. A definitive formulation, among its other functions, contextualizes a less familiar or less precise concept in an established theory or theories, enabling a systematic exploration and exposition of the idea in relation to familiar and therefore more thoroughly explored theories. Well known theories provide clear parameters for an idea, which, when formerly known only in a vague and imprecise form, had no clear parameters.

In formulating temperament as the intellectual expression of individual variation I am contextualizing human temperament in evolutionary theory, and thereby suggesting an interpretation of temperament based in and drawing upon evolutionary psychology. Thus evolutionary theory provides the parameters for temperament understood as the intellectual expression of individual variability.

Individual variability is one of the drivers of natural selection. When distinct individuals have distinct properties, a selection event may favor (select for) some properties while disfavoring (select against) other properties. Usually we think of the properties of an organism as being structural features of an organism: one finch has a longer beak than another, or one ape is better at walking on two legs than another. These differences might disappear into the dustbin of natural history if no selection event comes along that favors one or the other. But if a selection event does occur, and it favors some structural attribute of an organism that varies among individuals, the favored individuals will go on to experience differential survival and reproduction.

While we usually think of selection in structural terms, a selection event can also select for behaviors. Organisms can adapt to their environment through behaviors just as certainly (and much more rapidly) than through structural changes in their bodies. Behavioral adaptation is no less significant in natural history than structural adaptation.

At very least with the emergence of human beings, and probably also with other species, both hominid precursors of homo sapiens and other large-brained mammals, mind emerged in natural history. With the emergence of mind, there emerged also a novel basis of selection. Some minds are constituted in one way, while other minds are constituted in other ways. In other words, the same individual variability we find in bodies and behaviors are also to be found in minds.

If a selection event occurs that should happen to favor (or disfavor) any one kind of mind over any other kind of mind, those possessing the favored minds will enjoy differential survival and reproduction. With individual variability of minds represented in a sentient population — individual temperaments that lead individuals to think in different ways, and value things in different ways, and deliberate over alternatives in different ways — there is the continual possibility of natural selection.

The more variety of minds that there are, the greater the number of alternatives amongst which a selection event can select, the greater the likelihood that some one temperament is more fitted to survive the particular conditions that obtain than other temperaments.

Thus to formulate temperament as the intellectual expression of individual variability is to place mind within natural history.

To place mind within nature is a metaphysical formulation.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Ecological Temporality

23 March 2011


How swiftly Time before my eyes rushed on
After the guiding Sun, that never rests,
I will not say: ‘twould be beyond my power.
As in a single moment did I see
Ice and the rose, great cold and burning heat
A wondrous thing, indeed, even to hear.

Francesco Petrarch, Triumph of Time (TRIUMPHUS TEMPORIS, from Petrarch’s Trionfi)

Metaphysical preamble on Ecological Ontology

Recently in Integral Ecology I began to formulate an extended conception of ecology that was indebted to Urie Bronfenbrenner’s bio-ecological model of social interconnectedness, though intended to go beyond both the biological and social scope. Yesterday in Metaphysical Ecology I explained why I will discontinue my use of the terms “integral history” and “integral ecology” in favor of metaphysical history and metaphysical ecology. Ultimately, this is the more appropriate terminology for what is, at bottom, a philosophical project of seeing the world whole.

Metaphysical ecology is nothing but the extension of the concept of ecology until it coincides with ontology. This yields an ontology founded in scientific empiricism and methodological naturalism.

To define metaphysical ecology as “nothing but…” is what logicians call an “extremal clause,” the purpose of which is to put an end to any further elaboration of a definition (usually stated in recursive form) and to confine ourselves only to that which has been stipulated. Such definitions are often thought to be reductivist. Reductivist definitions are not necessarily a bad thing. When we define water as H2O we are reducing the macroscopic features of ordinary experience in order to account for water as a chemical molecule understood in the context of atomic theory. Many reductive definitions are like this, giving us more theoretically powerful formulations because they are contextualized within an established and more comprehensive theory.

Reductive definitions, however, have a deservedly bad reputation because of the misuse and abuse to which they have been put. When we say that “x is nothing but y” we are doing an obvious disservice to the true nature of x. Consider such statements as, “Pinocchio was nothing but a puppet” or “Hamlet is nothing but a play” and you will understand what I am getting at. However, in the present case of defining metaphysical ecology in terms of ontology we really have not introduced any unwarranted or arbitrary limitations into the concept of ecology since ontology is the most comprehensive philosophical category.

There is a sense in which it is ironic to even consider time in an ontological context, as ontology has been anti-temporal almost from its beginnings to the present day. Traditional Western metaphysics pursued the tradition of setting up a distinction between appearance and reality, and, in its most traditional forms, would consign time, the temporal, and the ephemeral to the sphere of mere appearance. It is to the credit of contemporary analytical metaphysics, seeking as it does to exemplify the spirit of scientific naturalism, has reconciled itself with the reality of time, so that the main stream of Anglo-American analytical philosophy is as concerned to produce an adequate metaphysical theory of time as it is concerned with any other feature of the world.

While I have noted previously (in The Apotheosis of Metaphysics) that contemporary object oriented ontology reinstates the traditional distinction between appearance and reality in an especially elaborate and robust form, the larger philosophical trend until just recently, both on the continent (in the form of phenomenology) and in the analytical tradition (in the form of phenomenalism and empiricism) was the collapse of the distinction between appearance and reality and the simultaneous attempt to formulate a unified account of the world. it could be argued that the distinction between appearance and reality is more fundamental than the doctrine of the unreality of time, since if the distinction is denied there is no category of appearance to which time is to be consigned.

In any case, ecological temporality as I attempt to formulate it below is probably consistent with either the retention or the denial of the distinction between appearance and reality, and thus could even be seen as being consistent with the doctrine of the denial of the reality of time, in so far as ecological temporality can be given an exposition as mere appearance. However, in spirit, my ambition for ecological temporality is that it should be understood as science extrapolated to the limits of philosophical thought, and therefore constituting a naturalism that sees no need for anything beyond the world of naturalism, and therefore no need for a distinction between appearance and reality.

From Ecological Systems Theory to Metaphysical Ecology

As noted above, I began my exposition of metaphysical ecology in my post Integral Ecology. There I began with Bronfenbrenner’s ecological distinction between micro-systems, meso-systems, exo-systems, macro-systems, and chronosystem. The last of these, the chronosystem, is shown in the following illustration as an additional “halo” surrounding the nested bio-ecological levels centered around the individual person.

I think that Bronfenbrenner’s treatment of the chronosystem was inadequate, radically so, and his treatment of ecological levels could be improved, so, building on his bio-ecological model, and also separating time into its own hierarchy from micro-system to macro-system and beyond, I reformulated metaphysical ecology and metaphysical temporality as shown below.

Here is my revised version of the ecological hierarchy:

The Micro-system: The setting in which the individual lives.

The Meso-system: Relations between microsystems or connections between contexts.

The Exosystem: Links between a social setting in which the individual does not have an active role and the individual’s immediate context.

The Macrosystem: The culture in which individuals live.

Metaphysical Ecology (or metaphysical system): Ultimately, the metaphysical level of the ecological system as the furthest extrapolation of bio-ecology is co-extensive with metaphysical history. This is the master category and the most comprehensive form of bio-ecological thought, just as metaphysical history is the master category of history and the most comprehensive form of historical thought.

And after having separated Bronfenbrenner’s chronosystem from the ecological hierarchy and extrapolated the chronosystem on its own, here is my formulation of a ecological hierarchy for time, or a temporal ecology, if you will:

Micro-temporality: The temporal setting in which the individual lives.

Meso-temporality: Relations between micro-temporalities or connections between temporal contexts.

Exo-temporality: Links between a temporal setting in which the individual does not have an active role and the individual’s immediate temporal context.

Macro-temporality: The historical era in which individuals live.

Metaphysical temporality: The whole of metaphysical history in which the individual and other lesser temporalities (Meso-temporality, Exo-temporality, and Macro-temporality) are embedded.

While the illustration of Bronfenbrenner’s chronosystem as an additional concentric level is accurate in so far as it goes, it doesn’t go far enough. It is accurate because everything within the ecological systems is subject to time, and therefore to show time (i.e., the chronosystem) as embracing all the ecological levels is accurate. However, each level of ecological structure is subject to each level of time. Here is an illustration of how each level of the ecological systems are ultimately subject to metaphysical time:

The same kind of illustration could be drawn to show how all levels of ecology are subject to micro-temporalities, meso-temporalities, exo-temporalities, and macro-temporalities. It would require a rather large illustration to show all the possibilities, so I have put them in the chart form below.

Metaphysical ecology and metaphysical temporality (or, if you like, what I have been calling integral history, but which I will now call metaphysical history) stand in a systematic relationship to each other. Better, they stand in an ecological relationship to each other. Firstly, however, the systematic relationship: each level of metaphysical ecology can be given an exposition at each level of metaphysical temporality. This means that there are twenty-five possible perspectives on the interaction between metaphysical ecology and metaphysical temporality. I have diagrammed these possibilities in the chart below.

In the technical terminology of the theory of relations, the blue circles on the left are the domain, the gray circles on the right are the range, and the both together are the field of the relation. A diagram that traces all possibilities of field of the relation is confusing to the eye (being a little too complex to have immediate appeal to geometrical intuition), so it might be better understood by considering a simpler diagram of a subset of the field of relations between one term in the domain to the several terms of the range. Here is a diagram that shows only the relations of a single micro-system of ecology to the levels of temporality:

If we take the single term from the domain to be a person, the person’s relation to micro-temporality is what Husserl called internal time-consciousness (one’s relation to oneself), the relation to meso-temporality is the individual’s relation to inter-subjectivity (the social world of which we are a part, and the venerable philosophical question of other minds), the relation to exo-temporality is the individual’s relation to temporal systems of which he is not an immediate participant (e.g., what’s happening on the other side of the planet, or in the Andromeda Galaxy, which could be given an exposition in terms of the relativity of simultaneity), the relation to macro-temporality is the individual’s relation to the historical era of which he is a (temporal) part (e.g., one’s place today in the history of industrialized civilization), and the relation to metaphysical temporality is the individual’s place in the whole of metaphysical history (one’s place in the world from the beginning of time to the present). Each of these permutations can be extrapolated from each term in the domain to each of the terms in the range.

A convenient way to express these relationships would be to refer to the terms of the domain with a capital “S” with a subscript to indicate the ecological level (Smic, Smes, Sexo, Smac, and Sint), and similarly to refer to the terms of the range with a capital “T” followed by a subscript to indicate the temporal level (Tmic, Tmes, Texo, Tmac, and Tint). In this way each of the twenty-five permutations in the upper diagram can be expressed, for example, like this: Smic/Tmic, which is the topmost line in both diagrams. However, a more intuitive way to express the relationships between metaphysical ecology and metaphysical temporality would be to join the two at the level of the individual, which is the microsystem in common, and then to represent their possible relationships as a graph:

This makes the unity of micro-systems — ecological and temporal — obvious, but gives the impression that metaphysical ecology and metaphysical temporality diverge, though, as I wrote above, they coincide very much as micro-systems coincide. I could say that these schematic delineations of metaphysical ecology and metaphysical temporality (or metaphysical history, if you prefer) are alternative formulations of the same state of affairs. Metaphysical ecology and metaphysical history coincide; the difference between the two is only the perspective one takes on the whole field of ecology. Metaphysical ecology approaches ecological structures structurally and synchronically (one could even say, to preserve even greater symmetry, that metaphysical ecology approaches temporal structures synchronically); metaphysical history approaches the same ecological structures functionally and diachronically.

The point of taking an ecological perspective, however, is not to reduce matters to their smallest and simplest terms, or to erect hierarchies and classification schemas, but to see things whole. It is my purpose, in so far as it is possible, to see time whole, and that means all parts of time related to all other parts of time, and, in the spirit of the observation above that metaphysical ecology and metaphysical history are alternative formations of the same state of affairs, to see the several parts of time in relation to all other temporal-ecological structures and vice versa.

There is an ecology of time itself, an interrelationship of the various parts of time to the whole. As the ecological perspective in biology seeks to demonstrate by way of science the perennial mystical insight of the connectedness of all things (called panarchy in ecology), so too an ecology of time understands the connectedness of all times, of all moments to other moments, and of all moments of time to the whole of time. The ecological perspective provides us with a conceptual structure in which these relations of connectedness can be systematically delineated.

Once time is understood ecologically, one can bring this ecological temporality to a systematic understanding of ecology itself. We have seen that ecology has been defined as the science of the struggle for existence. This struggle takes place in time, and it takes place on many ecological levels simultaneously.

It would be counter-productive to attempt to pluck one paradigm of biological competition out the “levels of selection” controversy and to defend this at the expense of other paradigmata of selection. The world is a complex place in which almost also logical distinctions are muddied in practice. Thus selection is not one thing, but many things taking place over different ecological levels and also at different temporal levels. There is selection at the level of the genome, and therefore selfish genes, but there is also selection at the level of the individual, and at the level of the community and its niche, and at the level of the population and its biome, and ultimately on levels that transcend life and reach up to the life cycles of the stars — galactic ecology (or, as I would prefer, cosmological ecology, which converges on metaphysical ecology).

The generalization of ecology to metaphysical ecology demands that we also generalize those biological concepts that constitute ecology. One of these concepts to be generalized is that of a trophic layer. Biology online defines trophic as follows:




(1) Of, relating to, or pertaining to nutrition.

(2) Of, or involving, the feeding habits or food relationship of different organisms in a food chain.

Trophic layers are thus layers, i.e., stratifications, of feeding relationships. We know that the primary relationship in nature, red in tooth and claw, is that of feeding. Biological ontology is a system of relationships based on feeding. In nature, one can eat or be eaten. Most likely, one with both eat and be eaten in turn. When big fishes eat little fishes, and the little fishes eat even smaller fishes, we call this a food chain. Here is how the Oxford Dictionary of Ecology defines food chain:

Oxford Dictionary of Ecology definition of food chain

However, feeding relationships rarely constitute a simple linear chain, so ecologists have also defined a food web. Here is how the Oxford Dictionary of Biology defines a food web:

The updated fourth edition of the Dictionary of Ecology is the most comprehensive and authoritative dictionary of ecology available. Written in a clear, accessible style, it contains more than 6,000 entries on all aspects of ecology and related environmental scientific disciplines such as biogeography, genetics, soil science, geomorphology, atmospheric science, and oceanography. The information covered in the dictionary is wide-ranging and includes plant and animal physiology, animal behavior, pollution, conservation, habitat management, population, evolution, environmental pollution, climatology and meteorology. It also features many line drawings and useful appendices including estimations of population parameters, the geologic time-scale, SI units, and--new to this edition--a web-linked appendix of relevant organizations including both governmental agencies and conservation societies. Fully revised, updated, and expanded, with over 100 new entries, this fourth edition also contains new web links for dozens of entries--which are accessed and kept up to date via the Dictionary of Ecology companion website. The dictionary will be invaluable to students and professionals interested in ecology, biology, conservation, and the environmental sciences as well as general readers with an interest in the natural world.

In the conceptually extended context of metaphysical ecology, rather than trophic layers, food chains, and food webs, I will instead posit metaphysical trophisms, ontic chains, and ontic webs. In Integral Ecology I observed that in the extended sense of (what I know call) metaphysical ecology, man does not live by bread alone. What this means in a metaphysical context is the human relationships, while not independent of feeding relationships, transcend feeding relationships and also include other kinds of relationships.

Metaphysical trophisms may sound difficult and abstruse, but it is really quite simple. What we have here is nothing but Plato’s famous definition of being: to be is the power to affect or be affected in turn. One way to affect or be affected is to eat or be eaten. These special cases of the Platonic definition of being define food chains and food webs, and these in turn define trophic layers. In the extended conception of metaphysical ecology we return to the abstract generality of the Platonic formulation, so that the power to affect and to be affected are the relationships of ontic chains and ontic webs, which taken together defined metaphysical trophisms.

I am not going to even attempt at present an exposition of metaphysical trophisms. Suffice it to say for the moment that metaphysical trophisms offer the possibility of an extremely fine-grained account of the world, but this possibility can only be redeemed through a fairly exhaustive treatment of a novel form of fundamentum divisionis significantly more complex than categories. Trophisms are more complex than categories because there are many different ways in which one object can affect or be affected by another, and each of these ways can be explicated exclusively in terms of the agent, or exclusively in terms of the sufferant, or in terms of the reciprocity of agent and sufferant.

What I would like to touch on at present, to give an initial sense of ecological temporality and its potential for conceptual clarification, are what we may call time chains and time webs, in parallel with the food chains and food webs of ecology in the strict and narrow sense of the term. Temporal chains and temporal webs are special cases of what I above called ontic chains and ontic webs, which are features of a more general ontological conception.

Micro-temporalities in relation to themselves and in relation to other micro-temporalities; taken together, interacting, they constitute meso-temporality.

When we consider some of the traditional philosophical conceptions of time (as well as intuitive conceptions of time), we can see that they fall into readily recognizable patterns that can be analyzed in terms of ecological temporality. For example, Husserl’s emphasis upon subjective time consciousness (and I should point out that I am in no way critical of this emphasis) is clearly what could be called a “bottom up” time chain, such that the whole structure of temporality, from the largest structures of metaphysical history down to the smallest structures of micro-temporality, are ultimately driven by (and presumably reducible to, thus constituting a reductive definition) the mind’s temporality.

Augustine (whom Husserl cited in his Cartesian Meditations) also reduced time to the perspective of the individual, though with the superadded metaphysical doctrine that time itself is unreal and has no ultimate place in the structure of the world. What this means in terms of ecological temporality is that the whole structure of metaphysical time is mere appearance erected upon the experiences of the individual. (Odd, is it not, then, that Augustine should be equally famous for his philosophy of history as given exposition in his City of God?) Augustine’s classic exposition of time is in Book XI of his Confessions, where Augustine writes in Chapters XXVII and XXVIII:

It is in you, O mind of mine, that I measure the periods of time. Do not shout me down that it exists [objectively]; do not overwhelm yourself with the turbulent flood of your impressions. In you, as I have said, I measure the periods of time. I measure as time present the impression that things make on you as they pass by and what remains after they have passed by–I do not measure the things themselves which have passed by and left their impression on you. This is what I measure when I measure periods of time. Either, then, these are the periods of time or else I do not measure time at all.

What are we doing when we measure silence, and say that this silence has lasted as long as that voice lasts? Do we not project our thought to the measure of a sound, as if it were then sounding, so that we can say something concerning the intervals of silence in a given span of time? For, even when both the voice and the tongue are still, we review–in thought–poems and verses, and discourse of various kinds or various measures of motions, and we specify their time spans–how long this is in relation to that–just as if we were speaking them aloud. If anyone wishes to utter a prolonged sound, and if, in forethought, he has decided how long it should be, that man has already in silence gone through a span of time, and committed his sound to memory. Thus he begins to speak and his voice sounds until it reaches the predetermined end. It has truly sounded and will go on sounding. But what is already finished has already sounded and what remains will still sound. Thus it passes on, until the present intention carries the future over into the past. The past increases by the diminution of the future until by the consumption of all the future all is past.

But how is the future diminished or consumed when it does not yet exist? Or how does the past, which exists no longer, increase, unless it is that in the mind in which all this happens there are three functions? For the mind expects, it attends, and it remembers; so that what it expects passes into what it remembers by way of what it attends to. Who denies that future things do not exist as yet? But still there is already in the mind the expectation of things still future. And who denies that past things now exist no longer? Still there is in the mind the memory of things past. Who denies that time present has no length, since it passes away in a moment? Yet, our attention has a continuity and it is through this that what is present may proceed to become absent. Therefore, future time, which is nonexistent, is not long; but “a long future” is “a long expectation of the future.” Nor is time past, which is now no longer, long; a “long past” is “a long memory of the past.”

I am about to repeat a psalm that I know. Before I begin, my attention encompasses the whole, but once I have begun, as much of it as becomes past while I speak is still stretched out in my memory. The span of my action is divided between my memory, which contains what I have repeated, and my expectation, which contains what I am about to repeat. Yet my attention is continually present with me, and through it what was future is carried over so that it becomes past. The more this is done and repeated, the more the memory is enlarged–and expectation is shortened–until the whole expectation is exhausted. Then the whole action is ended and passed into memory. And what takes place in the entire psalm takes place also in each individual part of it and in each individual syllable. This also holds in the even longer action of which that psalm is only a portion. The same holds in the whole life of man, of which all the actions of men are parts. The same holds in the whole age of the sons of men, of which all the lives of men are parts.

Thus does Augustine “explain away” time, but, at the same time, attributes time to the human mind, and so commits himself to a “bottom up” theory of time. While I find Augustine’s theory of time to be inadequate, it is at least more of a theory than Plato had, and in the context of platonism it accomplishes all that a theory of time could hope to accomplish even while declaring time to be ultimately unreal.

Saint Augustine asked 'What then is time?' and acknowledged that he could not answer the question. But, as Wittgenstein has pointed out, some things that cannot be said nevertheless can be shown.

The obvious antithetical view to the “bottom up” time chain is the “top down” time chain in which it is posited that all time in the world, at all ecological levels, follows from the over-arching structure of time which imposes its nature and character upon all subordinate temporalities, so that time and change are imposed from above rather than rising from below.

Plato, whom Augustine followed so closely in so many matters, including his denial of the ultimate reality of time, provides a perfect illustration of a philosophical “top down” time chain. Although for Plato there is no metaphysical temporality but only metaphysical eternity, such that the former is illusory appearance while the latter is reality, in one famous passage Plato wrote that, “time is the moving image of eternity.” Thus, for Plato, the over-arching reality of eternity trickles down into the interstices of the world, the appearance of time penetrating down from above.

Plato implicitly invoked a top-down model of time by making eternity generative of time; eternity is the Platonic form, while time in the mere image of eternity in the cave of shadows. For Plato, time and eternity are related as appearance to reality.

There is, furthermore, an intuitive correlate to this Platonic conception of time as the moving image of eternity, and this is the familiar sense in which people invoke Fate or Destiny as implacable temporal forces from on high that direct the lives of men below. This is famously expressed by Hamlet when the Prince of Denmark says, “There’s a Diuinity that shapes our ends, Rough-hew them how we will.” (Act V, scene ii) And all of the familiar mythological images, from the Fates and Furies of Greek tragedy to the Norns of Norse mythology, when the gods decides the fates of men ultimately powerless to shape their own destinies, represent a strongly top down model of temporal ecology.

The three norns: one to spin the thread of life, another to mark its length, and a third to cut the thread.

Top-down time chains are also common in contemporary scientific thinking and especially in cosmology. Some theorists of time as an expression of increasing entropy (the thermodynamic arrow of time) and the expansion of the universe (the cosmological arrow of time) come close to saying (without actually making it explicit) that if entropy could be reversed or if the universe halted in its expansion and then began to contract that time itself would reverse and subjective internal time consciousness would also reverse. However, it is much more common among scientists simply to pretend that subjective time consciousness doesn’t exist, or, if it does exist, that it isn’t important — perhaps it is a mere “user illusion.” Because of the distaste for philosophy, and especially for metaphysics, among scientists and most others wedded to methodological naturalism, thinkers of this stripe rarely bother to assert that subjective and internal time consciousness is unreal in the same way that their opposite numbers assert the unreality of cosmic time, but in effect the positions are perfectly symmetrical. The scientific denial of subjective time (and hence temporal chains driven from the bottom up by individual time consciousness) is an implicit assertion of the unreality of internal time consciousness.

An explicitly top-down model of time from John G. Cramer's paper, “Velocity Reversal and the Arrows of Time”

As I wrote above, the point of taking an ecological perspective is to understand the interconnections between things, and for this reason either a “bottom up” or “top down” model of temporality is inadequate. Temporal chains, whether bottom up or top down, represent a simplification and idealization of the way that temporality acts in the world, just as food chains are simplifications and idealizations that do not possess this linearity in fact. An adequate conception of ecological temporality would recognize simultaneously occurring top down and bottom up temporal processes, as well as temporal interactions from any one temporal level to any other temporal level. This more adequate model of time yields a time web rather than discrete time chains.

This post constitutes only a first sketch of ecological temporality, and I hope that it has given you something to think about in relation to time. There is more more to say by way of elaboration and extrapolation, especially on the topic of metaphysical trophisms, but I will finish for now with only one further observation.

One of the most influential philosophical developments of the last part of the twentieth century was the introduction of Kripkean semantics, which displaced theories of naming and reference widely prevalent in analytical philosophy, especially those traditions deriving from the work of Frege and Russell. Kripke replaced the quasi-logical theories of reference with one based on the highly intuitive idea that names are derived from initial acts of baptism, and these acts of baptism are passed down along a causal chain from the past down into the present. Thus Kripkean semantical theory is often called the causal theory of reference. It seems to me that Kripkean causal chains are simple, linear time chains, and as such constitute simplifications and indeed idealizations of reference. In the messy real world of time webs, we cannot count on a single, linear, unified casual chain to transmit acts of baptism from the past unbroken into the present.

Saul Aaron Kripke (born November 13, 1940)

Kripke's causal theory of reference has been highly influential, but it runs into trouble when causality must be traced through a temporal web, just as Newtonian mechanics runs into trouble with the n-body problem.

This is as much to say that ecological temporality suggests a more complex theory of reference than that embodied in causal theories of reference, and this would be an interesting application of a philosophical theory of time to a philosophical theory of reference.

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What, then, is history?

23 August 2010


Saint Augustine asked “What then is time?” and acknowledged that he could not answer the question. But, as Wittgenstein has pointed out, some things that cannot be said nevertheless can be shown.

Augustine famously asked in his Confessions:

What then is time? If no one asks me, I know: if I wish to explain it to one that asketh, I know not: yet I say boldly that I know, that if nothing passed away, time past were not; and if nothing were coming, a time to come were not; and if nothing were, time present were not. (11.14.17)

quid est ergo tempus? si nemo ex me quaerat, scio; si quaerenti explicare velim, nescio. fidenter tamen dico scire me quod, si nihil praeteriret, non esset praeteritum tempus, et si nihil adveniret, non esset futurum tempus, et si nihil esset, non esset praesens tempus.

If time is a mystery of the order identified by Augustine, what then is the history that is constituted by time?

In my Variations on the Theme of Life I wrote the following:

Parables.–It has been said that the mind is essentially narrative in its constitution. Whatever validity such a claim might have or might lack, stories may well be the most effective literary device for communicating the gist of an idea. Perhaps philosophers would have had a larger audience had they written parables instead of treatises.

Variations on the Theme of Life, Section 390

It could be said that the creation of narratives is an attempt to assert mastery over the complexity of history, and so to deliver oneself from what Mircea Eliade called the Terror of History — and the terror of history can only emerge with the emergence of historical consciousness. Historical consciousness is the midwife that delivers time of history. How does historical consciousness operate? Narratively. Usually.

In Deep Battle and the Culture of War I suggested that Western military thought focuses on the mastery of time. Mastery of history represents the apotheosis of the ambition to exercise strategic mastery over time; the mastery of time culminates in the mastery of history as its total form. Thus another definition of grand strategy emerges from this line of thought: grand strategy is the mastery of history.

Conceptions of history — the cataclysmic, the political, and the eschatological as discussed in Three Conceptions of History — form the basis for transforming the whole of time into a narrative. The conception is the intellectual dimension — often subtle, usually implicit, rarely brought to full consciousness — while the narrative is the moral, emotional, and aesthetic dimension of what is intellectually expressed as a conception of history.

The narrative dimension comes to us naturally, and speaks to us on a fundamental level: we feel it as much as, if not more than, we know it. It is important to pass through this stage of knowing — knowing on a visceral level, understanding history as a matter of gut feeling — but it has limitations that are as powerful as the lessons that it has to teach us. Therefore it is equally important to transcend this stage and to bring our implicit conception of history to fully explicit consciousness so that we know and understand what we are doing.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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