Some day in the far future, if humanity (or some successor species) survives and if we establish ourselves as a spacefaring civilization, we will eventually have the opportunity to research whatever other civilizations exist in the universe and which we are able to find. With a study of multiple civilizations as a point of reference for the idea of civilization, we will not only possess a much richer conception of civilization, we may be able for formulate a genuine science of civilizations — a formal and theoretical science of civilization based on classificatory, comparative, and quantitative concepts that can be applied to known civilizations and employed in the prediction of not-yet-known civilizations.

Rudolf Carnap's account of scientific concepts from his Philosophical Foundations of Physics.

Let us begin, however, with something smaller and much more modest than entire civilizations, but something upon which civilizations are crucially dependent. Let us, then, begin with ideas.

I recently posted the following to Twitter:

The natural history of non-temporal transcendencies is the history of their epistemic order in human knowledge.

This remark could use some elucidation, since I have alluded to some ideas that are perhaps not widely known.

When I mentioned “non-temporal transcendencies” I was thinking of Husserl’s use of this idea in his 1905 lectures on time consciousness. here is a passage from the very end of his lectures, from the last two paragraphs of the last section:

“…we must say: the ‘presentation’ (appearance) of the state of affairs is presentation, not in the genuine sense, but in a derived sense. The state of affairs, properly speaking, is not something temporal either; it exists for a specific time but it not itself something in time as a thing or even is. Time-consciousness and presentation do not pertain to the state of affairs as a state of affairs but to the affair that belongs to it.”

“The same is true of all other founded acts and their correlates. A value has no place in time. A temporal object may be beautiful, pleasant, useful, and so on, and these may be for a definite period of time. But the beauty, pleasantness, etc., have no place in nature and in time. They are not things that appear in presentations or re-presentations.”

Edmund Husserl, On the Phenomenology of the Consciousness of Internal Time (1893-1917), translated by John Barnett Brough, Kluwer, 1991, sec. 45

I think that in this final passage of his lectures on time consciousness that Husserl has gone beyond a strictly phenomenological account and has almost imperceptibly passed over into metaphysics with his assertion that, “beauty, pleasantness, etc., have no place in nature and in time.” In other words, Husserl makes the claim that non-temporal transcendencies have no natural history. But in phenomenology nature has been suspended, so it is not within the competency of phenomenology to say that anything has no place in nature. Husserl is here struggling with the problem of apparently non-temporal objects in the light of the universality of constituting time consciousness, and he can’t quite yet see his way clear to a purely phenomenological treatment of non-temporal transcendencies.

Fortunately, although Husserl himself didn’t seem to make the leap, all the elements necessary to that leap are there in his thought, and it doesn’t take much phenomenological reflection to realize that non-temporal transcendencies have a peculiar way of appearing to consciousness, and that being a non-temporal transcendency is nothing more (for the phenomenologist as phenomenologist) than this peculiar way of appearing — a presentation in the derived sense, as Husserl calls it.

Edmund Husserl

When I wrote about the “epistemic order in human knowledge” in the same Twitter aphorism I was thinking about Hans Reichenbach’s distinction between the context of discovery and context of justification. Here is how Reichenbach drew the distinction:

When we call logic analysis of thought the expression should be interpreted so as to leave no doubt that it is not actual thought which we pretend to analyze. It is rather a substitute for thinking processes, their rational reconstruction, which constitutes the basis of logical analysis. Once a result of thinking is obtained, we can reorder our thoughts in a cogent way, constructing a chain of thoughts between point of departure and point of arrival; it is this rational reconstruction of thinking that is controlled by logic, and whose analysis reveals those rules which we call logical laws. The two realms of analysis to be distinguished may be called context of discovery, and context of justification. The context of discovery is left to psychological analysis, whereas logic is concerned with the context of justification, i.e., with the analysis of ordered series of thought operations so constructed that they make the results of thought justifiable. We speak of a justification when we possess a proof which shows that we have good grounds to rely upon those results.

Hans Reichenbach, Elements of Symbolic Logic, 1947, The Macmillan Company

I have elsewhere discussed rational reconstruction so I won’t go into any detail on that here, though the idea of rational reconstruction is fundamental to Reichenbach’s project and in fact inspires the distinction. Reichenbach’s distinctions implies that there are at least two orders into which human knowledge can be organized: in the order of discovery or in the order of justification (presumably in a mature theoretical context).

Hans Reichenbach

What Reichbach does not say, but which we can extrapolate from his distinction, is that there are both ontogenetic and phylogenetic orders of discovery. The individual’s order of discovery may well differ from the order of discovery chronicled as “firsts” in the history of science. There may also be individual and social orders of justification — ideally there would not be, since this would imply multiple theoretical contexts, and even a personal theoretical context, but we must at least acknowledge the possibility.

With these references in mind consider again my Twitter aphorism again:

The natural history of non-temporal transcendencies is the history of their epistemic order in human knowledge.

While what Husserl called nontemporal transcendencies have no “history” of their own, no development or evolution, they do however have a human history in the order in which they have been grasped by human minds, and then in the forms in which they have been sedimented in human cultures. Moreover, their presentation in a derived sense exhibits characteristic forms of order, and among these forms of order are the order of discovery and the order of justification.

Given what I recently wrote about the problem of other minds in The Eye of the Other, an obvious generalization of the above would be to formulate the same free of anthropic bias (to the extent that this is possible), thus:

The natural history of non-temporal transcendencies is the history of their genetic order in the epistemic frameworks of sentient beings.

Any sentient being capable of cognizing a non-temporal transcendency (i.e., thinking abstractly about an idea) constitutes an instance in the natural history of ideas, whether that instance of cognition is human cognition, another terrestrial species, or some non-terrestrial species. In this way, we understand that ideas may be mirrored in the consciousness of many different peoples. Under the aspect of the plurality of conscious minds, the natural history of ideas takes on a new and far more complex aspect.

If we could plot the natural history of ideas (i.e., the derivative appearance of non-temporal transcendencies in cognition of sentient beings of any species whatever) on a graph, I think that this would go a long way toward formulating a science of civilization, since civilization is founded on ideas, albeit ideas that are always found in their implemented form. Mapping the emergence of ideas in a wide variety of diverse civilizations may even suggest empirical generalizations, and from empirical generalizations laws could be formulated and predictions made.

The more research we are able to do in the natural history of ideas (possibly one day extended by the technology of a spacefaring civilization), the more likely we are to find unusual or unexpected instantiations of an idea. There are likely to be some very interesting exceptions to the rule. At the same time, a large body of research could eventually establish some norms for particular classes of civilizations and how these relate to each other. The Kardashev scale is perhaps the first step in this direction.

We might even formulate quantitative concepts of civilization into a graphic representation analogous to the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram, which in its simplicity reveals the “main sequence” of stars by considering only the variables of luminosity and surface temperature. We may discover that there is a “main sequence” of civilizations, and perhaps this civilizational “main sequence” corresponds to the macro-historical sequence of humanity thus far — nomadism, followed by settled agriculturalism, followed by settled industrialism. I suspect that we will always find that settled agriculturalism is the civilizational prerequisite for the emergence of industrial-technological civilization.

Michio Kaku, in his book Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100, suggests a quantitative measure of civilization based on the Kardashev scale and Carl Sagan’s information processing typology. While Kaku’s thought remains on a primarily classificatory or typological level, we could easily plot a civilization’s energy use (or energy flows, if you prefer) on one axis of a graph and its information processing ability on the other axis of a graph and come up with a quantitative presentation of civilization typologies. We would plot known earth civilizations on such a graph, but we wouldn’t really get all that far considering only earth civilizations. Ideally we would want to plot as diverse a set of civilizations as we plot diverse stars from all over the universe on the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram.

It could also be observed that, in the same circumstances as stated above, in the far future of a human spacefaring civilization, that human beings (or their successor species) will also gather an enormous amount of information about the universe, and possibly also the multiverse (should the world reveal itself to be more than that which can be seen with contemporary technology). No doubt many strange and wonderful things will be discovered. But we have sciences that are capable of comprehending such things. Extended conceptions of astronomy, astrophysics, and cosmology will be able to include within their growing bodies of knowledge every outlandish natural phenomenon that we might chance to encounter in the wider universe, but there is nothing, either in a present form or in an inchoate extended form, that can do this for civilization. There is no science of civilization at present, or, at least, nothing worthy of the name.

We could formulate a science of civilization exclusively on the basis of civilizations on the earth — it could be argued that this is what Toynbee attempted to do — although this would be anthropically biased and not as valuable as a future science of civilization that could draw upon the data of many different civilizations on many different planets. While we are on the verge today of just being able to glimpse other planets around other stars, it will be some time yet before we are able to glimpse other civilizations, if there are any.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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The Origins of Time

30 November 2011


The Construction of Ecological Temporality

The geologic time spiral — A path to the past

A Genetic Account of the Origins of the World

The ontogeny of time

The emergence and development of temporal consciousness — that is to say, the origins of individual time, the ontogeny of time — begins in the individual, but the early experience of the individual is that of an individual embedded in a temporal context. The individual’s internal time consciousness is constructed in a temporal context that I will call the reflexive experience of time.

Children — at least those children allowed a childhood, which is not always the case — live most in the world of meso-temporality, mostly because they have not yet learned not to trust, and so they feel free to express the spontaneity of their inner time consciousness as though by reflex. Reflexive experience of time, in which there are few if any barriers between the micro-temporality of the individual and the meso-temporality of the immediate social context of the individual, embodies an absolute innocence.

In a condition of innocence, everything that occurs is new, so that time is densely populated with unprecedented events. Every hour and every day brings novelty. As we age, every hour and every day brings more of the same — the same old same old, as we say today — and so it is little surprise that we don’t notice the passing of this undifferentiated sameness. For the young, time flies by unnoticed, and because the passage of time is unnoticed it has the quality of timelessness.

As we age, time flies by all the faster.

Later, in our maturity, we have the ability to appreciate episodes of innocence that we could not have appreciated in our younger years — thus following the well-worn idea that youth is wasted upon the young — there is another sense in which youthful experience makes the fullest use of time and yields a density of experience that we cannot experience in later life.

G. B. Shaw was the one who first said, “Youth is wasted on the young.”

The time consciousness of youth, driven by the stream of novelty that is the result of innocence, sharpens and enlarges the smallest events, and thus we see young children sobbing over a ice cream cone that has dropped to the ground, which leaves us, as adults, largely unmoved. We shrug our shoulders and move on. Would that we could experience life with such intensity that an ice cream cone were worth a flood of tears.

There is a sense in which it is counter-intuitive to speak of the intensity of experience of children, since the halcyon days of youth are usually not thought to consist of intensity but rather of carefree indolence, but in the sense outlined above, the innocent lead lives of greater intensity than the jaded.

Innocence wrings every last drop from the passing of time, so that in a condition of innocence there is no moment that is wasted. In maturity, the greater part of time is wasted, until, as Shakespeare noted, having wasted time, time wastes us.

Developmental temporality: the role of play

Developmental psychologists have had much to say about the child’s initial encounters with a recalcitrant world that does not answer to its whims. This initial phase of socialization is also the first loss of innocence, and the first compromise of reflexive temporality. As the consciousness of temporality progresses in the individual, the individual comes to understand that they can cultivate a Cartesian privacy in which fantasies will not be interrupted by the recalcitrant world. Thus reflexive temporality gradually gives way to imaginative temporality, and the spontaneity of the child is displaced from the immediate expression of inner promptings to the inner expression of these promptings by way of imagination. Thus play emerges, and the imaginative temporality of play allows the individual to further develop the inner time consciousness of Cartesian privacy.

Erik Erikson's stages of psycho-social development is one well-known developmental theory.

Play, however, also makes possible a re-discover of reflexive temporality when the childred discovers other children and begins to play with them. The shared, social temporality of play, especially when adults are not present to puncture the illusions generated by imaginative time consciousness, can again converge onto a purely reflexive time consciousness when the child feels free to express their spontaneity among peers who share the form of time consciousness common to this stage in the development of childhood.

Pieter Bruegel, detail from Children's Games, 1560, Oil on oak panel, 118 x 161 cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, Vienna

Play, too, is eventually compromised, as conflicts inevitably emerge from games played with peers, so that the life of the child exhibits a dialectic of shifting between reflexive time consciousness and imaginative time consciousness, which is a shift of the focus of spontaneity from outer life to inner life and back again to outer life. It is the dialectical process that contributes to the further development and reinforcement of an inner time consciousness of Cartesian privacy, which becomes a haven for the individual, wounded by encounters with an unsympathetic world.

Games among children often result in conflicts, and these conflicts teach us early in life that the world is usually not responsive to our will.

All throughout the dialectic of early time consciousness, however, the experience of the child is still marked by innocence, and it is the process of the degradation of innocence that brings about a fully mature time consciousness (if, in fact, this does develop, and its development is not arrested by trauma).

The degradation of innocence and the emergence of mature time consciousness

The degradation of innocence comes about from cumulative experience. Cumulative experience can only be experienced as cumulative with the development of memory, so that the emergence of robust memories is central to the emergence of fully mature time consciousness. However, it is the same process of the emergence of memory that degrades innocence. Memory demonstrates to us the non-novelty of our spontaneity, and as the spontaneity of our internal promptings loses its novelty, it also begins to lose its interest.

As we age, and the depth and breadth of our experience grows, preserved in an improving memory, and our opportunities for experiences of innocence decline proportionately until our capacity approaches zero and we no longer expect or even hope to directly experience innocence again. In the lives of many adults it is their relationships with children that yield whatever vicarious experiences of innocence for which they still retain hope, and so they take pleasure in seeing the world anew through the eyes of another, but there is a melancholy to this because one knows in one’s heart of hearts (as subtle as the distinction may seem to be) that there is a difference between immediate and vicarious experiences of innocence.

And yet (and despite), when we are surprised by an authentic experience of innocence later in life, beyond the bounds of youth, we now experience it from a perspective of maturity, and both its rarity and our capacity to appreciate it make the experience all the more precious. When we are young, everything is new to us, and experiences of innocence are common; experience narrows the scope of innocence until any such experience appears as something completely unexpected, but when it does occur we have the maturity to appreciate the experience that we did not possess in youth.

It is the same innocence that is behind the very different time consciousness of youth compared to maturity. Everyone knows that as you age, time seems to pass ever more quickly, until it flies by and the years scarcely make any impression in their passing. This stands in stark contrast to feelings of endless summers from our childhood that seemed to go on forever, as well as anticipating and waiting for holidays that seemed to take forever to arrive.

The time consciousness we associate will full cognitive modernity is a product of cognitive maturity.

Keeping secrets and Cartesian privacy

Another aspect of the child’s encounter with a recalcitrant world not obedient to his or her wishes is the discovery of the power of secrets. The youngest children, immersed as they are in meso-temporality and observing few if any boundaries between internal spontaneity and external expression, cannot keep a secret. Even if they make an experiment of it, and older children try to let them in on a secret, they will usually blurt it out, and as a consequence are considered untrustworthy. …

The shared confidences of older children, however, especially confidences that exclude adults and their alien forms of time consciousness, become an object of envy for the younger child, who wants to become “grown up” in order to share in these confidences. Thus the younger child makes a conscious effort of will to cultivate inhibitions on his or her spontaneity. Older children will continue to test the younger children for the trustworthiness in keeping secrets, at the behest of the pleading of younger children, initially with small secrets and eventually with larger secrets. When these secrets are successfully kept, the child passes the test, and in passing the tests passes another threshold of maturing time consciousness.

The experimenting and testing of secret-keeping trains the child in the development of his or her Cartesian privacy, which becomes a faculty consciously developed by the individual as an exclusively private reserve from which the world entire. The child discovers that not only may adults be excluded, but that other children can also be excluded from this realm of Cartesian privacy. In this perfectly private space of conscious, purely interior micro-temporal consciousness takes root and begins to grow, and as it grows it contributes progessively more to constitution of individual consciousness.

Shared time, social time, and the world as we find it

One of the most mysterious aspects of personal chemistry between individuals, and that which is perhaps the conditio sine qua non of friendship (whether Platonic or romantic), is the simple fact of shared time. Friendship has its origins in childhood play, but its possibilities are deepened by mature time consciousness. We are able to be friends with those with whom the common passage of time is enjoyable. Play is the first expression of joy in shared time. In adolescence, the shared time begins to take on a more intellectual form as shared time becomes primarily shared conversation. In contemporary colloquial English, this is called “hanging out” or simply “hanging.”

I suspect that everyone, or almost everyone, has experienced among their interaction with acquaintances the fact that, with some combinations of individuals, the two or more parties in question mutually enjoy the passage of time together, while among other combinations of individuals, the two or more parties find the common passing of time together to be irritating, unpleasant, or otherwise unfulfilling. The former is a welcome kind of chemistry, while the latter is an unwelcome (but also inevitable) kind of chemistry.

There are also obvious cases of asymmetry, when one party to the shared passage of time finds the experience rewarding, while another party to the same shared temporal frame of reference finds the experience unrewarding or even odious. Here the temporal frame of reference is identical, but the subjective experience of that shared time is sharply distinct. Such are what Shakespeare called the pangs of despised love.

In my post ecological temporality, in which I developed Urie Bronfenbrenner’s bio-ecological model, specifically expanding and extending the ecological treatment of time, I distinguished levels of temporality parallel to Bronfenbrenner’s distinction between levels of bio-ecology. Thus what Husserl called internal time consciousness I called micro-temporality, and the interaction of micro-temporalities begets meso-temporality.

Meso-temporality is social time, and another way to refer to social time would be to call it shared time. An isolated individual experiences the micro-temporality of internal time consciousness, and simply by being present in an environment experiences a rudimentary level of meso-temporality from the necessary interaction of an organism with its environment (the minimal form of rudimentary meso-temporality involves interaction with an inert environment, as, for example, knocking on a door).

Shared time is facilitated by secret-keeping. The young child who cannot yet keep a secret says things openly that impair social relationships. As children learn more above the social environment in which they find themselves, they learn, under penalty of social exclusion, what must be confined to Cartesian privacy, and what may be openly and freely shared. To blurt out socially inappropriate assertions with no concern for boundaries of privacy — both one’s own privacy as well as the privacy of The Other — is to commit a social faux pas and to risk social exclusion. Being envious of social inclusion, children make an effort to train themselves in the boundaries of polite expression, and in so doing they are forced to cultivate a consciousness of the Cartesian privacy of The Other, which is another important threshold on the way to mature time consciousness. The recognize the Cartesian privacy of the other is to recognize the internal time consciousness of The Other. Thus one’s own emerging micro-temporality is placed in the context of the other’s inferred micro-temporality, which together and jointly constitute social time.

The social time or meso-temporality that emerges from a common temporal frame of reference for two or more individuals possessing internal time consciousness is perhaps distinct from that meso-temporality emergent from the micro-temporality of internal time consciousness in the context of an inert, non-conscious environment. Thus meso-temporality may take a variety of forms. Meso-temporality simpliciter may be taken as the interaction of a micro-temporal agent with its environment. When that environment includes other micro-temporal agents and agents join in common action (or common inaction, for that matter), this is social time or share time. Thus social time is a subdivision of meso-temporality.

The minimum condition for social time is two conscious individuals. Two micro-temporalities functioning in a common frame of temporal reference constitutes the first and simplest level of shared time, though shared time can be augmented with the addition of more conscious individuals and can grow until, for spatio-geographical reasons, a common frame of temporal reference is not longer possible. This meso-temporality that exceeds a common frame of temporality is meso-temporality of a higher order of magnitude, and thus constitutes exo-temporality. The interaction of meso-temporalities yields exo-temporality, which is the usually setting for “history” as this is usually understood. Herodotus and Thucydides write on the level of exo-temporality: the interaction and intersection of particular communities over space (a given geographical region) and time (a given period of history).

Returning to the interaction of micro- and meso-temporalities, we can see from the very different responses that individuals have to shared social time that this “functionality” in a shared temporal frame of reference can function in different ways for different individuals. Even when the shared temporal frame of reference is identical, the micro-temporality of consciousness usually remains clearly distinct from the shared time. That is to say, consciousness usually enjoys Cartesian privacy. This is the point of departure of Husserlian internal time consciousness.

The exceptions to Cartesian privacy occur when an individual agent, even having previously cultivated a sense of Cartesian privacy in the childhood dialectic of reflexive time and imaginative time (which perhaps only becomes possible in the context of fully mature historical consciousness), becomes so fully embedded in a meso-temporal frame of reference that they experience no boundaries between themselves and the other agents present. In shared social time one may be so comfortable in the presence of others that one is as spontaneous in interacting with them as one may be spontaneous with one’s own thoughts in private. This constitutes a (temporary) recovery of the reflexive time consciousness of early childhood.

One way to express this is that a particular subdivision of shared social time is when individuals participating in a common meso-temporal frame of reference experience in common what psychologists call “flow states”, such that the individuals in question can no longer distinguish between their internal time consciousness and the meso-temporality of shared time: the barriers of the self come down, and the individual is lost in the shared world. This would be a particularly intimate form of social time, and is possibly the necessary condition of love. Possibly.

The lost paradise of reflexive time

Why do we seek ideal love? We seek ideal love because it is the temporary recovery of the lost paradise of the purely reflexive temporality — unmindful of boundaries, unmindful of a distinction between self and world, unmindful of any barrier to absolute spontaneity and freedom of expression, unmindful of any social constraint risking social exclusion. Love is the reminder of what we have lost in coming to mature time consciousness, even while knowing what we having gained in terms of cultivated micro-temporality, memory linked both to immediate micro-temporality and enduring self-identity, and an awareness of history and our personal place within history.

Moreover, ideal love in the context of mature time consciousness can exceed or surpass the lost paradise of early childhood’s reflexive temporality, because ideal love can accommodate an authentic awareness of the beloved as other, as possessing its own Cartesian privacy and its own micro-temporality. To love the other in full awareness of their otherness is a more profound species of shared social temporality, and with this profundity comes depth of feeling that did not exist and could not exist in childhood. It has been said that a woman’s heart is a ocean of secrets, and perhaps we need not even superadd a qualification of gender to this poetic truth. Shared secrets, withheld from the rest of the world, can be among the most powerful form of shared social temporality, and it is the power of these experiences that moves us (i.e., we experience the sublime) and thus generates profound awareness of the other and depth of feeling in one’s relationship to The Other.

However, love disappoints more often than it satisfies, so that our tentative reaching out to the world in search of love becomes an experiment that is disconfirmed more often than it is confirmed. And even when love satisfies, it rarely endures. Some retreat within themselves, when the pangs of despised love are too powerful, while others, unable to forget the ideal of the lost paradise, continue to seek, and are in rare moments rewarded for their efforts.

The phylogeny of time

The origin of non-human time, of objective time, is the proper concern of the phylogeny of time. Of course, ontogeny and phylogeny are intimately interconnected, and we may even speculate on a temporal recapitulation in which temporal ontogeny recapitulates temporal phylogeny, but I will not pursue this further in the present context.

In terms of the origins of time, or, rather the origins of human time consciousness, interaction with other agents within an environment — i.e., meso-temporality — almost certainly preceded the emergence of self-aware micro-temporality, just as meso-temporal interaction almost certainly preceded those larger temporal formations such as exo-temporality and macro-temporality.

Macro-temporality emerges even later, in terms of specifically human macro-temorality. Before humanity knew itself as a whole (on which cf. the quote from George Friedman that I cited in Humanity as One) we did not know ourselves as a whole either in space or time. It is only with the emergence of human self-knowledge of our species as a whole in time that macro-temporality emerges, and this cannot happen until a fully naturalistic account of human origins emerges with Darwin.

The internal time consciousness of Cartesian privacy emerges from cognitive modernity, much as does historical consciousness. There is a sense in which internal time consciousness is historical consciousness of the self, while historical consciousness is the internal time consciousness of history. Both represent temporal consciousness of a greater order of magnitude than the interactions of meso-temporality. This is another interesting idea that I will not pursue further at present, but which deserves independent exposition.

Cosmological and relativistic time

Objective conceptions of time rooted in mathematics, physics, cosmology, and the natural sciences can be formulated without reference to human time, much less to the structures of micro- and meso-temporality that constitute the greater part of the ordinary business of life. However, science, as a human undertaking, retains its relevance to the human agents who are responsible for the constitute of objective, natural time.

In fact, we run into difficulties when we attempt to formulate a doctrine of time too far removed from human experience, precisely because human experience has been responsible for science, and the truths of science must ultimately be redeemed in human experience.

One is immediately put in mind, in this context, of Newton’s famous formulation from his Principia:

“Absolute, true, and mathematical time, of itself, and from its own nature, flows equably without relation to anything external, and by another name is called duration: relative, apparent, and common time, is some sensible and external (whether accurate or unequable) measure of duration by the means of motion, which is commonly used instead of true time; such as an hour, a day, a month, a year.”

Newton implies that human measures of time such as “an hour, a day, a month, a year,” are untrue, because only mathematical time is true time, but Newton’s categories of “relative, apparent, and common time,” are in fact quantitative measures of time in natural history which can be studied and defined with the utmost precision by natural science. Time measurements of a day, a month, and a year are rooted in astronomical events that constitute some of humanity’s first and earliest scientific knowledge. Had Newton gone in the other direction in the litany of apparent time, listing instead “an hour, a minute, a second, …” he would have approached the punctiform present and therefore the ideal limit of micro-temporality.

Despite the relativity of simultaneity that isolates us from the temporality of other dynamic systems independent of our own, there is a sense in which human temporal categories seem to me to retain their relevance throughout the cosmos today — at very least, just because human beings are an interested party in the universe at present — in a way that I do not feel human temporal categories to be relevant to very early cosmological history or to the far flung future of cosmological history.

One way to formulate this would be to put it in the context of the divisions of cosmological history propounded in The Five Ages of the Universe. We live today in the Stelliferous Era, i.e., the Age of Stars. Before the Stelliferous Era came the Primordial Era, which includes the Big Bang, expansion, inflation, and consists in large part of subatomic particles that have not yet congealed into familiar elements and structures. After the Stelliferous Era come the Degenerate Era, the Black Hole Era, and the Dark Era, after the stars have burned themselves out and the cosmos goes dark again. This is a classic scenario of cosmological eschatology based on heat death due to entropy.

Human measures of time seem meaningless at the quantum and subatomic scale of the early universe, and these same measures seem equally meaningless at the vast time scales of the universe as it steadily runs down in entropic heat death. Yet, at the present, anthropocentric time scales seem relevant to the universe entire as we know it today (relevant, though not by any means necessary or even privileged), although most of the universe is beyond any meaningful relation to specifically human time, and will remain so.

One justification for the feeling (which I readily admit is my own prejudiced intuition, and I claim no validity for it beyond that) that anthropocentric temporal categories apply throughout the Stelliferous Era is that life as we know it is possible throughout the Stelliferous Era, while life as we know it is not possible during the Primordial Era or during the Degenerate Era or after.

The possibility of life as we know it throughout the Stelliferous Era means the possibility of other species emergent from other solar systems, other planets, other biospheres, and other sentient species emergent from a parallel biological context, functioning according to the same natural laws that govern our world, our bodies, and our minds, means that an approximately anthropocentric (although technically xenocentric) time consciousness exists elsewhere in the Stelliferous Era, and is perhaps pervasive throughout it.

Objective micro-temporality

Although the categories of human time seem irrelevant to either the earliest stages of the universe immediately following the big bang, and perhaps also to the largest structures of space andtime, the “cosmic soup” of the early universe is recognizably a form of micro-temporality, even if it is not microtemporality at the same level of human micro-temporality. Moreover, the micro-temporality of pre- and sub-atomic particles prior to the precipitation of universe from the coalescence of ordinary elements is another paradigmatic instance of meso-temporality: the particles interact, and they can only come together and coalesce into the world we know and love by coming together.

The temporality of the early universe thus closely parallels the temporality of the ontogeny of time in the individual, in so far as the individual’s micro-temporality is always constituted jointly by the meso-temporality of the shared milieu in which the individual finds himself or herself. The micro-temporality of the individual particles of the early cosmic soup is crucially dependent upon the milieu of interacting particles, which is a meso-temporal milieu.

Larger structures of cosmological time — objective exo-temporality, objective macro-temporality, and objective metaphysical temporality — only come above in the fullness of time — lots of time — as the universe matures and new spatio-temporal structures emerge. As novel physical structures emerge, there necessarily emerges an interaction of these larger structures with smaller structures and with other larger structures, and these interactions of ever-increasing size produce the higher levels of objective ecological temporality.

Closing speculation

As ever-larger temporal structures emerge from a universe consolidating its structure, and ever-larger temporal structures emerge from the maturation of human consciousness, these objective and human forms of ecological temporality converge. It would be very difficult to demonstrate a close parallelism between the micro-temporality of consciousness and the micro-temporality of fundamental particles, but in the increasingly more comprehensive temporal categories of ecological temporality the chasm between the two becomes less marked.

At the level of macro-temporality, it is not difficult to see the convergence of human time and objective time, since human life and human civilizations are shaped by macroscopic forces such as geography, and geography is a local expression of cosmology. A human civilization that emerges from its planet-bound condition and asserts itself on a cosmological scale would constitute human beings living on a macro-historical level, and to do so would demand the emergence and cultivation of macro-temporal consciousness.

It may be only at the level of metaphysical temporality (which I also call metaphysical history) that there can be a full convergence of human time and objective time, so that that two ultimately become indistinguishable and therefore one. This may be the ultimate telos of civilization: to establish an identity with the universe at large.

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I have had a little more to say on the above in Addendum on the Origins of Time.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Second in a Series

In The Fundamental Theorem of Geopolitical Thought I began to sketch a theoretical geopolitics. There I identified the fundamental theorem of geopolitical thought as being that human agency is constrained by geography.

Today I move beyond the fundamental theorem, which I attempted to justify in narrative terms in my previous post, to what I will call the Second Law of Geopolitical Thought:

The scope of human agency defines a center, beyond which lies a periphery in which human agency is marginal.

If the reader has had the opportunity to look at my Agent-Centered Metaphysics post, as well as a great many other posts in a similar vein, that reader will understand the centrality of agency in my thought. Such a reader might also be not be surprised that I would like to formulate a conception of agency based on what I call metaphysical ecology and ecological temporality, since that has become (of late) a consistent touchstone for me.

For a quick review, I have adopted and adapted Urie Bronfenbrenner’s bioecological model formulated within the social sciences, taking it over for my own purposes and modifying it as I please. To that end, I take the first four stages of Bronfenbrenner’s ecological model — the micro-system, meso-system, exo-system, and macro-system — while separating Bronfenbrenner’s chronosystem apart, setting it to one side, and supplementing these initial four degrees of ecology with a fifth stage, which I call metaphysical ecology. Then I extrapolate the chronosystem eo ipso, according to the principles of Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory, by which I arrive at micro-temporality, meso-temporality, exo-temporality, macro-temporality, and metaphysical temporality (or, if you will, metaphysical history — which is sort of where I began, except that I used to call it integral history). Finally, I noted that metaphysical ecology and ecological temporality are each alternative formulations of the other, one (ecological) in terms of a synchronic perspective, and the other (temporal) in terms of a diachronic perspective. Clear enough? Very good.

Human agency, then, is to be understood as ecological agency, which we can formulate either in terms of metaphysical ecology (if we are thinking in primarily spatial or systematic terms) or in terms of ecological temporality (if we are thinking primarily in terms of time, history, and eternity).

Thus the reader familiar with my thinking on these matters can obviously formulate the next step, which is the delineation of ecological agency in terms of:

● micro-agency

● meso-agency

● exo-agency

● macro-agency

● metaphyscial agency

The micro-agency of the individual is circumscribed by the individual’s immediate location and the other objects in the immediate vicinity with which the individual can interact. Considered in temporal terms, the micro-agency of the individual is that individual’s temporal now (the punctiform present) by which the individual is continuously circumscribed. This is the most restrictive and narrow sense of human agency, and according to the Second Law of Geopolitical Thought, this narrow sense of human agency defines a center, beyond which lies a periphery in which human micro-agency holds little or no sway.

A more realistic model of multiple centers and overlapping peripheries. Beyond this spatial model, one ought also to imagine multiple centers and overlapping peripheries in time.

This reflection immediately leads us to the obvious consequence that there are distinct centers based upon metaphysical ecology and ecological temporality, as follows:

● the micro-center beyond which lies the meso-ecological periphery and more.

● the meso-center beyond which lies the exo-ecological periphery and more.

● the exo-center beyond which lies the macro-ecological and metaphysical periphery,

● the macro-center beyond which lies the metaphysical periphery, and…

● the metaphyscial center beyond which lies nothing, because this is the most comprehensive category, short of the whole structure of metaphysical ecology itself, which includes all levels and their interaction with every other level.

Are you still with me? Good. There’s more. The periphery is always the complement of the center, i.e., it is the remainder of metaphysical ecology once we take away the center. That means the periphery is always larger and more comprehensive than the center. Therein lies the paradoxical key to much geopolitics: the center is privileged, because it is the locus of some level of human agency, but is still relatively narrow and relatively small. The bulk of life lies outside the center. One obvious aspect of this geopolitical deduction relates to what I have recently written about political elites in Limits to Social Mobility: the bulk of the life of the nation lies outside the narrow class of political elites who possess the institutional agency that allows them to act as meso-agents, exo-agents, macro-agents, and (even occasionally) as metaphysical agents.

I wrote above in the delineation of the metaphysical center that this is the most comprehensive ecological category and therefore excludes nothing. However — and this is an important however, also noted above — the metaphysical level of ecology is distinct from the whole structure of metaphysical ecology taken together with its ecological structures linking it to all other levels, so that the metaphysical center alone, or the metaphysical agent who acts metaphysically and therefore initiates metaphysical change, is also, in a sense, narrow, constrained, and limited.

Generally speaking (though with an important exception noted next, as well as in the next paragraph), individual agency is micro-agency, and can affect little beyond the micro-center. In a Hobbesian Leviathan, in which the members of a commonwealth utterly surrender their rights to a sovereign in order to enjoy his protection, the sovereign comes into possession of meso-agency, exo-agency, and sometimes even macro-agency (say, in the case of some Roman or Chinese emperors). The individual who thus possesses the office of sovereign, wields power far beyond the individual’s micro-agency. However, it is interesting to note that these midrange levels of agency can be quite powerless at lower levels: a government can pass a law, but individuals reserve the right to violate that law within the scope of their micro-agency. Unless there is an agent of the sovereign present (say, a soldier or a police officer), meso- and exo-agency are powerless to affect the outcome (as meso- and exo-agency). Moreover, it is only at the level of the micro-agency of the soldier or the police officer that the micro-agent’s defiance of the law can be effectively addressed.

It is one of the supreme ironies of ecological structures — systems, time, agents, centers, and so forth — that it is most often the individual agent, acting only on the recognizance of his own micro-agency, who effects metaphysical change and there is therefore transformed into a metaphysical agent (and thereby exemplifying the heroic conception of civilization, I might add). This metaphysical agency of the individual will, in la longue durée, percolate down through the levels of metaphysical ecology, ultimately changing the very terms on which meso-, exo-, and macro-agency is exercised.

Continuing this line of thought, our ecological conceptions need to be supplemented by temporal conceptions, and so we could also define temporal centers and peripheries corresponding to each ecological level. I will leave a further exposition of this idea to a later date, or the reader can work it out as an exercise. Intuitively I can see that there is something here that requires some serious thinking to sort out, and that is why I will not attempt to elaborate this at present.

Previously I gave an exposition of centers and peripheries in The Farther Reaches of Civilization, but when I wrote that I had not yet formulated the above ideas of the Second Law of Geopolitical Thought or ecological agency or ecological centers and peripheries. Now that I posses this more comprehensive conceptual infrastructure, in the fullness of time I can return to the themes of centers and peripheries in a more systematic and rigorous fashion, perhaps even incorporating an adequate doctrine of temporal centers and peripheries, as suggested above.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Dated futurism is one of my guilty pleasures, and I have written about this previously in A Hundred Years of Futurism. Recently I’ve been reading a number of mid-twentieth century futurist works for some research I am doing. These are not the wide-eyed adolescent takes on the future, but intended to be sober analyses of what one book calls The Most Probable World. This is a project in the spirit of George Friedman’s The Next 100 Years, which I have discussed several times (cf. Ecological Succession in Cultural Geography).

The wide-eyed enthusiasm for possible futures is pure fun, but the serious attempts to try to understand a likely future constitute futurism of another order, and it deserves to be treated separately, if only because of the intentions of the author. While the science fiction scenarios have sometimes come closer to the truth than some overly-serious attempts to futurism (the latter at times approaching self-parody), this kind of nearly-chance correspondence bears some resemblance to the Gettier paradox, which can be intuitively understood as the fact that a non-functioning clock is precisely correct twice a day, but when a stopped clock is correct in indicating the time, it is not correct for the right reason.

Some of these “serious” (for lack of a better term) works of futurism are more sociological than futurist in character, and can only be called futurist in virtue of their discussion of present trends with a strong implication that the trend under discussion will be a central thread in the developments of the immediate future. In this sense, the sort of sober “futurist” works to which I am here referring needn’t even mention the future or prediction. The future is understood to be embodied in the pregnant present, if only we can recognize the inchoate future in embryo.

I would like to suggest that these works of sober futurism are distinct from works of enthusiasm because they are based on a method, however imperfectly put into practice, and this is the method of the historical a priori imagination. In several previous posts I have had occasion to refer to R. G. Collingwood’s conception of the historical a priori imagination. This is given in the Epilogomena to his The Idea of History, as follows:

“I have already remarked that, in addition to selecting from among his authorities’ statements those which he regards as important, the historian must in two ways go beyond what his authorities tell him. One is the critical way, and this is what Bradley has attempted to analyse. The other is the constructive way. Of this he has said nothing, and to this I now propose to return. I described constructive history as interpolating, between the statements borrowed from our authorities, other statements implied by them. Thus our authorities tell us that on one day Caesar was in Rome and on a later day in Gaul ; they tell us nothing about his journey from one place to the other, but we interpolate this with a perfectly good conscience.”

“This act of interpolation has two significant characteristics. First, it is in no way arbitrary or merely fanciful: it is necessary or, in Kantian language, a priori. If we filled up the narrative of Caesar’s doings with fanciful details such as the names of the persons he met on the way, and what he said to them, the construction would be arbitrary: it would be in fact the kind of construction which is done by an historical novelist. But if our construction involves nothing that is not necessitated by the evidence, it is a legitimate historical construction of a kind without which there can be no history at all.”

“Secondly, what is in this way inferred is essentially something imagined. If we look out over the sea and perceive a ship, and five minutes later look again and perceive it in a different place, we find ourselves obliged to imagine it as having occupied intermediate positions when we were not looking. That is already an example of historical thinking ; and it is not otherwise that we find ourselves obliged to imagine Caesar as having travelled from Rome to Gaul when we are told that he was in these different places at these successive times.”

“This activity, with this double character, I shall call a priori imagination; and, though I shall have more to say of it hereafter, for the present I shall be content to remark that, however unconscious we may be of its operation, it is this activity which, bridging the gaps between what our authorities tell us, gives the historical narrative or description its continuity. That the historian must use his imagination is a commonplace; to quote Macaulay’s Essay on History, ‘a perfect historian must possess an imagination sufficiently powerful to make his narrative affecting and picturesque’; but this is to underestimate the part played by the historical imagination, which is properly not ornamental but structural. Without it the historian would have no narrative to adorn. The imagination, that ‘blind but indispensable faculty’ without which, as Kant has shown, we could never perceive the world around us, is indispensable in the same way to history: it is this which, operating not capriciously as fancy but in its a priori form, does the entire work of historical construction.”

The Idea of History, Epilegomena: 2: The Historical Imagination, R. G. Collingwood, Oxford: Oxford University Press (1946)

This is more than I have quoted from Collingwood previously, because I wanted to give a better sense of his exposition. Collingwood calls his method “constructive” (in contradistinction to being “analytic”), but from a formal point of view it is the antithesis of constructive, it is a non-constructive inference of what must be, made on the basis of what is known to be the case.

But I think that Collingwood wanted to call his method “constructive” because he wanted to bring attention to the essentially conservative and traditional aspect of historical thought that he felt himself to be describing. It is one of the remarkable aspects of Collingwood’s conception that it is both metaphysically bold and methodologically conservative. As Collingwood notes, we have no scruples in deducing that when Caesar traveled from Rome to Gaul that he covered the intervening geographical region. This is, in a sense, a necessary truth, and in so far as it is a necessary truth, it is an a priori truth — furnished by imagination.

In works of history, we can make logical deductions as to what must have happened on the basis of connecting two points in history separated by the discrete period of time. In works of futurism, we cannot do this. We have only one point at which the facts are know, and this is the present. And often the present is known far more imperfectly than we would like to admit. As time passes, and we learn more and more about the past, we realize how little we knew of the present when it was in fact present.

Thus futurism labors under a double burden of knowing only half of what is needed to logically extrapolate the historical a priori imaginative narrative, as well as knowing this half highly imperfectly. Despite these substantial handicaps, we can still stand on the firm ground of methodological naturalism in making necessary deductions about the future.

We know that the future must follow from the present as the present has followed from the past. We know furthermore that there will be some future, and that it will be filled with some content, even if we don’t know what that content is. This makes futurism profoundly non-constructive.

Beyond these logical deductions from the very structure of time itself, we know empirically and inductively that things never quite develop as we expect things to develop, meaning that trends that seem to be important in the present often come to nothing, while world-historical events often seem to emerge suddenly if not violently from subtle trends in the present that are often evident only in hindsight.

A better appreciation of non-constructivism as a method of formal reasoning, as well as of subtle trends in the present that are neglected in favor of more obvious trends, would give us a better picture of the content of history that will shape the future. Both of these are highly difficult intellectual undertakings. Despite the fact (which you will know if you are familiar with the literature of formal reasoning) that constructivism is considered a marginal if not ideological mode of thought, I find it remarkable that constructivism has been given several systematic expositions, for example, in the work of Brouwer, Heyting, Dummett, and Beeson, among many others, while non-constructivism, the default form of formal reasoning that makes no special stipulations, has been given no explicit formulation. This is an ellipsis that not only is felt in formal thought, but as we can see here is also felt in historical thought.

As for the empirical and inductive dimension of futurism, a thorough and dispassionate survey of the present, undertaken in a frame of mind informed by parallels with past neglected trends, might reveal a number of threads of historical trends in the present which might hold the key to unexpected developments in the future.

While futurism remains marginal, it is not beyond hope in being given a firmer intellectual basis than it has enjoyed to date. What I have suggested above may be taken as a research program for putting futurism on a more solid footing.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Narrative can save your life: Scheherazade held the Sultan at a plot point each night and so gained for herself a reprieve to the next day.

In Metaphysical Ecology I introduced a more comprehensive treatment of time into Urie Bronfenbrenner’s bioecological systems theory. I further extended and refined this metaphysical temporality in Ecological Temporality, and I applied this ecological temporality to the mind in The Temporal Ecology of Mind.

In several posts I have have occasion to comment on the prominent role that the idea of narrative has in contemporary thought. I especially developed this theme in The Totemic Paradigm, in which I contrasted what Walter Fisher in his influential book Human Communication as Narration: Toward a Philosophy of Reason, Value, and Action called the narrative paradigm. While I don’t wish to impugn or belittle Fisher’s conception of the centrality of the narrative paradigm in human affairs, I simply wished to demonstrate that the narrative paradigm alone is not sufficient to understand the forms of human consciousness that have emerged in history.

Now that I have had the occasion to give an exposition to what I call metaphysical ecology and ecological temporality, I can offer a more detailed account of the place of narrative in human civilization.

What my formulations of ecological temporality have made clear to me is that the world functions on several temporal levels, and in so far as the mind that is part of the world reflects the world, the mind too functions on several temporal levels.

An entire metaphysic could be constructed on the interesting consequences for the philosophy of mind from the interactions of the ecological levels of the world with the ecological levels of the world as reflected in the mind, but at present I only want to point out something much simpler. And it is this: the world as we know it consists of many narratives running in parallel at different levels of ecological temporality.

The ecological levels of narrative follow the schema of ecological temporality:

Micro-temporality: stories of the temporal setting of individual consciousness. The perfect exemplar of this is the “stream of consciousness” technique in literature.

Meso-temporality: stories of relations between micro-temporalities or connections between temporal contexts. More obviously, these are stories of social time, and this is the most common format of storytelling. Almost all traditional story telling, including mythology and fables fall into this category. Aesop’s fables are stories set in social time, though the agents are animals rather than human beings. The distinctive thing about mythology is that stories of metaphysical history are given concrete meaning and even individual personality by embodying ideas in particular persons (or heroes or gods) and setting this stories in social time.

Exo-temporality: Stories of links between a temporal setting in which the individual does not have an active role and the individual’s immediate temporal context. These are stories in which the individual strikes out beyond the familiar. Many heroic narratives take this form.

Macro-temporality: Stories of the historical era in which individuals live, which can reach from eras of human history through the life of entire civilizations and beyond to the greatest expanses of time investigated by natural science.

Metaphysical temporality: Stories of the whole of metaphysical history in which the individual and other lesser temporalities (Meso-temporality, Exo-temporality, and Macro-temporality) are embedded. Mythological stories are indirectly (by way of meso-temporal stories) narratives set in metaphysical temporality. Cosmogonies, religious cosmologies, and philosophical narratives of the world entire take place in metaphysical time.

These many stories overlap and intersect like Wittgensteinian family resemblances. While in some cases these stories can be isolated and are independent of all other stories, and of stories on another levels of narrative temporality, more often the stories touch on each other, if only tangentially. The traditional intertextuality of some literary genres — Aurthurian romances, for example, which have borrowed heavily from each other, sometimes taking characters, sometimes scenes, and sometimes entire stories or cycles of stories and re-telling them — can exploit this tangential relationship among stories in order to enrich the world of the storyteller, so that like walking through an Gothic cathedral the rich ornamentation might catch your interest at any point and lead you in a new direction if you allow yourself to be so distracted.

It is entirely possible that an individual might entertain, at one and the same time, a narrative of their own consciousness, a different narrative of the immediate social situation in which they find themselves, another narrative that tells the story of how distinct societies interrelate (over both time and space), a narrative unique to the great sweeps of historical time, and lastly another narrative, an eschatological narrative perhaps, that encompasses the whole of all the preceding even while going beyond it, i.e., a narrative of eternity. These stories do not contradict each other because each takes place at a different level of ecological temporality, and this gives us a structure in which to organize the different narratives employed to encompass the world.

It would be an interesting exercise to offer an exposition of these differing narratives of ecological temporality based on the work of Hayden White (especially his book Metahistory). Those who are familiar with White’s work on narrative will immediate see how complex this task would be, as White makes a number of subtle distinctions among the literary tropes employed to tell a story (especially the stories of history). I will leave this to any other interested party who cares to take up the challenge.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Fernand Braudel

Fernand Braudel

In what I have come to call Metaphysical Ecology I took Bronfenbrenner’s bio-social ecology, extended it, and applied it to time, yielding what I call Ecological Temporality. I then applied ecological temporality to the philosophy of mind in The Temporal Ecology of Mind. There are many potential applications of ecological temporality that I hope to spell out in future posts.

Darren Staloff

Today I was listening once again to Darren Staloff’s lectures The Search for a Meaningful Past, from The Teaching Company. Unfortunately, The Teaching Company has discontinued this title, though it is certainly among the most rigorous and detailed of the philosophy titles that The Teaching Company offered. Knowing how much I enjoyed this, and knowing that it is no longer available, I bought a second, used copy for myself through Amazon. It was because I just received this “back up” copy that I have been listening through it again.

In this most recent listening I realized that the different levels of time that Fernand Braudel recognized in his historiography — the history of the event, the history of cycles, or conjunctures, and the history of the longue durée — and which he especially lays out in his essay “History and the Social Sciences,” collected in his On History, can be given an exposition in terms of ecological temporality.

The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, Vol. 1

Braudel’s tripartite division of historical time scales roughly corresponds to the short term, the medium term, and the long term. Braudel wrote:

“All historical work is concerned with breaking down time past, choosing among its chronological realities according to more or less conscious preferences and exclusions. Traditional history, with its concern for the short time span, for the individual and the event, has long accustomed us to the headlong, dramatic, breathless rush of its narrative.”

Fernand Braudel, On History, “History and the Social Sciences,” University of Chicago Press, 1980, p. 27

This assertion must be seen not only in the context of Braudel’s own concern for the long time span, the longue durée, but also in the context of a famous passage of his that I have quoted on several occasions:

Events are the ephemera of history; they pass across its stage like fireflies, hardly glimpsed before they settle back into darkness and as often as not into oblivion.

Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, Volume 2, Part Three: Event, Politics and People, p. 901

For Braudel, the choice of the longue durée “according to more or less conscious preferences and exclusions” is a choice to be concerned with what is permanent rather than what is ephemeral. Taken to its logical extreme, the structuralist conception of history becomes what I have called a top-down temporal model. However, we need not extrapolate the doctrines of structuralism to their logical extremes, but can rest in a middle ground. One way to do this would be to integrate the structuralist perspective into a ecological structure emphasizing the interaction of temporal orders of magnitude.

Braudel’s tripartite distinction can be (perhaps imperfectly) assimilated to ecological temporality by identifying the short term history of the event with meso-temporality (the social time that is the interaction of individuals experiencing micro-temporality), identifying the history of conjunctures with exo-temporality (temporal interactions on the level of discrete social systems or dynamical systems), and identifying the longue durée of classic structuralist historiography with macro-temporality. In this ecological schematization of Braudelian temporal categories, Braudel does not recognize a history of internal time consciousness (perhaps that would be relegated to psychology), and he does not go as far as metaphysical temporality (no historian any traditional sense of the term does go this far).

If the history of events is ephemeral and disappears into oblivion as soon as it is glimpsed, from the point of view of metaphysical history, the longue durée no less disappears into oblivion, it just takes longer for this to happen. And the longue durée would count for nothing, indeed would not exist, if it did not descend into the individual consciousness, and if the individual consciousness in turn did not impart its fragment of temporality to the turning world.

In Braudelian terms, the history of the event flows into the conjuncture, and the conjuncture flows into the longue durée, just as the longue durée shapes the conjuncture, as the conjuncture shapes the history of the event.

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I’ve given another take on Darren Staloff’s lectures The Search for a Meaningful Past in If I Lectured on the Philosophy of History…

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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 follows is a reformulated version of my Integral Ecology post, rewritten to conform to the changed terminology that I adopted in my post Metaphysical Ecology.

I have substantially expanded on some of the ideas below in a further post, Ecological Temporality. .

Food webs are basic structures of ecology, with the latter understood in specifically biological sense.

On the Extension of Concepts and Ecology sensu stricto

In this forum I have had occasion to attempt the extension of some familiar concepts, as in order to achieve an understanding of the most abstract, general, and comprehensive features of the world and our experience of the world we must transcend the strictly parochial and particular origins of our ideas in limited and local circumstances and re-define our concepts without reference to anything specific or particular. Such extended concepts involve a transition from the practical and the scientific to the abstract and the philosophical. /span>

I count this conceptual development as part of the Copernican Revolution, which usually takes the form of seeking non-anthropocentric formulations of ideas with anthropocentric origins. In this spirit I have suggested that a conception of metaphysical history can be drawn out of traditional historiography. (I have further formulations in the same spirit that I plan to make available in the fullness of time.)

Since man does not live by bread alone, the bio-ecological structures of human experience involve more factors than the food web illustrated above.

In the same spirit of what I have called metaphysical history I would now like to introduce the idea of metaphysical ecology as an extension, expansion, extrapolation, and generalization of ecology as the term is usually understood and employed. That is to say, metaphysical ecology is a philosophical ecology, in which we have passed from the concrete, scientific conceptions of ecology in the narrow sense to the abstract, philosophical conceptions of ecology in a philosophical sense. /span>

Firstly, I want to briefly consider what ecology has meant heretofore. What is ecology in its initially narrow meaning? What is ecology sensu stricto? There has been some lack of precision in the definition of ecology, so these definitions have lacked the formal exactitude that one might expect (or hope) from the biological sciences. Nevertheless, there have been enlightening even if not formal definitions of ecology.

Another biologically specific conception of ecology.

Ecology, unlike traditional history, is not a specifically anthropocentric concept. On the contrary, a narrow definition of ecology is admirably non-anthropocentric. For example, here is the first sentence of What is Ecology?:

“Ecology is concerned with the relationships between plants and animals and the environment in which they live.”

What is Ecology? D. F. Owen, Oxford University Press, 1974, p. 1

This definition is biologically specific and not anthropocentric, so the primary task of extending and expanding our conception of ecology is not one of disposing with anthropocentric prejudices but of formulating a definition of ecology that is not specifically biological.

A generalization of ecological thinking to cosmology: galactic ecology.

A somewhat more comprehensive definition of ecology can be found at the Biology Online website:

(1) Ecological science: the science concerned with the interactions of living organisms with each other and with their environment, also called bionomics.

(2) A branch of biology that deals with the distribution, abundance and interactions of living organisms at the level of communities, populations, and ecosystems, as well as at the global scale.

(2) The system within the environment as it relates to organisms living in it.

(3) A branch of sociology that deals with the relations of human beings with their physical and social environment, also called as human ecology.

This definition of ecology includes the extended sense of ecology employed by Urie Bronfrenbrenner, which we will consider in more detail below, because Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory (sometimes called the bio-ecological model) represents an extant generalization of ecology.

Most intriguingly among the traditional definitions of ecology, there is Ernst Haeckel’s definition of ecology as the science of the struggle for existence. (There is a wonderful discussion of this in The Science of the Struggle for Existence: On the Foundations of Ecology by Gregory J. Cooper, one volume in the series Cambridge Studies in Philosophy and Biology; all of the volumes of this series are of the greatest interest.) Here is Haeckel’s definition of the discipline he himself founded:

“By ecology we mean the body of knowledge concerning the economy of nature — the investigation of the total relations of the animal both to its inorganic and to its organic environment; including, above all, its friendly and inimical relations with those animals and plants with which it comes directly or indirectly into contract — in a word, ecology is the study of all those complex interrelations referred to by Darwin as the conditions of the struggle for existence.”

Haeckel was the one who introduced the concept of ecology, so his definition is of particular interest. While it is expressed in a nineteenth century idiom that is redolent of the idea of “Nature, red in tooth and claw” (as Tennyson saw it), Haeckel’s definition of ecology will prove suggestive in a formulation of battlespace in terms of metaphysical ecology. Although Haeckel’s intriguing definition of ecology was not Bronfenbrenner’s point of departure for a generalization of ecology, I mention it here because I will return to it below.

Introducing the Concept of Metaphysical Ecology

In its most common signification, ecology is narrowly biological in conception. The reference to the inorganic context of life is there only because life always occurs in an inorganic context. Life is the focus. Bronfenbrenner’s exposition of bio-ecology, or ecological systems theory, represents a significant generalization of the concept of ecology, and this generalization requires that we arrive at an abstract conception of ecology in order to understand its relevance to non-specifically biological subject matter. What is the implied abstract conception of ecology? I call the implied conception metaphysical ecology.

The extension of the idea of ecology already pursued to date has been formulated in the context of the fields of social work and psychotherapy by Urie Bronfenbrenner, especially in his book The Ecology of Human Development: Experiments by Nature and Design (Cambridge, MA., 1979). This is a systematic exposition of what he calls ecological systems theory, which systematically places individuals within progressively more comprehensive and inter-related social structures.

Bronfenbrenner formulated the following bioecological categories:

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.

The Chronosystem: The patterning of environmental events and transitions over the life course, as well as sociohistorical circumstances.

Since I already have a conception of metaphysical history that accounts for “events and transitions over the life course,” I would eliminate the category of chronosystem from the subdivisions of bio-ecology, leave open the litany of bio-ecological categories for the possibility of yet more comprehensive formulations (e.g., larger social constructs than cultures, such as civilizations), and further articulate Bronfenbrenner’s singular chronosystem as metaphysical history by formulating its subdivisions on a similar plan to that of ecological systems theory, something like this:

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 temporalities are embedded.

This in turn suggests a further extrapolation of bio-ecological categories in place of Bronfenbrenner’s chronosystem:

Metaphysical system (or Metaphysical Ecology): Ultimately, the metaphysical system as the furthest extrapolation of bio-ecology is co-extensive with metaphysical ecology. 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.

With this revision in mind, I would lay out Bronfenbrenner’s schema of bio-ecological categories as follows:

The Micro-system

The Meso-system

The Exosystem

The Macrosystem

The Metaphysical System

As I noted above, Bronfenbrenner does not take as his point of departure Haeckel’s definition of ecology as the science of the struggle for existence, and then proceed to extend and expand this definition. I would like to suggest re-thinking Bronfenbrenner’s bio-ecological systems theory in terms of Haeckel’s definition, because in this case bio-ecology becomes an extension and expansion of the struggle for existence. When we think of ecology from a point of view of its extrapolation to a completely comprehensive conception of metaphysical ecology, Haeckel’s definition remains valid — even at its most comprehensive level of metaphysical ecology, ecology is still about the struggle for existence — and so we see in retrospect that Haeckel himself had a highly abstract and comprehensive conception of ecology. This suggests the possibility of the application of integral of ecology to human struggles in the form of war.

From Battlefield to Battlespace

The earliest known battles of human history, which followed upon the emergence of settled agricultural societies, literally took place in open fields; there was, from the beginnings of conflict organized under the auspices of civilization, a field of battle, so that the term battlefield was literal. Over time, and with the increasing sophistication and complexity of civilization, battle also became more sophisticated and complex.

The war chariot was a game-changing weapons system of early human history, but optimal use of chariots required a flat and level battlefield.

Col. T. N. Dupuy wrote of the physical terrain of battle in early warfare:

“The phalanx and its individual units were capable of limited maneuvers in combat formation. In battle the invariable deployment was a long, solid line with narrow intervals through which the psiloi — light troops — could pass. Battle was waged — usually by mutual accord — on the flattest ground available, since movement over rough ground created gaps that could be fatal to the cohesion of the formation.”

The Evolution of Weapons and Warfare, Colonel T. N. Dupuy, Indianapolis and New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1980, p. 11

This is attested in ancient sources, as, for example, in Book 7 of The Histories Herodotus quotes the Persian Mardonius as saying to his king:

“…the Greeks are pugnacious enough, and start fights on the spur of the moment without sense or judgement to justify them. When they declare war on each other, they go off together to the smoothest and levelest bit of ground they can find, and have their battle on it — with the result the even the victors never get off without heavy losses, and as for the losers — well, they’re wiped out.”

The chariot also experienced its optimal operations on flat, level ground, and while there was, as Dupuy notes, a social consensus to fight battles on wide, level fields — not unlike the parade ground upon which such soldiers would have been drilled — there were also instances in antiquity of armies denying flat, level ground to forces that required such conditions for optimal operationality. The perpetually open flank of a battle fought in wide and open country also established norms for the order of battle that were impracticable in forests, jungles, mountains, and other forms of difficult terrain that would figure more prominently in the later history of war.

The efficacy of the phalanx formation in battle demanded a high degree of drill so that the whole column could move as one. This worked best on flat and level ground, making the battlefield (understood literally) its optimal theater of operations.

When, after the Industrial Revolution, war was also industrialized, and the world experienced its first great industrialized war with the First World War (the “proof of concept” of industrialized war), battles could be fought for months at a time over multiple and distinct kinds of terrain, and could involve resources that had little to do with the literal physical space in which combat occurred (for example, with the introduction of radio, the electro-magnetic spectrum became increasingly important). In response to this growing complexity of the battlefield, contemporary theory of war employs formulations in terms of battlespace rather than battlefield. The formulation of the idea of battlespace is a conceptual innovation that reflects the systematic exploitation of the nexus of science and technology that characterizes institutions after the Industrial Revolution. A fully articulated doctrine of battlespace is a conceptual improvement over the continued use of “battlefield,” but can go beyond battlespace to the yet more comprehensive conception of battle ecology.

From Battlespace to Battle Ecology

We can employ the concepts of metaphysical ecology to bring more analytical clarity to the contemporary concept of battlespace. I suggest that the very idea of battlespace is unnecessarily limiting, not least because it is a spatial concept, and we can formulate a much more comprehensive concept. The metaphysical ecology surrogate for battlespace (or, rather, the more comprehensive conceptual infrastructure within which the concept of battlespace can be located) is what I will call battlespace ecology.

The DOD defines battlespace as follows:

“The environment, factors, and conditions that must be understood to successfully apply combat power, protect the force, or complete the mission. This includes the air, land, sea, space, and the included enemy and friendly forces; facilities; weather; terrain; the electromagnetic spectrum; and the information environment within the operational areas and areas of interest.”

The DOD further defines battlespace awareness as follows:

“Knowledge and understanding of the operational area’s environment, factors, and conditions, to include the status of friendly and adversary forces, neutrals and noncombatants, weather and terrain, that enables timely, relevant, comprehensive, and accurate assessments, in order to successfully apply combat power, protect the force, and/or complete the mission.”

The Marine Corps’ Marine Corps Operations MCDP 1-0 (Forward by J. L. Jones, General, United States Marine Corps, Commandant of the Marine Corps, 2001) defines battlespace as follows:

“Battlespace is the environment, factors, and conditions that must be understood to successfully apply combat power, protect the force, and accomplish the mission. This includes the air, land, sea, space, and enemy and friendly forces, infrastructure, weather, and terrain within the assigned AO and the commander’s area of interest. Battlespace is conceptual—a higher commander does not assign it. Commanders determine their own battlespace based on their mission, the enemy, and their concept of operations and force protection. They use their experience and understanding of the situation and mission to visualize and adapt their battlespace as the situation or mission changes. The battlespace is not fixed in size or position. It varies over time, and depends on the environment, the commander’s mission, and friendly and enemy actions. Battlespace is normally comprised of an AO, area of influence, and area of interest.”

In the above, “AO” stands for “area of operations.”

The concept of battlespace and knowledge of the battlespace (which latter is the formal surrogate of the intuitive experience, i.e., the lived experience of the battlespace) as defined above is clearly a more comprehensive conception than the traditional concept of battlefield, yet its formulation in spatial terms implies conceptual limitations, even if we allow for abstract spaces such as intelligence and the electro-magnetic spectrum.

The Marine Corps definition is admirably comprehensive, but it can be given further conceptual rigor and can be assimilated to a comprehensive conceptual infrastructure by placing battlespace within battle ecology. In battle ecology, the individual items mentioned in the definition — “air, land, sea, space, and enemy and friendly forces, infrastructure, weather, and terrain” — can be treated as concrete or abstract spaces that find their place within a comprehensive ecology.

Bronfenbrenner pioneered a comprehensive conception of ecology, and while most of his formulations are embedded within therapeutic concerns, the imperative of arriving at an absolutely general conception applicable to all experience is implicit throughout Bronfenbrenner’s text. Here is Bronfenbrenner in a passage that is as applicable to battlespace as to psychodynamic structures, in criticism of the tradition he inherited and which he sought to transcend:

“…even when the environment is described, it is in terms of a static structure that makes no allowance for the evolving processes of interaction through which the behavior of participants in the system is instigated, sustained, and developed.”

Urie Bronfenbrenner, The Ecology of Human Development: Experiments by Nature and Design, Chapter 2, “Basic Concepts,” p. 17

While the Marine Corps definition given above does allow that battlespace is not fixed and varies over time, the greater generality and comprehensivity of battle ecology systematically integrates the changing factors of the battlespace into the personal temporality of the soliders within the battlespace, the temporality of history in which these events are embedded, and all levels of temporality between subjective time-consciousness and objective history.

This graphic focuses on the role of the individual soldier and his lived experience of battle.

The concept of battle ecology (or, if you prefer, battlespace ecology) can be formulated in parallel with the formulations of Bronfenbrunner’s bio-ecology, specifically:

Micro-battlespace: The setting in which the individual solider fights. This is the point at which Clausewitz began: the duel.

Meso-battlespace: Relations between micro-battlespaces or connections between battlespace contexts.

Exo-battlespace: Links between battlespace settings in which the individual soldier does not have an active role (other theaters of operations) and the individual soldier’s immediate context.

Macro-battlespace: The strategic and tactical culture in which individual soldiers fight.

Metaphysical battlespace: Ultimately, the metaphysical battlespace is the furthest extrapolation of battlespace ecology. This is the master category and the most comprehensive form of military thought, just as metaphysical history is the master category of history and the most comprehensive form of historical thought.

The specifically temporal aspects of battlespace ecology can also be formulated in parallel to the formulations of metaphysical temporality above:

Micro-battlespace temporality: The temporal setting in which the soldier fights. (This is what Husserl called subjective time-consciousness, and forms the basis of all lived experience.)

Meso-battlespace temporality: Relations between micro-battlespace temporalities or connections between temporal contexts of the battlespace. (If we accept Husserl’s treatment of internal time consciousness as characterizing micro-battlespace temporality, then meso-battlespace temporality embodies what Husserl called inter-subjectivity.)

Exo-battlespace temporality: Links between temporal battlespace settings in which the individual soldier does not have an active combat role and the individual soldier’s immediate temporal battlespace context.

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

Metaphysical temporality: The whole of metaphysical history in which the individual temporalities are embedded, which is not a specifically military concept (nor specifically strategic or diplomatic, etc.), but which is the same metaphysical temporality I have been developing in several posts to this forum — i.e., the most comprehensive and abstract conception of time, beginning with the individual’s subjective time-consciousness, coincides with Metaphysical history.

One important lesson of this last conception — that of metaphysical temporality as the ultimate setting of less comprehensive temporalities in which battlespace ecology is contextualized — is that any specific and particular conceptual inquiry, when pursued to the farthest reaches of abstraction, generality, and formality converges with other specific and particular inquiries that also have this purified conception as the natural teleology, if you will, of intellectual inquiry. The further lesson of this observation, in turn, is that all specific, particular, concrete, empirical, and peculiar conceptions ultimately have abstract and general ideas as the conceptual setting that gives them meaning. In other words, there is a conceptual ecology also that obeys many of the same principles of conceptual extrapolation as formulated above.

The distinct microsystems of battle ecology are interrelated at the level of the mesosystem; in traditional terminology, distinct tactical initiatives are unified within battle operations.

One immediate benefit of formulating military campaigns in terms of metaphysical ecology is a clarification of the relative roles of tactics, operations, and strategy. Tactics always take place on the level of microsystems. Any particular operation is the coordination of relevant microsystems, so that the mesosystematic level of battle ecology could also be called the infra-operational level (or the intra-operational level). The relation between different operations takes place at the exosystematic level of battle ecology, so this could also be called the inter-operational level. Strategy takes place on the level of the macrosystem. Grand strategy involves the coordination of macrosystems specific to distinct areas of human endeavor, and its proper setting is integral history taken whole.

This diagram focuses on the micro-systems of battle ecology, which micro-systems are the abstract spaces of battlespace.

With this delineation of tactics, operations, and strategy within battle ecology in mind, the concept of battle ecology can be translated into more traditional military terminology as follows:

Tactical Environment (the micro-battlespace): The setting in which the individual solider fights. This is the point at which Clausewitz began: the duel.

Intra-Operational Environment (the meso-battlespace): Relations between micro-battlespace or connections between battlespace contexts.

Inter-Operational Environment (the exo-battlespace): Links between battlespace settings in which the individual soldier does not have an active role (other theaters of operations) and the individual soldier’s immediate context.

Strategic Environment (the macro-battlespace): The strategic and tactical culture in which individual soldiers fight.

Grand Strategy (the metaphysical battlespace): Ultimately, the metaphysical battlespace is the furthest extrapolation of battlespace ecology. This is the master category and the most comprehensive form of military thought, just as metaphysical history is the master category of history and the most comprehensive form of historical thought.

The idea of metaphysical ecology as here first formulated is, in virtue of its comprehensive definition, not specific to an exposition of battlespace ecology. Battle ecology is a special case of metaphysical ecology, just as the bio-ecology of individuals, families, and communities in their social setting (the occasion for Bronfenbrenner’s formulations of ecology in an extended sense) is also a special case of metaphysical ecology. Moreover, as both being special cases of metaphysical ecology, both battle ecology and bio-ecology find their place within the more comprehensive conceptual structure of metaphysical ecology. In other words, in Bronfenbrenner’s words, both are macrosystems that stand in relation to each other within metaphysical ecology.

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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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Temporal Parochialism

5 October 2009


Pieter Bruegel the Elder's famous painting of Hunters in the Snow shows a people immersed in their landscape, organically a part of their climate and topography. The ordinary thought of such people would have been similarly immersed in this landscape, emerging from it naturally, not imposed from without or above.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder's famous painting of Hunters in the Snow shows a people immersed in their landscape, organically a part of their climate and topography. The ordinary thought of such people would have been similarly immersed in this landscape, emerging from it naturally, not imposed from without or above.

Ordinary human thought, which emerges naturally from ordinary experience and is expressed in ordinary language, constitutes an institution unto itself. In several posts such as Life and Landscape, Viking Civilization, and Art and Landscape, I have attempted to show how the ideas of a people naturally emerge from the life of a people, and the life of a people naturally emerges from the landscape and the way of life possible within a given landscape. The ideas native to a people are the subject matter of ordinary human thought.

Karl Popper held that ideas take on a life of their own, and he called this the world three (in contrast to world one of material objects and world two of psychic events). We have had the natural history of ideas upside down for most of civilization: they do not come down to us from above, but emerge from below and move up and out into the world.

Karl Popper held that ideas take on a life of their own, and he called this the world three (in contrast to world one of material objects and world two of psychic events). We have had the natural history of ideas upside down for most of civilization: they do not come down to us from above, but emerge from below and move up and out into the world.

Thought, once emergent, leads a life of its own, and develops according to the principles of thoughts and ideas; ideas, once conceived, however conceived, are no longer tied to their origins in the natural world. Thought, freed from its natural origins, experiences a dialectical development, being pulled between the opposite poles of extension and extrapolation on the one hand, while on the other hand limitation and discipline. We touched on this a couple of days ago in Sartre’s Atheism Once Again, in which we characterized the constructive thought typical of the skeptic as demanding that thought be brought back to its origins and rigorously disciplined so that it doesn’t get out of hand. This is also, as we noted there, a Kantian motif.

Was Sartre a closet Kantian? Was Sartre a constructivist?

Was Sartre a closet Kantian? Was Sartre a constructivist?

Kant was a great skeptic — in his day he was seen as a great destroyer of traditional metaphysics after the fashion of Leibniz and Wolff — and consequently a great constructivist, or, rather, a proto-constructivist, since in his time constructivism in its contemporary signification had not yet been formulated. As a constructivist before constructivism was cool, Kant’s constructivism is a rather limited affair. Later species of constructivism are more sophisticated and considerably more detailed. but no thinker of the first rank (of which Kant was certainly one such) can be satisfied with producing a merely negative and restrictive doctrine. Kant was no exception. His philosophical program was bold and, at points, revolutionary. In other words, Kant’s philosophical innovations pushed our thought in new directions, and new philosophical traditions grew out of Kant’s work. Thus Kant too, hard-headed skeptic though he was, participated in the above-mentioned dialectical development of extrapolation and limitation, precocious if not promiscuous extension and stern if not ascetic discipline.

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz: rationalist philosopher, big hair aficionado, and target of Kantian skepticism.

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz: rationalist philosopher, big hair aficionado, and target of Kantian skepticism.

This dialectic not only describes our conceptual development, but we could even say that it is necessary to our conceptual development. We need both conceptual risk-takers and conceptual disciplinarians in order to limn the farther reaches of the mind, to show us on the one hand what is possible, and on the other what is necessary. We live the life of the mind between the possible and the necessary. But this isn’t what I primarily wanted to write about today, however interesting.

To bring things back to the institutions that emerge from ordinary thought, the ideas that constitute ordinary thinking are also bounded by possibility and necessity, but we don’t always know which is which. Ordinary thinking is often deeply confused, and that is why in specialized contexts we don’t rely on ordinary language but use specialized formal languages that allow us to express our thoughts with a preternatural precision of which ordinary language is not capable.

Sometimes our ordinary ideas are not only wrong or misleading, but they constitute an obstacle that later thought (usually formal thought) must overcome if it is to continue its development. There is a long history of parochial human thought that arrogates to itself an undeserved universality, and which usually only gives up the ghost when it is so thoroughly defeated that it becomes laughable. It is often unfortunate that our intellectual development must often take this extreme course, but we should understand it for what it is, and know that this is the source of so much iconoclasm on the part of the progressively minded. The rude and at times mocking rejection of tradition is a consequence of tradition becoming identified with ideas that must be transcended for human thought to continue its free development.

While there are many forms of parochialism that we might wish to explode, I think that there is an insufficient appreciation of the role that temporal parochialism has played in hindering the development of scientific and philosophical thought. Our ideas of time are primarily derived from our human, all-too-human experience, and the human experience of time is limited in the extreme. To suppose that the world entire can be adequately interpreted according to the time experienced by a single organism bound to circadian rhythms and annual cycles, and which after fifteen or so annual cycles can reproduce itself and therefore render itself redundant, is foolish, if not laughable.

Louis Althusser made explicit the implicit structuralism in Marx, further alienating the individual from his personal agency.

Louis Althusser made explicit the implicit structuralism in Marx, further alienating the individual from his personal agency.

It is not enough merely to be aware of our anthropocentric conception of time, we must actively fight against our temporal parochialism; we must continually push ourselves to attain new intuitions of time that are appropriate to the scientific conceptions we have been forced to formulate in order to understand the world on the world’s terms, and not on our own terms. Philosophy and science since the nineteenth century have been doing this, but for a large section of the human population, and especially since the nineteenth century, philosophy and science have become continually less relevant to daily life precisely because they are becoming so specialized that an effort is required to assume the scientific standpoint or the philosophical standpoint. The ordinary man that does not spend his time grappling with philosophical and scientific problems usually has neither the time nor the inclination to force his mind to understand measures of time beyond those easily perceived or conceived.

Claude Lévi-Strauss was perhaps the most famous of the French structuralists, using structuralism in studies of anthropology, mythology, and sociology.

Claude Lévi-Strauss was perhaps the most famous of the French structuralists, using structuralism in studies of anthropology, mythology, and sociology.

Training the mind to think in terms of non-anthropocentric measures of time has taken two different forms which reflect the temperamental concerns of continental European social sciences on the one hand, and on the other hand Anglo-American natural science. This division is in no sense absolute, and is even to a certain extent impressionistic, but it can be useful for understanding some intellectual trends. There are many natural scientists of the first rank from Europe, and many innovators in the social sciences from the Anglo-American intellectual milieu, but there are intellectual movements that roughly and in the main observe geographical boundaries.

James Hutton was among the founders of scientific geology and among the first to conceive of time on a geological scale.

James Hutton was among the founders of scientific geology and among the first to conceive of time on a geological scale.

Continental European social sciences were deeply philosophical in character and were in large part derived from philosophical traditions. Structuralism began as a philosophical school, but it was deeply indebted to Marx and Freud, who were not precisely philosophers but who exercised a disproportionate influence over continental philosophy. Structuralism turned attention away from the individual and toward those structural forces in society to which the individual is subject. In its extreme forms it could be taken to deny individual agency altogether, but in its familiar form it was a needed corrective to anthropocentric conceptions of time and focusing on measures of time appropriate not to the individual consciousness but to the institutions to which individuals are usually subject.

William Smith came from a practical background in the coal industry and pioneered the method of dating geological strata by means of the fossils preserved in them.

William Smith came from a practical background in the coal industry and pioneered the method of dating geological strata by means of the fossils preserved in them.

Anglo-American natural science was also philosophical, but it primarily owed its philosophical debts to the English empiricist philosophers like Locke and Hume, who are frequently seen not only as philosophers but also as proto-psychologists. A series of innovative natural scientists — and, in many cases, simply engineers and technicians who found themselves obligated by the advances in their subject matter to attempt to seek and to clarify the foundations of their disicipline — greatly extended the conception of time. I am thinking of Englishmen like James Hutton, William Smith, Charles Lyell, and Charles Darwin. That this movement should originate in English is no mystery. The industrial revolution began in England, and it was fueled by coal. The coal industry in turn had to teach itself geology, and geology led to the natural history that shaped geographical features, which led in turn to the natural history that shaped the ancient forests and extinct creatures preserved in the coal seams.

Sir Charles Lyell was knighted and buried in Westminster Abbey in recognition of his contributions to geology, which was apparently rather less controversial than applying the same ideas to biology and anthropology.

Sir Charles Lyell was knighted and buried in Westminster Abbey in recognition of his contributions to geology, which was apparently rather less controversial than applying the same ideas to biology and anthropology.

Our thinking is still bedeviled by anthropocentric conceptions of time, and we need to fight against these anthropocentric illusions if we are to free ourselves from inherited errors. I find this especially in economics. Recently when I was writing about China in this forum I mentioned that the reason people resist connecting economic development with democratization was the limited temporal horizon they assume. The social change driven by industrialization will eventually issue in some form of popular sovereignty, but it will take time — maybe a hundred years or more. Because the commentariat cannot think in terms of political developments of a hundred years, they simply deny it.

Lyell's Elements of Geography embodied uniformitarianism and the geological conception of time; both were central to Darwin's intellectual development.

Lyell's Elements of Geography embodied uniformitarianism and the geological conception of time; both were central to Darwin's intellectual development.

Temporal parochialism, however, is most shockingly present in the open and explicit rejection of natural sciences by large sections of the population. Part of this, as I have pointed out above, is the growing disconnect between specialized scientific knowledge and ordinary life. But I have also pointed out in this forum (in Population Maps) the phenomenon that everyone has noticed, namely, that young people are more adept with high technology than their elders, and moreover that it needs to be this way if the quantifiable progress of civilization is to continue. Today, science and technology are more closely related than ever before. Rigorous science is necessary to technological innovation, and technological innovation is necessary to the continuing extension of scientific knowledge.

Darwin was a diligent student of Lyell, took a copy of The Elements of Geology with during his voyage on the Beagle, and applied Lyell's uniformitarianism to biology.

Darwin was a diligent student of Lyell, took a copy of The Elements of Geology with during his voyage on the Beagle, and applied Lyell's uniformitarianism to biology.

Children cannot — must not — learn the errors of their parents first, only in order to unlearn them later. They have to jump in with the newest and most recent state of the art of knowledge, and begin to revise and to contribute to that knowledge from that point forward. If the depressing statistics are true about skepticism toward geology, paleontology, anthropology and archaeology, then our quantifiable progress will come to a rude halt in the near future. But if this sort of obscurantism turns out to be a mere pose, and no one really believes it, and no one really expects their children to believe that the earth was created in 4004 BC, then science continues to have a bright future. Perhaps we will only know how much necessary hypocrisy is incorporated into our institutions when the future arrives and we find ourselves either intellectually impoverished or intellectually advanced beyond our expectations.

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William Smith's geological map of England that, according to Simon Winchester, changed the world. Winchester's book on William Smith is well worth reading.

William Smith's geological map of England that, according to Simon Winchester, changed the world. Winchester's book on William Smith is well worth reading.

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