I’ll lead by saying this probably isn’t the sort of post everyone will find riveting. All I can say is, It’s about time. Literally.
During the research phase of writing my senior paper, I came across a study done by Stanford professor Lera Boroditsky that looked at the different frameworks within English and Mandarin concerning how to express the abstract concept of time in spatial terms. Okay, now let’s unpack that. First, what do I mean “the abstract concept of time”? Well, I mean time as independent from the arbitrary measurements we impose on it. We measure time in hours, days, weeks, years, etc. for a reason–actually many different reasons. A year is, of course, the length of time it takes the planet to travel once in its elliptical path around the Sun. While a “day” is the length of time the Earth takes to make one rotation on its axis (which, to note, is not constant), how the day is subdivided is an ancient, arbitrary determination, with the roots of the 24-hour day lying in pharaonic Egypt. The concept of a seven-day week is primarily an outgrowth of Christian and Jewish beliefs concerning creation while other cultures have different week-lengths.
The smallest unit of time most people are familiar with is the SI second, which, since 1967, has been defined as “the duration of 9,192,631,770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the cesium 133 atom.” Now, I won’t pretend to understand what that means, but the point is that essentially all of the ways we measure time are either arbitrary or environmentally determined. If we all lived on Mars, for instance, our days would be similar to Earth-days (24 hours, 39 minutes, and about 36 seconds) but our years would last almost twice as long (687 Earth-days); the longest-living human being ever recorded died at age 65–in Martian years. There’s really no reason why our seconds can’t be based on the duration of 10 million or 8 million periods of the radiation mumbo-jumbo of cesium instead of 9.2 million; that measurement was merely the closest to what had long been approximately measured as a second by mechanical watches since the Sixteenth Century.
Secondly (see what I did there?), what do I mean by “spatial terms”? This is where it starts getting interesting. Note that we’re now talking about another sort of time, which is challenging because in English there’s only one word for time, whether we’re talking about time as a measurement, time as a dimension, etc. This isn’t in quite the same vein as the Greek distinction between chronological and metaphysical time (“chronos” and “kairos” respectively); to the contrary, this is more of an attempt to get at the root of why measuring time is something humans feel it necessary to do in the first place. This is time as something unseeable that is interacted with and moved through. Fundamentally, time is important to us because our share of it is finite. Our lives are framed by the beginning and end of our physical functionality, which places a greater significance on measuring the distance between than would exist otherwise.
There was a theory that gained a lot of traction around the beginning of the Twentieth Century that sought to explain the relationship between language and thought. Called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (or “linguistic relativity”), the theory was more or less that language determines and sets the parameters of thought and worldview. As I discovered in my research, there is remarkably little evidence either proving or disproving that theory and it’s various manifestations. While there is evidence to suggest that language influences thought and perception, the degree of that influence is still very unclear. I mentioned one of those pieces of evidence showing influence at the beginning of this post: the study that showed a difference in the way English- and Mandarin-speakers express time using spatial metaphors.
English, as we know, primarily expresses time spatially in linear horizontal terms. Time, then, becomes a line on which we move forward with past events behind us and future events before. Take a moment to think about the ways we express time in English: “coming up next week,” “race against the clock,” “difficult times ahead,” “hindsight is 20/20,” “light at the end of the tunnel,” etc. All of these presuppose that time is sequential, predictable, and linear. Time is in some ways sequential and typically predictable but, though it has linear characteristics, it cannot be confined into a strictly linear terminology. There’s a reason these things are called “spatial metaphors;” to say “all the world’s a stage” doesn’t literally mean that the world is a stage. But then, you knew that already.
You might at this point be wondering about the differences between English and Mandarin in terms of describing time spatially. Chinese, like English, also has a strong linear and horizontal framework for expressing time. However, it also contains equally prevalent conventions for describing time vertically. For example–this is mentioned in the study–if two events are in the past, the event that happened longer ago is understood to be “below” the more recent one. We have a few elements of that in English (as in an event “coming up,” as I said earlier), but we tend to not think of time vertically.
As I learned in a class on the Old Testament, the ancient Hebrews had a concept of time that was also linear but which was reversed. In other words, the past was before them and the future behind and I remember the professor’s interpretation of their rationale: “You can’t see what hasn’t happened yet!” Fair point, sir. The latter is also true for the Chinese, just to note. And then, there’s the difference between linear and cyclical (or circular) time, which tend to be more widely understood. These can also be understood as “monochronic” and “polychronic” time respectively. The traditional belief is that the former is common to the West, the latter to the East, but I don’t think it’s so cut and dry (check out this article for a good breakdown of the subject).
At any rate, all this to say that humanity lacks a unified pan-cultural and pan-linguistic framework for understanding how we move through and interact with time. That of course makes me wonder whether there even is one to be had anyway. Maybe time itself is so hopelessly enigmatic that we can never hope to truly understand how we move through it. Maybe time doesn’t even really exist. All of these are possibilities and the subject of intense debate in various scientific and philosophical arenas. But, just for a moment, let’s indulge in a few assumptions. One, let’s assume that time is real, that it’s something with which we interact, and that those interactions are meaningful to our experience of life. Two, let’s assume that while time may have some linear, vertical, horizontal, circular, trapezoidal, or any other sundry shape’s characteristics, all such metaphors are fundamentally incomplete. And three, let’s assume there is a metaphor that is most accurate, even if it’s one on which we haven’t traditionally relied. It is for this latter designation that I would like to submit my own contender.
When, in my mind’s eye, I “see” time, I see it as a series of cones floating and moving about in an ether. Each of these cones begin somewhere far away, beyond the reach of even the most diligent squint. Their vertices intersect with the body, opening into its various windows: eye, ear, nose, mouth, and touch. Through these cones flow the experiences we encounter in life, which–as we experience them–flow into the body and like layers of flotsam on a island shore, the sensory data associated with these experiences collect on our memories. Older experiences are covered over (and obscured) as new ones flow in and these experiences collectively form a significant basis of our worldviews and, quite probably, shape who we are to some degree. Also, I recognize the cone imagery has parallels in other theories concerning time, particularly in the concept of the “light cone;” lucky for me, I’m okay with losing a few originality points.
Anyway, perhaps it is most accurate, in light of this, to say time is something that flows into us and is internalized. Looking into the future would then be a matter of looking “out” as through a window, not “up” or “ahead.” Maybe looking into one’s–or, collectively, our–past isn’t as simple as merely looking “back;” maybe it is looking “in” and requires that we dig and dig diligently, with the oldest and smallest of events being the hardest of all to uncover amid the accreted detritus of memory. Introspection, or “inward looking,” takes on a whole new significance.
At any rate, my goal here wasn’t to pen a paradigm-shifting polemic (but I did hope for at least one clunky alliteration–SUCCESS). I’m primarily interested in injecting some diversity into our infrastructive concept of time. The problem with metaphors, like any literary device, is that they lose their effectivity over time and, in time, can actually serve to cloud an issue over heightening awareness of it. It’s also helpful to realize that human communication can only approximate an accurate explication of invisible abstractions like time since, as human beings, we’re so reliant on sensory experience. That’s really the purpose of metaphor: using things we can see to grasp things we can’t.