Of Time and Lamentation: Reflections on Transience

Of Time and Lamentation: Reflections on Transience

by Raymond Tallis


View All Available Formats & Editions
Choose Expedited Shipping at checkout for guaranteed delivery by Tuesday, January 22

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781911116219
Publisher: Agenda Publishing
Publication date: 08/08/2017
Pages: 672
Sales rank: 825,180
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.70(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Raymond Tallis was professor of geriatric medicine at the University of Manchester and was elected a Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences for his research in clinical neuroscience. He retired from medicine in 2006 to become a full-time writer. The Economist lists him as one of the world's leading polymaths.

Read an Excerpt

Of Time and Lamentation

Reflections on Transcience

By Raymond Tallis

Agenda Publishing

Copyright © 2017 Raymond Tallis
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-911116-21-9


Introduction: seeing time

Ineluctable modality of the visible.

Joyce, Ulysses, 45


Something we call "time" permeates everything that happens and everything we do. Events, processes, experiences, actions, and activities take place at particular times and occupy stretches of time, are composed of constituents that also occupy time, have a temporal order, and are otherwise related in time to each other. Time also seems to be intimated to us from within our own bodies, incarnate in what we may think of anachronistically as "proto-clocks" formed out of recurrent and cyclical events within the cycle of our days: waking and sleeping, rising and settling down, the patterns of hunger and thirst, and, more prominently, the rhythms of breathing and the heartbeat and the tick-tock of walking. But this inherent time of the body does not amount to fully explicit time, even less "timing", since it is not clearly offset from the changes in which it is expressed. The rhythm of my heart is, even when it is noticed, interwoven with the activities or emotions that cause the organ to beat faster and more thickly. The temporality of what is going on is consequently for the most part implicit, woven into what is experienced.

Time as something "in itself", that is available ultimately to be clocked, is most clearly developed in relation to our consciousness of things outside of our bodies, "out there". The immediate presentation of the world around us, unfolding in or over time, is the first step towards opening up the present to an ever more remote past, an ever more distant future. Eventually we locate ourselves in a common past and future flanking a communal present – in a remembered social history and anticipated social future we share with our fellow humans, and a natural history we share with all beings. Ultimately, we come to be aware of our lives as brief episodes in a story that stretches from pre-history to post-history, from the Big Bang to the Big Crunch.

Foremost among the senses that yield an explicit sense of time, though by no means exclusive, is vision. While it is obvious that vision is a revelation of explicit space it is less easy to appreciate its importance in the revelation of explicit time. Even so, it is the case; and it is of fundamental significance not only for the metaphysics of everyday life, but also for the development of the physical sciences that have challenged that metaphysics, and for the relationship between the two. The key role of vision in making time explicit, which predisposes us to spatialize it, lies at the root of the intellectual, cognitive and cultural developments that are examined critically in this book.

Before I argue for the privileged relationship between vision and explicit time, I want to pre-empt a serious misunderstanding. The world we humans live in is not merely a sensory bubble, revealed to individual viewpoints. It is the product of the joint labour of all of us – our predecessors and our contemporaries. Each of us acquires the world in which we live our lives largely "off the shelf" rather than constructing it directly out of sense experience. World-acquisition is overwhelmingly dependent on sign systems, the most elaborate of which (though not by any means the earliest or the most fundamental) is language as conventionally understood. The temporally deep world extends far beyond that which is revealed to vision; and it is available to anyone who can participate in the community of shared consciousness that is humanity. And this of course includes individuals who are congenitally blind. I make this perhaps rather obvious point in order to head off the objection that the initial importance of vision in humanity's development of the intuition of temporal depth would preclude those without sight from full participation in a world saturated in explicit time – something that is manifestly untrue. In some respects, people who have congenital blindness bypass the ground floor of explicit time as presented through vision (as I shall describe) and proceed directly to the higher levels. What is more, they draw on the explicit time made available through other senses – touch, hearing, and the experience of kinesis – which are overshadowed in the experience of the sighted for whom the visual sense dominates in explicit time.

I want, also, to pre-empt another potential misunderstanding. What I will describe is how we come to perceive "the passage of time" as it is conventionally understood. I shall argue in §2.2.3 that there is no such thing as the passage of time. The tendency to use dynamic metaphors is rooted in the fact that time becomes explicit most clearly through a particular, universal form of change, namely motion. Time made explicit through motion is liable to be thought of as being itself in, or a kind of, motion; hence talk of "the flow" or "passage of time".

Let us now examine the special relationship between vision and explicit time. Consider an object moving across your visual field. It occupies a succession of positions, P1, P2, P3, etc., at times t1, t2, t3, etc. The object survives the move, essentially unchanged. But, more importantly, the positions occupied by the object outlast the period during which they are occupied by the object. P1 (composed of the matter that surrounds the object at t1) is still there at t2 when the object has moved on to P2. And P3, a position the object has not yet reached, is also present and visible at t, when the object is at P2. Because all three positions are co-present in my gaze, I can see the past and future locations of the object as well as its present position. By virtue of being the past position of the object, P1 stands for its past when the object reaches P2. And by virtue of already being in place when the object is at P2, P3 represents the future of the object. More generally, we can say that places typically outlast the events (such as the transit of an object) that have occurred in them; they provide a constant background against which a succession of events can be bound together into the event of succession and the object, which can occupy only one point at one time, can nevertheless trace a trajectory that has both spatial extensity and temporal depth. The position – which is the surviving relatum of the relationship between the object and a position, or of the complex object-in-a-position – curates the past of the object.


It hardly needs saying that vision is not the exclusive domain of explicit time sense. Sound can also yield temporal depth. If I am listening to a sequence of notes, is it not true that I retain the earlier notes while I am listening to the later ones? If this were not the case, how could I ever hear a melody or, indeed, a whole note that occupies more than a notional instant? And speech would not make sense if we did not both hold together and keep apart the beginning and end of utterances.

All of this is true; but it does not challenge the preeminent (but not exclusive) role of vision in establishing explicit time because the earlier and later notes of a melody or first and last words of a spoken sentence do not co-exist in the way that the visible successive positions of a moving object do. There is nothing corresponding to P and its successors which would be occupied by the notes and outlast them. These positions – unlike successive notes – are side by side and simultaneous, even though the object can occupy only one of them at a time. In other words, the status of a succession of states or events as a succession, marking out a span of time, depends not simply on the retention of the past events or states as memories (as in the case of the successive notes of a melody) or future ones as anticipations. It requires something more and vision supplies this: the still-visible position occupied by the object. This past position is not merely an inner, private memory but an outer, visible, public steward of the past. This is even more striking in the case of the visible positions of our own bodies in relation to other objects. Consider my walking away from a car I have just parked. The parked car gives my occupation of it a posthumous existence after I have vacated it. We may of course imagine sounds (say, of a car coming closer) occupying successive "positions", but the translation of this into space and the co-presence of side-by-side past, present, and future, is on the basis of borrowing, or parasitizing a spatial field opened up by vision. So while hearing (music, utterances, and natural sounds such as the babbling of a brook) is manifestly temporal, it does not make time itself as explicit as does vision by co-locating the contents of successive moments in space.

There is a possible objection to the notion that sight has a privileged (though not exclusive) role in delivering explicit time. It goes as follows: Surely, to say that wesee time in the way I have described it is simply to state the obvious: we see the past (e.g. view P1 from P2) because we remember it and the future (e.g. view P3 from P2) because we anticipate it. And that is of course true; but, to reiterate the point that I made in relation to hearing a succession of notes, it is only in vision that memory and anticipation are given an external (public) location. Past and future are "out there", underwriting memory and anticipation, and providing a springboard for deeper forays into pasts and futures no longer based on direct observation. We have to see the past and future literally in order to conceive of (public, shared) pasts and futures in which we situate memories and anticipations. What is more, our concern here is not with the difference between past and future or between memory and anticipation but their translation into explicit time which includes before-and-after.

Other senses can clearly reach outside of the present. We think we can smell the past in the scent of a musty building, or in a room where a perfumed someone has been; or taste the future in the first mouthful of many to come. But these pasts and futures are not actually present in themselves, side by side with the present. The invisible past and future grows ultimately out of a visible past and future. What about touch? We might be inclined to dismiss this as a source of explicit time – of time "out there", untethered from the implicit corporeal time of heartbeats and coordinated motor activity such as complex manipulations or ambulation, because it is inseparable from the body. It is, however, worth addressing this question because doing so reveals, by contrast, another feature of vision that is central to its key role in the genesis of the sense of explicit time.

When I explore an object entirely by touch, my moving finger and palpating hand pass over unmoving locations that outlive contact with the finger, of the hand but my hands are clearly not experiencing the present, the near-past, and the future locations at the same time. My finger is where it is and not where it has been or it will be: it is confined to its present position and does not retain the previous position or fore-touch its next position. Admittedly, blind palpation may build up the idea of a three-dimensional object, or indeed a three-dimensional space which that object occupies, that exceeds the surface in contact with the finger pads and even more obviously that part of the surface that is being touched at any one instant. Touch may therefore seem to hold or retain successive positions touched by the fingers. More strikingly, active manipulations may be impregnated with an idea of a future yet to be achieved and a past of what has been completed so far – something that we shall discuss in Chapter 12. Perhaps an even more persuasive example of the co-presence of the past and the future is provided by scratching, where the after-sensation associated with the beginning of the scratch are co-present with those associated with subsequent points on the scratch and, in addition, with the itch in the as yet unscratched part of the body. However, this co-presence is distributed over a severely restricted area. Admittedly, there are larger tactile areas than those available to our fingers; for example the surfaces of our trunk and limbs. Even so, the space that is revealed all at once by, say, the buttocks feeling the pressure of the chair, legs aware of trousers, or torso aware of a shower, is severely constricted compared with that afforded to vision.

Size, however, is not the only issue, or even the most salient one. There are two other important differences – one very straightforward and readily dealt with; the other more complex.

Firstly, vision sees objects at a distance: to use the technical term, the eyes are telereceptors. Sight is not fastened to or contiguous with its object as touch is. It is this that underpins the contrast we have just addressed – that touch is confined to the area defined by the surface of the touching organ. This is just as true when the touching organ is a spread of fingers or, indeed, both hands: there is no touching beyond the actual, that is to say present tense, area of contact of the touching organ. In the case of vision, there is no question of a space of experience being defined by the size of the sensitive surface – in this case the orb or the retina. That is why there is nothing in touch comparable to panning round an array of co-present, indeed co-presented, but still distinct items, whose co-presence is given immediately.

But there is another more important difference: continuity. The tactual area is patchy, as is any space we may imagine as being marked out by hearing (and even more so by smell or taste). We may capture this difference saying that vision is the only sense that has a fully developed field. The continuum of the visual field is the progenitor of our idea of space, which is continuous. While a succession of glimpses or peerings may seem like a series of distinct probes, the eye – being at a distance from what it sees – retains what it scans, and has both a centre and a peripheral field and the non-foveal penumbra is co-present with the foveal centre of attention. The co-presence of the past, present, and future of a particular movement is thus secured. The privileged connection between vision and explicit time is not therefore surprising. It is rooted in the fact that the visual field is a space.

The least we should ask of a space is that it should be continuous and that all its occupants are related to one another. Let us now turn our attention to this continuity.


What is the basis of the continuity that makes it appropriate to speak of a visual field but not of an auditory, tactile, olfactory or proprioceptive field? It is that our gaze sees not only what is visible, but also that there are things or parts of things that are invisible. Indeed, invisibility is inseparable from visibility. An object that hid nothing, either its own interior or other objects behind it, because it was absolutely transparent, would be invisible. The visual field is dappled, and necessarily dappled, with explicit, indeed visible, invisibility. It even has visible limits that indirectly reveal the invisible: things whose surfaces conceal their depths, their interiors, or which are folded over themselves. Beyond this, the curtained window, the bend in the road, the outline of the hill, all visually display that which is not, but might be, seen. The seen without the hidden would be a flat plane of exposure.

Objects, events, processes are therefore visible in virtue of being opaque, revealed through concealment – not only of other objects but of other aspects of themselves – the back, the underside, and the interior. In the field of sight, the visible and the visibly invisibly, the overt and the hidden, are inextricably intermingled. We see surfaces, and see that we see only surfaces, and yet see objects whose surfaces that they are. We look past what we see. That which is as it were "visually implied" underwrites the continuity of visibility. This is essential to the character of the seen as a scene which is continuous and connected.

There is nothing comparable to this in the other senses. Although we sometimes talk of an audible, even a loud, or deafening, silence, this is not meant literally. We do not hear the inaudible as we see the invisible: masking sounds have to be audible to do their work. And while music without silence between the notes would not be music, the silence does not have a primary presence. The untouched is not tangibly untouched. Our hands do not reach into a field of mixed tangibility and feel intangibility. Gloves or numbness may modify touch sensation but they do not deliver a perception of the untouched beyond our fingers. We cannot "foretouch" what we are going to touch or indeed foretouch what is going to touch or indeed foretouch what is going to happen. In contrast, we may foresee it, as we observe two cars heading towards one another and anticipate a collision. Nor can we hind-touch what we are no longer touching. The continuation of a tactile sensation of something we are no longer holding is a property of our body and not the presence of something out there.


Excerpted from Of Time and Lamentation by Raymond Tallis. Copyright © 2017 Raymond Tallis. Excerpted by permission of Agenda Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgements ix

Overture (mainly polemic): why time? 1

Part I Killing Time

Chapter 1 Introduction: seeing time 17

1.1 Vision: from implicit to explicit time 17

1.2 The hegemony of vision in explicit time sense 19

1.3 The visibly hidden 21

1.4 Conclusion 24

Addendum Human and animal vision and temporal depth 26

Chapter 2 Time as "the fourth dimension" 29

2.1 From moving shadows to the science of mechanics: the seductive idea of time as space 30

2.2 Against space-like notions of time 34

2.3 Is there an arrow of time? 59

2.4 The myth of time travel: the idea of pure movement in time 81

2.5 Further reflections on time as a dimension 95

Chapter 3 Mathematics and the book of nature 99

3.1 From place to decimal place 1: geometrization of space 99

3.2 From place to decimal place 2: geometry becomes number 106

3.3 x, y, z, t: space and time stripped bare 114

3.4 Space: beyond the reach of numbers 120

3.5 Some consequences of mathematical literalism 132

3.6 Mathematics and reality: the world as a system of magnitudes 183

Addendum 1 Some sideways glances at Henri Bergson 206

Addendum 2 A note on intelligibility and reality 208

Chapter 4 Clocking time 215

4.1 The mysterious verb "to time" 215

4.2 Light and dark; daytime and night-time: shadow clocks and beyond 217

4.3 The pulse and the pendulum 222

4.4 What do clocks (really) do? 223

4.5 Telling the time: "at" - from clock to o'clock 231

4.6 Orchestrating our lives 234

4.7 Towards deep time 237

4.8 Further reflections 239

Epilogue Finding lost time: physics and philosophy 243

Part II Human Time

Chapter 5 In defence of tense 251

5.1 The attack on tense: the physicists 251

5.2 The attack on tense: the philosophers 258

5.3 Tense regained: time and the conscious subject 280

Chapter 6 Living time: now 287

6.1 Now 287

6.2 The present 306

6.3 Presence 330

Chapter 7 The past: locating the snows of yesteryear 337

7.1 The presence of the past 337

7.2 Out of sight into mind: getting the past into focus 341

7.3 Where, then, are those snows? Memory and history 349

7.4 A last backward look at memory and the past 352

7.5 Coda 355

Addendum A note on memory 356

Chapter 8 Concerning tomorrow (today) 359

8.1 Introducing the future: all our tomorrows 359

8.2 The contested openness of the future 372

8.3 Final reflections on the future 403

Chapter 9 Beyond time: temporal thoughts on eternity 407

9.1 The idea of eternity 407

9.2 The relationship between time and eternity 410

9.3 Was the word in the beginning? 420

Part III Finding Time

Chapter 10 (What) is time?

10.1 Defining time: preliminary reflections 429

10.2 Time in itself 432

10.3 The stuff of tune 439

10.4 Time and change 456

10.5 Objective and subjective time 483

10.6 Concluding comments 495

Addendum A note on the singularity 498

Chapter 11 The onlooker: causation and explicit time 501

11.1 Introduction 501

11.2 Time and causation 503

11.3 The onlooker 542

11.4 Final observation of time, change and causation 552

Addendum Mellor on memory and the causal arrow of time 555

Chapter 12 Time and human freedom 557

12.1 Introduction 557

12.2 Intentionality, causation and tensed time 558

12.3 The human agent 567

12.4 Aspects of freedom 607

Epilogues 619

Notes 627

References 697

Index 711

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews