It’s time

T. S. Eliot


“There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.”
The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, T. S. Eliot, (1915)

Eliot is one of my favorite poets and this particular poem is special to me because of the continuous mention of time. Time is a topic I adore, and I find the philosophical problems and arguments to be so creative and interesting. Last year, I taught an introductory metaphysics course, and it was so much fun to return to the problems associated with time and space from greats like Heraclitus, Parmenides, Zeno, Aristotle, Augustine, Newton, Leibniz, Kant, Bergson, Einstein, McTaggart, and Mellor … to name a few. I do especially like the discussions of Newton, Leibniz and Kant, debates about the nature of time and space (absolute and/or relative), but it is hard to play favorites with such a great topic that hits so close to home.

Time has weighed heavily on my mind as of late for several reasons, and the one which is relevant to this blog is that I think my next tattoo will be of a pocket watch (a man-made time piece). I love pocket watches, in addition to every other kind of time piece. My next tattoo will be my annual birthday present to myself, a tradition i started over a decade ago. For me, a birthday tattoo not only marks the occasion (hurrah, I’m another step closer to dirt!), but it marks change, progress and identity …. it’s a physical stamp of being. What I find interesting about my choice is that, even with reading tons of philosophy on the topic of time I still don’t actually know what time is. I know what it feels like, but not what it actually is. I cannot put my finger on it, but I seem to know it. This brings to mind a great philosopher named Henri Bergson: Time is duration (neither unity nor quantitative multiplicity), and cannot be conceptualized, measured, or symbolized — duration is synthesis, qualitative, and only simple intuition of the imagination is required. Duration also applies to consciousness, and is probably the best example of what he means: consciousness is always moving, always ‘of’ something. Measuring time and consciousness is difficult: the moment you start to measure, what you tried to measure is gone — nothing quite captures what it is completely, it is something ineffable. In class I used the example of a colour wheel: to try to pinpoint when one colour ends and another begins is extremely difficult even though intuition tells us when blue is now purple, etc. A qualitative multiplicity is inexpressible, and according to Bergson, if we want to be able to grasp it we would have to make the effort to reverse the habitual modes of thought, placing ourselves within duration itself by using intuition. No easy task, to say the least.

I guess getting a tattoo of a pocket watch best expresses the paradox of time for me: the watch itself is a symbol, a concept if you will, of something that cannot be symbolized, conceptualized, or expressed. A contradiction in (on) myself, you could say. And I guess if you are going to be a moron, it’s preferable to be an oxymoron … and a philosophical one at that. All quite logical. (Note: being a philosopher does set you up for all kinds of oxymorons and contradictions, and if you don’t accept it and enjoy the puzzles you will go insane. Just look at Cantor … nuff said.)

Henri Bergson: Time, time, time, see what's become of me ....

“And indeed there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair
[They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”]
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin
[They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”]
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

For I have known them all already, known them all:
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
So how should I presume?”
T. S. Eliot

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