Philosophy of time

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Titian , “Allegory of Time” - allegorical representation of the relationship between past, present and future and at the same time the age: the old man (past) looks back, the young man (the future) looks forward; only the man (the present) has turned his face to the viewer.

The word time in philosophy describes the form of changes or the sequence of events perceived by human consciousness . These changes give rise to the impression of a “direction of the times” . Philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Leibniz, Kant or Bergson made determinations of the essence of time in different ways.


Our everyday experience leads us to assume that time also exists independently of consciously perceived objects and their changeability . The problem of the conception of time has therefore always been linked to the question of whether it is first 'created' by a special view in human consciousness or is objectively given independently of it . For millennia, the answer to this question was entirely a matter of philosophy, theology, and mysticism . In the meantime, however, physics , astronomy , neurology , chronopsychology , chronobiology and other sciences are also providing important findings .

The question of the existence of time is problematic in itself, because it is difficult to state what the concept of existence should mean in relation to time. More recent findings in brain research , molecular biology and psychology suggest that perception, thought processes, memories, sense of time and consciousness are so closely linked in humans that they cannot normally be separated in experience. A sense of time, thoughts and human consciousness only appear together. In a subjectivist view, time and sense of time would come close together. The idea of ​​an objective time would then only be the idea of ​​an identity based on memories and striving for security and continuity.


In antiquity u. a. the philosophers Heraclitus , Plato , Aristotle and Augustine dealt with the concept of time.

Heraclitus' river picture in which everything flows ( panta rhei ) stand as a metaphor for time. Immutable periodic transitions between day and night, i.e. the stability of the course of the river and the dynamics of its flow, stand as the unity of opposites .

The first systematic thoughts about time are passed down to us from Plato. For him, only the eternal ideas are what actually exist ( doctrine of ideas ). The forms that appear to us in space and time, on the other hand, are only moving images of it. In doing so, he shifts the question of time to the question of being . With him, time is only an expression, an image of eternity, of eternal being.

For Aristotle , the concept of time is inseparably linked to changes. Changes happen in time, but not in time itself. It is not a movement itself, but the measure of every movement . “We not only measure movement by means of time, but also time by means of movement, and we can do this because both determine each other” ( Phys. IV 12, 220b 14-16). But it does not go so far as to reduce time to a pure unit of measurement in the modern sense. Aristotle was of the opinion that time can be divided into an infinite number of time intervals. With this he represented the idea of ​​a continuum of space and time. Although there are nowadays reflections in the direction of a discrete structure of time, these continuum theories are still used in physics today.

According to Augustine 's Confessiones , the past and future are only memories or expectations in the present . We could only grasp the eternal in the form of successions. As with Aristotle, with Augustine time (and space) is inseparable from the world and the changes; it only "came into being" through creation ; H. God's creation of the world. Time (and space) exist in particular in the creature, i.e. H. especially in human consciousness. For God , however, everything is a presence. With Augustine, a distinction is made for the first time between a physically exact time, which is determined with the help of timing devices, and a psychological-experience-related time, which has access to subjective and everyday interpretations.

For Isaac Newton , time and space form the “containers” for events; for him they are just as real and characterized by properties as objects . He defined time with the words: “Time is, and it ticks evenly from moment to moment.” In contrast, Leibniz has claimed that time and space are only conceptual constructions used to describe the relationships between events. From his point of view there is no “being” and no flow of time. He defines time as follows: “Time is the order of that which does not exist at the same time. It is therefore the general order of changes, in which one does not look at the specific kind of changes. "

Newton's view has prevailed within science. The great advantage of this is the ability to describe time and space independently of a real reference point and without a specific observer. Ernst Mach criticized the idealized model character of such an abstraction and concluded that all things and processes are only dependent on one another and not on a “ transcendent ” time. For modern physics, the curvature of the object “ space-time ” is not different from properties such as mass or expansion of any other object.

For Immanuel Kant , time, like space, is a “pure form of intuition ” and that of the inner sense. It is our access to the world, so it belongs to the subjective-human conditions of world knowledge and is therefore the special form that human consciousness gives the sensory impressions. We cannot imagine time away from our experience, because it is a way of our perception (perception). Although she does not get a - whatsoever - the world itself to, yet time is an empirical attributed to quality. Time measurements are used to quantify how far apart events take place.

Søren Kierkegaard's preoccupation with the moment became an influential concept in philosophy.

In his major work " Being and Time " observed Martin Heidegger , the temporality as the profoundly human existence formative reality. The human existence , the existence is Heidegger understood as factual his early-in-the world, with its focus on the future (self-ahead-of-his) determines its own ability to be in the grip of its own possibilities. The mood of fear reveals to man his being-in-the-world: man comes into existence without his own contribution and now has to take it over by making decisions. Death represents the end of all grasping of possibilities. In the face of death, there is a finite scope for human decision-making. For Heidegger, therefore, it is the temporality of concrete existence that cares for itself and others in its existence and from which arithmetic time emerges. Dasein reckons with time because it has to take care of itself in its own finitude. A real elaboration of the concept of time from the temporality of Dasein, however, no longer occurs in the work “Being and Time”, which has remained a fragment.
In Jean-Paul Sartre's main work from 1943, Das sein und das Nothing , phenomenologically, being -in-itself has neither temporality nor spatiality, as in Heidegger's.

The more recent philosophy is now based on a distinction between absolute time determinations (so-called A-series , e.g. past, present, future), as in Augustine, and relative time determinations (so-called B-series , e.g. earlier than, at the same time, later than), as in Kant and the modern natural sciences. Building on these time series, John McTaggart taught the unreality of time. His remarks are intended to show that any change can be described as a movement of events from the future to the present into the past. These changes are neither part of the events nor a relation between them. He comes to the conclusion that the time series themselves in which the changes take place do not exist either.

After using the philosophy of language to provide arguments for the fact that terms of one time series cannot be translated into terms of the other, there are therefore three possible versions for the justification of the B series ( tenseless theory ; does not include indexical time determination): one Character analytical ( token-reflexive ), a version based on the points in time ( date version ) and a newer version of the sentence types ( sentence-type ).

Time awareness

Time awareness is a state of consciousness in which the world and one's own life are experienced in a temporally abstract framework.


As a specifically human concept, the concept of time is strongly tied to the human form of consciousness and, according to the current understanding, emerged through evolution . Animals can indeed refer to past or future events in their behavior. But there is no evidence that they have any idea of ​​the past or future themselves. Stephen Jay Gould describes the different life cycles of animals (life time and speed of life), when viewed relative to their physical size and not to an absolute time, as "astonishingly uniform".

The child's awareness of time develops in a multi-stage process. The infant still lives fully in the present. According to Heinrich Roth , the awareness of time develops from the "phase of naive time experience" in the toddler, through the "phase of time knowledge", which begins at school age, to the "phase of time experience and time reflection".


In chronobiology , the sense of time is considered a product of neural activities and metabolic processes. The concept of time in biology is based on rhythmic, periodic processes in nature and living beings. The physical chemist Ilya Prigogine postulates a proper time for every living being, which is generated by cyclical processes "itself". In this way, all impressions that the brain processes are “collected” over a period of 30 to 40 milliseconds and interpreted as one event. The impression of a steady transition of events, on the other hand, is associated with the integration of this information in the so-called present duration of three seconds. This “juxtaposition” of events in the present creates an idea of ​​the past and the future and thus creates the feeling of a “flow of time”. These processes also create the impression of a linear course of all events.

From the existence of these "system states", however, no statement can be made about the mind-body problem , i.e. whether consciousness is exclusively a result of neuronal processes or whether it also exists independently of the brain. But they seem to have the effect that events (thoughts or perceptions) and the consciousness cannot be separated from them in the process of origin.

There are also circadian rhythms on a biological basis which create the feeling of duration on a larger scale. A time awareness that is conveyed through the function of long-term memory ultimately leads to an awareness of identity .


Identity awareness is based on a self-perception that separates the I and the not-I. Everything consciously experienced is separated from the experiencing in a subtle way. Time is also learned from the position of an immutable “outsider”. An awareness of identity also presupposes memories that have formed in the memory. In humans it is usually defined as a time awareness. The past is constantly present as a conceptual quantity in the form of memories and judgments, at least unconsciously. The same applies to wishes that are directed towards the future.

Present awareness

Against this background, speaking of time and the experience of time only makes sense if one considers them in connection with a specifically human form of consciousness.

Time awareness and soul

In the tradition of Philosophia perennis , realism argues that an awareness of identity and time is only possible if human perception and knowledge is based on an immaterial, non-composite substance. This is called the spiritual soul or spirit for short . The spirit guarantees the continuity and identity of the respective human person , although the body is completely "exchanged" several times in the course of life due to the metabolism. Likewise, it is only possible through the in a certain way unchangeable mind to perceive changes, to think about changes or time and to recognize them as such .

Plotinus describes the possibility of entering a state of timelessness . This is characterized by complete self-knowledge , presence and the letting go of wishes and ideas about the future. For him, eternity is space and timeless simultaneity. Similar statements can be found in many writings of theologians, mystics and the Philosophia perennis . In order to realize the “birth of God in the soul”, as Meister Eckhart teaches , one must remove the notion of time from everyday life. The experience of timelessness requires the task of identifying with sensory perceptions, and in a certain sense also with the mind or knowledge, hence the basics of everyday experience and science.

The “Philosopher Emperor” Marc Aurel recommends thinking about death as a concrete way to get there . Meister Eckhart teaches, among other things, the exercise of mindfulness , but emphasizes that practicing this state of consciousness is usually only achieved through years of practice and compares it with learning to read and write. In traditional Eastern wisdom teachings such as Zen Buddhism, these exercises have a long monastic tradition. Here the change in identity consciousness from time consciousness to present day consciousness is described in various stages, but ultimately referred to as an enlightenment experience. But also in Islamic Sufism similar instructions are given for the "path of the dervishes". All traditions are in agreement that humans fundamentally have the ability to live in the consciousness of the present.

Voltaire rejected this transcendental interpretation of the consciousness of the flow of time in one of his Lettres philosophiques because it could hardly be justified without recourse to pre-Enlightenment, religious-mystical argumentation. Just through the purity and clarity of thinking and through self-reflection on the change in the contents of consciousness, however, it is possible to visualize the meaning of time.

Due to the abundance and similarity of the traditions and writings, the phenomenon of the mystical experience of timelessness can be described phenomenologically well, but an objective interpretation is difficult. From a psychoanalytic point of view it is either a regression , a relapse into archaic states of consciousness or a progression of consciousness. The latter is supported by the clarity and serenity that go hand in hand with the experience of timelessness. Transpersonal psychology tries to create a theoretical framework for description and classification . Some modern mystics even go so far as to see a new stage of human evolution in the present consciousness.

What the state of present consciousness is supposed to mean physiologically is still largely unexplained in science. Since the focus here is on personal experience, it remains questionable to what extent the modern empirical sciences are at all suitable for being able to make more than just descriptive and statistical statements about them.

See also


History of science and philosophy
  • Kurt Flasch: What is time? Augustine of Hippo. The XI. Book of Confessiones. Text - translation - comment. (= Klostermann seminar ). 2nd Edition. Vittorio Klostermann, Frankfurt am Main 2004.
  • Richard Sorabji : Time, Creation and the Continuum. Duckworth, London 1983. Comprehensive presentation of theories of time from antiquity to the Middle Ages, standard work
  • Walther Ch. Zimmerli, Mike Sandbothe (ed.): Classics of the modern philosophy of time. 2nd Edition. Scientific Book Society, Darmstadt 2007.
  • Thorsten Streubel: The essence of time. Time and consciousness in Augustine, Kant and Husserl. Würzburg 2006.
  • Karen Gloy: Philosophical History of Time. Fink-Verlag, Munich 2008, ISBN 978-3-7705-4671-8 .
  • Time. (= The blue rider. Journal for Philosophy . No. 5). Omega-Verlag Reusch, 1996, ISBN 3-9804005-4-9 .
Cultural history and sociology
  • Gertrud Bodmann: dates and world ages. Concepts of time and space in the Middle Ages. Campus, Frankfurt am Main 1992. With basic information on the chronology
  • Rudolf Wendorff: Time and Culture. History of time consciousness in Europe . Opladen 1980 Hans-Joachim Braun: Review In: Technology and Culture. 23/2, 1982, pp. 229-230.
  • Mike Sandbothe , Walther Ch. Zimmerli (Ed.): Time-Media-Perception. Darmstadt: Scientific Book Society 1994.
  • GJ Whitrow: The Invention of Time. Junius, Hamburg 1991, ISBN 3-88506-183-X .
  • Hartmut Rosa : Acceleration. Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 2005, ISBN 3-518-29360-5 .
  • Armin Nassehi : The time of society. Towards a Sociological Theory of Time. New edition with a contribution 'Present'. 2nd Edition. VS, Wiesbaden 2008, ISBN 978-3-531-15855-6 .
  • Kristóf Nyíri : Time and Image: Philosophical Studies on the Reality of Becoming. Transcript, Bielefeld 2012, ISBN 978-3-8376-1904-1 .
Classic of the philosophy of spacetime
  • Hans Reichenbach: Philosophy of space-time teaching. de Gruyter, Berlin / Leipzig 1928. (New edition: Braunschweig 1977, ISBN 3-528-08362-X )
Systematic representations
  • David Albert : Time and Chance. Harvard University Press, Boston 2001.
  • Julian Barbour : The end of time. Paperback Edition, 2000, ISBN 0-7538-1020-4 .
  • Craig Callender (Ed.): Time, Reality & Experience. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2002.
  • Hans Michael Baumgartner (ed.): The riddle of time. Philosophical Analysis. (= Alber series philosophy ). Freiburg / Munich 1993, ISBN 3-495-47763-2 .
  • Hans Michael Baumgartner (Ed.): Concepts of time and experience of time. (= Border issues. Volume 21). Alber, Freiburg / Munich 1994, ISBN 3-495-47799-3 .
  • Barry Dainton: Time and Space. McGill-Queen's Univ. Press, Montreal et al. a. 2001, ISBN 0-7735-2302-2 .
  • Andreas Deußer, Marian Nebelin (Ed.): What is time? Philosophical and historical theoretical essays. Berlin 2009.
  • E. Freeman, Wilfrid Sellars (Ed.): Basic Issues in the Philosophy of Time. Open Court Publishing Company, La Salle 1971.
  • Robin LePoidevin , Murray MacBeath (Eds.): The Philosophy of Time. Oxford University Press, Oxford / New York 1993.
  • Robin LePoidevin: How the turtle defeated Achilles. Or: the riddles of space and time. Reclam-Verlag, Leipzig 2004, ISBN 3-379-00819-2 . (German translation from Travels in four dimensions - the enigmas of space and time ) Very accessible presentation of one of the leading experts on the subject.
  • Hugh Mellor : Real Time II. Routledge, London 1998.
  • Thomas Müller (Hrsg.): Philosophy of the time: New analytical approaches. Vittorio Klostermann 2007, ISBN 978-3-465-04045-3 .
  • L. Nathan Oaklander (Ed.): The Philosophy of Time. 4 volumes. Routledge, 2008, ISBN 978-0-415-43727-1 . (gathers the most important contributions on the topic)
  • Ewald Richter : Original and physical time. Duncker & Humblot, Berlin 1996, ISBN 3-428-08522-1 .
  • Michael Tooley : Time, Tense, and Causation. Oxford University Press, Oxford 1997.
  • Rolf Elberfeld : Phenomenology of Time in Buddhism. Methods of intercultural philosophizing. 2nd Edition. Verlag Frommann Holzboog, Stuttgart-Bad Cannstatt 2010, ISBN 978-3-7728-2227-8 . Elberfeld discusses texts on the time phenomenon by four thinkers from India, China and Japan,
  • Karen Gloy: Time. A morphology. Alber-Verlag, Freiburg / Munich 2006, ISBN 3-495-48201-6 .
  • Norman Sieroka : Philosophy of Time. Beck, Munich 2018, ISBN 978-3-406-72787-0 .
  • Horst Völz : Description of the world. Space, time, temperature and information - aspects, positions, debates. Shaker Verlag, Aachen 2018, ISBN 978-3-8440-6323-3 .

Web links

Wikisource: Time  - Sources and Full Texts


  1. Aurelius Augustine: What is time? (Confessiones XI / Confessions 11). Inlaid, translated and annotated by Norbert Fischer. Lat.- German, Felix Meiner Verlag, Hamburg, 2000.
  2. Why isn't there nothing? In: Der Spiegel . No. 39 , 2004, p. 190 ( online - September 20, 2004 , interview with Brian Greene).
  3. The quote comes from Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz: “The Metaphysical Beginnings of Mathematics” in manuscripts on the basis of philosophy II. P. 35 ff. Quoted from: Leibniz quotes from Annette Antoine and Annette von Boetticher , Matrix Media Verlag Göttingen 2007.
  4. Being and Nothing Attempt a phenomenological ontology ; Rowohlt Verlag, Reinbek 1991