Friday, 18 February 2011


As I have mentioned a number of times here before, I earn my living nursing patients who need intensive or continual care at home. Recently I was assigned a new patient, where I will spend most of my working time in the foreseeable future.

Salvador Dali - La Persistencia de la Memoria
The man in question suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and has been on a respirator (with a large extra helping of oxygen to boot) around the clock for the past year. Because his life is completely dependent on the machine, somebody has to be there all the time and because his wife goes out to work, our nursing service is present for around eight hours daily (the costs are covered by the German public health insurance).

It is shamefully easy work – almost money for nothing – partly because of the personality of the patient involved. He’s a taciturn, rather unfriendly character, who is not interested in mobilisation, conversation or any kind of special activity. The compromise he has reached with his illness is to lie in bed watching TV. All day. As long as I check on him every hour or so, help him wash and shave in the morning, bring him his meals, occasionally use the suction machine to relieve bronchial congestion and offer him something to drink every now and again, he has no desire for anything else nor any wish for my company. So I spend most of my working day in the living room next to his bedroom, reading, surfing the web or writing – as I am doing now.

If you’re not well able to occupy yourself, of course (something with which I fortunately have no trouble), it can be very boring, which is one reason why many of my colleagues don’t want to work here. You can very easily get the feeling that you have huge amounts of time on your hands, time which can then seem to move very slowly indeed. How my patient experiences time is something I can only guess at; he’s not particularly communicative and I doubt if we shall ever attain that level of conviviality necessary to exchange views on such philosophical topics. Apart from anything else, he has a tracheotomy tube, which makes speaking very difficult for him – though this need not be an insurmountable barrier to rich communication, as I recently described in my post about Hannelore.

If I were in my patient’s position, with his attitude, I think I would find time very tedious – an endless progression of minutes and hours in a very small, monotonous life. Time would become something to kill, as the saying goes, an activity which would have to be continuously repeated. But he seems, in his own way, to have achieved his own compromise, found his own solution, regarding the subject. Reflecting on this, I was reminded how much our particular subjective situations effect the way we experience time.

As one of the fundamental categories of existence, time is actually something very difficult to satisfactorily define. Reflecting on God, eternity and time in his famous Confessions, Augustine of Hippo (not a source I often quote!) sums up the problem quite well

For what is time? Who can readily and briefly explain this? Who can even in thought comprehend it, so as to utter a word about it? But what in discourse do we mention more familiarly and knowingly, than time? And, we understand, when we speak of it; we understand also, when we hear it spoken of by another.
What then is time? If no one asks me, I know: if I wish to explain it to one that asketh, I know not …

I’ll come back to the philosophers a little later. Scientists have also concerned themselves extensively with time; as a fundamental category it plays a central role in every variety of the subject, but is a particular interest of theoretical physicists, from Newton, through Einstein and Planck, to Hawking. For Newton, time is part of the fundamental structure of the universe, a dimension in which things occur in sequence and little more needs to be said about it. While the Newtonian view is perfectly adequate for ordinary, everyday use, the work of Einstein, by postulating the speed of light as a constant, showed that everything else – including time – was relative and dependent on the position of the observer. His relativity theories postulate a spacetime continuum in which space and time are intertwined and, under particular circumstances, subject to dilation. Following the Einsteinian model, for example, time moves perceptibly more slowly for someone travelling at an appreciable fraction of the speed of light than for an observer at (apparent) rest, leading to a situation where for someone approaching the speed of light time scarcely moves at all (from the point of view of the observer). Quantum physics suggests the theoretical possibility of multiple time lines, while Stephen Hawking suggests that time itself – in any sense we can reasonably talk about it – is a function and result of the Big Bang.

I am not a physicist and thus promptly apologise to those who understand much more of this than I do for this terribly simplified and bastardised description of an extremely complex area. What I find interesting is that such modern scientific models of what time is have certain areas of convergence with the way a number of philosophers have considered the subject. Both Einstein and Planck, each in their own way, emphasise the central role of the observer in their arguments and in doing so suggest that our modern scientific thoughts concerning time are not all that far removed from the views of the great Immanuel Kant on the question.

Kant’s philosophy is not easy to read, he has a dense, voluminous style which often leads to the situation that, having read a number of pages with strenuous attention, you realise that you haven’t understood it and, with clenched teeth, have to go back and read it again. Part of this is because his way of thinking is, on first glance, so counterintuitive (to use a contemporary philosophical buzz-word) that it takes serious attention to follow him. It’s worth the effort, though.

Kant’s philosophy has the perceiving subject at its centre. In The Critique of Pure Reason, he describes time (as well as space) as a fundamental given structure of the way we perceive things, an a priori intuition which makes our sensorial experience comprehensible in the first place. Time is an irremovable part of the framework through which we organise and make sense of the raw mass of stuff we experience, perceive and even think. Seen this way, there is something essentially human about it, as human as our bodies, which we see in two related ways; something that we have and something that we are. Time too is something that we have – the only thing we all have equally, twenty four hours of it every day – but it is also something that we are; beings living, thinking and acting within our own human experienced framework, one dimension of which is time.

Theoretically of course we know that time moves on steadily (at least in the Newtonian terms in which we experience it in ordinary life) with every tick of the clock. That, in a very obvious sense, time progresses objectively forward is something that becomes clear to everyone, at the latest when one misses a bus or a plane. But this obvious fact says very little else about time that is important. In our real lives, we actually experience time as something malleable, something which we can influence and which influences us, something with which we are continually in a dynamic relationship.

It also displays another characteristic of a relationship, in that – just like a partner – it doesn’t always do what we want it to do. In moments of tedium, of difficulty it seems to slow down, to drag interminably; in moments of happiness, of joy, of ecstasy it all too often shifts into top gear, racing on despite our best efforts to slow it, to savour every wonderful moment.

So we talk about time as something we have (or don’t have enough of), something we can save, or waste. If we feel the need, we can even spend a lot of money to have so-called experts teach us how to manage it, as if it were a wild animal, constantly threatening to escape from its cage and wreak havoc in our lives. Of course, what such people teach, if they are any good at what they are doing at all, is not time-management but rather self-management.

For we are, finally, beings in time, and we cannot really step outside the temporal aspect of our nature. Even when we talk or think about “timeless” states, using terms like eternity, we can only define them in terms of time, which is an irreducible part of our experience, our being (the great German philosopher, Heidegger, in his monumental work, Being and Time, leaves his own question, “Does time itself reveal itself as the horizon of being?” [p.437, London, 1962] unanswered). In the end, we can only speak of time as we experience it, and that very experiencing of it is itself categorised by temporality.

This, of course, puts time, or at least our perceiving and experiencing of it, back into our control – to an extent anyway. How we experience time, what we make of it, is up to us – it is a result of the choices which we make, with which we exercise our freedom. This freedom may be, usually is constrained by all kinds of external factors, what has gone before, choices we have previously made, etc., but the possibility of it always remains.

When it comes to time, the present moment, the now, is all that is real anyway. The past may have brought us to here, but it is gone; the future will be, to an extent, determined by the choices we make now, but ultimately there is only now, this moment, and this one, and this one, a continuous succession making up the flow which we experience as life. Each moment new, a new instant to experience ourselves and our lives, a new opportunity to make choices, to choose our future which, in turn, becomes the new now.

Even for my unhappy, misanthropic patient. He has something many others, hustling their way through the hectic and stress of their lives, often wish for, all the time in the world. This may seem heartless, for with his illness he does pay a high price for it. And his illness, of course, means that there are many things he cannot do with all that time which is now available to him. But there are also many other things he could. He chooses not to. It is his life, his choice, his time to do with (within the limitations I have described) what he will. If he chooses to spend it all watching TV and feeling resentful at his fate, that is his choice too. And perhaps his subjective experience of his own time is not as tedious as I imagine. Somehow, I don’t see us discussing the subject in the foreseeable future …

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