Change: 3. The structure of time

The doctrine of flux is often associated with the notion that time consists of particles (“…at this point in time…”) which move sequentially past something known as “the present.” While only one point (or “moment”) “at a time” is co-synchronous with “the present” (a concatenation of concepts reminiscent of a tangle of rusty barbed wire) other points, equally real, exist in the past and the future. This is sometimes extrapolated to an extreme in the simplistic notion that we can perceive only “one thing at a time” — as if things were incapable of appearing within a context. In this model time is often compared to a river, and the various phenomena of experience to floatage.

However, if we understand time to be not a thing within (or upon) which all other things exist, but a characteristic of phenomena, then confusion need not arise. Things exhibit, variously, the qualities of blueness, of clangorousness, of sweetness, of pungency, of warmth, or of calmness (to name but one quality perceived through each of the senses). But we do not suppose (unless we are Platonists) that there are therefore universal qualities, “Blue,” etc., from which these various characteristics are derived. Why, then, need we assume that temporality (or, the same thing, impermanence) is different?

True, it is universal, unlike all other qualities.[4] But it is not thereby any the less a quality inherent to phenomena rather than something imposed externally. The notion of time being external to phenomena, of things existing in time, brings us back to the search for some basic essence (“Time is Nature’s way of preventing everything from happening all at once.”) which is simultaneously both within and outside the range of human experience. Such a model is not merely suppositions but pernicious.

When such notions are set aside we shall be able to see that there is a basic and observable temporal structure to experience: it is organized hierarchically. This has already been implied in the observation that subsidiary changes occur more frequently than general ones. Things exist not in isolation but against a background of what they are not. For as long as we differentiate between a figure and its background the figure remains itself. Each figure greater than a point (a perceived point, that is, and not the ideal and suppositious points of mathematicians) is necessarily a construct of subsidiary components, for each of which the figure serves as background. And each background is in turn subsidiary to and defined by a yet more general level of experience. When change occurs it does so on a particular level of generality, and against a background of non-change at the next higher level.

Thus, a song is a sequence of notes of defined intervals. The notes change, but the song (which is the context within which the notes are characterized) remains the same song until it is finished. It would be meaningless to say, as the notes follow one another, that the song is changing. Our very sense of what a song is is that it is, precisely, an organized sequence of notes. It is because the notes change (and not their organization) that there is a song at all, let alone the same song.

Change always occurs at a specific level of generality. But at any level the change is total: what is ceases to be and is replaced by something else, or by nothing else. But on the next higher level there is no change at all: what is remains what it is until it ceases to be what it is. If the song is part of a more general performance then we can say that though the song has ended and another has begun there is still the same concert, for the concert is the background to the songs. The note is finished but the melody lingers on. The song is over but the concert continues. The concert is concluded but there is still the fag end of the evening to go. How long “the present” lasts depends upon our perspective. It is for this reason that in common language there is quite properly a plasticity in the scope of the word “now.”

The present can mean this very second (the nick of time), the next sixty seconds (while this song — “The Minute Waltz” — is playing), today (“What a difference a day makes…”), a season (“Summertime, and the livin’ is easy…”), or even the last million years or so (“In comparison with the Tertiary period, then, the Pleistocene is marked by…”). How long “now” lasts depends on its context, and context is a matter of perspective. It is only against a background of sameness that change can be perceived. This is “change while standing” — thitassa aññathattam, A. III,47: i,52. Without difference we cannot speak of change; but without steadiness how can we speak of difference? Change requires non-change as its background, as what it is not.[5]

Again: this sentence remains “this sentence” and not “a different sentence” until such time as (within the terms of experience of it) it ends. It remains “this sentence” even though its subsidiary parts, namely the words which comprise it, arise and cease in an organized sequence as experienced entities. And even though that sentence has now come to an end, has ceased utterly, has been replaced by another sentence, namely this one, yet this is still the same paragraph, specifically the eighth paragraph of the third section of an essay called Change. And on a yet more general level, until it demonstrates its own title by concluding, this essay will remain the same essay, Change, even after this paragraph has come to an end. To wit:

Since on each higher level of generality there is no change at all we can say that from a point of view within any one level the next higher level is eternal. Or, better, extra-temporal. Just as change is perceptible only against a background of non-change, so too impermanence (temporality) is perceptible only against a background of extra-temporality. But that extra-temporality exists only in relationship to its less general foreground, and it is thus not independently extra-temporal. Its extra-temporality is due entirely to a particular point of view. And since points of view are invariably temporal, that extra-temporality will cease and be utterly ended when the perspective of the experience changes and no longer gives support to eternality. Thus, the extra-temporal exists only with temporality as its condition — a point to which we shall return.

Absolute eternality — eternalness quite independent of any point of view — is another matter. All that can be said is that, since experience necessarily requires a point of view, absolute eternality is outside the realm of any possible experience. It is inherently unknowable, unrealizable. But it would be a mistake to go farther by raising questions of its “existence.” This is all that can be said of absolute eternality, but it is not all that can be said of the desire to discover an absolute eternality. Since this desire is bound up with the inability to understand what is meant by “perception of impermanence” we shall have much more to say about it in the course of this essay.

In normal experience we are skilled at skipping between points of view based on different levels of generality. So accustomed are we to these leaps that we seldom notice the transition. In developing a reflexive attitude we can become skilled at not so leaping, or at least in looking when we do. It is in reflexion that the hierarchical is seen to be fundamental to experience in ways that our primitive examples do not illustrate. But to everydayness this relative extra-temporality may seem paradoxical, inasmuch as its very existence is entirely dependent upon there being a temporal foreground. We expect our eternities to be made of sturdier stuff. We expect them to be absolute. It is disconcerting to find that every eternity exists dependent upon its temporal foreground, without which it would simply cease to be eternal. To be extra-temporal, then, is a quality which inheres in a thing (by virtue of endowment) now. It is eternal at this minute. In other words, a thing can be eternal, but only until it comes to an end.

Thus, if one adopts the point of view of the notes, the song is eternal. It does not merely outlast any particular note (for by that reckoning it would be merely temporal); it is on an entirely different plane of being than the notes. The song is what the notes are for: it is only by virtue of there being a song at all that the notes can be characterized as notes. Were there no song then the individual sounds could not be regarded as music: there would be no notes. In other words the note qua note exists only by virtue of the song, which is the note’s purpose in life.

Things always appear in a context, however rarefied. It is this context which allows us to distinguish “this” from “that.” In order, then, to identify a thing, to “name” it, we must know (among other things) what it is for. Therefore the song is necessarily on a higher level of being than the notes, and cannot be regarded as having the same sort of temporality. (The door will also outlast the notes, but we do not therefore say that from the perspective of the notes the door is eternal. No, for the door is unrelated to the notes, not part of their noteness.)

Of course, the song is extra-temporal only from the point of view of the notes. From the point of view of the song itself it is the concert that is extra-temporal. (Extra-temporal, that is, within the hierarchy we have constructed here. We should observe, though, that this hierarchy — notes, song, concert, evening — is but one of numerous possible hierarchies, many of which could exist within an experience simultaneously, cutting across one another at various junctures.) And from the perspective of “an evening on the town” the song may seem interminable, but it would never seem eternal. From this perspective it is but one feature, to be followed by others, as notes are features of the song.

The song could cease to exist only when the next more immediate level (the notes) ceases to exist. As long as there are notes from which there could be that point of view the song must endure. But when the song ends there is no longer the possibility of regarding its non-existence from the viewpoint of the notes. In this sense the song is (always from the viewpoint of the notes) quite beyond temporality.

But observe that although in this example the background[6] (the song) actually does last longer than the foreground (the particular notes) this is not always the case. If a thing exists or an act is performed for some purpose, then that purpose is (from the viewpoint of the thing or the act) extra-temporal regardless of how long it endures “by the clock.” If we do something merely for the pleasure of doing it, then even though the pleasure lasts not a whit longer than the actual doing, nevertheless from the point of view of the doing the pleasure is extra-temporal. It is endowed with a substantiality which the action does not possess. And it is “the point of view of the doing” that we normally adopt while involved in an activity .

“The eternity which man is seeking is not the infinity of duration, of that vain pursuit after the self for which I am myself responsible; man seeks a repose in self, the atemporality of the absolute co-incidence with himself.”[7] As soon as a thing is taken up as being “this, my self” it is immediately accorded the status of being what everything else is for. It is thus regarded quite literally as extra-temporality personified.


4. Spatiality can be present in any single-sense experience (and a fortiori in any multi-sense experience), but it need not be. It is thus actually not entitled to its privileged position alongside temporality (“the space-time continuum”) as a universal characteristic. Anguish, for instance, is not spatial, though it is certainly temporal. In this limited sense we can say that it is time that is of the essence. (By the way, according to The American Heritage Word Frequency Book, compiled by John B. Carroll et al., the word “time” is the most commonly used noun in modern English.) [Back to text]

5. The relationship between particularity and rate of change is such that in some hierarchies we can arrive at a level of immediacy wherein change is so rapid that it is apprehended only irrationally, as a blur. No doubt with practice the threshold at which perception of discrete change degenerates into an indiscriminate blur can be lowered, but it cannot be eliminated any more than one can eliminate a horizon by running towards it, however fast a runner one may be. [Back to text]

6. The use of the terms “figure,” “background,” etc. are here given a more restricted meaning than their equivalents in Gestalt psychology. In Gestalt the figure is not necessarily “for” the ground; it is merely that part of experience which receives primary attention. Though ground may validly be understood thus, our present interest makes it convenient to use terminology with a more restricted meaning, wherein the background is the “for”-ground. [Back to text]

7. J.-P. Sartre, Being and Nothingness (London: Methuen, 1957), trans. by Hazel E. Barnes, pp. 141-2. [Back to text]

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