The Concept of Nature

Chapter 3: Time

Alfred North Whitehead

Table of Contents | Next | Previous

THE two previous lectures of this course have been mainly critical. In the present lecture I propose to enter upon a survey of the kinds of entities which are posited for knowledge in sense-awareness. My purpose is to investigate the sorts of relations which these entities of various kinds can bear to each other. A classification of natural entities is the beginning of natural philosophy. To-day we commence with the consideration of Time.

In the first place there is posited for us a general fact: namely, something is going on; there is an occurrence for definition.

This general fact at once yields for our apprehension two factors, which I will name, the 'discerned' and the 'discernible.' The discerned is comprised of those elements of the general fact which are discriminated with their own individual peculiarities. It is the field directly perceived. But the entities of this field have relations to other entities which are not particularly discriminated in this individual way. These other entities are known merely as the relata in relation to the entities of the discerned field. Such an entity is merely a 'something' which has such-and-such definite relations to some definite entity or entities in the discerned field. As being thus related, they are--owing to the particular character of these relations-known as elements of the general fact which is going on. But we are not aware of them except as entities fulfilling the functions of relata in these relations.

Thus the complete general fact, posited as occurring, comprises both sets of entities, namely the entities

(50) perceived in their own individuality and other entities merely apprehended as relata without further definition. This complete general fact is the discernible and it comprises the discerned. The discernible is all nature as disclosed in that sense-awareness, and extends beyond and comprises all of nature as actually discriminated or discerned in that sense-awareness. The discerning or discrimination of nature is a peculiar awareness of special factors in nature in respect to their peculiar characters. But the factors in nature of which we have this peculiar sense-awareness are known as not comprising all the factors which together form the whole complex of related entities within the general fact there for discernment. This peculiarity of knowledge is what I call its unexhaustive character. This character may be metaphorically described by the statement that nature as perceived always has a ragged edge. For example, there is a world beyond the room to which our sight is confined known to us as completing the space-relations of the entities discerned within the room. The junction of the interior world of the room with the exterior world beyond is never sharp. Sounds and subtler factors disclosed in sense-awareness float in from the outside. Every type of sense has its own set of discriminated entities which are known to be relata in relation with entities not discriminated by that sense. For example we see something which we do not touch and we touch something which we do not see, and we have a general sense of the space-relations between the entity disclosed in sight and the entity disclosed in touch. Thus in the first place each of these two entities is known as a relatum in a general system of space-relations and in the second place the particular mutual relation of

(51) these two entities as related to each other in this general system is determined. But the general system of space-relations relating the entity discriminated by sight with that discriminated by sight is not dependent on the peculiar character of the other entity as reported by the alternative sense. For example, the space-relations of the thing seen would have necessitated an entity as a relatum in the place of the thing touched even although certain elements of its character had not been disclosed by touch. Thus apart from the touch an entity with a certain specific relation to the thing seen would have been disclosed by sense-awareness but not otherwise discriminated in respect to its individual character. An entity merely known as spatially related to some discerned entity is what we mean by the bare idea of 'place.' The concept of place marks the disclosure in sense-awareness of entities in nature known merely by their spatial relations to discerned entities. It is the disclosure of the discernible by means of its relations to the discerned.

This disclosure of an entity as a relatum without further specific discrimination of quality is the basis of our concept of significance. In the above example the thing seen was significant, in that it disclosed its spatial relations to other entities not necessarily otherwise entering into consciousness. Thus significance is relatedness, but it is relatedness with the emphasis on one end only of the relation.

For the sake of simplicity I have confined the argument to spatial relations; but the same considerations apply to temporal relations. The concept of 'period of time' marks the disclosure in sense-awareness of entities in nature known merely by their temporal relations to

(52) discerned entities. Still further, this separation of the ideas of space and time has merely been adopted for the sake of gaining simplicity of exposition by conformity to current language. What we discern is the specific character of a place through a period of time. This is what I mean by an 'event.' We discern some specific character of an event. But in discerning an event we are also aware of its significance as a relatum in the structure of events. This structure of events is the complex of events as related by the two relations of extension and cogredience. The most simple expression of the properties of this structure are to be found in our spatial and temporal relations. A discerned event is known as related in this structure to other events whose specific characters are otherwise not disclosed in that immediate awareness except so far as that they are relata within the structure.

The disclosure in sense-awareness of the structure of events classifies events into those which are discerned in respect to some further individual character and those which are not otherwise disclosed except as elements of the structure. These signified events must include events in the remote past as well as events in the future. We are aware of these as the far off periods of unbounded time. But there is another classification of events which is also inherent in sense-awareness. These are the events which share the immediacy of the immediately present discerned events. These are the events whose characters together with those of the discerned events comprise all nature present for discernment. They form the complete general fact which is all nature now present as disclosed in that sense -awareness. It is in this second classification of events that the differentiation of space from time takes its origin. The germ of

( 53) space is to be found in the mutual relations of events within the immediate general fact which is all nature now discernible, namely within the one event which is the totality of present nature. The relations of other events to this totality of nature form the texture of time.

The unity of this general present fact is expressed by the concept of simultaneity. The general fact is the whole simultaneous occurrence of nature which is now for sense-awareness. This general fact is what I have called the discernible. But in future I will call it a 'duration,' meaning thereby a certain whole of nature which is limited only by the property of being a simultaneity. Further in obedience to the principle of comprising within nature the whole terminus of sense-awareness, simultaneity must not be conceived as an irrelevant mental concept imposed upon nature. Our sense-awareness posits for immediate discernment a certain whole, here called a 'duration'; thus a duration is a definite natural entity. A duration is discriminated as a complex of partial events, and the natural entities which are components of this complex are thereby said to be 'simultaneous with this duration.' Also in a derivative sense they are simultaneous with each other in respect to this duration. Thus simultaneity is a definite natural relation. The word' duration' is perhaps unfortunate in so far as it suggests a mere abstract stretch of time. This is not what I mean. A duration is a concrete slab of nature limited by simultaneity which is an essential factor disclosed in sense-awareness.

Nature is a process. As in the case of everything directly exhibited in sense-awareness, there can be no explanation of this characteristic of nature. All that can be done is to use language which may speculatively

(54) demonstrate it, and also to express the relation of this factor in nature to other factors.

It is an exhibition of the process of nature that each duration happens and passes. The process of nature can also be termed the passage of nature. I definitely refrain at this stage from using the word 'time,' since the measurable time of science and of civilised life generally merely exhibits some aspects of the more fundamental fact of the passage of nature. I believe that in this doctrine I am in full accord with Bergson, though he uses 'time' for the fundamental fact which I call the 'passage of nature.' Also the passage of nature is exhibited equally in spatial transition as well as in temporal transition. It is in virtue of its passage that nature is always moving on. It is involved in the meaning of this property of 'moving on' that not only is any act of senseawareness just that act and no other, but the terminus of each act is also unique and is the terminus of no other act. Sense-awareness seizes its only chance and presents for knowledge something which is for it alone.

There are two senses in which the terminus of senseawareness is unique. It is unique for the sense-awareness of an individual mind and it is unique for the sense-awareness of all minds which are operating under natural conditions. There is an important distinction between the two cases. (i) For one mind not only is the discerned component of the general fact exhibited in any act of sense-awareness distinct from the discerned component of the general fact exhibited in any other act of sense-awareness of that mind, but the two corresponding durations which are respectively related by simultaneity to the two discerned components are necessarily distinct. This is an exhibition of the temporal

( 55) passage of nature; namely, one duration has passed into the other. Thus not only is the passage of nature an essential character of nature in its rôle of the terminus of sense-awareness, but it is also essential for sense-awareness in itself. It is this truth which makes time appear to extend beyond nature. But what extends beyond nature to mind is not the serial and measurable time, which exhibits merely the character of passage in nature, but the quality of passage itself which is in no way measurable except so far as it obtains in nature. That is to say, 'passage' is not measurable except as it occurs in nature in connexion with extension. In passage we reach a connexion of nature with the ultimate metaphysical reality. The quality of passage in durations is a particular exhibition in nature of a quality which extends beyond nature. For example passage is a quality not only of nature, which is the thing known, but also of sense-awareness which is the procedure of knowing. Durations have all the reality that nature has, though what that may be we need not now determine. The measurableness of time is derivative from the properties of durations. So also is the serial character of time. We shall find that there are in nature competing serial time-systems derived from different families of durations. These are a peculiarity of the character of passage as it is found in nature. This character has the reality of nature, but we must not necessarily transfer natural time to extra-natural entities. (ii) For two minds, the discerned components of the general facts exhibited in their respective acts of sense-awareness must be different. For each mind, in its awareness of nature is aware of a certain complex of related natural entities in their relations to the living body as a focus. But the

(56) associated durations may be identical. Here we are touching on that character of the passage nature which issues in the spatial relations of simultaneous bodies. This possible identity of the durations in the case of the sense-awareness of distinct minds is what binds into one nature the private experiences of sentient beings. We are here considering the spatial side of the passage of nature. Passage in this aspect of it also seems to extend beyond nature to mind.

It is important to distinguish simultaneity from instantaneousness. I lay no stress on the mere current usage of the two terms. There are two concepts which I want to distinguish, and one I call simultaneity and the other instantaneousness. I hope that the words are judiciously chosen; but it really does not matter so long as I succeed in explaining my meaning. Simultaneity is the property of a group of natural elements which in some sense are components of a duration. A duration can be all nature present as the immediate fact posited by sense-awareness. A duration retains within itself the passage of nature. There are within it antecedents and consequents which are also durations which may be the complete specious presents of quicker consciousnesses. In other words a duration retains temporal thickness. Any concept of all nature as immediately known is always a concept of some duration though it may be enlarged in its temporal thickness beyond the possible specious present of any being known to us as existing within nature. Thus simultaneity is an ultimate factor in nature, immediate for sense-awareness.

Instantaneousness is a complex logical concept of a procedure in thought by which constructed logical entities are produced for the sake of the simple ex-

( 57) -pression in thought of properties of nature. Instantaneousness is the concept of all nature at an instant, where an instant is conceived as deprived of all temporal extension. For example we conceive of the distribution of matter in space at an instant. This is a very useful concept in science especially in applied mathematics; but it is a very complex idea so far as concerns its connexions with the immediate facts of sense-awareness. There is no such thing as nature at an instant posited by sense-awareness. What sense-awareness delivers over for knowledge is nature through a period. Accordingly nature at an instant, since it is not itself a natural entity, must be defined in terms of genuine natural entities. Unless we do so, our science, which employs the concept of instantaneous nature, must abandon all claim to be founded upon observation.

I will use the term 'moment' to mean 'all nature at an instant.' A moment, in the sense in which the term is here used, has no temporal extension, and is in this respect to be contrasted with a duration which has such extension. What is directly yielded to our knowledge by sense-awareness is a duration. Accordingly we have now to explain how moments are derived from durations, and also to explain the purpose served by their introduction.

A moment is a limit to which we approach as we confine attention to durations of minimum extension. Natural relations among the ingredients of a duration gain in complexity as we consider durations of increasing temporal extension. Accordingly there is an approach to ideal simplicity as we approach an ideal diminution of extension.

The word 'limit' has a precise signification in the logic of number and even in the logic of non-numerical

(58) one-dimensional series. As used here it is so far a mere metaphor, and it is necessary to explain directly the concept which it is meant to indicate.

Durations can have the two-termed relational property of extending one over the other. Thus the duration which is all nature during a certain minute extends over the duration which is all nature during the 30th second of that minute. This relation of 'extending over' -- 'extension' as I shall call it-is a fundamental natural relation whose field comprises more than durations. It is a relation which two limited events can have to each other. Furthermore as holding between durations the relation appears to refer to the purely temporal extension. I shall however maintain that the same relation of extension lies at the base both of temporal and spatial extension. This discussion can be postponed; and for the present we are simply concerned with the relation of extension as it occurs in its temporal aspect for the limited field of durations.

The concept of extension exhibits in thought one side of the ultimate passage of nature. This relation holds because of the special character which passage assumes in nature; it is the relation which in the case of durations expresses the properties of 'passing over.' Thus the duration which was one definite minute passed over the duration which was its 30th second. The duration of the 30th second was part of the duration of the minute. I shall use the terms 'whole' and 'part' exclusively in this sense, that the 'part' is an event which is extended over by the other event which is the 'whole.' Thus in my nomenclature 'whole' and 'Part' refer exclusively to this fundamental relation of extension; and accordingly in this technical usage only events can be either wholes or parts.


The continuity of nature arises from extension. Every event extends over other events, and every event is extended over by other events. Thus in the special case of durations which are now the only events directly under consideration, every duration is part of other durations; and every duration has other durations which are parts of it. Accordingly there are no maximum durations and no minimum durations. Thus there is no atomic structure of durations, and the perfect definition of a duration, so as to mark out its individuality and distinguish it from highly analogous durations over which it is passing, or which are passing over it, is an arbitrary postulate of thought. Sense-awareness posits durations as factors in nature but does not clearly enable thought to use it as distinguishing the separate individualities of the entities of an allied group of slightly differing durations. This is one instance of the indeterminateness of sense-awareness. Exactness is an ideal of thought, and is only realised in experience by the selection of a route of approximation.

The absence of maximum and minimum durations does not exhaust the properties of nature which make up its continuity. The passage of nature involves the existence of a family of durations. When two durations belong to the same family either one contains the other, or they overlap each other in a subordinate duration without either containing the other; or they are completely separate. The excluded case is that of durations overlapping in finite events but not containing a third duration as a common part.

It is evident that the relation of extension is transitive; namely as applied to durations, if duration A is part of duration B, and duration B is part of duration C, then A

(60) is part of C. Thus the first two cases may be combined into one and we can say that two durations which belong to the same family either are such that there are durations which are parts of both or are completely separate.

Furthermore the converse of this proposition holds; namely, if two durations have other durations which are parts of both or if the two durations are completely separate, then they belong to the same family.

The further characteristics of the continuity of nature-so far as durations are concerned-which has not yet been formulated arises in connexion with a family of durations. It can be stated in this way: There are durations which contain as parts any two durations of the same family. For example a week contains as parts any two of its days. It is evident that a containing duration satisfies the conditions for belonging to the same family as the two contained durations.

We are now prepared to proceed to the definition of a moment of time. Consider a set of durations all taken from the same family. Let it have the following properties: (i) of any two members of the set one contains the other as a part, and (ii) there is no duration which is a common part of every member of the set.

Now the relation of whole and part is asymmetrical; and by this I mean that if A is part of B, then B is not part of A. Also we have already noted that the relation is transitive. Accordingly we can easily see that the durations of any set with the properties just enumerated must be arranged in a one-dimensional serial order in which as we descend the series we progressively reach durations of smaller and smaller temporal extension. The series may start with any arbitrarily assumed

( 61) duration of any temporal extension, but in descending the series the temporal extension progressively contracts and the successive durations are packed one within the other like the nest of boxes of a Chinese toy. But the set differs from the toy in this particular: the toy has a smallest box which forms the end box of its series; but the set of durations can have no smallest duration nor can it converge towards a duration as its limit. For the parts either of the end duration or of the limit would be parts of all the durations of the set and thus the second condition for the set would be violated.

I will call such a set of durations an 'abstractive set' of durations. It is evident that an abstractive set as we pass along it converges to the ideal of all nature with no temporal extension, namely, to the ideal of all nature at an instant. But this ideal is in fact the ideal of a nonentity. What the abstractive set is in fact doing is to guide thought to the consideration of the progressive simplicity of natural relations as we progressively diminish the temporal extension of the duration considered. Now the whole point of the procedure is that the quantitative expressions of these natural properties do converge to limits though the abstractive set does not converge to any limiting duration. The laws relating these quantitative limits are the laws of nature 'at an instant,' although in truth there is no nature at an instant and there is only the abstractive set. Thus an abstractive set is effectively the entity meant when we consider an instant of time without temporal extension. It subserves all the necessary purposes of giving a definite meaning to the concept of the properties of nature at an instant. I fully agree that this concept is fundamental in the expression of physical science. The

( 62) difficulty is to express our meaning in terms of the immediate deliverances of sense-awareness, and I offer the above explanation as a complete solution of the problem.

In this explanation a moment is the set of natural properties reached by a route of approximation. An abstractive series is a route of approximation. There are different routes of approximation to the same limiting set of the properties of nature. In other words there are different abstractive sets which are to be regarded as routes of approximation to the same moment. Accordingly there is a certain amount of technical detail necessary in explaining the relations of such abstractive sets with the same convergence and in guarding against possible exceptional cases. Such details are not suitable for exposition in these lectures, and I have dealt with them fully elsewhere[1].

It is more convenient for technical purposes to look on a moment as being the class of all abstractive sets of durations with the same convergence. With this definition (provided that we can successfully explain what we mean by the 'same convergence' apart from a detailed knowledge of the set of natural properties arrived at by approximation) a moment is merely a class of sets of durations whose relations of extension in respect to each other have certain definite peculiarities. We may term these connexions of the component durations the 'extrinsic' properties of a moment; the 'intrinsic' properties of the moment are the properties of nature arrived at as a limit as we proceed along any one of its abstractive sets. These are the properties of nature 'at that moment,' or 'at that instant.'

( 63)

The durations which enter into the composition of a moment all belong to one family. Thus there is one family of moments corresponding to one family of durations. Also if we take two moments of the same family, among the durations which enter into the composition of one moment the smaller durations are completely separated from the smaller durations which enter into the composition of the other moment. Thus the two moments in their intrinsic properties must exhibit the limits of completely different states of nature. In this sense the two moments are completely separated. I will call two moments of the same family 'parallel.'

Corresponding to each duration there are two moments of the associated family of moments which are the boundary moments of that duration. A 'boundary moment' of a duration can be defined in this way. There are durations of the same family as the given duration which overlap it but are not contained in it. Consider an abstractive set of such durations. Such a set defines a moment which is just as much without the duration as within it. Such a moment is a boundary moment of the duration. Also we call upon our sense-awareness of the passage of nature to inform us that there are two such boundary moments, namely the earlier one and the later one. We will call them the initial and the final boundaries.

There are also moments of the same family such that the shorter durations in their composition are entirely separated from the given duration. Such moments will be said to lie 'outside' the given duration. Again other moments of the family are such that the shorter durations in their composition are parts of the given duration. Such moments are said to lie 'within' the given

(64) duration or to ' inhere' in it. The whole family of parallel moments is accounted for in this way by reference to any given duration of the associated family of durations. Namely, there are moments of the family which lie without the given duration, there are the two moments which are the boundary moments of the given duration, and the moments which lie within the given duration. Furthermore any two moments of the same family are the boundary moments of some one duration of the associated family of durations.

It is now possible to define the serial relation of temporal order among the moments of a family. For let A and C be any two moments of the family, these moments are the boundary moments of one duration d of the associated family, and any moment B which lies within the duration d will be said to lie between the moments A and C. Thus the three-termed relation of 'lying-between' as relating three moments A, B, and C is completely defined. Also our knowledge of the passage of nature assures us that this relation distributes the moments of the family into a serial order. I abstain from enumerating the definite properties which secure this result, I have enumerated them in my recently published book[2] to which I have already referred. Furthermore the passage of nature enables us to know that one direction along the series corresponds to passage into the future and the other direction corresponds to retrogression towards the past.

Such an ordered series of moments is what we mean by time defined as a series. Each element of the series exhibits an instantaneous; state of nature, Evidently this serial time is the result of an intellectual process of

( 65) abstraction. What I have done is to give precise definitions of the procedure by which the abstraction is effected. This procedure is merely a particular case of the general method which in my book I name the 'method of extensive abstraction.' This serial time is evidently not the very passage of nature itself. It exhibits some of the natural properties which flow from it. The state of nature 'at a moment' has evidently lost this ultimate quality of passage. Also the temporal series of moments only retains it as an extrinsic relation of entities and not as the outcome of the essential being of the terms of the series.

Nothing has yet been said as to the measurement of time. Such measurement does not follow from the mere serial property of time; it requires a theory of congruence which will be considered in a later lecture.

In estimating the adequacy of this definition of the temporal series as a formulation of experience it is necessary to discriminate between the crude deliverance of sense-awareness and our intellectual theories. The lapse of time is a measurable serial quantity. The whole of scientific theory depends on this assumption and any theory of time which fails to provide such a measurable series stands self-condemned as unable to account for the most salient fact in experience. Our difficulties only begin when we ask what it is that is measured. It is evidently something so fundamental in experience that we can hardly stand back from it and hold it apart so as to view it in its own proportions.

We have first to make up our minds whether time is to be found in nature or nature is to be found in time. The difficulty of the latter alternative-namely of making time prior to nature-is that time then becomes

( 66) a metaphysical enigma. What sort of entities are its instants or its periods? The dissociation of time from events discloses to our immediate inspection that the attempt to set up time as an independent terminus for knowledge is like the effort to find substance in a shadow. There is time because there are happenings, and apart from happenings there is nothing.

It is necessary however to make a distinction. In some sense time extends beyond nature. It is not true that a timeless sense-awareness and a timeless thought combine to contemplate a timeful nature. Sense-awareness and thought are themselves processes as well as their termini in nature. In other words there is a passage of sense-awareness and a passage of thought. Thus the reign of the quality of passage extends beyond nature. But now the distinction arises between passage which is fundamental and the temporal series which is a logical abstraction representing some of the properties of nature. A temporal series, as we have defined it, represents merely certain properties of a family of durations-properties indeed which durations only possess because of their partaking of the character of passage, but on the other hand properties which only durations do possess. Accordingly time in the sense of a measurable temporal series is a character of nature only, and does not extend to the processes of thought and of sense-awareness except by a correlation of these processes with the temporal series implicated in their procedures.

So far the passage of nature has been considered in connexion with the passage of durations; and in this connexion it is peculiarly associated with temporal series. We must remember however that the character of passage is peculiarly associated with the extension of

( 67) events, and that from this extension spatial transition arises just as much as temporal transition. The discussion of this point is reserved for a later lecture but it is necessary to remember it now that we are proceeding to discuss the application of the concept of passage beyond nature, otherwise we shall have too narrow an idea of the essence of passage.

It is necessary to dwell on the subject of sense-awareness in this connexion as an example of the way in which time concerns mind, although measurable time is a mere abstract from nature and nature is closed to mind.

Consider sense-awareness -- not its terminus which is nature, but sense-awareness in itself as a procedure of mind. Sense-awareness is a relation of mind to nature. Accordingly we are now considering mind as a relatum in sense-awareness. For mind there is the immediate sense-awareness and there is memory. The distinction between memory and the present immediacy has a double bearing. On the one hand it discloses that mind is not impartially aware of all those natural durations to which it is related by awareness. Its awareness shares in the passage of nature. We can imagine a being whose awareness, conceived as his private possession, suffers no transition, although the terminus of his awareness is our own transient nature. There is no essential reason why memory should not be raised to the vividness of the present fact; and then from the side of mind, What is the difference between the present and the past? Yet with this hypothesis we can also suppose that the vivid remembrance and the present fact are posited in awareness as in their temporal serial order. Accordingly we must admit that though we can imagine that mind in the operation of sense-

( 68) -awareness might be free from any character of passage, yet in point of fact our experience of sense-awareness exhibits our minds as partaking in this character.

On the other hand the mere fact of memory is an escape from transience. In memory the past is present. It is not present as overleaping the temporal succession of nature, but it is present as an immediate fact for the mind. Accordingly memory is a disengagement of the mind from the mere passage of nature; for what has passed for nature has not passed for mind.

Furthermore the distinction between memory and the immediate present is not so clear as it is conventional to suppose. There is an intellectual theory of time as a moving knife-edge, exhibiting a present fact without temporal extension. This theory arises from the concept of an ideal exactitude of observation. Astronomical observations are successively refined to be exact to tenths, to hundredths, and to thousandths of seconds. But the final refinements are arrived at by a system of averaging, and even then present us with a stretch of time as a margin of error. Here error is merely a conventional term to express the fact that the character of experience does not accord with the ideal of thought. I have already explained how the concept of a moment conciliates the observed fact with this ideal; namely, there is a limiting simplicity in the quantitative expression of the properties of durations, which is arrived at by considering any one of the abstractive sets included in the moment. In other words the extrinsic character of the moment as an aggregate of durations has associated with it the intrinsic character of the moment which is the limiting expression of natural properties.

( 69)

Thus the character of a moment and the ideal of exactness which it enshrines do not in any way weaken the position that the ultimate terminus of awareness is a duration with temporal thickness. This immediate duration is not clearly marked out for our apprehension. Its earlier boundary is blurred by a fading into memory, and its later boundary is blurred by an emergence from anticipation. There is no sharp distinction either between memory and the present immediacy or between the present immediacy and anticipation. The present is a wavering breadth of boundary between the two extremes. Thus our own sense-awareness with its extended present has some of the character of the sense-awareness of the imaginary being whose mind was free from passage and who contemplated all nature as an immediate fact. Our own present has its antecedents and its consequents, and for the imaginary being all nature has its antecedent and its consequent durations. Thus the only difference in this respect between us and the imaginary being is that for him all nature shares in the immediacy of our present duration.

The conclusion of this discussion is that so far as sense-awareness is concerned there is a passage of mind which is distinguishable from the passage of nature though closely allied with it. We may speculate, if we like, that this alliance of the passage of mind with the passage of nature arises from their both sharing in some ultimate character of passage which dominates all being. But this is a speculation in which we have no concern. The immediate deduction which is sufficient for us is that-so far as sense-awareness is concerned--mind is not in time or in space in the same sense in which the events of nature are in time, but

(70) that it is derivatively in time and in space by reason of the peculiar alliance of its passage with the passage of nature. Thus mind is in time and in space in a sense peculiar to itself. This has been a long discussion to arrive at a very simple and obvious conclusion. We all feel that in some sense our minds are here in this room and at this time. But it is not quite in the same sense as that in which the events of nature which are the existences of our brains have their spatial and temporal positions. The fundamental distinction to remember is that immediacy for sense-awareness is not the same as instantaneousness for nature. This last conclusion bears on the next discussion with which I will terminate this lecture. This question can be formulated thus, Can alternative temporal series be found in nature?

A few years ago such a suggestion would have been put aside as being fantastically impossible. It would have had no bearing on the science then current, and was akin to no ideas which had ever entered into the dreams of philosophy. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries accepted as their natural philosophy a certain circle of concepts which were as rigid and definite as those of the philosophy of the middle ages, and were accepted with as little critical research. I will call this natural philosophy 'materialism.' Not only were men of science materialists, but also adherents of all schools of philosophy. The idealists only differed from the philosophic materialists on question of the alignment of nature in reference to mind. But no one had any doubt that the philosophy of nature considered in itself was of the type which I have called materialism. It is the philosophy which I have already examined in my two lectures of this course preceding the present one. It

( 71) can be summarised as the belief that nature is an aggregate of material and that this material exists in some sense at each successive member of a one-dimensional series of extensionless instants of time. Furthermore the mutual relations of the material entities at each instant formed these entities into a spatial configuration in an unbounded space. It would seem that space---on this theory-would be as instantaneous as the instants, and that some explanation is required of the relations between the successive instantaneous spaces. The materialistic theory is however silent on this point; and the succession of instantaneous spaces is tacitly combined into one persistent space. This theory is a purely intellectual rendering of experience which has had the luck to get itself formulated at the dawn of scientific thought. It has dominated the language and the imagination of science since science flourished in Alexandria, with the result that it is now hardly possible to speak without appearing to assume its immediate obviousness.

But when it is distinctly formulated in the abstract terms in which I have just stated it, the theory is very far from obvious. The passing complex of factors which compose the fact which is the terminus of sense-awareness places before us nothing corresponding to the trinity of this natural materialism. This trinity is composed (i) of the temporal series of extensionless instants, (ii) of the aggregate of material entities, and (iii) of space which is the outcome of relations of matter.

There is a wide gap between these presuppositions of the intellectual theory of materialism and the immediate deliverances of sense-awareness. I do not question that this materialistic trinity embodies im-

( 72) -portant characters of nature. But it is necessary to express these characters in terms of the facts of experience. This is exactly what in this lecture I have been endeavouring to do so far as time is concerned; and we have now come up against the question, Is there only one temporal series? The uniqueness of the temporal series is presupposed in the materialist philosophy of nature. But that philosophy is merely a theory, like the Aristotelian scientific theories so firmly believed in the middle ages. If in this lecture I have in any way succeeded in getting behind the theory to the immediate facts, the answer is not nearly so certain. The question can be transformed into this alternative form, Is there only one family of durations? In this question the meaning of a 'family of durations' has been defined earlier in this lecture. The answer is now not at all obvious. On the materialistic theory the instantaneous present is the only field for the creative activity of nature. The past is gone and the future is not yet. Thus (on this theory) the immediacy of perception is of an instantaneous present, and this unique present is the outcome of the past and the promise of the future. But we deny this immediately given instantaneous present. There is no such thing to be found in nature. As an ultimate fact it is a nonentity. What is immediate for sense-awareness is a duration. Now a duration has within itself a past and a future; and the temporal breadths of the immediate durations of sense-awareness are very indeterminate and dependent on the individual percipient. Accordingly there is no unique factor in nature which for every percipient is preeminently and necessarily the present. The passage of nature leaves nothing between the past and the future.


What we perceive as present is the vivid fringe of memory tinged with anticipation. This vividness lights up the discriminated field within a duration. But no assurance can thereby be given that the happenings of nature cannot be assorted into other durations of alternative families. We cannot even know that the series of immediate durations posited by the sense-awareness of one individual mind all necessarily belong to the same family of durations. There is not the slightest reason to believe that this is so. Indeed if my theory of nature be correct, it will not be the case.

The materialistic theory has all the completeness of the thought of the middle ages, which had a complete answer to everything, be it in heaven or in hell or in nature. There is a trimness about it, with its instantaneous present, its vanished past, its non-existent future, and its inert matter. This trimness is very medieval and ill accords with brute fact.

The theory which I am urging admits a greater ultimate mystery and a deeper ignorance. The past and the future meet and mingle in the ill-defined present. The passage of nature which is only another name for the creative force of existence has no narrow ledge of definite instantaneous present within which to operate. Its operative presence which is now urging nature forward must be sought for throughout the whole, in the remotest past as well as in the narrowest breadth of any present duration. Perhaps also in the unrealised future. Perhaps also in the future which might be as well as the actual future which will be. It is impossible to meditate on time and the mystery of the creative passage of nature without an overwhelming emotion at the limitations of human intelligence.


  1. Cf. An Enquiry concerning the Principles of Natural Knowledge, Cambridge University Press, 1919.
  2. Cf. Enquiry

Valid HTML 4.01 Strict Valid CSS2