The many differences between the ways time is understood in different cultures, as well as the ways in which such differences might affect those cultures, can be divided into three main areas: what time is, how time is experienced, and how it is measured— the metaphysics of time, the perception of time, and the metric of time.
The Metaphysics of Time
The term time can be used to refer to a number of different, though connected, concepts. The concept of change is a central one; one often refers to time when, in fact, one is thinking of the events occurring within time. This is most obvious with regard to utterances such as, “Time is the great healer,” or tempus edax rerum (time the devourer of things). Strictly speaking, time has no causal powers, either of healing or of destroying; what a speaker is really referring to in such cases is the succession of causally related events whose occurrence is noted as the passing of time. Whether time is something in itself, rather than merely the relationship between events, is one of the main questions dealt with in the metaphysics of time.
Questions about the reality, the nature, the shape, and the origins of time are often bound up with more general cosmological theories. Such questions include: Did time have a beginning? Is time linear or looped? Is time real? Is time something in itself, over and above the events that occur within it? Generally, cultures only develop answers to questions of this sort when the questions have been asked, which usually involves the development of a philosophical tradition. As with the perception of time, many writers try to develop a metaphysical theory of time from the literature and languages of cultures that have produced no explicit, worked-out theory of time; they face the problems described below.
The Perception of Time
The phenomenon of subjective time perception is familiar: At its simplest, when one is engaged in pleasurable activities or is concentrating, time can seem to speed by, but when one is bored or waiting for something, time seems to drag: “Time flies when you’re enjoying yourself,” and “A watched pot never boils.” Other factors relevant to perceptions of time may be age (time seems to pass more quickly the older one gets), the season, the weather, the time of day, and so on. It has been argued that these and similar factors lead to a larger-scale cultural phenomenon: that members of different cultures experience time differently.
Since it is impossible to directly compare the experiences of two people, evidence for such theories must be circumstantial; much reliance is placed upon the linguistic patterns—and especially the writings—of the cultures being compared. Two major problems face the researcher. First, it’s important to distinguish between the way someone experiences the world and the theories of the world that person develops. For example, I believe that an oar remains straight when dipped into water, but I still see it as bent; however strong my belief that the oar doesn’t bend, I can’t see it as straight. In the same way, many cultures have developed the theory that time is cyclic, but no one has ever perceived time as cyclic. The way that time is talked and theorized about need not reflect the way that it is experienced.
Second, unless one already understands how a culture experiences the world, it’s extremely difficult to understand or even to recognize that culture’s use of metaphor and other indirect uses of language. Imagine trying to construct an account of how English speakers understand the nature of mind or experience mental phenomena on the basis of such expressions as: “I’m of two minds about that,” “He’s lost his mind,” “It’s got a mind of its own,” and “She can’t make up her mind.”
The Metric of Time
All human societies have developed systems of measuring time based on regularities in the natural world—usually using astronomical phenomena such as movement of the sun, phases of the moon, changing positions of other heavenly bodies (either directly or via the seasons), tides, migrations of animals and birds, etc. Aside from the fact that these regularities are easily observable, they were also linked with activities such as agriculture, hunting, and travel, and religious ritual.
The ability accurately to measure time both affects and is affected by societies; for example, although the Chinese developed clocks long before the Europeans (as evidenced by the Chinese mechanisms taken to Europe and used in the development of clocks there), the Chinese didn’t manufacture or use them except as novelties. In Europe, on the other hand, the clock was seen as the symbol of scientific advancement and rapidly became ubiquitous in private houses and in public places. The measurement of time became the center of European social and commercial life, creating the structure of lives both at work and at play. Thus one distinction that might be drawn between different types of culture is that between those cultures whose experience of time is in terms of certain natural cycles (day and night, phases of the moon, some pattern of seasons, and the year) and those cultures that have developed measurement in such a way that their experience of time is in terms of a succession of more-or-less regular units such as hours, days, weeks, and months.
Often, however, the two ways of experiencing and/or of measuring time sit side by side in different aspects of a culture—evidenced most commonly in secular and religious aspects. For example, secular Western societies count days as twenty-four-hour periods running from midnight to midnight, relying on the solar calendar for most time keeping; for religious purposes, on the other hand, sunrise and sunset are still used to mark the bounds of the day, and the lunar calendar remains important for calculating certain feast and fast days.
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- Mellor, D. H. (1998). Real time IL New York: Routledge.