Please note that the poems and essays on this site are copyright and may not be reproduced without the author's permission.

Thursday 10 March 2011

Wittgenstein and the River of Time


Orange-lined Trigger Fish (Balistapus undulatus) at Nausicäa Centre National de mer, Boulogne-sur-Mer, France
: photo by Hans Hillewaert, 2008

Wittgenstein challenged the concept of a "river of time".

What follows is a passage from his notes for lectures on philosophy delivered at Cambridge in 1932-1933.

12 It was Frege's notion that certain words are unique, on a different level from others, e.g., "word", "proposition", "world". And I once thought that certain words could be distinguished according to their philosophical importance: "grammar", "logic", "mathematics". I should like to destroy this appearance of importance. How is it then that in my investigations certain words come up again and again? It is because I am concerned with language, with troubles arising from a particular use of language. The characteristic trouble we are dealing with is due to our using language automatically, without thinking about the rules of grammar. In general the sentences we are tempted to utter occur in practical situations. But then there is a different way we are tempted to utter sentences. This is when we look at language, consciously direct our attention on it. And then we make up sentences of which we say that they also ought to make sense. A sentence of this sort might not have any particular use, but because it sounds English we consider it sensible. Thus, for example, we talk of the flow of time and consider it sensible to talk of its flow, after the analogy of rivers.

13 If we look at a river in which numbered logs are floating, we can describe events on land with reference to these, e.g., "When the 105th log passed, I ate dinner". Suppose the log makes a bang on passing me. We can say these bangs are separated by equal, or unequal, intervals. We could also say one set of bangs was twice as fast as another set. But the equality or inequality of intervals so measured is entirely different from that measured by a clock. The phrase "length of interval" has its sense in virtue of the way we determine it, and differs according to the method of measurement. Hence the criteria for equality of intervals between passing logs and for equality of intervals measured by a clock are different. We cannot say that two bangs two seconds apart differ only in degree from those an hour apart, for we have no feeling of rhythm if the interval is an hour long. And to say that one rhythm of bangs is faster than another is different from saying that the interval between these two bangs passed much more slowly than the interval between another pair.

Suppose that the passing logs seem to be equal distances apart. We have an experience of what might be called the velocity of these (though not what is measured by a clock). Let us say the river moves uniformly in this sense. But if we say time passed more quickly between logs 1 and 100 than between logs 100 and 200, this is only an analogy; really nothing has passed more quickly. To say time passes more quickly, or that time flows, is to imagine something flowing. We then extend the simile and talk about the direction of time. When people talk of the direction of time, precisely the analogy of a river is before them. Of course a river can change its direction of flow, but one has a feeling of giddiness when one talks of time being reversed. The reason is that the notion of flowing, of something, and of the direction of the flow is embodied in our language.

Suppose that at certain intervals situations repeated themselves, and that someone said time was circular. Would this be right or wrong? Neither. It would only be another way of expression, and we could just as well talk of a circular time. However, the picture of time as flowing, as having a direction, is one that suggests itself very vigorously.

Suppose someone said that the river on which the logs float had a beginning and will have an end, that there will be 100 more logs and that will be the end. It might be said that there is an experience which would verify these statements. Compare this with saying that time ceases. What is the criterion for its ceasing or for its going on? You might say that time ceases when "Time River" ceases. Suppose we had no substantive "time", that we talked only of the passing of logs. Then we could have a measurement of time without any substantive "time". Or we could talk of time coming to an end, meaning that the logs came to an end. We could in this sense talk of time coming to an end.

Can time go on apart from events? What is the criterion for time involved in "Events began 100 years ago and time began 200 years ago"? Has time been created, or was the world created in time? These questions are asked after the analogy of "Has this chair been made?", and are like asking whether order has been created (a "before" and "after"). "Time" as a substantive is terribly misleading. We have got to make the rules of the game before we play it. Discussion of "the flow of time" shows how philosophical problems arise. Philosophical troubles are caused by not using language practically but by extending it on looking at it. We form sentences and then wonder what they can mean. Once conscious of "time" as a substantive, we ask then about the creation of time.

14 If I asked for a description of yesterday's doings and you gave me an account, this account could be verified. Suppose what you gave as an account of yesterday happened tomorrow. This is a possible state of affairs. Would you say you remembered the future? Or would you say instead that you remembered the past? Or are both statements senseless?

We have here two independent orders of events (1) the order of events in our memory. Call this memory time. (2) the order in which information is got by asking different people, 5 - 4 - 3 o'clock. Call this information time. In information time there will be past and future with respect to a particular day. And in memory time, with respect to an event, there will also be past and future. Now if you want to say that the order of information is memory time, you can. And if you are going to talk about both information and memory time, then you can say that you remember the past. If you remember that which in information time is future, you can say "I remember the future".

(Ludwig Wittgenstein: Lectures, 1932-1935, ed. Alice Ambrose, 1979)

It seems, to employ the parlance of the distinguished philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt, who published an incisive monograph titled On Bullshit, citing Wittgenstein as an expert on the subject, that Wittgenstein considered the concept of the river of time to be bullshit.

File:Ludwig Wittgenstein by Ben Richards.jpg

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Swansea: photo by Ben Richards, 1947


: Harry G. Frankfurt, 1986, Princeton University Press hardback edition cover, 2005


TC said...

And see also Wittgenstein: On the Myth of the Time Goddess.



Yes indeed, "Suppose that at certain intervals situations repeated themselves" ---


light coming into fog against invisible
top of ridge, shadowed leaves on branch
in foreground, wave sounding in channel

parallel place of these two,
since it follows that

relation to which, at least
under, motion in line

grey white clouds to the left of point,
whiteness of gull gliding toward ridge

Anonymous said...

I will spend time with this. Reading the "punchline", as I did (i.e., Frankfurt's conclusion re Wittgenstein's thinking on this subject) will prove helpful, I think, to my unphilosphical mind.

I only want to say that this is a really beautiful fish.

TC said...

Well, Curtis, I fear I must confess (and this is no bullshit) I did this post for the sake of that glorious fish.