A Quick Thought about What Some People might mean by ‘The Passage of Time’

[This is only a very small note; it is probably obvious. It is just an observation I want to mark in passing].

I’ve just read an article about Linklater’s ‘Boyhood‘ and then listened to a Radio 4 review of it. I look forward to seeing it. It is a film which took twelve years to make, and is a fiction in which the lead character is a boy growing from 6 to 18, played by the same actor of the same ages.

One of the Radio 4 reviewers made the comment that, throughout the film, there was no need to put dates when they went from one year to another. The passage of time was visible simply by the change in look, hair, etc.

I’ve come across a similar comment in other places: that you can observe the passage of time in, e.g., in a town undergoing dramatic change (like Cork City a couple years ago, which I keep moving back to — and just have again). Or seeing it on the face of someone you’ve not met in almost a decade (which is happening a lot at the moment).

In contrast,  there is also the idea of time stopping in certain places: it is always the same in some remote village, or in your family’s neighbour’s house. I go back to my home town — where I am right now — and I look at the tree in the corner of the garden. It’s like time has stopped there; that tree has always been there. But the sense of time stopping isn’t very strong: it is MUCH stronger when I walk up into the forested hills near here and find the same rocks and mossy trees as I did as a kid.

But when I think about people saying things like this about the passage of time and time stopping, I often get puzzled.

I think: but every change — a door banging shut, clicking fingers, a branch moving in a wind — these are all examples of time passing (if it passes). We see it all the time (no pun intended). So what are they talking about being aware of time passing in the examples above — as if these slow changes are evidence of time whereas the perceived changes are not?

I think: but time doesn’t stop in these cases: the mere constant persistence of an unchanging thing is evidence of time passing: that which persists unchanged does so because there is one moment (where it is one way) and then another moment (where it is exactly the same way). If time itself stopped, there would be no such sequence of moments. There would be a last moment, then no more moments — because there would be no time.

It struck me that perhaps I’ve got my thinking about this all wrong. I think ‘time’s passage’ for most people refers to something else other than simply any kind of change: and ‘time stopping’  refers frequently to something else other than time itself.

I think that, in this thinking, time’s passage is this: it is the set of changes which take so long that we can’t experience them directly. We can’t, for example, see these changes or hear them. As such, they are not like waving branches or bits of music which we can experience.

As such, I think the change in time’s passage is metaphysical in the sense that it is not empirical (we don’t observe it). It happens out of view, the signs of it its only evidence.

Oh, and also: when I sit in the grass and look up at a cloud, one example of such passage is in how the cloud seems to change without my noticing it.


1. I can imagine some might provide counter-examples to the idea that we can’t observe such change. One might point out that I even gave examples of observing it: coming back to a home town after years away. In response, I would argue that this is not observing the passage or the change; it’s observing the result. I see the new mobile phone shop where the cafe used be. I see the worn rope-swing in my folks’ garden. I don’t see the shop being replaced or the rope wearing away.

2. Another point is that, except for the amount of time, there is nothing obviously different between such slow changes and the changes we perceive. Less energy would be needed to make the slow changes but they could otherwise be identical, e.g., I might play a phrase of music by hitting each note correctly in sequence, just doing it once a day for each note. It’s the same phrase as one I can hear — such as the opening notes in ‘Swimming’ by Loudon Wainwright — just slower.

3. For my interests, there is another interesting consequence. Philosophers like me hold that the change we perceptually experience is present but not for any special reason. It is present just because presentness refers to what we perceptually experience. If something seems to be directly experienced, it seems to be present. Further, any other use of ‘presentness’ is something derivative — defined in time as ‘here’ or ‘there’ are defined in space. A present event in this sense is either like an event ‘here’ or, in particular relation to experience, is a perceptually experienced event.

If this is right, then the passage of time occurs beyond the present. It is those changes which we cannot wholly experience, and so which cannot be wholly present. It can partly occur within the present, of course, e.g., whatever stage is experienced.

4. So, lastly, if by ‘time’ people often mean ‘the passage of time’, I guess that’s why when they talk about experiencing time, or exploring time — or that time is flexible, they mean something about these unobserved changes. If, say, a film wanted to explore time and the experience of it, it may try to create a sense of such slow changes actually being perceived. For example, you might played recorded film at a high speed. Or you might isolate events in a normally-paced film in such a way that the only change is the kind which goes beyond perceptual experience. As one looks at a cloud change, so there seems to be no change — until, suddenly, you realise: yes, there has been change.


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