The Windowsill Clock (Standards for Experienced Duration 2)

Previous: Time and Tide

Note: The three posts here inspire my thinking in my more formal paper ‘Against Illusions of Duration‘, published in the anthology The Illusions of Time (which I co-edit with Arstila, Bardon, and Vatakis). However, along with being less formal, these three posts develop the ideas in much more detail than that paper.


The real problem the man has with the sea’s timekeeping is not with the sea. It is with his ex-colleague, who uses the sea to judge time.

His colleague recently retired and has a house on a cliff near the sea. From the house, there is a clear view of the tide as it comes in. For his colleague, a second is a single beat of the tide — a single instance of waves lifting then falling back. A minute is how long the tide takes to spread over the long stretch of sand; an hour a multiple of these. The man’s colleague has marked these on the windowsill facing the sea, and so can measure any needed time.

“Those are not seconds, or minutes, or hours”, says the man.

“Yes they are.”

“No they’re not — seconds, minutes, hours are defined by standard time. This does not correspond to standard time. It is misleading and unreliable.”

“It is accurate and reliable for me. I live by the beach. I can check it any time. The tide is a better means of measuring time than the standard clock.”

“But you’re not measuring CLOCK time,” the man says in frustration.

“You’re right….” the other is thoughtful for a moment. “Well, ok, so I shouldn’t call it four O’CLOCK. I should call it, maybe, four O’TIDE. This acknowledges that I am not measuring time by the conventional clock. I’m measuring it by the sea. How about that?”

“No no no — nonsense. You’ll confuse a lot of people.”

“Well, who am I going to confuse, other than you? I live at the edge of the sea, on my own. I am not trying to measure something by the standards of other people.”

“You’ll confuse anyone — anyone who asks you what time it is.”

“Only if they assume I am measuring by a standard clock. But I’m not. And if they ASK me, they’ll see I couldn’t possibly be measuring it by a standard clock. I don’t consult one; at best, I look toward the tide (it’s visible anywhere in this town) and then give them an answer. They’ll know then that what I call an ‘hour’ obviously cannot be a clock’s hour.

If they notice my looking at the beach, they might guess it is a certain period in which that tide moves across the sand.

Once that’s understood, then that what I call an ‘hour’ doesn’t correspond to the ‘hour’ measured on your wrist should be unsurprising.”

The man sighs. “But that’s just the thing you see. You use the concept of an hour to describe a particular passage of the tide. But an hour is something defined by the motion of a watch. If you insist on calling a certain period of tidal motion an hour, you’ll be inaccurate. It’ll be different to the watch, which sets the standard.”

The other thinks about that as well.

“Well, first, I’m guessing that ‘hour’, ‘second’, and the like aren’t so tied to the current clock. They were there before it. But the current clock is so ubiquitous that we automatically think of that. Most people mean by ‘hour’ a unit of standard clock time.

And, yes, I even used that standard to originally pick out a period of tide to be an hour. A long time ago, when I still had a watch, I noticed that when the tide crossed a particular patch of sand, my watch’s hour hand completed a whole circuit on its face. When I lost that watch, I had no other standard clock. So, initially, I used the passage as a substitute.

But over time, I didn’t. I just use it to measure time. It suits me very well out here.”

He scratches his head. “But don’t you see how inaccurate that is? The tide and clock needn’t match. You’re using an uncalibrated process to makes measurements in terms of a standard.”

“…I am. Except….well, as Wittgenstein said “There is one thing of which one can say neither that it is one metre long, nor that it is not one metre long, and that is the standard metre in Paris.” Similarly, there is one thing of which one can say neither that it is one Tidal Hour long, nor that it is not one Tidal Hour long, and that is the time it takes that tide to cross that stretch of beach. It sets the standard, not gets measured by it.

I am not calibrating what I use to measure time to a standard because I am using the standard itself. The standard is the tide’s motion. If I was making a clock from it, I would calibrate it with what I’m using to measure.

But yes I am not using the standard of the standard clock — of GMT. But I don’t see this as worse than what you use. You just calibrate it differently — by your wristwatch, your phone, the six ‘pips’ on the radio or, if you can get at them, vibrating caesium atoms. In fact, it is more like I’m using the caesium atoms themselves to measure time.

But, again, I take your point. I link the term ‘hour’ to a process of the tide based on a number of instances in which the tide coincided with the clock. I may be accurate in using the word ‘hour’ afterwards because I am judging it by the tide. But I am not accurate if I am judging it by your clock.

Most people will ask me for the time according to the clock. They will take my answer as being a judgement based on the clock, and act accordingly. I can see them getting quite mad at me if they do. Although it hasn’t happened yet. Typically, they don’t see me looking at my watch, so I expect they know that I’m not using standard time to get the result.

But — again, yes, it is a problem to use hours, etc. I myself have sometimes slipped into the habit of forgetting that I am not using something set by a standard clock. How could I be judging by a standard clock? I don’t have one, or anything that calibrated to one.

So, maybe I should call it something else.”

“Yes.” says the man. “It only causes confusion otherwise.”

“It does.” She is thoughtful again. “However, it also causes confusion if you assume one measurement is correct over another in measuring events. And is also causes confusion to ask someone to judge the time or duration and then insist that an answer is only appropriate — and so right or wrong — if it is in terms of an irrelevant standard.

Such as when you come up to my house and ask me what time it is or how long something lasts. You ask me ‘how long does it seem to be?’ and then you only accept an answer in terms of clock time — clock seconds, clock hours, etc.

What can I say except answer in terms of clock time, even though that is no measure of accuracy for what I am using?”

After a few more seconds of thought, the other frowns. Abruptly, she says: “I think the rules of your questioning are exacerbating the problem.

The problem has got nothing to do with how accurate my measurements are. I’m using the tide to measure time. My answer is to be judged, if at all, by the tide. It might be accurate; it might not.

You’re asking me to use it, however, to make judgement in terms of clock time. Then you’re calling my judgement inaccurate — a mistaken judgement of duration — when it fails to match the clock time.

Yet, except for that brief association in the past, I’m not using clock time. (I’m using clock terminology, of course, but that’s because you’re asking me to answer in clock terminology).

Given I’m not using it to make my judgement: Why oh why do you expect my answer to match the clock?

Why do you even expect it to be judged by a clock.

There’s no clock out here. The only means of measurement is the tide.”


My thinking is this:

If you ask someone to judge the length of a certain experience, to give a value to a certain experience of time, then

If they give an answer which is incorrect according to standard clock time, either

(a) What they are using to measure time has gone wrong — if what they are using to measure time is supposed to be calibrated to standard time, i.e., it is a standard clock.

(b) What they are using to measure time is not obviously gone wrong — if what they are using measure time is not supposed to be calibrated to standard time, i.e., it is not a standard clock.

Experience corresponds to (b). It is not a standard clock.

Experience should not be treated as if it is a standard clock. Whatever it is that prompts us to describe our experience in terms of clock time, it has nothing to do with the possibility that our experience is either calibrated to a clock and/or should be evaluated in terms of clock time.

So how can we work with the different measures? And how should we understand them?


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