Philosophy of Time

Reality as humans know it, from the cosmic order to our subjective human experience, has a temporal dimension. We consider the many approaches to understanding the issue of time.


  • What is Time: Introduction to concepts of time. Some theories to be considered will be presentism and eternalism, and the issue of whether time has a definitive direction. In contemporary physics the direction of time may be reversible, but this is paradoxical to our ordinary experience of time: a broken glass cannot reassemble and fly back onto the table; we have memories of the past, and none of the future; we feel we can’t change the past but can influence the future, we will discuss these issues.
  • Some Ancient Ideas of Time: Augustine book X1 of the Confessions re-quotes the ancient joke: “what was God doing before he made heaven and earth... he was preparing hell for those that would pry into such profound mysteries”. Augustine’s probing analysis of time influenced many later attitudes toward the nature of time. We will also look at the Old Testament, and some Chinese and Islamic ideas. Clocks and calendars will also be discussed.
  • Modern Philosophers on Time: All the great modern philosophers from Descartes onward had something to say about the issue of time, we will look at a range of these views.
  • Time and Life: Chronobiology is the recent science which studies living things in time. We will study biological time in human and non-human species. Human biology is controlled by our various internal cyclic processes such as our heartbeats and repeated breathing, our sleep/wake cycle (circadian rhythm) and other hormonal and chemical and neuronal cycles.
  • Einstein Issues: This week we will consider the impact which Einstein had on theories of time, relativity and the connection between space and time.
  • Psychological Time: Past, present and future are all crucial to our sense of self and identity. How we unify ourselves as temporal being is a key issue in psychology. Jay Lampert’s : The Many Futures of a Decision (2018) deals with the impact of decision-making alongside the philosophy of time. This book engages with the nature of the future using a multi-layered theory on the structure of human decision making.
  • Phenomenological Perspective: ‘A full and interesting content can put wings to the hour and the day’: This quote from Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain expresses nicely the internal aspects of time perception. Philosophers such as Bergson and phenomenologists such as Husserl thought deeply about subjective time.
  • Time in Literature: This week we will take a range of poems and literary works written about time, from both the cosmic and the human point of view. Here is one example from T. S. Eliot’s poem Burnt Norton: 'Time present and time past/Are both perhaps present in time future/And time future contained in time past/If all time is eternity present/All time is unredeemable".
  • Time in the Arts: The arts are rich with references to time. Salvador Dali’s In search of the Fourth Dimension, was a meditation on Einstein’s theory of a temporal fourth dimension. We will consider a range of artists.
  • Time and the Brain: Neuroscientists have come to agree that the brain takes an active role in building a mental temporal picture of reality. What are the neural mechanisms that account for our experience of time; Our awareness of change; Our ability to anticipate the future; Our sense of time’s flow; And our ability to place events into the correct order of temporal succession.

By the end of this course, students should be able to:

  1. Have gained an overall understanding of the key concepts in the Philosophy of time.
  2. Have gained an insight into the many approaches to time in use philosophy, chronobiology, psychology, neurobiology and the arts.
  3. Relate existential ideas to our contemporary world and current issues.
  4. Apply these ideas to their personal lives and choices.

This course has no current classes. Please the waiting list.