New Philosopher

On time

Nigel Warburton: Time is not an easy thing to think about. All of us experience time in terms of a present, a past, and a future, but beyond that it is quite difficult, for ordinary people anyway, to understand what on earth it is.

Huw Price: Well, yes. As with many philosophy questions, part of the problem is that you don’t really know what you’re asking in the first place. And so, in the case of time in particular, we don’t know if we’re asking about our experience of time, or whether we’re asking about something whose existence we can be sure of independently of the experience. In that respect, it’s a little bit like the examples that those who called themselves natural philosophers were concerned about back in the 17th century: the nature of things like ‘colour’ – they would ask themselves, “What is colour?”, but they were well aware by that point that what we call colour might be something that isn’t part of the world that we study by physics; which is, in some sense, subjective. And that was precisely their interest: deciding what were the proper subject matter of what they called natural philosophy, which we now call physics, actually is, and whether things like colours would be part of it, or whether on the contrary, whether we should think of them as subjective phenomenon, products of our visual apparatus and our brains, which we study not directly as things through the world, but indirectly through the physiology of the sensory system. We’re now going through the equivalent of the 17th century for ‘time’, where we’re trying to get those things clear in the same way. But it’s tougher, because they’re even more deeply embedded in the kind of things that we are – what it is to be a person, a thinking creature - time is more deeply embedded in all of that. In a particular sense, in the case of colour and taste and so on, at least in that case you could imagine yourself stepping away from any one of them and relying on the others. We can’t step away from cognition – there’s no time-free vantage point which we can occupy to think about these issues.

That sounds like a classic philosophical problem, to me - I see

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