Stop killing time! (part II)

In an earlier post I wrote about Paul Feyerabend’s autobiography. The publisher of the Dutch translation of the work changed it’s title into ‘Tijdverspilling’, which is not exactly the same as killing time – the expression is more negative, meaning ‘a waste of time’. It draws a conclusion from Feyerabend’s thoughts, which is not off the point, as the philosopher described his academic career as not living to the full, as a blind state, not more than a preliminary to the joy and love which he discovered only later in life. It came to me, however, that a meaningful ambiguity of the original title was lost in this translation. An ambiguity I will explore below.

Killing time can be understood, as I did in my earlier post, as it is in everyday language – referring to an art we seem to have lost in the modern Western world, but which is still known to men in economically less ‘developed’ countries, who manage to stand around on streets for hours, or who keep hanging around in the barber’s shop long after they have been shaved, just to discuss sports and society with each other. It is an art which prevents the experience of boredom, the boredom which induces one to action. Watching the pace at which people in ‘rich’ countries work and even keep themselves active in their free time, one may draw the conclusion that they have forgotten how to keep boredom at bay, fleeing it in continuous activity – like the lonely, cold, bored young man Feyerabend saw himself to be in earlier life – travelling, studying, singing, working endlessly to forget  that he forgot what life was all about.

There is another meaning to the expression, however, which relates to the main content of his activities: philosophy. Killing time is what Western philosophy has tried to do in the most literal sense, from its beginnings in ancient Greece. The ancient Greek philosophers (okay, apart from Herakleitos) were fascinated by the eternal, the timeless, which they saw in the heavens. The continually changing aspects of earthly life, they thought, could only be understood when one digged up it’s timeless essence, and expressed this in general concepts. Although time as a concept was never denied, it was itself understood in a timeless manner, that is, in its measurable, discrete, ‘timeless’ form – subjected to the stripes on a clock which cut time to pieces.

There are some Western philosophers who have tried to break away from this view of time, and who tried to stop killing it, most notably Henri Bergson and William James. In his Pluralistic Universe, James searches for expressions to conceive of time in a manner closer to experience. He speaks of the ‘sensational stream’ which makes up our normal, non-scientific, experience, in which there are no discrete elements. This goes together with a reluctant attitude to general concepts: ‘When you have broken the reality into concepts you never can reconstruct it in its wholeness. Out of no amount of discreteness can you manufacture the concrete.’ What he aims to express is that no experience or phenomenon can be isolated and then said to cause or influence another – experiences ‘compenetrate’ each other, time spans overlap each other. While one event can perhaps be seen to wear out, another has, in it and through it, already developed and influenced it, so that they never van be seperated exactly.

A meaningful example for the problematic James has indicated shows itself in medical research: while scientists are trying to find ever new medicines for the illnesses that plague humankind, they need large trials to ascertain their general effectiveness. Therefore they carry out double blind proofs in populations in which individual differences are ruled out statistically. What they are looking for are general truths, and consequently, medicines that obey to the laws of cause and effect – i.e. to time in it’s discrete, measured, ‘eternal’ version. It is a wonderful thing that in this abstracted, dead, time, many medicines have been developed that are effective in the real world, but all the same they have no answer to the complex streams of influences which may disturb the predicted effects in concrete individuals. When this happens, it is put aside as ‘side effects’, or as private complaints and feelings of patients, left to nurses, psychotherapists and relatives to deal with.

One wonders what would happen to science, and to medicine, if it succeeded in combining the  views of Plato and James. If it looked as seriously into concrete phenomena as into general truths. That would mean it had to move beyond conflicting paradigms, which would need revolutionary groundwork by philosophers. A great reason for them to get out of the ivory tower of overspecialized subjects, to stop killing time and try to change the way we conceive of life instead.

Whether Feyerabend himself contributed to the philosophical killing of time is a subject for another post.

Citations are from William James A Pluralistic Universe. Hibbert Lectures on the Present Situation in Philosophy, University of Nebraska Press, 1996 [original edition 1909].

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