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The Greeks and Questioning the Foundationalism of Space

I want to explore the ancient Greek conception of time as a thought-experiment, and then I want to engage in some logical questioning of the perceived foundationalism of space in Ethington’s conception of time.

The Greeks
If I remember correctly, the ancient Greeks thought of the future as behind them and the past as existing out in front of them; the reason for this relation of space to time is because, as Ethington notes, the past was understood as a passing by, and it could, therefore, be understood as already seen or within sight and, thus, could be out in front of the face in the range of the eyes; the future, on the other hand, had not yet passed by, so it was out of sight, as if behind the back. In contrast, in the contemporary Western tradition, the past is behind the back, and the future is out in front. I imagine this relation of time to space was born of the same conception of time as a passing by. But however the Western conception was born, both relations of time to space have implications. As a thought experiment, I want to briefly explore them.

Seeing the future as out in front places the human in the role of the traveler who moves forward on a journey, and the future is herein understood as able to be seen—it comes more and more into view. Being able to “see” the future makes sense in some ways when paired with Ethington’s notion that going back in time is impossible since it cannot “mean anything less than forcing all of the particles in our bodies and the world around us into the negative performance of all the motions they had just completed” (472). In other words, any potential present (the future) is dependent on all of the past movements of all of the particles that Ethington mentions, and so, if the human can have some understanding of the laws or patterns of those movements, then the future could be argued as being somewhat “seeable,” if not totally determined. The benefit of thinking about time in this way is, thus, the ability to see the future, and even if the road is foggy or the light dim, the traveler has some sense of where he/she is traveling. However, the past in this relation of time to space is out of view, left behind; to see it, the traveler must stop and turn around, or the traveler must keep walking forward while turning around and then risk running into a tree or stepping into an unexpected hole in the road. Nobody wants to twist an ankle. But if seeing the future requires, as Ethington implies through his discussion of particles, an understanding of the movements of what was formerly present, then any mapping would require the traveler to move forward while looking back to engage in mapping—so the implication here is a funny one: any mapping becomes a prediction about the future, but it can only be made while haphazardly moving blindly in the present. What a quandary for a literary character! The best fortune-teller becomes an accident-prone idiot!

However, to place ourselves in the role of the ancient Greeks, what if we imagine the future as behind us? Does it not rush up from behind and occur unexpectedly? Can we ever turn around to see it coming? Imagine this: No matter which way we turn, the future is always what is behind us, the past is always where we are looking, and the present is always the action of looking that brings both into existence, not because they actually ever exist in the action itself but because the movement of the body allows for a mapping (the past) and anticipates a new map (the future). The new map cannot be seen, and the old map, as the trace, can always be seen because it is the representation of the movement, and the seeing is mere action. (So the Greeks did pretty good at thinking about time.) But here, if you notice, the past (as representation) and the present (as action) get shoved very close together, almost combined, wherein the present act is the seeing itself, and the past is the understanding/making-something of the seeing. This close relation between present and past may correspond with Ethington’s notion of an action-only concept of time, that “time is illusory in nature” (472) that the past is a spatial mapping, a topoi, a mapped representation (485-486). However, it also raises a question… In Ethington’s understanding of time, can one see while moving, and if so, is seeing while moving a mapping of the past or only a moving in-process (the present)? If the seeing is itself a form of mapping, then is Ethington wrong in marking only the representation as history—maybe all experience, even the now experience of acting in the world, is a cartographic past? But this minor detail may be insignificant and beyond the point. I have a more important question to ask…

Foundationalism of Space?
Does not movement, the now-action, as the nature of time itself presume the existence of a space wherein a movement can take place? For movement to create space it must move within or on space. And is not space itself also moving, in flux or in action? And if so, then in what space does space move so that it can 1) enact time or exist in time and 2) be represented?

In short, I am questioning the whole idea of time as spatialized here, because it seems to me that space must be treated a priori, as an objective “thing” in existence, for Ethington to be able to reasonably claim that present movement is all that time actually entails (since it must move on/in space to create space) and that any historical work is a mapped representation; but any space is made up of the movement within and of itself, depending on how one thinks of the space—so we could find ourselves falling into a groundless (to use a spatial metaphor) logical argument wherein the experience of time in this world is always a mapping, a representation of movement over space, but space itself, if moving, must have space to move on for time to exist at all and for maps (representations) to be made.

Is it enough to propose this problem (Have I posed a real problem or not?)? I suppose I should also attempt an answer. Let me try to argue that spaces move in relation to one another so that the movement of any one space moves over another space so that the entire system is a construct of movement—and hence a construct of time. Space exists, then, like the way in which words exist as signifiers that relate to one another and shift but hold each other up in a network. So our human experience of time as a movement is a movement over a space that itself moves over space. Is it all a deck of cards? Who knows? But what thinking about space as itself moving over space does for us, as humans wanting to represent our experience of time (or our movement over space), is show us the many dimensions or shifting layers of various understandings of time. I think that two people’s mapping of a history is not simply difference, in other words, between two perspectives, not a simply two constructions of 2-Dimensional maps, but constructions of maps with inter-shifting layers, relations between multiple dimensions.

-David G.

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