Yesterday morning, while monitoring a test, I was reading Fr. Copleston's On the History of Philosophy. Copleston was addressing the matter of historical divisions in the telling of philosophy (e.g., classical, medieval, Renaissance, Enlightenment, modern, etc.). Then I focused on the concept of centuries, as in, 12th-century scholasticism, 17th-century rationalism, 19th-century naturalism, etc. And then, recalling my recent post about the immaterial, transcendent existence of the past and future as an analogy for grasping the existence of God, I was exploded with a question (or a cognate questions):
Do time periods exist? In what sense can we say centuries exist?
I tried to handle the question with my standard metaphysical apparatus: Platonism and Aristotelianism. I'm a hoary onto-realist so I am less inclined to approach things in a purely linguistic way, an approach that might just say "centuries" exist only insofar as we utter the word and refer it to a congeries of concrete past events. It struck me that the existence of time periods is much like the problem of "Plato's beard".
Plato's beard is a term that, I believe, W.V.O. Quine coined in 1948. It centers on the following question:
"Non-being must in some sense be, otherwise what is that there is not? If we say of something that it does not exist, then something exists, otherwise what is the "it" that does not exist? Quine says, "This tangled doctrine might be nicknamed Plato's beard; historically it has proved tough, frequently dulling the edge of Occam's razor."
(See Quine's 1948 essay "On What There Is," in From a Logical Point of View, Harvard University Press.)
Plato never had a beard, but precisely in saying, "There is no such thing as Plato's beard," we are asserting something about something that allegedly does not exist. By our assertion, however, we implicitly "summon" a non-existent into existence.
In any event, this is how the nature of time-period existence struck me: Is it a verbal illusion? Does "Plato's era" exist only as fictively as "Plato's beard"?
I ended up pondering how a Platonist might answer that question. In Platonism, all existence entities participate in a proper (immaterial) Form. Red cars participate in the Form "Redness", as do all red things. The Form is that which constitutes one entity as it exists.
But can this thinking be reasonably applied to "things" like centuries? Is there a Form called "the 19th century"? I can scarcely conceive of such a thing. Presumably this "19th century" Form would be commonly participable in all events and entities that took place in what we call "the 19th century". Is there really an immaterial, perfect Form of the 19th century, such that all actual "members" of that century-set are but imperfect instantiations of pure "19th-centuryness"?
This strikes me as absurd, primarily because the very nature of history intuitively demands the ontological primacy of real existents over temporal classification. It is not "19th-centuryness" that constituted Heinrich Heine and Sören Kierkegaard as 19th-century thinkers, but the opposite: the "texture" of the 19th century is woven of the "threads" of real people which give the 19th century its manifold, Heinean, Kierkegaardian, etc., character.
I also tried to view centuries as perdurantist trans-persons, perdurantism (PER) being the view that objects have not only length, width, and height, but also time (i.e., objects are discretely 4-dimensional). This means there is really an infinite "stack" or "deck" of time-slices that make up a person. At any time, t, an object or person can be identified based on its spatial characteristics at that time. There was never a single, substantially whole Elvis; there was only the set of time-slices with his actual spatiotemporal characteristics. ("Ah'm all sliced up, uh-huh!")
While PER does have a pre-Einsteinian pedigree (e.g., in the theology of Jonathan Edwards), I think PER's vagrant appeal these days comes from its prima facie "scientific" character, with its impressive emphasis on 4-D spacetime, but in fact it puts the cart before the horse. While it is true that each material entity has 4-D traits, this is no grounds for saying objects only have 4-D traits. The missing element in PER is a substantial reference point for all the time-slices. What makes them hang together as a supposedly stacked-as-one person or object? Hence, I am willing to affirm PER in a material but not a formal sense. Formal PER assumes the easy existence of objects it subjects to slicing into quasi-objects, while material PER only recognizes the spatiotemporal dimensions of substantially whole entities. Sounds like a distinction without a difference, perhaps, but the point is that while both formal and material PER start with formally whole entities, formal PER ends up with sliced cheese, while material PER ends up with melted cheese. Sliced cheese can be measured but not re-conjoined; melted cheese can be quantifiably analyzed while still going back together again as a formal unity.
Being an endurantist, I also think PER is neurologically incoherent, insofar as there is a threshold beneath which the brain cannot sustain a coherent thought. Since spacetime is infinitely divisible, any of the sub-threshold spacetime-slices would be unconscious, and therefore no one can even be said to espouse PER, since even the neurological capacity for thought is dissolved by PER. The same salad-shooter problem goes for speech acts; they can never be said to accomplish a complete articulation of PER, since every time-slice of that hypothetically larger whole speech act is the merest audible blip. This means that PER is bound to limit its ontological slicing, in some cases, to pragmatic thresholds. But surely if PER is true, it should be true at any time, however long or short. Presumably, PER would also imagine the entire world as contiguous time-slices, each time-slice being described by the whole complex of spatial traits (including you, me, Elvis, and every other "thing"). Saving the phenomena has never been so cataclysmic. The one (world) is the victim of the (infinitely) many.
So, on this view, a century would be a stack of events cum persons. Assuming a perdurantist analysis of events and persons is coherent (which I deny, except for commonsense material PER), centuries would be a stack of time slices whose traits are the people and things that inhabited those slices up and down the line between calendar points. Persons and events are to centuries what length, height, and width are to lesser entities.
In any case, to leave PER behind, the same kind of trouble seems to lie in wait for Platonism. Assuming we view centuries as substantial, formal wholes, what dictates each century begins and ends when it does? What happens to a century's formal basis if the calendar is altered or remade, and the current century never reaches a hundred years? It is not, by definition, a CENTury, yet prior to calendar changes was a century. I think the idea of degraded participation will not work for temporal entities, meaning, while Platonist can say a chair only imperfectly instantiates the Form "Chair", and while its deterioration of over time, or its being damaged and altered, only mark its progressive fall from Formal perfection in this fallen world, I don't see how this helps talk about seconds, minutes, days, months, years, centuries, and so on. A second cannot exist except as exactly and perfectly what it is: one second. As soon as it is marked as "fallen from Secondness," it is not an imperfect second, since a sub-second is not a second. It might as well be said a second is only partial, imperfect Minute. But then, why is a chair not a partial, imperfect KTV lounge? The imperfection of temporal entities is incoherent in Platonism because, first, temporal entities are purely quantitative and therefore exist formally wholly or not at all, and, second, the entire premise behind Platonic talk of a superlunary World of Forms is that that realm is timeless. Hence, the very perfection of Platonic Heaven has no place for time, since time is the condition that allows us sublunary mortals to note and assess objects' distance from the Forms.
All the same, I welcome informed Platonists to offer me light on this subject. I am utterly ignorant of how Plato deals with time, so maybe there is a hallowed Platonic treatment of all this I just don't know about.
What I will say in (current) conclusion, is that the train of thought I have slowly internalized––nay, struggled to internalize––in Fr. Keefe's Covenantal Theology, leads me to offer the following analysis of the existence of centuries, months, etc.
Insofar as all history, indeed, the whole cosmos, is coherently integrated (including its fallen tensions both away from and back to "the city of God") only by the Eucharistic Event in worship (and the human responses to that historically transcendent-because-so-immanent Event), our historical categories (divisions) are just freely (but not meaninglessly) apportioned dimensions of the one coherent response to that Event.
I realize that, without having Keefe's book, what I just said is probably all just pops and buzzes. So, let me pare it down: Historical reality is a coherent unity not on account of some higher logic (à la the Forms or Plotinian emanations), nor by meaningless constructions about it, but only as it is ordered as an anamnesis and prolepsis to truth that is concretely and freely (because historically) signed in the present as offering. Hence, while is there no cosmic rationality behind creation that necessarily demands or explains the goodness of creation and redemption, this is not to say there is no meaningful explanation for them as gratuitously established by God. The Incarnation did not HAVE TO happen; but because it has happened, all of time and space find a unifying principle––a focal center––in the Event of the Sacrifice (which is substantially present as one at Calvary and in the Mass). There are no immanent principles in or behind nature that order it as a meaningful whole; its wholeness exists only because there is a Lord freely immanent in history. The nature of history is essentially free, and vice versa. History NEED not have taken place the way it has. So, even though there are no "higher" laws of history (à la Vico, Marx, Toynbee, et al.), nor any rationally necessary logical "structure" behind history, there is an immanent order in history just by virtue of the presence of Christ as the Lord of history in the His One Sacrifice for all times. This Event is the form that integrates and articulates the bare matter of history. Some thinkers would see a connection here between Kähler's, Bultmann's Perrin's, et al., distinction between Geschichte and Historie (i.e., the narratively coherent past and sheer past facts), but Keefe does not use those terms.
So, while there is no inherent logic or metaphysical necessity that grounds centuries as calendric realities, there are pertinent facts of history which order our very sense and handling of time, and thus, far from making history a construct imposed from outside on extra-historical grounds, allows history to be one based on fully historical realities. Centuries thus exist only in subsistent (but not necessary, because free) connection with the entire spacetime configuration of the world when/as the Eucharistic Lord is accepted or rejected. They are, like anything else, neither necessary nor, for that reason, meaningless. Because the Eucharist is the "prime analogate" of history (and being), and because it only takes place in history, an ordered conformation to its freely disclosed and freely appropriated structure integrates history in the same way each Mass is a whole. Synaxis, anamnesis, epiclesis, anaphora, doxology, prolepsis––these liturgical "periods" are the analogates that ground our entire sense of historical periods themselves. History is an icon of the triune Event of the One Sacrifice, or it is nothing at all, being either a deformation of a "higher order" from which we must escape or an incoherent bedlam of intrinsically unrelated starts and stops. The Augustinian (and thus once largely Western) tripartite understanding of man as the imago Dei/Trinitas in memoria, intellectus, and amor only holds good when these three substantially faculties "circumincessionally" unite in the act of worship under their prime analogates, sacramentum tantum ("sacrament itself", the Cross), res et sacramentum ("thing and sacrament", the Eucharistic species as the present Lord), and res tantum ("thing itself", the glory of the Kingdom).
Recently Mike Liccione wrote a post called "Chaos or kairos?" which ties in with some of my point. Aside from saying I think Mike's statements can stand to become even deeper with a more Eucharistic focus, I will give him the last word:
I think there is meaning to be found in the calendar year, and therefore to its end. The meaning comes through the relation of the calendar year to the meaning of other, overlapping years. … As a kid, I did not understand why there were so many different "years" that did not begin at the same time as each other. The school year began in September; the liturgical year began in early December; the fiscal year for the organizations my father worked for usually began in July. And then there was the calendar year, which people pretended was the "real" year but which bore little relation to the actual rhythms of their lives. … to appreciate the essentially religious notion of kairos, that of a specially significant or appointed time, as distinct from chronos, that of clock and calendar time. I was enabled to understand that God's time, sacred time, was not the same as either natural time or human time, but overlapped and interpenetrated both. The temporal rhythms of nature, those of the seasons and agriculture, signify the deaths and rebirths we must undergo so as to grow spiritually; and each highlight of the liturgical year bears an obvious relationship to the seasons. But the plasticity of time in human hands, though limited, also signified to me that we are not limited to nature in how we appropriate spirit. We are of nature, but destined beyond nature.