Consolation for
Not Having Enough Time

by Robin Stewart
January, 2002

 

It is the common plight of many high school and college students across the country to constantly find that there is simply not enough time in a day to do everything they want to. As schedules get filled and homework builds up, sleep becomes secondary to completing the various tasks by their respective deadlines. All too often, around finals week and other crunch times, students start to look something like this:

It is hard, however, to imagine Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) ever being plagued by such feelings of stress.

From his thirties on, Kant rigidly kept to a regular schedule of writing, lecturing, eating meals, and so on. Neighbors reported being able to set their clocks by his daily walks past their houses. He apparently never desired to see the world; during his whole life in Königsberg, East Prussia, the farthest he ever travelled away from his home was 40 miles -- and that was as a tutor to a wealthy family during his twenties. He probably never even ventured to the seashore, some 20 miles away.

Kant’s personal life was similarly void of usual activity. Renowned for repressing his emotions, he avoided most entertainment, his most notable hobby being birdwatching. He also remained a lifelong bachelor, although he did consider marriage two times. Unfortunately, he took so much time making up his mind that when he eventually decided in favor of marrying, one of the women had moved to a different city and the other had already married someone else! Kant is known to have regularly taken over a year to reply to his brother’s letters. All five of his siblings lived in the small city of Königsberg:

but Kant never took the time to visit them, although he did send his sisters spare money. Quite the opposite of time-crunched, Kant either did things right on schedule (as with his daily routines) or when he felt like it (as with marriage decisions and corresponding with his siblings).

"Well, that’s fine," you might say, "but I still have an hour of math homework, two hours of philosophy reading, and a lab report due tomorrow!"

"Here you are taking up my time with this nonsense about Kant’s personal life when I want to get to bed by 11! There’s just not enough time!" you moan, pulling at your hair. "Lab reports take hours! I’ll never sleep again!"

But perhaps you should stay calm and instead take a look at Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (hey, it’s part of your philosophy reading anyway). When it comes to time, here’s what Kant has to say:

Time is... a purely subjective condition of our (human) intuition, and in itself, apart from the subject, is nothing.

Nothing? Cool! Well, nothing apart from the subject. To begin to explain, he tells us:

No object can ever be given to us in experience which does not conform to the condition of time. On the other hand, we deny to time all claim to absolute reality.

To start to break this down, just think about the first sentence -- can you think of any object or event that exists somehow out of time? Whenever you try to make sense of an object or event, part of that understanding involves some relation to time. For instance, you finished your math homework at some "position" in time -- say, "before dinner", or "at 5:30." Either way, it’s hard to imagine finishing your math homework completely "outside" of time. What would that even mean? Time is so fundamental to our way of thinking that it transcends experience, to use Kant’s terms. His meaning is subtle.

These principles cannot be derived from experience.... We should only be able to say that common experience teaches us that it is so; not that it must be so. These principles are valid as rules under which alone experiences are possible; and they instruct us in regard to the experiences, not by means of them.

In other words, time is the "window" through which we see and interpret all experience. But just because our "common experience" suggests that time exists doesn’t mean that time is a universal, "absolute reality." This is the essence of what Kant means by "a priori." A common confusion is that a priori "knowledge" can be known without any recourse to experience. The subtly different thing he really means is that a priori knowledge cannot be experienced itself, but is meaningless without experience. Trying to imagine time without experience is even harder than the other way around. Humans bring time in to make sense of what they perceive.

Confused? Try reading it Kantian style:

But when an object is so given that its parts, and every quantity of it, can be determinately represented only through limitation, the whole representation cannot be given through concepts....

Bewildered? I agree: Kant definitely needed a good editor. But his points are sound; and occasionally he did sum them up very nicely:

This theory... admits the empirical reality of time, but denies its absolute and transcendental reality.

Basically, when you think about all the homework you have to do, your mind inevitably interprets it in terms of time you’ll have to spend. Kant does not really give a way around this, but he points out that your interpretation says nothing about the homework’s "absolute reality." What we perceive as homework to do (perceived by our human senses and interpreted by our human mind), is only one limited way of looking at it. Time in particular is only brought in to help us understand these perceptions. So time is not inflicted upon us by some external force we can’t control; on the contrary, it’s something that we inflict upon ourselves.

But it’s only objects and events -- physical things -- that we find the need to interpret through time. Knowledge is something altogether different. We don’t need time to understand knowledge, nor do we use knowledge to explain time. Indeed,

Time and space are [the] two sources of knowledge from which bodies of a priori synthetic knowledge can be derived. (Pure mathematics is a brilliant example of such knowledge, especially as regards space and its relations.)

For example, a2 + b2 equals c2 regardless of the hour, year, or millenium.

Although your math homework took an hour to do -- since doing homework is something physical objects do -- the information you learned is timeless. The only way A2 + b2 could not equal c2 would be if we started interpreting the world in a completely different manner that didn’t involve space and time. Even if that happened, though, we wouldn’t have to deal with those limitations time imposes on us, like math homework taking an hour to do!

Finally, there are many reasons why time is an extremely good thing to have around.

Here I may add that the concept of alteration, and with it the concept of motion, as alteration of place, is possible only through and in the representation of time.

Moving means changing position over time; so without time, we couldn’t move at all. We also could not grow or change in any way, because, as Kant observes, "only in time can two [states] meet in one and the same object, namely, one after the other." There’s no doubt that time is completely necessary for life as we know it. Consider heat, which is just a measure of the vibration of molecules (the faster they vibrate, the hotter something is). Vibration is also based on time (as in oscillations per second); so without time there couldn’t be such a thing as heat! In summary, if time didn’t exist, neither would you!

You wouldn’t want to end up looking like that. As you finish the philosophy reading and work on that lab report, just remember Kant’s words of wisdom, which give extra meaning to the phrase: time is what you make it.

 

 

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Bibliography

 

Beare, David, ed. Introduction to Philosophy: Course Reader. Seattle, Wa, Fall 2001. p.76.

Dowden, Bradley. "Time." The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. <http://www.utm.edu/research/iep/t/time.htm> (accessed 1/2/02).

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason, tr. Norman Kemp Smith. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1965.
Also available at: <
http://www.arts.cuhk.edu.hk/Philosophy/Kant/cpr/> (accessed 1/6/02)

Kemerling, Garth. "Immanuel Kant: Life and Works." Philosophy Pages. <http://www.philosophypages.com/ph/kant.htm> (accessed 1/5/02)

Le Poidevin, Robin. "The Experience and Perception of Time." The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta (ed.). <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/time-experience/> (accessed 1/2/02)

Mackenzie, J. S. "Notes on the Problem of Time." Mind, New Series, Vol. 21, No. 83. (Jul., 1912), pp. 329-346. <http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0026-4423%28191207%292%3A21%3C329%3ANOTPOT%3E2.0.CO%3B2-T> (accessed 12/17/01)

Morrison, Ronald P. "Kant, Husserl, and Heidegger on Time and the Unity of 'Consciousness.'" Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 39, No. 2. (Dec., 1978), pp. 182-198. <http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0031-8205%28197812%2939%3C182%3AKHAHOT%3E2.0.CO%3B2-5> (accessed 12/17/01)

Smart, J. J. C. "Time." The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, volume 8. New York, 1967: p.126-134.

Strathern, Paul. Kant in 90 Minutes. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1996.

 

Writing style inspired by: Alain de Botton. The Consolations of Philosophy. New York: Vintage Books, 2000.

 


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