Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XIV.: THE PERCEPTION OF TIME. - The Principles of Psychology
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CHAPTER XIV.: THE PERCEPTION OF TIME. - Herbert Spencer, The Principles of Psychology 
The Principles of Psychology (London: Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1855).
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THE PERCEPTION OF TIME.
§ 66. The near relationship between our notion of Time and our notion of Space, is implied in various current forms of speech. In the phrase—“a space of time,” a magnitude of one is expressly used to signify a magnitude of the other. Conversely, the Swiss tourist whose inquiries respecting distances are answered in stunden, or hours; and the savage who, in common with the ancient Hebrew, has a place described to him as so many days' journey off; find times used to express spaces. The like reciprocity of symbolism is visible in science. Not only is it that a second of time is a function of the length of the pendulum, and that our hours are measured by spaces on the dial; but it is that, in astronomy, a degree, which was originally a day's journey of the sun along the ecliptic, has become the name of an angular space.
Joined to the arguments contained in the last chapter, these facts will be seen to possess considerable significance. That in early ages, and in uncivilised countries, men should have expressed space in terms of time, and that afterwards, as a result of progress, they should have come to express time in terms of space; is a circumstance giving strong support to the views recently developed: not only because it shows conclusively that the phenomena of coexistence, and those of sequence, are made to stand for each other in the mind; but because it shows, repeated, as it were, on a higher platform, that gradual supplanting of mental sequences by their equivalent coexistences, lately described as the process by which our cognition of space is acquired. Just as the series of states of consciousness accompanying any motion—a series which at first formed the sole representative of space—was described as becoming consolidated into a quasi single consciousness of the coexistent positions traversed during that motion, which single consciousness afterwards expresses to the mind the series it was equivalent to; so, that series of states of consciousness implied by “a day's journey”—a series which, in early ages, formed the only definite representative of a great space—is seen to have become, in process of time, consolidated into a consciousness of the coexistent positions traversed (measured by miles or leagues); and this practically single state of consciousness has, more or less, supplanted in thought and word the series of states represented by it. And if any one, wishing yet further illustration of this process of mental substitution, will observe to what an extent he has acquired the habit of thinking of the spaces on the clock-face instead of the periods they stand for—how, on suddenly discovering it to be half an hour later than he supposed, he does not distinctly realize the half-hour in its duration, but scarcely passes beyond the sign of it as marked by the finger; he will be enabled still more clearly to conceive that the use of coexistences to symbolize sequences, which in these complex cases has become so habitual, has in the simplest cases become organic.
This reciprocity between our cognitions of Space and Time, alike in their primitive and most developed forms, being perceived; and the consequent impossibility of considering either of them entirely alone, being understood; let us go on to deal more particularly with Time.
§ 67. As the ideas of Space and Coexistence are inseparable, so also are the ideas of Time and Sequence. It is impossible to think of Time without thinking of some succession: and it is equally impossible to think of any succession without thinking of Time. Time, like Space, cannot be conceived except by the establishment of a relation between at least two elements of consciousness: the difference being, that while, in the case of Space, these two elements are, or seem to be, present together, in the case of Time they are not present together.
The doctrine that Time is knowable to us only by the succession of our mental states, is so old and well established a one as to call for little exposition. All that seems necessary, is, so far to modify the statement of it as will bring out its harmony with the foregoing doctrines. And to this end, it will be well first to call to mind a few facts illustrating the entirely relative character of the cognition.
Every one remembers that in childhood, when, from the novelty of surrounding things and events, the number of vivid impressions made in a given period was much greater than in after life, time seemed to go much more slowly. The observation is common, that a week spent in travelling or sight-seeing, and therefore unusually full of mental excitements, appears in retrospect far longer than one spent at home; and that, similarly, a road followed for the first time, apparently takes longer to traverse than when it has become familiar. The phenomena accompanying morbid conditions of the brain, supply analogous illustrations. Describing the worst stage of his opium-dreams, when “the sea appeared paved with innumerable faces, imploring, wrathful, despairing, surging upwards by thousands, by myriads, by generations, by centuries”—when architectural imagery, presented with insufferable vividness and splendour, had a “power of endless growth and self-reproduction”—when, therefore, the mental impressions were immensely numerous and extremely distinct, De Quincey says, that he sometimes seemed “to have lived for 70 or 100 years in one night;” nay, to have had “feelings representative of a millennium passed in that time, or, however, of a duration far beyond the limits of any human experience.” Even persons in health occasionally have, in the course of a doze lasting but a few minutes, dreams that appear to occupy considerable periods. And yet still more significant is the fact, to which there are many testimonies, that a sleeper suddenly awakened by a loud noise, may be able to recount some dream to which a loud noise was the expected termination, and which was evidently heard, but which was suggested by the noise, yet be one seeming to have extended over hours or days.
From all which it is manifest, that our notion of any period of time, is wholly determined by the length of the series of remembered states of consciousness that have occurred during that time. I say remembered states of consciousness, because, as any series of states of consciousness can be known only by memory; and as any of the states that have occurred, but are not represented in memory, cannot become members of the series; it results that the series of remembered states can alone serve as the measure between a past and a present state And hence the explanation of all such facts as that any interval looked back upon by a child, appears longer than the same interval looked back upon by an adult: seeing, that out of the same series of domestic and other experiences, many which are novel to the child, and therefore make a deep impression upon it, are so familiar to the adult as to make scarcely any impression at all. And the length of the series of remembered states of consciousness being thus our measure of time, we have no longer any difficulty in understanding cases in which vivid ideas, following each other with extreme rapidity, cause a night to seem like a hundred years, or, as in some drowning persons, a few minutes to represent a whole life.
When, however, we say that the time between two events is recognized by the series of remembered states of consciousness intervening, what do we more specifically mean? These two events are known to us by the states of consciousness they produce. Before the first of them there were countless other states of consciousness: since the last of them there have been others: and between them there were others. We know them, therefore, as having certain places in the whole series of states of consciousness experienced during our lives. The time at which each occurred is known to us as its position in the series. And by the time between them, we mean their relative positions in the series. As any relation of coexistent positions—any portion of space, is conceived by us as such or such, according to the number of other positions that intervene; so, any relation of sequent positions—any portion of time, is conceived by us as such or such, according to the number of other positions that intervene. Thus, a particular time, is a relation of position between some two states in the series of states of consciousness. And, in the abstract, Time, as known to us, is, relativity of position among the states of consciousness.
§ 68. From this analysis it will perhaps be inferred, that whether Space be, or be not, a form of thought, Time must necessarily be one. As there can be no thought without a succession of states of consciousness; and as there can be no succession of states of consciousness except in Time; Time must be a condition of thought, or a form of thought. This, however, is not what the Kantian hypothesis means. It is not simply alleged that thought is possible only in Space and in Time: this no one questions. But it is alleged that the cognitions of Space and Time are necessary constituents in all other cognitions—that they are disclosed to consciousness along with the concrete elements of every idea—that notions of Time and Space of the same nature as the adult possesses, are simultaneous with the first perceptions—are the all-essential framework of them—are the forms of them. This is the sense in which the transcendental doctrine is understood; and it may be shown from the foregoing analysis that in this sense it is not true.
It is, doubtless, to be concluded, either from what has been said above, or from other data, that even in the first stages of intelligence, successive states of consciousness must be severally recognized as standing to each other in certain relations of position—as either occurring next to each other, or as separated by one or more intervening states. Though at first, probably no considerable portion of the series of states can be contemplated at once, and no distant members of it brought into relation, yet the simplest cognition implies that sundry of the proximate members of it are co-ordinated in thought, and their respective places therefore known. But neither the contemplation of any two states of consciousness that stand in certain relative positions, nor the thinking of their relation of position as like some other relation of position, gives, in itself, the notion of time: although it is the raw material out of which that notion is constructed. Time, as conceived by us, is not any one relation of position in the series; nor any relation between two such relations; but is the abstract of all such relations—is the idea of relationship of position in the series: and cannot possibly be conceived until a great number of individual relations have been known and compared. To elucidate this, let us consider a parallel case. Suppose an incipient intelligence to receive two equal impressions of the colour red. No other experiences having been received, the relation between these two impressions cannot be thought of in any way: seeing that there exists no other relation with which it can be classed, or from which it can be distinguished. Suppose two other equal impressions of red to be received. There can still exist no idea of the relation between them: seeing, that though there is a repetition of the previously experienced relation, yet, since no thing can be cognized save as of some kind; and as, by its very nature, kind implies the establishment of difference; there cannot, while only one order of relation has been experienced, be any cognition of it—any thought about it. Suppose, now, that two unequal impressions of red are received. There is now experienced a second species of relation. And if there are afterwards presented a number of such pairs of impressions, that are severally equal and unequal, it becomes possible for the constituents of each new pair to be vaguely thought of as like or unlike, and as standing in relations like or unlike previous ones. I say vaguely thought of, because, while various impressions of the colour red are the sole things known, the cognition of them as like or unlike, will not be distinctly separable from the impressions themselves. When, however, other series of impressions come to be received—as of the colour green in different intensities—the occurrence among these also of some that are like, and of others that are unlike, will tend to dissociate these relations from the colours green and red. And gradually as, by the accumulation of experiences, there are found to be like and unlike sounds, tastes, smells, sizes, forms, textures; the relationships which we signify by these words like and unlike, will be more and more dissociated from particular impressions; and the abstract ideas likeness and unlikeness will come into existence. Manifestly, then, the ideas of likeness and unlikeness are impossible until after multitudes of things have been thought of as like and unlike. Similarly in the case before us. After various relations of position among the states of consciousness have been contemplated, have been compared, have become familiar; and after the experiences of different relations of position have been so accumulated as to dissociate the idea of the relation from all particular positions; then, and not till then, can there arise the abstract notion of relativity of position among the states of consciousness—the notion of Time.
Thus, so far is it from being true that Time, as conceived by us, is a form of thought; it turns out, contrariwise, not only that there can be thoughts while yet Time has not been conceived, but that there must be thoughts before it can become conceivable.
§ 69. The necessary dependence of Time upon Motion is a doctrine taught by Aristotle, who asks—“How can time be when motion is not?” and who argues that, “if time is a numeration of motion, and if time be eternal, motion must be eternal.”
Whether or not the objective relation between Time and Motion be, as is here asserted, indissoluble; it is beyond question that, subjectively, the two cannot be separated. Motion, as understood by the developed mind, is inconceivable without an accompanying conception of Time; and Time can be disclosed to us only through Motion. Though, when once we have accumulated a stock of ideas that can follow one another through consciousness even when the senses are in repose, we can recognize Time apart from any perceived motion; yet, it needs but to consider that all these ideas were gained through motion—that had neither we nor surrounding things ever moved, we should have had no ideas at all, and therefore no conception of Time—to see clearly that Time is knowable only through motion. As, according to the foregoing analysis, our notion of Time is the notion of relativity of position in the series of states of consciousness; as this presupposes a series of such states; as this presupposes successive changes of state; it follows that that which is required to produce changes of state, is that through which Time is disclosed. And it needs but a little reflection to see, that without motion, subjective or objective, no changes of consciousness could ever have been generated.
Respecting the perception of any particular portion of time (or conception it might perhaps more strictly be called; seeing that the majority of its constituents are represented, rather than presented, to consciousness) it only needs saying that it consists in the classing of the relation of position contemplated, with certain before-known relations—the cognition of it as like such before-known relations.