Time from a philosophical perspective

Is there anything more enigmatic and curious than time? Discover the interesting reflections that philosophers have made throughout history on this phenomenon.

Last update: 26 March, 2022

Along the history, The nature of time has been one of the great enigmas of humanity and was approached from a philosophical perspective. That is why, from ancient Greece to the present day, we have been provided with interesting reflections and theories on this phenomenon.

Next we will expose the opinion of some philosophers about the reality of time. Do not miss this interesting tour.

Time according to the philosophical perspective of the Greek philosophers

In ancient Greece, Plato and Aristotle were two of the great philosophers who dared to reflect on time. Let’s see the position of each.

Plato’s philosophical perspective on time

Plato is one of the first philosophers to reflect on the reality of time and affirmed that this was a moving image of eternity. But what did she mean by the phrase?

Let us remember that for Plato, reality is made up of two worlds: one sensible (the physical world) and the other intelligible (the world of ideas). The first has everything that we can experience through the senses and is characterized by multiplicity, by being pure appearance and constantly changing.

For its part, the world of ideas is true, incorruptible and immutable. Universal and necessary ideas dwell there, which are the essence of everything that exists. In this way, the objects and bodies of the physical world are a mere imperfect reflection (or shadow) of this other world.

Now, when he says that time is an image, he means that is an imitation of the immobile eternity of the world of ideas. Therefore, the true nature of things is to remain static and eternal. While the shade of that immobility is time.

Therefore, he declares that transformation, movement and becoming are proof that we are contemplating time, which is not an idea, but the image of an idea: eternity.

Already the philosophers of ancient Greece pondered over time and tried to explain its nature.


The Aristotelian Perspective

For its part, Aristotle argues that time is not a movement, but also states that there is no time without movement. For both are perceived together. In this way, he assumes that time is the measure of movement according to before and after.

Therefore, the before and after are points that determine a spatial magnitude. They are the origin and end of a movement and the now that quantify a time. That said, according to the Aristotelian perspective, time is quantifiable, but it is not the quantifier.

Time in medieval philosophy

Among the thinkers who dedicated themselves to reflecting on time in medieval philosophy, Saint Augustine of Hippo and Saint Thomas Aquinas stand out.

For Saint Augustine, time has its origin in the human soul. For the present, the past and the future are identified with memory, attention and waiting, respectively.

In other words, according to the famous theologian and philosopher of the fourth century, the past is what is remembered, the present is what is paid attention to, and the future is what is expected. They are entities that do not have their own reality or external (as Aristotle defended), but are an extension of the human soul.

If no one asks me, I know; but if I want to explain it to the one who asks me, I don’t know. What I do say without hesitation is that I know that if nothing happened there would be no past time; and if nothing happened, there would be no future time; and if nothing existed, there would be no present time.

~ Saint Augustine of Hippo ~

Instead, Saint Thomas Aquinas (in the 13th century) takes up the Aristotelian perspective and defends that time is movement according to before and after. Picking up the old idea that time is something external to the human being.

Time from the modern and contemporary philosophical perspective

In modernity we find Isaac Newton’s notion of time. In this case, the great English physicist describes in start the existence of two different times: one absolute and one relative.

According to Newton, the former is true and mathematical, by its very nature. He flows without relation to anything external and is called duration. Instead, the second refers to a sensitive and external measure of duration, made through movement.

Despite these reflections, a few centuries later, the philosopher Immanuel Kant returns the origin of time to human nature. But not from the point of view of the experience of the individual (as Saint Augustine does), but as the constitution of the universal human being and his way of knowing reality.

For this thinker, time is an innate intuition that is part of the structure of the knowing subject. And this is what allows him to order the phenomena of the world according to succession and simultaneity.

Subsequently, there have been philosophers such as Henri Bergson, Nobel Prize for Literature in 1927; and Martin Heidegger, author of the work Being and Time; who have approached this construct in a different way from the Newtonian and Kantian positions.

Bergson, for example, refers to time from an experiential perspective, founded on organic unity, vital time, the rhythms of organic processes and the internal clocks of the organism. While Heidegger makes a distinction between own timeunderstood as a constitutive existential function of the human being, and world Time, as a measure.

Reflections on time raise questions that make us think about the past, the present and the future.


Is time an illusion of the human being?

The approach to time in philosophy has varied throughout history. There is still no single theory or thought, despite scientific advances. However, what is in vogue is to conceive of time as a human illusion.

For the perception of time seems to be a product of our psychology or perceptual structure. In fact, for relativistic mechanics, time is not something absolute, but can vary depending on the observer, the reference system used and the point where the observer is.

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