Philosophy of Time

Steve Smith (smithsg) – Christian Center 11
Office hours & syllabus posted

Philosophy 3750-02
Fall 2015 TTh 2:30

The distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.
—Albert Einstein

Every attempt to see the shape of eternity except through the lens of Time destroys your knowledge of Freedom.
—C. S. Lewis

What are the main senses of our references to time? What can be meant by “now,” for instance? Are all time references relative to others, or is there an absolute date?

How is time structured? Is one of its phases (past, present, future) more fundamental or valuable than the others? Is the future of hope, for example, more important than the past of memory?

How is time real, if at all? Is time objective, subjective, or both?
Is it possible to give a tenseless account of time?

How are temporal aspects of reality related to nontemporal aspects? What is eternity and what sort of being could be eternal, if any? Is “eternal life” possible? Is there a coherent concept of predestination?

Could the duration of the universe be finite?

What issues of personal and social importance do we face in relation to time? What approaches to these issues are available? What is involved in these approaches—e.g. in promise making, or storytelling, or writing history? Is time permanently mysterious, and if so, what is the significance of that mystery for how we live our lives?
One purpose of this course is to gain insight into a variety of conceptions of time in order to develop a more rewarding relationship with time. Another is to develop our philosophical skills of analysis, articulation, and critical reasoning.
The course grade will be based on class participation (10%), the Notebook (30%), a 3,000-word essay (30%), and a take-home midterm (15%) and final exam (15%).
The required books on sale in the Millsaps bookstore are:

Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five
Jonathan Westphal and Carl Levenson, eds., Time

There will also be required reading in handouts and e-mails.


Revisions to this schedule may be announced in class or by e-mail.
READ assignments are chapters in the Westphal & Levenson anthology, Time, if not noted otherwise.

Aug. 25 Introduction.
Aug. 27 Different attitudes toward time and eternity.
READ Eliade
Sept. 1 A modern experience of time. READ Slaughterhouse-Five
Sept. 3 Slaughterhouse-Five, cont.
Sept. 8 Are change and time impossible? READ Parmenides/Zeno (handout)
Sept. 10 Natural time vindicated: “the number of motion.” READ Aristotle
Sept. 15 Time and eternity. READ Plotinus
Sept. 17 Time and the soul. READ Augustine
Sept. 22 Absolute time? READ Newton, Leibniz
Sept. 24 Time as ideal and therefore natural? READ Kant (handout)
Sept. 29 Time in Kant’s refutation of idealism. READ Kant (handout)
Oct. 1 Time as a fourth dimension. READ Einstein (handout)
Oct. 6 Bergson’s critique of spatialized time. READ Bergson (handout)
Oct. 8 The synthesis of time-consciousness. READ Husserl.
Oct. 15 Pause for overview. READ “Time” in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (online)
Oct. 20 Tensed and tenseless time. READ McTaggart
Oct. 22 Critiques of McTaggart. READ Horwich
Oct. 27 Block universe or temporal asymmetry? READ Dummett (handout)
Oct. 29 Non-paradoxical time travel? READ Lewis (handout)
Nov. 3 How the brain makes the present. READ Callender (handout)
Nov. 5 Future bias. READ Hare (handout)
Nov. 10 Existential time. READ Heidegger (handout)
Nov. 12 Existential time, cont.
Nov. 17 Narrative time. READ Ricoeur (handout)
Nov. 19 Narrative time, cont.
Nov. 24 NO CLASS (Instructor at conference). ESSAY DUE.
Dec. 1 Our futurity. READ TBA
Dec. 3 Our futurity, cont. READ TBA



For your course Notebook, a loose leaf binder is recommended. This will make it easier to hand in and take back your entries, and also to keep handouts together.
Once a week (normally on Tuesday) you will be asked to bring to class a new entry in your Notebook—about 2 or 3 pp., if typed double-space—in which you discuss the week’s work (readings and discussions) both positively and negatively.
Positively, you will attempt to draw out of the week’s work the elements that you most want to include in your own philosophical toolkit—ideas and arguments that are, you think, valid and worth remembering and benefiting from in the future. I encourage you to develop ideas and arguments in ways that suit your own purposes.
Negatively, you will attempt to identify the mistakes or otherwise unhelpful elements in the week’s work. (You are not committing yourself to rejecting anything! You can change your mind later about your earlier “mistake” calls! So be bold!)
The Notebook is an important learning tool that will enable you to keep track of what our class comes up with in a cumulative way.
Individual Notebook entries and responses will be graded unsatisfactory (-), satisfactory (\/), or very good (+) depending on the attentiveness and thoughtfulness they show. The Notebook as a whole will get a letter grade.

At least twice in the semester you will provide guidance to class discussion by preparing a 1-page handout for us in which you address such questions as these: What basically is going on in the assigned reading? What do you think is a particularly important passage? How does the argument of the reading seem to fit into our group’s discussion so far? How does it speak to your concerns in particular? What is most obscure in it or controversial about it?

For your major essay, a 3,000-word paper, you will tackle an issue in philosophy of time. You might focus either on how a particular philosophical approach is effective (or not so effective) in addressing time—for example, by doing a critical study of a philosopher—or on a particular problem, paying attention to alternative ways of trying to answer it.
NOTE: If you are interested in making this paper the basis of the Colloquium paper required for the comprehensive exams in Philosophy, I will give you guidance on it tailored to that requirement.
If you decide to do a critical study of a philosophical approach, you will work with different material than the class has worked with. Consult with me about possibilities.
If you do a problem-centered paper, you will refer to a selection of philosophers’ works in order to help establish the range of arguments that can apply to the question at hand. I will help you find the best things for your purpose in the literature. Problem areas include the questions on p. 1.
Our class practice should give you more and more orientation as to how to develop your essay. Whatever your topic turns out to be, the essence of this exercise is that you get deeply into REASONING. What are the implications (perhaps unexpected!) of using certain key ideas? How is it that one conception fits the situation better than others do? What are the interesting strengths and weaknesses of different and opposed arguments on a question?
Work hard; have fun. You will have an opportunity to rewrite the essay to improve it.

All students are strongly encouraged to visit the Writing Center, which is staffed by student Writing Consultants who are trained to help you grow as writers. Writing Consultants work with all writers, at all skill levels, and in all stages of the writing process. A writing consultation is essentially a conversation that challenges you to think deeply about your writing process, your ideas, the structure of your argument, and the organization of your essay. These conversations are most useful to students 48 hours or more in advance of a due date. Visit for more information about hours, locations, and upcoming events.

Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past
Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway
W. G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn
John Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn”
Novels in which time runs backwards:
Martin Amis, Time’s Arrow: Or the Nature of the Offense
Philip K. Dick, Counter-Clock World
Interesting time travel stories:
Robert Heinlein, “By His Bootstraps” and “—All You Zombies—”
Robert Silverberg, Up the Line

A FEW NOTABLE FILMS (beyond the usual time travel sort of thing)

The Man With a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929). Vaunts the peculiar power of film to construct and manage time.
Hiroshima Mon Amour (Alain Resnais, 1959). The power of the traumatic past intersects with the extraordinary present of lovers.
Wings of Desire (Wim Wenders, 1987). Angels encountering the values of mortality.
Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000). Study of the dependence of coherent time experience on memory.
Frequency (Gregory Hoblit, 2000). Interesting use of time loops (and time-travel puzzles) to heal a relationship between father and son.
Interstellar (Christopher Nolan, 2014). This time it’s father and daughter.
Predestination (Michael & Peter Spierig, 2014). Time travel to find one’s soul mate: an interesting perspective on love. Derived from Heinlein’s “—All You Zombies—.”

A FEW NOTABLE WRITTEN WORKS (from a vast literature)

Julian Barbour, The End of Time. Physicist works out how physical theory can dispense with time.
Adrian Bardon, A Brief History of the Philosophy of Time. Very nice introduction to the field.
Eva Brann, What, Then, Is Time? A wide-ranging reflection on the main historical currents in philosophy of time.
Joseph Campbell, ed., Man and Time. Papers from the Eranos Yearbooks. Much on metaphysical and religious aspects; includes a paper by Jung on synchronicity.
Heather Dyke & Adrian Bardon, eds., A Companion to the Philosophy of Time. Excellent new collection of articles (2013) that philosophy majors in particular should be aware of.
Lawrence W. Fagg, The Becoming of Time. Integrating Physical and Religious Time.
Paul J. Nahin, Time Machines. Time Travel in Physics, Metaphysics, and Science Fiction.
Robin Le Poidevin and Murray MacBeath, eds., The Philosophy of Time. Good reader for recent analytic work; contains David Lewis’s “The Paradoxes of Time Travel.”
Peter Manchester, The Syntax of Time. Profound rethinking of classical Greek speculations on time as a primary formation of being in light of Husserlian phenomenology of time-consciousness.
Ned Markosian, “Time” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (online). Useful overview.
Robert Neville, Eternity and Time’s Flow. Makes a metaphysical case for eternity and time as necessarily related.
Alan G. Padgett, God, Eternity, and the Nature of Time. Theologian seriously engages science and philosophy.
Jeremy Rifkin, Time Wars. Historical account of antagonism between an inhuman conception of time and a healthier one.
David Wood, The Deconstruction of Time. Discusses Nietzsche, Husserl, Heidegger, and Derrida.


1. Class attendance. Being in class, being engaged with the work of the class, and behaving courteously are all expected. One discourtesy to avoid is coming into class late. Better late than never, definitely; but lateness counts as half an absence—that is, your work with the class that day will be counted as only half done. One percent of the course grade will be lost for each absence from class for any reason, beginning with the third absence. (For example, someone who missed class 7 times would lose 5% of the course grade, or half a letter grade.) The reason for this: our in-class work is a crucial and irreplaceable part of the substance of the course.

2. Electronic communication devices (phones, laptops, etc.). Electronic devices have become harmful Interrupters and Distracters in the current state of our social evolution. Their use is banned in our class. If you have special needs, discuss with me.

3. Late papers. Written assignments turned in late will lose a letter grade or equivalent. Homework may not be turned in more than one week after its due date. No work of any kind will be accepted after the last day of final examinations. Exceptions to this policy will be granted only to the victims of unforeseeable and uncontrollable circumstances.

4. As a general rule, no e-mail submissions. Unless the instructor allows it under specified circumstances (as with Journal entries), e-mail submissions of assigned writing are not accepted.

5. Plagiarism. Using the words or ideas of others without acknowledgment—that is, passing them off as your own—is a fraudulent practice called plagiarism. It also misses one of the main points of being in college, which is to develop your powers of thought and expression. Plagiarism is an offense under the Academic Honor Code (see next page).

6. Incompletes. An “Incomplete” grade for the course will only be given to students who, due to unforeseen and uncontrollable circumstances, find themselves unable to complete course requirements during the term and can reasonably be expected to complete them within a few weeks after the term’s end. The “Incomplete” must be requested and appropriately justified before the end of final examinations.

7. Disabilities. Students with documented disabilities should discuss their needs with the instructor at the beginning of the semester.
From the ODS: If you have any needs or require accommodations related to a disability or learning difference, please contact Patrick Cooper to register with the Office of Disability Services. You can reach him via e-mail at or by calling extension 1228. Accommodations will not be granted until a meeting has taken place with Patrick and letters have been received by your instructor.