10.29.18 | It's About Time

The world did not, in fact, come to an end on December 21, 2012. The Mesoamerican Long Count calendar, which tracks various Mayan cycles, simply hit the equivalent of six straight zeros on the odometer and started over. It was largely the westerners' interpretation of all this through the lens of a linear time mindset that drove them into the bunkers.

That's what can happen with seemingly mutually-incomprehensible traditions. Our Member Monday (10/29/18) article (About time: why western philosophy can only teach us so much ) is about one philosopher's quest to better understand the human condition, not through the comfort of his own thirty-year study of western philosophy but through the philosophical renderings of others, most of which originated more or less contemporaneously with his own ancient Greek-based field of study.

His exploration carried with it a certain sense of humility, in that: we cannot understand ourselves if we do not understand others; our shared humanity and the perennial problems of life mean that we can always learn from and identify with the thoughts and practices of others no matter how alien they might at first appear; and, by gaining greater knowledge of how others think, we can become less certain of the knowledge we think we have. Yes, once again, it invites each of us to Get Over Thyself.

The author does not engage in intellectual showboating. However, he presents the reader with a more fundamental challenge i.e. the irony of (un)awareness -- that our very assumptions about the nature of self, ethics, sources of knowledge and the goals of life are so deeply embedded in our culture (and us) that we may be blind to what they actually are.

Like time. Everyone knows that tomorrow today will be yesterday. Scientists know the universe was created some 14.8 billion years ago. Yet, such linear thinking begs the question as to what came "before" the big bang or, maybe, what is meant by "eternity"? Try to even define the word time without using self-referential terms. Let us be open to other ways of thinking.

Time was seen as a cyclical phenomenon in most earlier philosophical traditions -- often seen in terms of its connection to space i.e. nothing exists as a point on a map or a moment in time as everything stands in relation to everything else. An appreciation of this "pattern thinking" or, indeed, the whole Eastern Asian concept of cyclical time obviously requires a certain suspension of belief within the western mind, having been so thoroughly conditioned by the more theoretical abstractions of modern physics.

It also bumps up against the western idea of progress, seen as an ascendant journey, linear and always brightening, rather than a mere pointless circular plod around the calendar. On the other hand, cyclical thinking is all about connection, to time, to place. What might be lost in the absence of that? Consider climate change reckoning (MM:10/8/18). Consider the tragedy of the commons (MM:10/6/11/18). Let's be mindful of those matters as we contemplate the referenced Chinese thought that wisdom and truth are timeless.

May we approach such other non-western philosophical traditions with the humility they deserve.

Steve SmithComment