Augustine on Time

Book XI of the confessions deals with the nature of time. St. Augustine begins his inquiry of time by questioning its connection to God. Augustine seeks to answer the question: If God is eternal, how can he live exist in a time bound universe? Augustine solved this problem by stating that God does not exist in time. He argues that God created time when he created the world, and that only humans can conceive of time. Thus, according to Augustine, God lives in a different world were time does not exist. This solves the first half of the problem; the second half, however, deals with how time functions in the universe we live in.

To understand Augustine’s argument we need to depart from the beliefs we have about time. Augustine talks about time as though it were a concept that can be measured and sensed. Thus when he talks about time he is talking about something that exists. Thus, for example, we will say we see a green chair until we no longer see the chair. Just as we can use our five senses, Augustine feels that humans believe we can measure time. Yet rationalizing how we can measure time is not so easy. He goes on to argue that we do not measure time as easily as we can see a green chair. Augustine believes that time intervals do not exist. Rather, that we understand time through memory (past), attention (present), and expectation (future). This is his answer to how we can understand time, although he is not too convinced about it.

In sections 26 and 27 Augustine is playing the skeptical, and is posing arguments that show that understanding time is not so easy. He does his best to try to solve problems yet he poses problems and offers no conclusive solutions. In these two sections Augustine discusses a peculiar aspect of time, how (and whether) we can measure time. Previously Augustine had already discussed that he cannot say that past and future are, because they have already passed or have not yet become. Thus, how can he understand time, if for example we say, it took a long time, if the past has already passed and the future has not yet happened then how can he talk about a long time in actuality? The only actual thing that exists is the present but it is small and tends to go toward non-existence. Further, the movement of things is not time. Thus time is independent of the events that can be observed by the senses. To a further extent, he is also asking what time is and what is its nature. Augustine will argue that time can be measured but it cannot be understood in terms of present, past, or future. Thus, he asks, how do we actually understand time it if we do not do so in either present, past, or future. To discuss how Augustine handles this I will explicate the passage in my own words and, where relevant, develop the philosophical issues being addressed.

In the first paragraph of section 26 Augustine asks whether he can measure time. He answers himself that he can, but he is not sure what exactly it is he measures. At this point Augustine is asking that he knows he has a concept of time. However, he does not know what it is. Thus he seeks to know the nature of time. Thus the objective is set, to know the nature and definition of time; more roughly said he wants to know what is time.

Augustine then begins to try to solve this problem by presenting an analogy. He argues that he measures the movement of bodies through time. He then goes on to ask whether by measuring the movement of bodies through time he is actually measuring time. In other words: Can I measure the movement of a body, how long the movement lasted, unless I measured the time in which it moved. Thus Augustine is trying to see if he can measure time by means of observing a changing event, in this case two objects moving. The philosophical importance that he presents here is that we cannot understand reality outside of the scope of time; everything is changing, thus we