Samuel Blankson describes cultural time as a human, quantifiable invention. The time that is being quantified, natural time, would not manifest in measurable ways, if not for human intervention.

…relation between points brings into question the origin of points. Since that is human, it still means man is part of the definition of time, an uncomfortable notion for all those mathematicians who believe that time occurs as a natural entity without human intervention so that it can be treated materially with mathematics alone.

Let me explain that I agree (or I know) that there is such a thing as natural time, of course. But cultural time, as quantified time (that is ‘something’ quantified or extracted from natural time), is a human invention – somebody must be there to count the orbits of the sun as ‘years’ or there will be no years and no seconds derived as fractions of the year (Blankson 2011, 14-15).

Blankson, Samuel K.K. (2011). The logic of time in the universe: A critique of Professor Yourgrau’s “World without time”. Morrisville: Lulu.


Anthony Aveni observes different ways in which human constructions of time artificially regulate celestial patterns and biological rhythms. This is described as a human intervention to nature’s heartbeat, and a manipulation of something that exists beyond human culture.

Time systems became more complex and ornate as an economy and its attending bureaucracy grew and diversified. In China and Europe, mechanical clocks replaced sundials. We slowly began to manipulate nature’s direct input into the timekeeping process for our own benefit. Intercalation was one of the first steps toward human intervention, an insertion of society’s time into celestial time. Thus, we make the year complete by improving upon nature where we believe it has failed.

In a sense, the Maya did to the Venus cycle what medieval Christendom did to the sun cycle. The Venus table in the Dresden Codex tampers with time and reduces it to a cultural creation based on minor variations in nature’s harmonic heartbeat which can be detected only by careful listening and close observation. In bureaucratic societies, human actors take over both nature’s script writing and directingThe modern mass production of timepieces – with their artificial hours, minutes, and seconds – symbolizes the extent of our singleminded struggle to exercise control over that ghostly mechanical entity we imagine to be jogging alongside us, as close as a shadow but uninfluenced by the way we behave. When you say you are strapped for time, perhaps you are only expressing your frustration at the way you have become enslaved to that oscillating chip you carry about on your wrist.

Human culture emerges as the great processor of time. Like the rest of the biological world, our ancestors began by sensing the orderly biorhythms of natural time-the beat of the tides, the coming of the rains, the on-and-off stroboscopic flickering of the full moon’s light, the comings and goings of swallows, locusts, and the red tide. Unlike the New Haven oysters that relocated in Evanston, somewhere back in the distant past we became impatient and dissatisfied. We grabbed hold of the controls; we changed the order. We manipulated time, developed and enhanced it, processed, compressed, and packaged it into a crazyquilt patchwork to conform to our perceived needs: greater efficiency in dividing up the day means more earning power for both the corporate head and his workers; greater precision in Olympic timing makes for a better Reebok sneaker; and strategic positioning of daylight-saving time gives us more rest and recreation, and that leads to a longer personal time line (Aveni 1989, 336-37).

Aveni, Anthony. 1989. Empires of time: Calendars, clocks, and cultures. New York: Basic Books.


Kevin Birth argues that the human knowledge of time is not associated with celestial movements. Instead, the knowledge that humans have of time is embedded within culturally diversified objects and tools, which distantly represent celestial movements.

The study of objects of time is the study of cognition and culture, but not of the sort limited to the mind or to a simpleminded notion of cultural boundaries. For most clock users, the logics used to determine the time are outside of their knowledge but within the objects. These logics have an artifactual existence that mediates between consciousness and the world—part of what Cole describes as the “special characteristics of human mental life” as “the characteristics of an organism that can inhabit, transform, and recreate an artifact-mediated world” (1995, 32). When one wants to know what time it is, one does not calculate it, but simply refers to a clock or watch. When one wants to know the date, one consults a calendar rather than observes the Sun, Moon, and stars. This placement of temporal logics in artifacts clearly forms a feature of humans that is quite different from anything shared with any other animal—not only do humans make tools, and not only do humans have knowledge far beyond what animals exhibit, but humans place this knowledge in tools. The cultural diversity of concepts of time is closely related to the fusion of diverse ideas and artifacts used to think. Whereas my examples so far are the clock and the calendar, the use of objects to mediate time is not new. Objects related to time are among some of the most famous in the archaeological record, for example, Stonehenge, the Aztec calendar, and the Antikythera Mechanism (Birth 2012, 9).

Birth, Kevin. 2012. Objects of time: How things shape temporality. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.


Eviatar Zerubavel argues that no calendared construction of the week was ever an inevitable occurrence. Rather, the week represents the cultural division of natural cycles into useful structures for social routines. Social time thus exhibits constructed elements not apparent in natural time.

The week is not an inevitable natural necessity and, despite its pervasive presence in so many parts of the world, it is by no means a universal phenomenon. This apparently “indispensable” cycle can actually be found only in those civilizations that either generated a complex divinatory system (for example, the Hellenistic world, Central America, Indonesia); developed a market economy (for example, China, ancient Rome, West Africa); or have come under the influence of Judeo-Christianity or Islam with their distinctive extranatural liturgical cycles. The significant feature that all these civilizations seem to have in common is that they cherish regularity, and it is thus only that they have produced the particular mentality which seems to characterize the sort of “homo rhythmicus” who has invented the cycle known as the week.

Essentially revolving around the experience of recurrence, the circular conception of time encourages the establishment of rigid routines, which promote structure and orderliness by making our life more regular as well as more predictable…

There are many routine activities (such as shopping and family visiting) that we would like to perform on a regular basis, yet which, unlike brushing our teeth or changing our underwear, need not necessarily be performed every day. At the same time, however, we also may not want to have to wait a full month in order to perform them regularly rather than on an ad hoc basis. Nature, which has given us both the day and the month, has not been of much help in our search for some convenient cycle in between them. (Unlike several other planets, Earth has no other, closer satellites with shorter orbits than the moon.) Faced with the disappointing lack of any major natural cycle that is longer than the day yet shorter than the next available natural cycle, which is almost thirty times longer, various civilizations, quite independently of one another, have tried to fill this natural gap by inventing such a cycle themselves. Hence the evolution of various forms of the week in so many parts of the world (Zerbubavel 1989, 85-86).

Zerubavel, Eviatar. 1989. The seven day circle: The history and meaning of the week. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


Friedel Weinert instructs that in order to comprehend why physical, natural time, is different from human, social time, it must be appreciated that natural units of time pre-exist conventional units of time. Furthermore, Weinert notes how socially convened units of time are based on natural temporalities.

In order to grasp the distinction between physical and human time, it is important to distinguish natural and conventional units of time. Natural units of time are based on periodic processes in nature, which recur after a certain interval. They may be quite imprecise, like the periodic flooding of the Nile, on which the ancient Egyptians based their calendar year; or more regular, like celestial phenomena. Some basic units of time, like the day and the year, are based on natural units of time. For instance, the equatorial rotational period of the Earth is 23 h 56 min and 4.1 s; that of Uranus is 17 h (Zeilik 1988, 508). The tropical year—the time that the Earth needs for one revolution around the sun—has a length of 365, 242,199… days or 365 days, 5 h, 48 min and 46 s (see Moyer 1982; Clemence 1966). But the calendar year has 365 days and 366 in leap years, which gives the calendar year an average length of 365.2425 days. As calendar years cannot have fractional lengths, there will always be a discrepancy between the tropical and the calendar year. This difference led to the replacement of the Julian calendar by the Gregorian calendar (1582). The Gregorian calendar will remain accurate to within one solar day for some 2,417 years. One difficulty with the day and the year, as just defined, is that these units of time are not constant, due to slight irregularities in the motion of the Earth. Historically, this discrepancy has led to calendar reforms and redefinitions of the ‘second’ from a fraction of the rotational period of the Earth around the sun to atomic oscillations.

Whilst physical time is based on such natural units, human time is based on conventional units of time. The 7-day week, introduced by the Romans, the subdivision of the day into 24 h, of the hour into 60 min and of minutes into 60 s, the division of the year into 12 months and the lengths of the months into 30 or 31 days (except February), again introduced by the Romans, are all conventional units of time. They are conventional because they respond to human social needs about time reckoning although there may be no physical processes, to which they correspond. To give an example, the beginning of the year (1st January) is purely conventional, since there is no natural event, which would single out this particular date. Equally the beginning of the day at midnight is a convention. Note, however, that not all such conventions are arbitrary. The equinoxes, the summer and winter solstices correspond to particular positions of the Earth with respect to the sun. Already the Babylonians introduced the 7-day week and named the days of the week, like the Egyptians, according to the sun and the known planets: moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus and Saturn (Wendorff 1985, 118). The division of the year into 12 months (4000 B.C.) was inspired by the 12 orbits of the moon around the Earth in one tropical year. But this creates a problem of time reckoning because the time between lunar phases is only 29.5 Earth days (Zeilik 1988, 152; Wendorff 1985, 14), but the solar year has 12.368 lunar months. As a consequence, the length of the month is now purely conventional and no longer related to the lunar month. The division of the day into 2 9 12 h is explained by geometrical considerations. During the summer only 12 constellations can be seen in the night sky, which led to the 12 h division of day and night. According to the sexagesimal system, there are 10 h between sunrise and sunset, as indicated by a sundial, to which 2 h are added for morning and evening twilight (see Whitrow 1989, 28–29; Wendorff 1985, 14, 49). When the year and the day are set to start also depends on conventions and social needs. In ancient Egypt, for instance, the year began on July 19 (according to the Gregorian calendar), since this date marked the beginning of the flooding of the Nile (Wendorff 1985, 46). In the late Middle Ages there existed a wide variety of New Year’s days: Central Europe (December 25); France (March 21; changed to 1st January in 1567); British Isles, certain parts of Germany and France (March 25) (Wendorff 1985, 185; Elias 1988, 21f).

Despite these aspects of conventionality, it must be emphasized that the conventional units of time must keep track of natural units of time. For otherwise, conventional units of time will fall out of step with the periodicity of the natural units. The measurement of time is inseparably connected with the choice of certain inertial reference frames, like the ‘fixed’ stars, the solar system, and the expansion of galaxies or atomic vibrations (Clemence 1966, 406–409). It was one of the great discoveries of Greek philosophy to have realized that there exists a link between time and cosmology. The existence of conventional units of time thus presupposes the existence of natural units of time (Weinert 2013, 16-17).

Weinert, Friedel. 2013. The march of time: Evolving conceptions of time in the light of scientific discoveries. Berlin and Heidelberg: Springer-Verlag.