Espen Hammer argues that human practices and actions shift time from being a natural phenomenon, to that which bears the intelligibility of social composition. This effect is said to be more apparent in contemporary eras than it was in pre-modern cultures, which Hammer attributes to the dominance of clock-time.

I started out by trying to establish that, for human agents, temporality necessarily has a social (and therefore also historical) dimension. In human practices and actions, natural time is humanized, thereby becoming a form of intelligibility that weaves together past, present, and future, and narratives bring structure and representational unity not only to actions but to events as well. Time is anthropologically temporalized in many ways: there are the daily biological rhythms; there is the cycle of life through adolescence and maturity to old age and death; and there is the transindividual time of periods and historical epochs. In all three contexts the modal shape of our lives and the meaning we are able to experience will inevitably have a temporal dimension.

I then drew on this account in order to make at least conceivable the idea of a specifically modern form of temporality. I argued that modernity generates conceptions of human time as increasingly quantifiable, a linear series of “nows,” where the future, with its goals to be actualized, attains priority over the past and its accumulated space of experience. The notion of lived time experienced (in line with the ideologies of progress) as a continuous rupture with the past was then analyzed in terms of notions such as modernization and purposive-rational action, requiring temporal organization to be calculative and forward-looking. The dominant temporal configuration in modernity is clock-time, the empty ticking away of transitory units of time that irreversibly and irretrievably distance us from the past. Modern time thus generates the dual problem of meaning and transience that I argue occupy the thinkers I deal with later in the book. For one thing, as the present is increasingly disconnected from structures of collective historical understanding and geared towards a linear progression towards an unknown future, it becomes incapable of securing a sense of stable meaning. Indeed, as the narratives that both individually and collectively relate actions and evaluations to a fabric of collective meaning unravel in the face of progress, the modern self tends to experience a sense of fragmentation, melancholy, and boredom. For another, as modern time is a time of perpetual transition, of the ever-new of the mere passing of homogeneous moments, the sense of transitoriness, I submitted, is stronger and existentially more devastating than that which, in pre-modern societies, gave rise to various types of metaphysics of counter-worldly immutability. In the accelerating world of modernity, there is never enough time (Hammer 2011, 237-38).

Hammer, Espen. 2011. Philosophy and temporality from Kant to critical theory. New York: Cambridge University Press.


Akhil Gupta notes that industrial, capitalist time, is often conceptually separated from the rhythm of natural time. It is added by Gupta that typically capitalist time is characterised as abstract, linear, and associated with Western development and progress, contradistinguished from the cyclical, less-distanced from nature, sense of the time of non-Western cultures.

Whereas time in industrial capitalism becomes abstract, homogeneous, empty, linear, and progressive, shorn of “nature’s rhythms,” and unconnected to the task at hand, historical and cultural Others construe time as concrete, cyclical, closely connected to nature, and experience it in the context of specific tasks…

It would, of course, be foolish to deny that the far-reaching changes that accompanied the industrial revolution permanently and irreversibly altered western notions of time. It is also true that dominant representations of time in the West emphasize its linear, continuous, unidirectional, and progressive character, its preciousness, and its interchangeability with money. What I wish to question is whether the changes that occurred in conceptions of time are best understood as the move from cyclicality to linearity, from task-orientation rooted in concrete activity to an abstract passage disconnected from the flow of everyday life, and from a close synchrony with the rhythms of nature to an alienated homogeneity imposed by work-discipline. Rather than accepting this narrative as a plausible reconstruction of the western past and a powerful prediction about the “Third World” today, rather than acquiescing to the dominant portrayals of the difference between Self and Other that circulate widely in the western world, we need to ask why discursively available representations of time in the West remain oblivious, despite easily observable evidence to the contrary, to features of cyclicality, concreteness, rhythms, and yes, even rebirth. The political importance of this silence lies in the fact that it allows the western narrative of progress to go unchallenged, and enables the continued management and surveillance of the “Third World” in the guise of “development”…

Another major contrast often drawn between industrial and nonindustrial societies is that in the former time is homogeneous, empty, and regular whereas in the latter it is rhythmic and irregular. The (often unstated) basis for this difference can be traced to their respective relationship to nature. Whereas agricultural, pastoral, and hunting-gathering societies are closely at- tuned to the “rhythms of nature,” in industrial societies these bonds are severed. For example, much has been made in pop sociology of the fact that electric lights, three work shifts, all-night radio and television broadcasting, and twenty-four-hour restaurants, grocery stores, and laundromats-what might be called the “Denny’s revolution”-are slowly blurring any meaningful distinction between night and day. Once again, as with the case of cyclical time, we find a troubling set of essentialist dichotomies being constructed in which agricultural (and more generally, nonindustrial) societies are identified with “nature” while industrial societies are identified with technology (Gupta 1992, 195-96, 199-200).

Gupta, Akhil. 1992. “The reincarnation of souls and the rebirth of commodities: Representations of time in “East” and “West.”” Cultural Critique 22: 187-211.


Robert Kastenbaum characterises statistical, behaviour analysis, as a form of psychology which neglects the phenomenological reality of natural time. Such methods, Kastenbaum asserts, construct the appearance of the time of an individual, and of a population, when actually the focus is on time-bereft, quantitative outcomes.

There is probably a connection between the psychologists’ perceived irrelevance of death and two other variables: (a) the psychologist’s separation from phenomenological and natural time; and (b) the preference for aggregated rather than individual (nomothetic) types of quantitative analysis. Experimental psychology is strong on establishing its own designer time frameworks-reinforcement schedules are one familiar example. Statistical psychology is strong on analyzing data on the basis of techniques and assumptions that have an underlying spatial or other atemporal foundation. This tendency expressed itself in the early days of statistical treatment of behavioral data when research designs were borrowed from agricultural experimentation. (The “hort” in cohort bears witness to its horticultural roots.) Investigators became adept at studying the effects of treatment A, treatment B, and control conditions on “crops” of rats or undergraduates who had been assigned to these various conditions, much like sweet peas to Mendellian garden patches. The results are analyzed by aggregated clumps (Group A, Group B, Group C). We are not really much interested in what happened to this particular sweet pea. Furthermore, natural time (in this case, the growing season) is replaced by quantitative outcome. True, there is the appearance that time has really been taken into consideration. But the statistical analysis merely compares two sets of numbers based upon aggregated performance. The growing season might have been a month or an hour. The process might have been linear or geometric, smooth or discontinuous. We’ll never know.

Natural time is seldom treated as natural time in psychological research. It is replaced by outcome measures that are indifferent to the actual temporal course. Similarly, the typical research program concentrates upon aggregated numbers. Individuals disappear as individuals almost as soon as they are fed into the computers. Combined, the tendency to dispose of both the individual and of natural time comprises a splendid way to make death appear irrelevant. Without individuals and the actual passage of time, how is this unpleasant topic to intrude itself? Furthermore, the already mentioned dislike of introspective studies has pretty much taken care of phenomenological time as well. Psychologists may not have any extraordinary ways to maintain social stability and continuity, but they can create little time and death-free worlds in their studies and theoretical models (Kastenbaum 2000, 15-16).

Kastenbaum, Robert. 2000. The psychology of death: Third edition. New York: Springer Publishing Company.