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.


Douwe Tiemersma reviews how African literature describes time in Africa as being more closely associated with organic events than time is in Western societies. Tiemersma expands on this definition by noting how African time is perceived to be more natural, present-centric, and less abstract, than the mechanics of Western time.

Mbiti’s description of human life also shows organic time. Birth is a slow process which is finalized long after the person has been physically born…Growth of time is the growth of the child, of growing old with special indicators for the various periods. There is an ordered sequence and duration of periods, and that is time intrinsic to the events of human life. Personal events are also connected to environmental events as the flooding of a river and the enthronement of a king…

Time in Africa seems not so abstract and mechanized as it is in Western societies. It is closer to natural phenomena and everyday life, which are more organic. Time seems to be connected with the important idea of life-force (Tiemersma 1998, 269).

Tiemersma, Douwe. 1998. ‘A model of organic time and development in Africa.’ In Temps et developpement dans la pensee de I’Afrique subsharienne/Time and development in the thought of subsaharan Africa, 267-86. Edited by Souleymane Bachir Diagne et Heinz Kimmerle. Amsterdam: Rodopi.


Lewis Mumford posits that mechanical time and organic time are polarised, whereby the former inadequately represents the latter. Mechanical, mathematical time is comprised of separate, superposable, identical instants. Conversely, organic time states are cumulative, and qualitatively differential, in the way that organic functions change tempo.

In terms of the human organism itself, mechanical time is even more foreign: while human life has regularities of its own, the beat of the pulse, the breathing of the lungs, these change from hour to hour with mood and action, and in the longer span of days, time is measured not by the calendar but by the events that occupy it. The shepherd measures from the time the ewes lambed; the farmer measure back to the day of sowing or forward to the harvest: if growth has it own duration and regularities, behind it are not simply matter and motion and the facts of development: in short, history. And while mechanical time is strung out in a succession of mathematically isolated instants, organic time – what Bergson calls duration – is cumulative in its effects. Though mechanical time can, in a sense, be speeded up or run backward, like the hands of a clock or the images of a moving picture, organic time moves in only one direction – through the cycle of birth, growth, development, decay, and death – and the past that is already dead remains present in the future that has still to he born (Mumford 1934, 15-16).

Mumford, Lewis. 1934. Technics and civilization. New York: Harcourt.