Mariska Pienaar portrays human time, in the constructed form of measurable units, as a conscious or unconscious representation of environmental time. Furthermore, human time, when described in terms of one’s life stages, is said to reflect the temporality of the Earth’s seasonal progressions.

The preceding sections of this article focused on how our natural environment, either consciously or unconsciously, evokes in us an awareness of time and death, and a consequent search for meaning in life, a search that often evokes existential and death anxiety. Following the ecopsychology principle of reciprocal influence (Roszak, 1992, 1998), this section of the discussion will focus on how our existential awareness and search for meaning leads to human constructions of time. It has been argued that an awareness of time and death causes the existential search for meaning. Although time is something perceived as existent within the human field of awareness, of course humans also need to construct time in a meaningful way.

Our contemplation of time in terms of meaningful units has caused it to become an essential factor in ascribing meaning and value to stages, conditions, and actions in life. Hereby, time has moved from being an external, environmental reality to becoming a human created framework for valuation processes.

The most fundamental way in which time has become a human construct is represented by the creation of the basic units of time. Although of course informed by the natural cycles of the Earth, human beings have constructed time into the basic units of seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, etc. These conceptual units of time have come to be time…

A second example of the way in which time has become a human construct is the division of a human life into ‘‘life stages.’’ These stages of course start at infancy and continue through childhood, young adulthood, mid-life, and old age. The construction of time into life stages has enabled us to conceptualize specific important stages and landmarks in the progression of a human life. The division of human life into stages closely, and most likely not at all coincidentally, resembles the Earth’s cyclical progression from one season to the next. As such, the Earth’s spring symbolizes infancy through adolescence, summer symbolizes young adulthood, autumn midlife, and winter may be said to symbolize old age (Pienaar 2011, 28).

Pienaar, Mariska. 2011. ‘An eco-existential understanding of time and psychological defenses: Threats to the environment and implications for psychotherapy.’ Ecopsychology 3(1): 25-29.


Barbara Barry observes that there are different interpretations of musical time, based around measurement and experience. The clocked measurement of time is here distinguished from the natural time of sun and moon movement, and biological experience.

Alternative interpretations are different kinds of measurement or quantification of time, taken from the standpoint either of experiential consciousness – through awareness of changes in external events or internal changes of state – which is dynamic model (empirical), or by reference to an objective standard, such as clock time, which is a static one (formal schemes of measurement). Almost any temporal event can be explained by one kind of direction in terms of the other; that is, an event as experience can be checked against clock time, or the other way around, a given duration can be used as the limits within which certain events take place. Any abstract (non-interpreted) duration can be matched against any of the four types of explanation, according to content, frame of reference and initial standpoint. For example, two hours as a typical sub-span in an individual’s life can constitute part of biological time (formal/analytic): as time marked by natural time-keepers (movement of the sun and moon) it is cosmological time (formal/synthetic): and as time as creative thought or enjoying works of art it is aesthetic time (empirical/synthetic)…

For music the term “experiential” seems preferable to “synthetic” because it clarifies the two basic standpoints of musical time, as either objective investigation or continuous experience. In analytic musical time the work is regarded as object, in order to demonstrate its components and relationships by means of an analytic method or procedure which interprets the work’s organization usually from one point (or possibly two points) of view – for example, motivic construction, serial organization, rhythmic structure, pitch classes and set theory aggregates. The converse of this, experiential musical time, considers a work as musical/temporal experience; it is concerned with how inherent and individual factors are inter-related, what factors contribute to affective response, and how musical time passes (Barry 1990, 84-86).

Barry, Barbara. 1990. Musical time: The sense of order. Stuyvesant: Pendragon Press.


Marc Ratcliff reviews how conceptions of time taken from Nature were considered, from the Middle Ages onwards, to be less weak than those relatively constructed by the respective religions. 

…from the Middle Ages onwards, three aspects had strongly affected the sacred time and tended towards its progressive naturalisation: first the mechanical clocks, second the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII (Coyne, Hoskin & Pedersen, 1982), and third the Chinese calendar quarrel (Pinot, 1971, pp. 189-279). All these transformations indicated that the religious foundations of time presented certain weak links and that there was space for new conceptions of time “taken from Nature”. Indeed, the view of a natural versus religious time became the subject of a quarrel of innovators against conservatism. It was during the eighteenth century that new attacks on the traditional model of time —both the biblical model of the Genesis and the model of the fixed species— were carried out from several parts of the scholarly world as well as from philosophers. The representation of naturalised time was transformed and theoretical glimpses at a non-fixist approach of the species were provided for instance by Benoît de Maillet in his Telliamed —an anagram of his name. Experiments were even carried out by Georges Leclerc de Buffon who brought a cannonball to the red-hot and measured the time used to refresh. A computation led him to put back the age of the earth to c. 80’000 years, providing the earth was a fired part escaped from the sun. In natural history, certain scholars such as Maupertuis and Diderot, the botanist Michel Adanson and later Lamarck in the beginning of the 19th century, challenged not the biblical model of time but the fixity of species. It is less known that representing natural time into a chart was already done in the second part of the 18th century by a botanist named Antoine Duchesne. Having discovered a type of strawberry not described that reproduced normally, he considered it to be a type descending from another ancestor, and drew a chart of the genealogy of the various strawberries. Later, the tree was one of the important iconographic charts used to represent natural descent that was developed during the 19th century (Tassy, 1991; Barsanti, 1992).

The general trend that lead to naturalise time took advantage both from the relativistic quarrel about the Christian calendar and from the desacralized approach of the Enlightenment naturalists who dared expanding the biblical time (Ratcliff 2002, 21).

Ratcliff, Marc. 2002. ‘An epistemological history of time: From technology to representations.’ Estudios de Psicología 23(1): 17-27.


David Prerau describes the international standardisation of time, according to Greenwich mean time, as the first artificial adjustment to natural sun time. This artificialisation of time is said to have been globally systematised via various technologies, including time balls, and the calculation of longitudinal and latitudinal grids. 

Due to the eccentricity of the earth’s orbit and the tilt of its axis, the time from one day’s local noon to the following day’s local noon can be somewhat more or less than twenty-four clock-hours, depending on the day of the year. For example, the time on an accurate clock can be ahead of the local sun time as shown on a sundial by as much as fourteen minutes in mid-February and can lag behind sun time by as much as sixteen minutes in early November. In fact, there are only four days of the year when the clock and the sun completely agree. The difference between sun time and clock time, called the equation of time, was originally calculated in about 1670 by John Flamsteed, Britain’s first royal astronomer.

Given the regularity of the clock and the irregularity of the observed sun, a perfectly accurate clock would have to be reset each day at noon. To avoid this, cities and towns began to set their clocks on the basis of mean time: the length of a meantime day is defined as the average length of all the days of the year. Mean time (or mean solar time) was the first artificial adjustment made to natural sun time.

Guns, bells, and time balls.

Mean time was first instituted in Geneva, Switzerland in 1780, and eventually most cities and towns followed suit. Even after mean local time was generally adopted, however, there was still the problem of keeping the population of a large city or region synchronized. Although more accurate clocks and watches were produced, as the nineteenth century progressed, they still could drift several minutes a day. Mean local time could be determined with the greatest precision by astronomical observatories that tracked clock stars, stars that appeared overhead each night at predictable times. In an effort to keep clocks and watches accurate, observatory time was often announced by firing a gun or ringing a bell each day at a designated hour or by dropping a time ball.

Time balls were large metal spheres that were dropped each day from a prominent building or tower at a precise time, often twelve noon. The exact time was relayed by telegraph from a nearby observatory. Time balls were first used to signal a precise time to ships at harbor, so each ship could set its chronometer accurately without having to send someone ashore. The Royal Greenwich Observatory began dropping a daily time ball as early as 1833. Soon a time ball was in use in many cities, so that at the designated hour observers at numerous vantage points could set their clocks to the accurate local observatory time. Thus the daily drop of the time ball fostered a uniform time for everyone in the area. A vestige of this practice is the illuminated ball dropped in New York City’s Times Square at exactly midnight each New Year’s Eve.

The use of mean local sun time and devices such as time balls allowed residents of each town or city to be synchronized, but there still was no coordination of times between different cities and regions. To understand how such a system might be possible, we need to consider that the relative sun times of two places is determined by their location on the globe. The ancient Greek astronomer, Hipparchus, was the first to imagine superimposing a grid on the earth’s surface; his grid consisted of 360 lines (corresponding to the degrees of a circle) connecting the North and South Poles at right angles to the equator, and 180 equally spaced lines circling the earth parallel to the equator. The lines running between the Poles indicated a location’s longitude, and the lines parallel to the equator indicated its latitude. The lines of longitude were later called meridians, from the Latin meridies (midday), because all places on the same meridian had local noon, when the sun is at its highest point, at the same time.

Latitude is measured north or south from the equator. For longitude, however, there is no obvious starting point. Therefore it is measured east or west from some designated line of longitude, and this is called the prime meridian. Up to the end of the nineteenth century, almost every major nation based its maps for land delineation and ship navigation upon its own defined prime meridian of longitude, usually the meridian through its capital city. Britain’s prime meridian went through London, Portugal’s through Lisbon, France’s through Paris, Russia’s through St. Petersburg, and the United States’ through Washington, D.C. To allow precise determination of longitude, the specific location of the prime meridian was usually located at an astronomical observatory in or near the capital city: the Royal Greenwich Observatory in Greenwich, England, just outside London; the Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C.; and the Pulkovo Observatory near St. Petersburg.

As the earth rotates, the sun appears to traverse fifteen degrees of longitude in one hour. Thus, each degree of longitude to the west, local noon occurs four minutes later. Consequently, any two cities not on the same meridian would have their clocks set at different times, depending on how many degrees their longitudes separate them. Even though each town determined its time independently, the worldwide system of local times worked quite effectively for several centuries. As long as travel and communications were relatively slow, it didn’t much matter that, for instance, in the United States when it was 12:00 noon in Chicago it was 12:31 in Pittsburgh, 12:24 in Cleveland, 12:17 in Toledo, 12:13 in Cincinnati, 12:09 in Louisville, 12:07 in Indianapolis, 11:50 in St. Louis, 11:48 in Dubuque, 11:39 in St. Paul, and 11:27 in Omaha. The relaxed pace of travel, the lack of instant communications, the inherent inaccuracy of contemporary clocks, and the less frantic pace of life all made minor time variations unimportant.

But then came the Industrial Revolution (Prerau 2005, 53-57).

Prerau, David. 2005. Seize the daylight: The curious and contentious story of daylight saving time. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press.


Helga Nowotny asserts that an historical perspective regarding social time is exhibited in work of Norbert Elias, for whom knowledge about time is not connected to an invariant part of nature. Instead, time-knowledge is passed down via generations of humans, in which time-standards are both created, and made durable. 

The formation of time concepts and the making of time measurements, i.e. the production of devices as well as their use and social function, become for him [Norbert Elias] a problem of social knowledge and its formation. It is couched in the long-term perspective of evolution of human societies. Knowledge about time is not knowledge about an invariant part or object of nature. Time is not a quality inherent in things, nor invariant across human societies. Nor is it solely the result of a specific human capacity for concept formation in the sense of creating ever more abstract synthetic concepts. It is also a capacity inherent in the societal evolutionary process, connected to the ability of learning and the passing on of knowledge to the next generation about how to order events both in sequence and in synchrony. But at the same time this remarkable capacity is also ‘creating’ and ‘setting time’ which then is felt as exerting a compelling influence upon actors (Nowotny 1992, 436-37).

Nowotny, Helga. 1992. “Time and social theory: Towards a social theory of time.” Time & society 1(3): 421-54.


When daylight saving time was proposed to Winston Churchill by William Willett, the policy was described by Churchill as representing another form of an artificial time under which humans already live. The distinction is made between all forms of artificial, humanly-conceived, time, and a real or natural temporality.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk, speaking early in the debate, said we should not begin lying in these matters. In these matters the country had begun lying a long time ago. When the local time, which varies in different parts of the country, was made a uniform time for the whole country, a great departure from the truth was undoubtedly made. You created a standard of artificial time, and we have long lived under that standard. Sidereal time is not solar time. Natural time is not solar time, solar time is not Greenwich time. Clock time never corresponds with the sun time, except on the meridian and on particular days in the year. National time is not local time, and when those who are in favour of this Bill are represented with departing from the true time, I am bound to say we may naturally ask not only what is truth but what is time? I venture to think that it is not very easy to discover ultimate sanction for any human or temporal arrangement. It is probable our arrangements about time have been fixed in the past mainly with regard to supposed convenience, and that they are conventional arrangements, to be governed by what we think is convenient for our general habits. Therefore, this Bill does not propose a change from natural time to artificial time, but only to substitute a convenient standard of artificial time for an inconvenient standard of artificial time (Churchill 1909, cc1777).

Churchill, Winston. 1909. “Daylight saving bill.” Hansard 1803-2005 – Commons sitting. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press.


Adrian Bardon describes how cultures are interpreted to represent a separate, Earthly time, via various forms of measurement. The idealist perspective is here endorsed, including that the human representation of time never accesses the actual reality of time.

If an answer to the question “What is time?” still seems to elude us, perhaps it is because we have been asking the wrong question. Time is not so much a ‘what’ as a ‘how,’ and not so much a question as an answer.

Time as we know it in experience is a matter of how we adaptively organize our own experiences; in a physical and cosmological context, it is a matt er of how we can most successfully model the universe of occurrences. As such, time is an answer: a solution to the problem of organizing experience and modeling events.

So who is right, the relationist, the idealist, or the realist? The answer lies partly in seeing that each position has something to be said for it.

Relationists have a point in that much of what we have to say about time has to do with our mode of organizing and relating events. In that sense, you could call time a kind of relation. The measurement of time is possible only in terms of observed motions or changes, such as the orbit of the Earth…

Idealists are right in that our grasp of time will always be mediated by our way of understanding things. Temporal experience is a kind of construction, rather than a mere reflection of nature. We can never penetrate to the sheer, naked reality of things as they are in themselves, unmediated by the conditions under which we experience things.

Whatever we come up with as a description of nature will always represent a particular way of understanding nature and never a final, unique, fully independent description. There is no way for us to step outside ourselves as a species and directly compare our representation of nature with nature in itself, in order to see if the former is an accurate reflection of the latter.

Bardon, Adrian. 2013. A brief history of the philosophy of time. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Pitrim Sorokin and Robert Merton differentiate between a purely quantitative constitution of astronomical, mathematical time, and qualitatively differentiated constitutions of social times. Social times are said to use what is homogeneously regular about astronomical time for the development of calendars and rituals.

The system of [social] time varies with the social structure. Astronomical time is uniform, homogeneous; it is purely quantitative, shorn of qualitative variations. Can we so characterize social time? Obviously not-there are holidays, days devoted to the observance of particular civil functions, “lucky” and “unlucky” days, market days, etc. Periods of time acquire specific qualities by virtue of association with the activities peculiar to them. We find this equally true of primitive and more complex societies…

Summing up, we may say that thus far our investigation has disclosed the facts that social time, in contrast to the time of astronomy, is qualitative and not purely quantitative; that these qualities derive from the beliefs and customs common to the group and that they serve further to reveal the rhythms, pulsations, and beats of the societies in which they are found.

Mathematical time is “empty.” It has no marks, no lacunae, to serve as points of origin or end. Yet the calendar-maker requires some sort of starting-point or fixed datum. Some beginning, arbitrary or not, must be set in order to initiate any system of time reckoning which purports to be continuous (Sorokin and Merton 1937, 621-23).

Sorokin, Pitrim, and Merton, Robert. 1937. ‘Social time: A methodological and functional analysis.’ The American journal of sociology 42(5): 615-29.


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.


Joshua Keating reports that not all territories have always been interested in adopting a standardised social time. The U.S. national time is provided as an example of this, in which the railroad network demanded a country-wide common clock, despite cities such as Cincinnati wanting to remain with a more natural time.

We measure time not simply in terms of minutes and seconds, but in terms of concepts such as “early,” “late” – or, for that matter, “fashionably late.” What is the length of a “work day”? In the United States, Europe and Japan you’ll get three different answers.

Those subjective views help explain why the standardization of time has often been met with reluctance, if not outright resistance. Historically, countries have not eagerly embraced the global clock—they’ve felt compelled to do so because of the demands of commerce.

The U.S. national time standard, for instance, didn’t emerge until 1883, when it was adopted by the railroads, which needed to maintain common timetables. Before that, cities largely kept their own local time, and many were not happy to have big government and big railroads force standardization on them. “Let the people of Cincinnati stick to the truth as it is written by the sun, moon and stars,” editorialized one newspaper when the changeover was going into effect (Keating 2013).

Keating, Joshua. 2013. “Why time is a social construct.” January 2013. 4139110/