Alan Edwards posits a distinction between natural time, and human constructions of time. Athletes are said to be able to train themselves to measure the relative amounts of humanly constructed time.

Ahh, Sunday is the end of daylight-saving time. Go to bed. Sleep in. Magically gain an hour of time.

Pretty nice, huh? Creation of time ex nihilo with a simple twist of the clock dial.

But wait a minute, you say — that hour didn’t appear out of nowhere. It’s the repayment of a one-hour loan we granted the universe back in April, when we set our clocks one hour ahead. All right — so where has that hour been all this while?

Being as it is an amalgam of nature and artifice, time is a tricky thing. The only natural divisions of time we use are years (the time it takes Earth to orbit the sun), days (one rotation of the Earth) and lunar months (the time it takes the moon to wax and wane). Hours, minutes and seconds are all human constructs…

The only thing that now connects human time with natural time is the year. The Earth’s orbit around the sun is currently measured by the positions of a variety of stars and quasars.

Since an official atomic second is slightly shorter than a “natural” second (it takes about 86,400.002 atomic seconds to fill an average solar day), every so often the Bureau International des Poids et Mesures outside Paris, the official worldwide arbiter of time, inserts a “leap second” into the year to make up the difference.

The Bureau International collects data from dozens of atomic clocks throughout the world, statistically compares them and comes up with an official worldwide time. The Directorate of Time at the Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C., and the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder, Colo., are two of the contributors…

Far from a steady, flowing stream, time is relative: The faster one moves through space, the slower one moves through time and vice versa (and that’s not even taking into account gravitation).

Everyone moves through combined space-time at the speed of light — we humans, moving very slowly through space, make it up through rapid movement in time. Electromagnetic radiation, moving at the speed of light through space, doesn’t move at all through time. For light, time stands still.

But Einstein was right — we experience relative time every day. Numerous studies have shown that people perceive time to pass quickly when they are doing something enjoyable or concentrating hard, while time passes slowly while they’re waiting or bored. Time, in other words, really does fly when you’re having fun.

Relative time is helped by the fact that most humans have lousy internal clocks. Put a person in a room with no stimuli and tell him to call in an hour and he’ll usually miss the mark by a wide margin.

Some people, however, have trained themselves to sense time. An elite athlete, for example, can tell through a thousand tiny signs whether he’s moving fractionally faster or slower. Coaches take advantage of that innate sense with “tempo trainers” — tiny metronomes that sound tones in the athlete’s ear to time his movements.

“It’s a skill that takes a long time to learn,” said Deward Loose, swimming coach at Lone Peak High School in Utah County. “It’s kinesthetic awareness. Call it feel. It’s amazing to me. . . . The elite swimmers can tell the difference in 100ths of seconds.”

Great hitters see the baseball slow down to the point that they can count the stitches. The ball becomes huge for great tennis players. And it’s not only them. “A number of psychological studies have demonstrated that time expansion is well within the reach of common mortals,” said social psychologist Robert Levine.

Thus we can, with enough effort, implement Thomas Mann’s instruction:

“Hold fast the time! Guard it, watch over it, every hour, every minute! . . . Hold every moment sacred. Give each clarity and meaning, each the weight of thine awareness, each its true and due fulfillment” (Edwards 2003).

Edwards, Alan. 2003. ‘Timekeeping has a long, interesting history.’ Deseret news October 23, 2003. https://www.deseretnews.com/article/515040547/Timekeeping-has-a-long-interesting-history.html


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.


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.


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.


Daniel Boorstin posits that by marking time according to distinct parts, humans were freed from the cyclical nature of the world. Humanity’s liberation from a repetitive natural condition, via the various conceptions of time, is further claimed to have conditioned the first communities of shared human knowledge.

The first grand discovery was time, the landscape of experience. Only by marking off months, weeks, and years, days and hours, minutes and seconds, would mankind be liberated from the cyclical monotony of nature. The flow of shadows, sand, and water, and time itself, translated into the clock’s staccato, became a useful measure of man’s movements across the planet. The discoveries of time and of space would become one continuous dimension. Communities of time would bring the first communities of knowledge, ways to share discovery, a common frontier on the unknown (Boorstin 1985, 1).

Boorstin, Daniel. 1985. The discoverers. New York: Random House Inc.


Mario Castagnino and Rafael Ferraro explain the differentiation between curved space-time, and the measurement of it by a clock. Whilst the physical parameters recorded by the clock are recorded as natural time, there is said to exist an infinite number of such parameters, all of which are defined as observer-dependent.

It is well known that there is a small confusion between a physical observer’s system and a geometrical coordinate system (or chart) in several papers. Of course they are two different concepts, e.g., in classical physics, an observer’s system is a rigid frame and a clock, where we can use all kinds of charts, for instance, Cartesian or polar coordinates. In curved space-time we cannot use a rigid frame and the natural generalization of the observer’s system will be a timelike fluid of observers, each one endowed with a clock, i.e., a set of timelike paths, each one with a different parameter, the “time” measured by the clock. This time is not necessarily the proper time; it is only an arbitrary continuous function of space-time. Of course we can describe this fluid of observers with any chart we like. We will find that physics is, in fact, observer dependent, but it is of course, chart independent. We shall restrict ourselves to irrotational fluid; thus we can define a set of orthogonal timelike hypersurfaces to the fluid paths, and we can define a parameter T, on each surface, such that the equations T = const would define the orthogonal hypersurfaces. We shall call this parameter a “natural time.” Of course, there exists an infinite set of natural times. We can pass from one to another via a continuous function T -> T’ = T'( T). We shall see that physics is independent of the natural time we use; it is only dependent on the chosen observer’s fluid. Of course, in general, natural time is different from proper time. We can label each fluid world line by three real parameters x1, x2 , x3 ,* and we can call x0 to the natural time T induced by the fluid of observers. Then x0, x1, x2, x3 is a chart and every event of space-time has its coordinates x0, x1, x2, x3 – namely, the space coordinates of the fluid world line, where the event happens, plus the natural time measured by the clock of this world line when the event happens. We shall call this chart an adapted chart (Castagnino and Ferraro 1988, 52-53).

Castagnino, Mario, and Ferraro, Rafael. 1988. “Toward a complete theory for unconventional vacua,” In Claudio Teitelboim (ed.) Quantum mechanics of fundamental systems 1, 51-62. New York: Springer Science+Business Media.


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.


Jonathan Martineau describes capitalism’s commodification of time according to measures of commercial value as having alienated humans from the concrete time  that is associated with bodies, emotions, and the ecosystem. In reducing time to calculations of market based exchange value, capitalist, abstract, clock-time, is said to be separate from what is naturally individual about time.

Although I have focused on capitalist abstract clock-time, throughout this study I have kept alive notions of concrete times. I have highlighted the temporal aspect of dynamics of domination and resistance between capitalism’s tendency to commodify – and therefore alienate – time, and the concrete times of human lives and socio-natural processes that resist it. Capitalism’s drive to commodify and alienate time is relentless, and it is expressed in processes occurring all across the social field. Indeed, the drive toward the privatisation of natural resources can be read as an attempt by capital to abstract the concrete times of socio-natural cycles in order to ‘valorise’ them, i.e. to integrate these times in the logic of capital accumulation. In such processes of commodification, the complex cluster of useful labour, socio-natural cycles, human bodies and concrete temporal relationships become means to an end: capital accumulation…Examples such as these with regards to the relationship between humans and a socially mediated nature, between humans and humans, and between humans and their own bodies, illustrate a struggle between capitalism and human lives, of which the temporal dimension deserves more attention from critical scholarship.

Perhaps we can now propose a solution to the modern paradox of time with which we started this enquiry. Why, in a context where time is measured and organised to such an unprecedented degree, is it experienced by us as the most uncontrollable and alien force? The measuring and organising of time is a social need; it is a fundamental component of the organisation of society and also of the reproduction of the human species. However, under the compulsion of class relations, and today of capitalism, social time relations have been serving the interests of dominant powers, often at the expense of the concrete times of exploited or oppressed groups. The power of capital in modern societies has relied heavily on the development and refinement of the measurement and organisation of time to an unprecedented degree. The first purpose of this measurement and organisation, however, is to reproduce the power of capital and to increase the power held by the law of value over social relations, not to enhance the potential of humans as world-making and time-making beings. As such, measured and organised time faces us as an alien structure, coordinating value relations instead of facilitating human relations and contributing to human development.

Measured and organised time therefore goes hand in hand with its alienation in our modern temporal order for the simple reason that time is measured and organised not by us, but by capital, not for us, but for capital. Our times are therefore subject to the imperatives of the law of value. Reclaiming human concrete times of emotions, work, social relationships, human bodies, friendships, love, parenting, childhood, laughter, sleep, childbirth, childrearing, food production, art, the concrete time of our ecosystems, and so on, thus forms an integral part of the reclaiming of our lives and our world. The struggle for ‘decommodification’, to employ a somewhat rebarbative term, also entails a struggle for the decommodification of human and socio-natural concrete times, the end of temporal alienation and of the subjection of human and social lives to the dictates of the capitalist market, capitalist abstract clocktime compulsions and capital accumulation (Martineau 2015, 167-68).

Martineau, Jonathan. 2015. Time, capitalism and alienation: A socio-historical inquiry into the making of modern time. Leiden and Boston: Brill.


Rita Felski notes that rather than women being restricted to the natural temporality exemplified by maternal cycles, they are actually more preoccupied with a non-natural, cultural time, than men are. This is said to be identifiable in the onus put on women to juggle child-care and work responsibilities.

For example, those who believe that linear time is masculine and cyclical time feminine usually point to the dramatic contrast between the grand narratives of male historical time and the repetitive everyday time of women. This difference then serves as evidence of a vast gendered gulf in temporal experience. Here is an instance of the problem noted by Maurice Bloch: one facet of cultural experience is taken to be exemplary and representative of an entire (gendered) way of life. The part is taken for the whole.

If, however, the daily lives of women are compared to the daily lives of men, the contrast is much more muted. The realm of everyday life simply is repetitive, being largely defined by monotony, routine, and habit. It is the realm of the eternal daily round, of what the French call “métro, boulot, dodo” (metro, work, sleep). The grey-suited commuter waiting for the 6:30 train or the male sports fan glued to the television every Saturday is as much a creature of routine as is any woman. As I argue in chapter 3, the perception that cyclical time is a uniquely female province is highly misleading.

Such a perception arises from the fact that cyclical time is often seen as natural time, and hence the sphere of women. Yet there is nothing particularly natural about the routines through which most people in the West organize their lives: Burger King at 6 p.m., Friends at 8, a weekly trip to Walmart, the church, or the mall. Of course, the idea that cyclical time is natural does contain an important grain of truth. We know that human bodies are programmed to eat, sleep, and get rid of waste at regular intervals and do not cope well with major alterations to these rhythms (think, for example, of the well-documented disorientation of workers required to work irregular shifts). There are clear limits to the adaptability of human bodily rhythms. Yet the organization of such physical needs within everyday life is always an affair of culture, not nature.

Rather than being elemental creatures attuned to natural rhythms, many women nowadays are, if anything, even more preoccupied with time measurement than men. Caught between the conflicting demands of home and work, often juggling child care and frantic about their lack of time, it is women who are clock watchers, who obsess about appointments and deadlines, who view time as a precious commodity to hoard or to spend. Because women’s work at home is unpaid and hence is not translatable into exchange value, scholars have sometimes assumed that it remains outside the modern time economy. Yet the regulation of time pervades all aspects of everyday life and is no longer limited to those engaged in paid work. The housewife who places her cake in the oven for exactly thirty-five minutes, writes down her appointments in her daily planner, and makes sure that she gives her children several hours of quality time each day is as much a creature of modern time measurement as is any male worker (Felski 2000, 20-21).

Felski, Rita. 2000. Doing time: Feminist theory and postmodern culture. New York and London: New York University Press.