20 September 2023

Da capo - From the beginning

Da capo - from the head - from the beginning, a musical term directing "at the end of a piece of music to repeat from the beginning" (OED). Once again from the beginning. 

But what is it supposed to mean with regard to the task of thinking? If it meant to go back to the beginning of Western thinking with the Greeks to simply repeat their 'piece of music', i.e. the historical trajectory of philosophical thinking to the present day, then this would get us nowhere. We would only end up back where we are today, our mind would not have changed. It must mean, instead, that in going back to the Greek beginnings, we are prepared and willing to change our mind, to recast our mind, by revising how the Greeks — notably Plato and Aristotle — answered questions regarding certain elementary phenomena on which our conceptions of all further, less elementary phenomena in the world depend.

What are these elementary phenomena? Apart from the question concerning human being or life itself (which are not the most elementary phenomena), Greek thinking struggled over centuries to conceive being and movement and hence also time. These conceptions have remained basic and determining for our Western (today globalized) mind to the present day. In Timaios Plato conceives being only as the opposite or negation of genesis, i.e. of becoming, movement. In his Physics, on the other hand, Aristotle conceives time as the number counted off movement, hence, as derivative of movement. This would render the phenomenon of movement as the central, fundamental phenomenon, because being is conceived as the unmoving, the unchanging (implicitly as enduring presence) and time as simply numerical, counted clock-time. Therefore the unchanging, i.e. being itself, is conceived as 'timeless', a thoughtless cliché still ubiquitously employed today!

But is time truly derivative of movement, or is it the other way round: Is it not rather the case that all movement and change, of whatever kind, can only happen in time? And that this time is more originary, more elementary than counted clock-time? Does not the striving to think as truly as possible to the phenomena themselves demand that we radically rethink time itself? Perhaps even that time is not a physical phenomenon at all, but pre-physical (and certainly not 'psychological' in the insipid modern sense of the term).

Since not all movement and change is physical — with physical beings, since they are extended, requiring space — there is also pre-spatial movement, e.g. the movement of the mind itself, focusing on this or that. This existential movement of the mind itself, however, presupposes the open, originary, three-dimensional time unifying present, past and future in which it can happen at all. Our mind belongs to time; all mental movement is temporal in this sense of focusing (in German: Vergegenwärtigen). 

Hence time and space are phenomenally not on a par with each other at all; rather time is more elementary than space, that is, it is pre-spatial. With this observation, a well-entrenched and massively fortified dogma of all our (Western?) thinking falls to the ground. And yet the clichés of time and space as on a par with each other and of time as sequential clock-time, i.e. as consecutive 'nows', live on today unquestioned and unperturbed. As if we had forgotten what it means to think and remain content with modelling in flimsy, hypothetical, theoretical constructs that are then  — too late  — empirically tested.

Counted, linear clock-time went on to have a spectacular career on the historical trajectory of the cast of our Western mind. Galileo, Descartes and Newton mathematized it for the sake of gaining mastery over physical movement. Very clever and effective. Einstein spatialized this linear, counted time by conceiving it as the path of light tied to three-dimensional space as observed by a subject with its apparatuses, such as telescopes. Hence the Lorentz transformation in special relativity (straight light path) and the Riemann tensor (curved light path) in general relativity. 

Attempts to fuse general relativity with quantum mechanics in quantum-gravity theory have prompted the striving to get rid of (the phenomenon of) time altogether (as an 'inner' psychological fiction) in the mathematical modelling of what is supposed to be 'the case'. But perhaps only certain, restricted kinds of movement can be conceived as happening in this 'skinny', mathematized, linear time — the time of linear causality that cannot cope with quantum indeterminacy, not with that sociating kind of movement I call interplay.

What if what is become of time is also intimately intertwined with what is become of us, of our mind, in Western history? In other words: What if how our Western mind conceives time is intimately intertwined with who we conceive ourselves to 'be' in belonging to the openness of time? What if rethinking time necessitates our rethinking the entire temporal structure of the world with its various kinds of movement?

What I have written here is only a tiny indication, a teeny-weeny tit-bit of the enticing challenge confronting us today: to rethink da capo. Not for the faint-hearted, and also an immense, multi-generational task with a myriad facets, but also necessary if we are ever to learn to stop simply mouthing clichés of thought in outworn language that serves to perpetuate the status quo with its seemingly endless techno-scientific progress. Such as the latest, inevitable innovation: algorithmic control of all kinds of movement through AI. It's been a long time coming since Plato broke down the logos into discrete bits.

Further reading: On Human Temporality.


  1. thanks, michael. i had a good time reading this!
    it spurred me to look at the etymology of "time" because the deep history of words reveal many roots of interplay and connections between concepts which we no longer see.
    time (n.)
    Old English tima "limited space of time," from Proto-Germanic *timon- "time" (source also of Old Norse timi "time, proper time," Swedish timme "an hour"), from PIE *di-mon-, suffixed form of root *da- "to divide."
    so the root concept of time is to divide. i looked further at the PIE root *da-
    *dā-, Proto-Indo-European root meaning "to divide."

    It forms all or part of: betide; daimon; Damocles; deal (v.); deal (n.1) "part, portion;" demagogue; demiurge; democracy; demography; demon; demotic; dole; endemic; epidemic; eudaemonic; geodesic; geodesy; ordeal; pandemic; pandemonium; tidal; tide (n.) "rise and fall of the sea;" tidings; tidy; time; zeitgeist.

    It is the hypothetical source of/evidence for its existence is provided by: Sanskrit dati "cuts, divides;" Greek dēmos "people, land," perhaps literally "division of society," daiesthai "to divide;" Old Irish dam "troop, company;" Old English tid "point or portion of time," German Zeit "time."
    i am still trying to assimilate this: democracy and daimon (demon) are from the same root which gives us time.
    all come from "division" which presupposes a Unity, doesn't it?
    ouspensky wrote of a multi-dimensional Unity (eleven dimensions? i don't recall) which we humans see in its changes because our minds are reacting to a moving cross-section of the changeless Unity.
    is a changeless ocean the source of the appearance of waves and currents? when the waves appear to come into being and pass into non-being, is the ocean changing?

    1. i mis-remembered: ouspensky described six dimensions; eleven is from post-modern "string theory".

    2. Thanks, Miko; that's interesting. What you say aligns with the OED, whose first signification reads, "A limited stretch or space of continued existence, as the interval between two successive events or acts, or the period through which an action, condition, or state continues; a finite portion of ‘time’ (in its infinite sense)".
      It implies a one-dimensional, or linear, conception of time, an infinite, 'empty' time-line from which intervals can be cut. I interpret the "continued existence", in turn, temporally as "continued presence", since 'presence' is one temporal mode distinct from 'absence' in the past or future. For whom is this "continued presence" present? For the mind of someone following some kind of continuous movement/change. To do so, that person's mind must focus on the continuous movement, if it is to be present-to-mind, and to understand the movement AS a movement, the mind must 'hold together' and 'see all at once' what is in the present moment, what has been and is now absent in the past, and what is expected to come to presence from the as-yet absent future. In other words, the mind itself must be 'always already' stretched into the three temporal dimensions in order to locate any event or sequence of events or even any discontinuous set of events that hang together in some way, e.g. your bicycle got a flat tyre yesterday, and a friend calls you today to arrange to meet, so you 'see' already mentally that you will have to fix the flat tyre tomorrow before cycling to meet your friend. The three events from the three different temporal dimensions hang together for your mind, although they are not continuous.
      The three unified temporal dimensions must be already open to the mind for any movement/change, whether continuous or not, to be understood at all. This 3D-temporal openness is what I interpret phenomenologically as the "changeless Unity" you refer to: Anaxagorean _nous_, updated today by hermeneutic phenomenology.