Is time an abstract idea?


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Is time an abstract idea?

Time, motion, and change are such basic philosophical concepts that we see them being considered by all philosophers throughout Western philosophical thinking. These are fundamental concepts about which philosophers theorize and they are fundamental concepts about which every DickandJane deal with constantly in their ever-day actions and thoughts.

All of these concepts are abstract ideas that are constructed of multiple metaphors resulting from literal ever-day experiences. Our society thinks of metaphors as being the venue of poets; however, metaphors are not arbitrary or culturally and historically specific. “Rather, they tend to be normal, conventional, relatively fixed and stable, non arbitrary, and widespread throughout the cultures, and languages of the world”

Most importantly we must recognize these metaphors as being abstract but also that they are grounded in specific experiences.

Philosophers have theorized as to whether time really is; is it bounded, is it continuous or divided, does it flow like a river, is time the same to everyone, and is it long or short. These are common questions for DickandJane but philosophy seems to discount most of these human quizzes as being irrelevant. Often philosophers point out paradoxes embodied within these questions.

We have a rich and diverse notion of what time is. Time is not a thing-in-itself that we conceptualize as being independent. “All of our understandings of time are relative to other concepts such as motion, space, and events …We define time by metonymy: successive iterations of a type of event stand for intervals of “time”.” Consequentially, the basic literal properties of our concept of time are consequences of properties of events: Time is directional, irreversible, segmentable, continuous, and measurable.

We do have an experience of time but that experience is always in conjunction with our real experiences of events. “It also means that our experience of time is dependent on our embodied conceptualization of time in terms of events…Experience does not always come prior to conceptualization, because conceptualization is itself embodied. Further, it means that our experience of time is grounded in other experiences, the experiences of events.”

It is virtually impossible for us to conceptualize time as a stand alone concept without metaphor. Physics defines motion, i.e. velocity, in terms of distance and time, thereby indicating motion is secondary to time and distance. However, metaphorically we appear to place time as dependent upon the primitive sense of motion. “There is an area of our visual system of our brain that is dedicated to the processing of motion.”


“There is a lone, stationary observer facing in a fixed direction. There is an indefinite long sequence of objects moving past the observer from front to back. The moving objects are conceptualized as having fronts in their direction of motion.”

The time has long past for that answer. The time has come. Time flies by. Summer is almost past. I can see the face of trouble. I cannot face the future. The following days will tell the story.

In this metaphor I conceptualize time as an object moving toward me. The times that are in front of me are conceptualized as the future and the times that have passed me are the past. The present time is that time that is now beside me. This is why we speak of the here and now. My position is a reference point, thus tomorrow is before me and yesterday is past me. I can see the future and the past is gone forever.


The second major metaphor for time represents a moving observer wherein the present is the position on the path in which the observer is positioned.

In this metaphor the observer is moving through time. Time is a path that I move through. Time, i.e. the path can be long or short, time can be bounded.

There is trouble ahead. Let’s spread this project over several days. We reached summer already.

In this metaphor we construct temporal correlates with distance measurements: long, short, pass, through, over, down the road, etc.

Quotes from Philosophy in the Flesh by Lakoff and Johnson
Um, yes. But you answered your own question, lol. We see time in metaphors, because they are easy for us to understand. Everyone can understand a ticking clock.

It's a good question.

But is time dependent on creatures being able to perceive it for it's continuation? If no one or nothing is there to witness the motion and metaphor that is time, does time cease to be?

It's kinda a tree falls in the forest question, I know...

But was there time before the big bang, or spark, or whatever? Now there's an unanswerable question...:) Who could ever know?
Time, motion, and change are such basic philosophical concepts that we see them being considered by all philosophers throughout Western philosophical thinking.

In much the same way that Western philosophy seems to have (inappropriately IMO) gone with the dualism of “the body” and the “the mind” as separate, time is understood in an entirely different way outside of Western philosophy (but don’t try using that as an excuse if you are late for an appointment with a Japanese business person :p). Time is not understood in the manner so eloquently described in the OP, but rather as a unified whole with all being.