“Nothing could be more obscure” – Relative time in early modern philosophy (TLS 2014)

[Untitled], The Times Literary Supplement (15 August 2014), 27. A review of Michael Edwards, Time and the Science of the Soul in Early Modern Philosophy (Leiden 2013). An excerpt from the author’s typescript is copied below:

Walter Charleton, 1619-1707

“You suppose that the nature of time is perfectly clear, when nothing could be more obscure”, is Pierre Gassendi’s reproach to René Descartes in 1644. Time’s murkiness is so obvious to Gassendi that he then mocks Descartes outright: “How you would place the whole republic of letters in your debt if you could elucidate the nature of time!”

Gassendi later takes up the question of time in his unfinished and posthumously published Syntagma Philosophicum (1658). Like Descartes, he fails to resolve it. Yet the Syntagma’s nine folio pages on the question of time contain what may be its most commanding, if not convincing treatment in the early modern period.

Gassendi cites an astonishing range of positions on time – from Heraclitus to Plotinus, from Epicurus to John of Damascus – before advancing his own. Time, for Gassendi, is a “bodiless extension” that encases the world. Time, on his conception, is as impassible as eternity.

This time-concept demonstrably influences Isaac Newton’s definition of “absolute, true and mathematical time” in the Principia Mathematica (1687), by way of Walter Charleton’s Physiologia Epicuro-Gaſſendo-Charltoniana (1654). Despite the Latin title, Charleton’s book is a systematic English apology for Gassendi, often verging on a paraphrase, that Newton draws on in his mid-1660s Trinity College notebooks. Some of the debt that intellectual historians still pay to Newton, then, is owed to Charleton and Gassendi.

The history of absolute time has immediate cachet, thanks to the celebrity of Newton’s Principia. But in Time and the Science of the Soul in Early Modern Philosophy, Michael Edwards begins to sketch a parallel history of what Newton would call “relative, apparent and vulgar time”. According to Edwards, the Principia “took the soul out of time”. …


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