1902 Encyclopedia > Psychology > Is Time Discreet or Continuous?

(Part 51)

(G) Mental Association and the Memory-Continuum (cont.)

Is Time Discreet or Continuous?

But, if our experience of time depends primarily upon acts of attention to a succession of distinct objects, it would seem that time, subjectively regarded, must be discrete and not continuous. This, which is the view steadily maintained by the psychologists of Herbart’s school, was implied if not stated by Locke, Berkeley, and Hume. Locke hopelessly confuses time as perceived and time as conceived, and can only save himself from pressing objections by the retort. "It is very common to observe intelligible discourses spoiled by too much subtlety in nice divisions." But Berkeley and Hume with the mathematical discoveries of Newton and Leibnitz before them could only protest that there was nothing answering to mathematical continuity in our experience. And, whereas Locke had tried to combine with his general psychological account the inconsistent position that "none of the distinct ideas we have of either [space or time] is without all manner of composition," Berkeley declares. "For my own part, whenever I attempt to frame a simple idea of time, abstracted from the succession of ideas in my mind, which flows uniformity and is participated by all beings, I am lost and embrangled in inextricable difficulties. I have no notion of it at all, only I hear others say it is infinitely divisible, and speak of it in such a manner as leads me to harbour odd thoughts of my existence… Time therefore being nothing, abstracted from the succession of ideas in our minds, it follows that the duration of any finite spirit must be estimated by the number of ideas or actions succeeding each other in that same spirit or mind" (Principles of Knowledge, i. § 98). Hume, again, is at still greater pains to show that "the idea which we form of any finite quality is not infinitely divisible, but that by proper distinction and separations we may run this ideas up to inferior ones, which will be perfectly simple and indivisible… that the imagination reaches a minimum, and may raise up to itself an idea of which it cannot conceive any subdivision, and which cannot be diminished without a total annihilation" (Human Nature, pt. ii. § 1, Green’s ed., p. 335).

At the first blush we are perhaps disposed to accept this account of our time-perception, as Wundt, e.g., does, and to regard the attribution of continuity as wholly the result of after-reflexion. [Footnote 66-1] But it may be doubted if this is really an exact analysis of the case. Granted that the impression to which we chiefly attend are distinct and discontinuous in their occupation of the focus of consciousness, and, that, so far, the most vivid element in our time-experience is discrete; granted further that in recollection and expectation such objects are still distinct – all which seems to imply that time is a mere plurality – yet there is more behind. The whole filled of consciousness is not occupied by distinct objects, neither are the changes in this field discontinuous. The experimental facts above-mentioned illustrate the transition from a succession the members of which are distinctly attended to to one in which they are indistinctly attended to, i.e., are nor discontinuous enough to be separately distinguished. Attention does not move by hops from one definite spot to another, but, as Wundt himself allows, by alternate diffusion and concentration, like the foot of a small, which never leaves the surface it is traversing. We have a clear presentation discerned as A or B when attention is presentations nor admitting of recognition. But, though mot recognizable, such confused presentations are represented, and so serve to bridge over the comparatively empty interval during which attention is unfocused. Thus our perception of a period of time is not comparable to so many terms in a series of finite units any more than it is to a series of infinitesimals. When attention is concentrated in expectation of some single impression, then, no doubt, it is brought to a very fine point (‘zugespitzt," as Herbart would say); and a succession of such impressions would be represented as relatively discrete compared with the representation of the scenery of a day-dream. But absolutely discrete it is not and cannot be. In this respect the truth is rather with Herbert Spencer, who, treating of this subject from another point of view, remark’s, "When the facts are contemplated objectively, it becomes manifest that, though the changes constituting intelligence approach to a single succession, they do not absolutely form one" (Psychology, i. § 180, p. 403).

On the whole, then, we may conclude that our concrete time-experiences are due to the simultaneous representation of a series of definite presentations both accompanied and separated by more or fewer indefinite presentations more or less confused; that, further, the definite presentations have certain marks or temporal signs due to the movements of attention; that the rate of these movements or accommodations is approximately constant; and that each movement itself is primarily experienced as an intensity.


66-1 Comp. Wundt, Logik, vol. 1. p. 432.

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