Time and the universal order of all things

Yasuhira Kanayama, a conferencist at the ICA.

Considerations on time in ancient Greek philosophy were presented in the lecture of Professor Yasuhira Kanayama, from the Nagoya University, during the Intercontinental Academia (ICA), held in Nagoya from March 6 to 18.

Approach to Time in Ancient Greek Philosophy was the theme of the conference, in which Kanayama analyzed the metaphoric representation of time for several people.

In Physics, Aristotle discusses the assumptions of movement with respect to time in the fourth chapter. Time does not exist by itself; it is inherent to movement. It is defined as "the number of movement in respect of before and after." Therefore, it can not exist without a succession. One part is past, but not entirely. The other one is future, but not yet. Thus, the philosopher raises three puzzles (aporias) on time. The first two are arguments on the non-existence of time since it is divisible into past (something that is not anymore) and future (something that is not yet).


The third aporia argues that now can not always be different, but can not always be the same. If the present is present, it seems to be. However, if it has any extension then it can be divided into parts (past and future). And if this present has any new extension, it can again be divided and this would become an infinite process while there was some extension of it. And if time is made up of these parts, it seems impossible to something or someone to belong to something that has not been and still will be. "So in which part do we exist?," Kanayama said, referring to the assumptions of Aristotle.

In the definition of time that Aristotle mentions in his book on physics, it is essential to consider the relationship between time and movement. Aristotle uses metaphors to explain the relationship of what is moving and in which direction.

According to the metaphor of the ego in motion, the ego (person) progresses along the timeline towards the future like a moving train approaches some point. In the metaphor of time in motion, future events move towards the ego (person) and after passing through it they become past. Time would be conceived as a river that flows until a certain point (ego).

Kanayama compares other ways of representing time in different cultures. In the Aymara language spoken by the Aymara people of Bolivia, Peru and Chile, the future is represented behind the ego, so that a gesture to refer to the future is a person pointing the finger to the back of the left shoulder. The past is referenced by pointing forward. In this language, the basic word for "front" is also the term for "past". And the basic word for "back" is the basic expression for "future".

"This representation seems to come from the fact that we can not see the future and therefore it is represented behind the ego. What can be seen or known is the past, thus represented in front of the ego," Kanayama said.

Related material


Approach to Time in Ancient Greek Philosophy

More information:

Full programme

All the news


It seems strange to metaphorically represent past and future as left or right. But when we visualize time we allocate it to the right or to the left, just like a comic book. The past tends to be represented on the left and the future on the right. Similarly, Westerners tend to write or draw the past on the left and the future on the right, while Jews and Arabs, whose writing goes from right to left, make this representation to the contrary.

The Japanese, when writing or reading horizontally, put the past on the left and the future on the right. But when writing vertically, they place the past on the right and the future on the left, and the movement from one line to the other goes from right to left, said the professor.

Mandarin speakers represent time upwards and downwards. By saying "up-month" they mean last month. "Down-month" means next month. This kind of movement can be related to the way of writing from top to bottom. But there is also a relationship with the river's course, said the speaker.

During the Hellenistic period, the Stoics also considered time as a continuum of infinite divisions, with past, present and future as part of time. Now would be the border between the past and the future. But they also considered two types of present, as Aristotle.

Macedonians have defined time as the intervals of movement, or the average of fast and long movements, being made up of past, present and future.

But the definition of the number of movements, which is central to Aristotle, is not present in the thoughts of other thinkers, said the professor. The importance of this is that time becomes dependent on the movement related to before and after, which means that time is a kind of order and not a measurement unit as commonly considered. Time would be a universal order able to relate all the changes with each other. Ego, therefore, would be something in morion, something that time depends on for its very existence.

Photos: IAR/Nagoya and copy of Lysippus-jastrow