On Time & Intensive Purposes



Today I (re)began work on an old paper that I’ve taken an incomplete for – apparently a common practice in graduate school.  It is a paper I’m really excited about, though – true to form – I’m sure it’ll turn out to be one of those situations wherein I have proverbially taken a larger bite than my mouth is able to adequately chew.  It’s this same breed of idiocy that got me to thinking I should post the pages that I wrote today, in the hopes that someone might read it and give me some feedback, a little dream I have that has to do with this idea that ideas and the papers we write that have them in it can be shared and networked and collaborated on – up and against the reality that the academy is actually a brutal market place.  Anyhoo here it is, in all its rough-drafty glory:

A study of (or exercise in thinking about) time that is not immediately engaged in scientific methods of observing and recording empirically accessible data is accompanied, and even fraught, with a sense of it being undertaken with the qualifying sentiment that it is being done so ‘for all intents and purposes.’  What I mean by this is that what is being inquired into – in our case, time – is not the object itself, but its significance in regards to our inquiry.  There are two levels in which this is made obvious in this paper: first, insofar as we are seeking this significance through an inquiry into the language of narrative, and secondly insofar as our inquiry has already disclosed that its object of significance is neither a definitional understanding of time nor a better understanding of narrative, but conceptualizations of possible forms of living.  For all intents and purposes, therefore, our consideration of time is a consideration of these other things, which means that our understanding of time (the one we hope to come to) is not empirical, scientific, positivistic, foundational, etc, but ‘merely’ insofar as we are concerned with stories and the way people live.  The curious nature of time, or our ideas of it, is that it itself bears the burden of being somehow always already and forever only “for all intents and purposes.”

A man, standing on a sidewalk, considers for the first time in his life what time really is.  He thinks: It is what enables us to move from point A to point B, it allows for birth, growth, decay, death, it provides us with the ability to think about the future, possibilities, the past, etc. etc. and on and on.  And yet, when he comes to “it,” to pointing at it, at best he can show something he will alternately call the proof that it has happened or the markers that prove it has on one hand, and at worst, it can only be described as something like a mysterious set of conditions that allows for everything else to be.  Because of the difficulties of getting his mind around it, he concludes that, for all intents and purposes, time is what means I’m getting old, that my bills must be paid by X, that my lawn must be mowed every Sunday.  Anything that is ‘for all intents and purposes’ is therefore a curiously anthropocentric aspect of things – insofar as it affects and/or enables me, the one who can sense that it (time) exists, and will therefore think of it as such.  This “all intents and purposiveness” of time is therefore functional, and willingly forbears that its understanding is total or definitional.  What’s more, one does not need to think about time next to anything else, narrative or politics, in order to apprehend its curious characteristic as such.

The statement that any object or idea is or is not “for all intents and purposes” is an ethical one, but it is not a one-way street.  In any inquiry the taking of one’s object or field as being anything like “for all intents and purposes” can work towards any number of ethical modes of operating.  Imagining a spectrum of possible paths of action we can imagine that on one side there might be something like an analytical or pragmatist ethos that seeks to only ask and answer those questions that are askable, as in Wittgenstein’s proposition that “whereof one cannot speak one must be silent.”  If something cannot be spoken about outside certain borders, therefore, it is, “for all intents and purposes,” whatever it is.  The other end of the spectrum is something that I would like to explore here, and something that I don’t believe violates Wittgenstein’s honorable dictum: that the not knowing what is beyond the borders of “for all intents and purposes” provides the opportunity for those who are inquiring into it the cultivation of a certain humility in the face what might not be “for all intents and purposes.”  At this point we should not forget that our problem is that we cannot bring ourselves to say that time ‘moves forward,’ and that we should look for new ways to think and write about time.  (Perhaps not) surprisingly, we then find ourselves allied with Wittgenstein, insofar as we are ethically committed to not saying that time does something that it doesn’t obviously do.

A good example of the poly-deployability of the thinking of things as being “for all intents and purposes” is made evident by a quick glance at Berkeley’s foundational statement in regards to his idealism.  But first, as a (pre)counterpoint example: I once very publicly lamented (on facebook), about the non-apparent existence of such a thing as ‘human rights,’ making the statement that we didn’t actually have a definition for them.  A good friend and analytic philosopher responded even-handedly, claiming that we had a perfectly sound definition of human rights ************.  For him, as you can see, the definition of a human right is functional – he doesn’t tell us what a human right is, but what it does, or allows us to do, or how it justifies behaving in a certain way.  The analytical definition of a human right is “for all intents and purposes” – and why shouldn’t it be? Human rights are practical matters that have everything to do with human beings.  But the curious thing about the “all intents and purposiveness” of things is that they needn’t be practical.

In arguing for his well-known tenet of idealism is that nothing exists without a mind to perceive it, George Berkeley offers an example of the table at which he sits to write his brilliant thoughts down

… The table I write on, I say, exists, that is, I see it and feel it; and if I were out of my study I should say it existed, meaning thereby that if I was in my study I might perceive it, or that some other spirit actually does perceive it… For as to what is said of the absolute existence of unthinking things without any relation to their being perceived, that seems perfectly unintelligible.  Their esse is percipi, nor is it possible they should have any existence, out of the minds or thinking things which perceive them. qtd in Borges 271

Or in other words: for all intents and purposes, that which no one perceives does not exist.  A statement that, when read in this light, seems not only practical, but, somehow, true.  The two variants that spring from the existence of thinking about things for all intents and purposes seems, then, to branch off in separate directions – the analytical and the idealist – that somehow mysteriously find themselves logically and linguistically united, albeit in something like a tautological statement.  It smacks of a classic comedic moment, in which two characters are captured and one turns to the other, asking if she has a file, to which the other answers in the affirmative.  When the first asks if he can have it, she replies that she doesn’t have it on her.  She does, indeed, have a file, but for all intents and purposes, she does not.


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