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Critical Reflection and Time

Critical Reflection and Time

Anthropology, biology, geology, and physics evolved a compilation of theories and related meth­odologies born from the critical reflection and cre­ative deliberation of some of history’s most brilliant minds. Yet, theories from evolution to relativity did not emerge spontaneously. Their named progeni­tors needed a key ingredient to assist in their ideas’ long germination. That key ingredient is time.

Giordano Bruno (1548-1600)

Infinite space and eternal time were Bruno’s great visions; as departures from the orthodoxy of his time, these visions ultimately cost him his life. Trained in theology as a monk, Bruno held vast knowledge, which he vigorously added to, likely until the day of his execution for heresy. Between years of nomadic existence and offering public and academic lectures, Bruno reflected on and perceived fallacies in the universal understandings of his day. Staying a step ahead of the authorities who sought his arrest for heretical beliefs, Bruno found reflection inspiring and vehemently defended his philosophical discoveries, even under severe duress. While his collected knowledge, through self-education, armed the philosopher with insight, it was undoubtedly his time in solitary reflection that brought about his comprehension of and belief in a universe of eternal time without end.

Baruch de Spinoza (1632-1677)

Spinoza reasoned that every occurrence, physical or mental, was integral to a larger, sustaining entity that he equated interchangeably with God and Nature. Such a profound perspective, how­ever, was not attained overnight. Spinoza spent much of his adolescence and adulthood investigat­ing new technological advances while simultane­ously weighing and considering the philosophical theses of his contemporaries and of earlier philoso­phers. Ultimately, Spinoza arrived at the afore­mentioned ideas, as well as a critical geometrical methodology, well in advance of the prevailing thought of his time. Yet, it was not the role of a teacher or wealth through inheritance that pro­vided Spinoza the opportunity to reflect on others’ discoveries and discourses. For most of his adult life in the city of Amsterdam, Spinoza pursued the trade of crafting and cleaning glass lenses, a career that provided the philosopher not only with the means to survive, but also the time to reflect on all that he had encountered.

Charles Darwin (1809-1882) and
Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913)

Evolutionary theory, as proposed by Darwin and Wallace, revolutionized science in general and the understanding of biological development through­out time in particular. Darwin certainly received more recognition than Wallace did for the theory of natural selection and held different perspectives on issues, including the placement of Indigenous peoples within the framework of evolution. Yet, both naturalists spent considerable time reflecting on their observations of biological specimens before proposing their ideas about organic evolu­tion. Darwin’s legendary voyage on HMS Beagle, particularly its visit to the Galapagos Islands (1835), and Wallace’s excursions into South America and Indonesia, provided each with a wide array of species to observe and study over extended periods of time. With both of them guided by the research of contemporary geologists and paleon­tologists, they separately developed ideas about evolution, taking years to reflect on their experi­ences before publishing their findings and conclu­sions. For Darwin and Wallace, time for critically reflecting on the diverse environments and multi­ple species they encountered provided the impetus for the eventual generation of the idea of natural selection. One has to wonder where our under­standing of evolution would be had each quickly published his notes, as opposed to taking time to reflect on them.

Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947)

Whitehead’s life represents the epitome of critical and creative reflection. With a broad array of interests, especially process and relativ­ity physics, he embraced life through the study of thought, time, and change. Ultimately, his experi­ences led him to perceive life as reflecting what individuals encounter and how they react to events. As with the great thinkers previously men­tioned, Whitehead did not reach his cosmological conclusions as a youth. Rather, it was over a span of nearly 70 years and through multiple careers that he acquired his impressive understanding of time, change, and creativity.

Albert Einstein (1879-1955)

Einstein is arguably the most famous physicist of the 20th century. Through his own observations and collaborations with others, he ultimately influenced the world as few other scientists have. As a young man who often struggled to find employment or worked in less than optimal jobs, such as his work at the Bern patent office, Einstein used his time away from work to delve into physics and philosophy, consequently venturing off on his own intellectual path. Einstein’s own view on the failure of his early conclusions substantiated his continued search for a universal physics as a result of rigorous reflection on scientific experiments and philosophical speculations. Today, Einstein’s highly original theories of relativity are justifiably considered a major triumph of scientific thought and the very model of a solid contribution to theoretical physics. It is the time that Einstein reserved for critical reflection that ultimately enabled him to generate his greatest ideas.


(1881-1955)

Teilhard, a Jesuit priest who was also an avid scholar, is widely acknowledged for his contribu­tions to geology and his advocacy for the theory of evolution. Unfortunately, Teilhard did not live to see the publication of his great works concerning evolution and his own thoughts on God. Yet, from even a cursory evaluation of Teilhard’s efforts and writings, it is clear that his interests in the evolu­tionary sciences, his excursions to study the geo­logic formations of China (including the Zhoukoudian site), and his exposure to the tragic events of World War I, as well as his personal struggles to support the teaching of evolution, helped to shape his own thoughts over his lifetime. Teilhard’s ultimate views on God and the place of humanity in a spiritual universe, evidenced in works including (1940) and Man’s Place in Nature: The Human Zoological Group (1950), highlight his belief in an evolving universe. According to Teilhard, evolution will lead all humankind to an incomprehensible, mysti­cal future existence, which he referred to as the . Through careful observation of geo­logical and biological processes, the comparison of remains of past and present human species, and after decades of reflection on what he had wit­nessed as a scientist and priest, Teilhard arrived at an unorthodox vision of the meaning and purpose of humankind within the process of evolution.

See also Bruno, Giordano; Darwin, Charles; Einstein, Albert; Spinoza, Baruch de; Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre; Whitehead, Alfred North

Further Readings

Cahn, S. M. (1990). Classics of Western philosophy. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett.

Murrell, J. N., & Grobert, N. (2002, January). The centenary of Einstein’s first scientific paper. Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, 56(1), pp. 89-94.

Tattersal, I., & Mowbray, K. (2006). Wallace, Alfred Russel. In H. J. Birx (Ed.), The encyclopedia of anthropology (pp. 2295-2296). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

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