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Peter Abelard

Peter Abelard

Peter Abelard (Petrus Abaelardus) (1079–1142), the most famous intellectual of the 12th century, addresses the problem of time especially in the context of his reevaluation of Aristotelian logic, which he knew from the Categories and De interpretatione. Although in his Dialectica (c. 1117), Abelard still follows the realist approach of many of his contemporaries, in his Logica Ingredientibus (c. 1119) he moves toward an ontologically more parsimonious position. According to him, time has to be understood as “a quantity according to the permanence of which we measure the existence of all things, when we show something to be, to have been or to come into being at a certain existing time (quaedam quantitas [ . . . ] secundum permanentiam cuius rerum quarumcumque dimetimur existentiam, cum monstramus esse aliquid, fuisse vel fore tempore aliquo existente).”

Abelard contradicts the suggestion that everything has its own time, while arguing for one single time which is suited to measure everything, including itself. This time pertains to the whole world and can be predicated on every element within it. It is indivisible, insofar as in all the different elements of the world there is one time, as there is one unity in the human body or in the whole world with its different elements. On the other hand, Abelard denies the objective reality of a “composite” time, that is, of time insofar as it consists of successive elements such as hours, days, years, and so on. These time elements are only constructions of the human mind which constitutes the presence of every span of time that is conceived by a human being. In reality, though, there is only one simple, indivisible flux of subsequent, inseparable instants. Consequently, one can speak of a composite time and its parts “according to the imposition of names, not according to the existence of things (secundum nominum appellationem, non secundum rerum essentiam).”

The problem of time and eternity plays only a minor role in Abelard’s thought. He states only that time can be regarded as a part of “eternity,” because time, which began to exist together with the Creation, covers only a small stretch of that totality, which can be called the eternity of God’s existence (Abelard’s starting point here is the same quotation of Cicero that his contemporary, William of Conches, uses for his third definition of time). In Abelard’s later works on theology, however, one can find in his linguistic remarks some kind of a via negativa theology of time: Humans are not able to speak directly about God, because human language consists of sentences that contain verbs. Verbs, however, always designate a change, which falls within the realm of time. Thus the human language is absolutely not suited for speaking about God, and consequently theologists have to invent analogies (similitudes) to describe God’s peculiar nature.

The problem of time and eternity is also in the background of Abelard’s discussion about the foreknowledge of God and human freedom: To God, every instant of time is present such that he  knows what will be happening according to human free will, but this does not mean that human freedom does not exist.

Abelard’s theory of time represents, in a typical contrast with that of the Platonist William of Conches, one of the first approaches of a philosopher of language to the problem of time, which results in a skeptic stance toward superfluous ontological assumptions.

Matthias Perkams See also Eternity; God and Time; God as Creator; Time, Subjective Flow of; William of Conches

Further Readings Marenbon, J. (1997). The philosophy of Peter Abelard. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

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