What is time? Saint Augustine, in antiquity, said that if no one asked him about the nature of time, he knew what time was. However, when someone asked him what time was, he could no longer answer that question.
Apart from being only a rhetorical paradox, Saint Augustine’s words express our deep discomfort concerning such ultimate concepts as space and time. It is easy to use them in everyday language, but problematic to go beyond this language and look for their deeper meaning.
As a kind of science – as philosophy has always been considered – philosophy has attempted to discover the ultimate features of the whole of reality. Since we cannot encompass the whole of reality from the outside – as if reality were a ball that we could hold in our hands and thus see and observe from all possible angles – this approach had to be achieved not through immediate observation, but through conceptual analysis.
This is why the question arose: What is time? Or what do we understand through the concept or word time? Time has been seen as a universal feature of things. All things are in time; that is to say, they appear after a period when they did not exist, they change, and disappear. Based on this common human experience, people considered the past, the present and the future as being the structure of time.
But going beyond this structure is very difficult since you cannot touch time and establish its ‘nature.’ Time is, therefore (if considered as existing objectively), a ‘non-existent existence,’ as Kant said. As with space, you can observe it only indirectly, through the changes you perceive around you or within yourself and things. This is why the nature of time or the meaning of this concept has always been associated with change.
Consequently, time cannot be considered in itself but only in relation to space, which contains, at a more elementary level, all changing things. How does Hegel express this unity between time and space? If space was the primary feature of reality, a feature which, if considered in itself, is not even something yet real but only a pure possibility, time is its negation.
In the same way in which the point is, at the level of space, the first negation of the latter’s pure possibility (in that it sets a conceptual limit to the continuous self-externality of space), time negates the point, the line and the plane as pure spatial entities.
As always, we must not try to see how time emerges from space as a negation, as if time occurred through the negation of space. Negation here has a logical character related to how we understand these concepts. But they must already be there to see the negating relationship between them.
Our fundamental experience concerning time is that time is passing. Of course, in ordinary experience, we measure time by measuring how long it takes to move from one place to another or to change from one way of being into another. This is why Aristotle defined time in antiquity as the measure of change.
If we try to conceive of time in its ‘a priori’ character, i.e., independently of any given or concrete content, then time as a measure of change will relate only to space (which is also taken in its abstract way of being separate from anything that fills it).
However, in Hegel, time does not ‘result’ from space; it is a fundamental, genuine experience adding itself to the experience of space. Time is, so to speak, a creation of God. This expression conveys our complete ignorance concerning how time as time is ontologically possible.
We are in time, time is our fundamental experience and way of being, but we do not know how this temporality is possible. Perhaps, as science shows, there are many types of time, but why the whole world is rooted in this basic structure, no finite being can know.
Now, if we think of what the experience of time involves compared to space and how we get that experience starting from the experience of space, we see that this note or determination is the fact of passing. Space, understood only in its pure spatiality, is nothing else than a multitude of places lying continuously alongside each other.
As strict spatiality, space does not contain anything within itself that could move from one place to another in space. To make this idea more intuitive, imagine an infinite empty space. Such a space has no motion inside of it. To have motion, something must go from one place to another place. This is exactly what time, in its purest form, is: passing from one spatial position to another.
Whereas space, as pure space, is an indefinite absolutely resting magnitude, time awakens, so to speak, this magnitude to life, in that it introduces the quality of motion, but only in its abstract form, as pure passage, without yet any concrete thing going from one place to another.
As with space, which, as self-externality, is only a possibility, time, as pure time – or as what we try to understand through the concept of time while we develop all the concepts that build what we call ‘our knowledge’ – is only the possibility of passage from one point to another.
Does such ‘pure’ time and space exist, that is to say, time and space independent of any real content? We may doubt it. Still, approaching time and space in this way allows Hegel to describe how all our concepts relate to each other as a vast network in which nothing can lie isolated. This is what builds the ‘systematic’ character of his philosophy: the idea that everything in reality and knowledge is related to everything else.
In that time allows passing from one point to another (which space, as simple space, does not yet allow), it ‘negates’ space. In other words, it introduces into the world a new feature, a new way of being, which is different from the simple lying-alongside specific to spatial contents.
Negation here has a logical meaning: it denotes to be different. In this respect, the tree, as being something different from the grass, negates it, in Hegel’s language. And the feature that ‘negates’ space in the case of time is that feature that builds time as time but by means of space, namely the pure representation of moving from one point of space to another point of space.
This feature is different from all the content of space as diversity in stasis.