Hobbes on the Reality of Time

In: Hobbes Studies

Hobbes insists that motion, which plays numerous important roles in his natural philosophy, presupposes time. But he seems to advance a reductionist, even idealist, conception of time itself. For example, he denies that time itself can measure motion; rather motion measures time. Indeed, time is ‘imaginary’ and only the present is strictly real. In various ways, these views of time threaten to undermine the ‘motionalist’ foundations of Hobbes’s mechanical philosophy. This paper aims to block these threats by developing a realist interpretation of Hobbesian time, analogous to his conception of ‘real space’. This real time serves as an objective framework for motion in Hobbes’s natural philosophy.

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    F. BrandtThomas Hobbes’ Mechanical Conception of Nature257; G. Herbert, “Hobbes’s Phenomenology of Space”, 712; J. Medina, “Les Temps Chez Hobbes”, 187; C. Leijenhorst, The Mechanisation of Aristotelianism, 134–136. Zarka is an exception, in suggesting that although “one can legitimately speak of the ideality of space and time” in Hobbes, it is also true that “space and time have as correlates objectively existing objects”. “First Philosophy and the Foundations of Knowledge,” in T. Sorell (ed.), Cambridge Companion to Hobbes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 67. In a note he goes on to explain the correlation between imaginary and real space; but he does not explain the parallel correlation for time. 82–3, n24. In another work, Zarka suggests that real time is motion: “l’idealite de temps ne’st pas plus que le l’idealite de l’espace, parce que le temps a pour correlate real dans les choses le movement”. La Decision Metaphysique de Hobbes (Paris: Vrin, 1987), 64. He does not, however, explain the precise relation between real and imaginary time, nor how the reality of time can be squared with the Augustinian arguments against real succession.

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  • 15

     E.g., Gary HerbertThomas Hobbes: The Unity of Scientific & Moral Wisdom (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press1989).

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    DuhemMedieval Cosmology: Theories of Infinity, Place, Time, Void and the Plurality of Worlds (Chicago: University of Chicago Press1985), 297.

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  • 51

    LeijenhorstThe Mechanisation of Aristotelianism136.

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    Ibid. AristotlePhysics 4, 10; 218a1–4; Augustine, Confessions XI, xiv.

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    BrandtHobbes’s Mechanical Conception of Nature286.

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