MONTHLY BLOG 95, ‘WHAT IS THE GREATEST SIN IN THE WORLD?’ CHRISTOPHER HILL AND THE SPIRIT OF EQUALITY

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2018)

Text of short talk given by PJC to introduce the First Christopher Hill Memorial Lecture, (given by Prof. Justin Champion) at Newark National Civil War Centre, on Saturday 3 November 2018.

Christopher Hill was not only a remarkable historian – he was also a remarkable person.1 All his life, he believed, simply and staunchly, in human equality. But he didn’t parade his beliefs on his sleeve. At first meeting, you would have found him a very reserved, very solid citizen. And that’s because he was very reserved – and he was solid in the best sense of that term. He was of medium height, so did not tower over the crowd. But he held himself very erect; had a notably sturdy, broad-shouldered Yorkshire frame; and was very fit, cycling and walking everywhere. And in particular, Christopher Hill had a noble head, with a high forehead, quizzical eyebrows, and dark hair which rose almost vertically – giving him, especially in his later years, the look of a wise owl.
Christopher-Hill-1-&-2

Christopher Hill (L) in his thirties and (R) in his seventies

By the way, he was not a flashy dresser. The Hill family motto was ‘No fuss’. And, if you compare the two portraits of him in his 30s and his 70s, you could be forgiven for thinking that he was wearing the same grey twill jacket in both. (He wasn’t; but he certainly stuck to the same style all his life).

Yet even while Christopher Hill was reserved and dignified, he was also a benign figure. He had no side. He did not pull rank. He did not demand star treatment. He was courteous to all – and always interested in what others had to say. That was a key point. As Master of Balliol, Hill gave famous parties, at which dons and students mingled; and he was often at the centre of a witty crowd. But just as much, he might be found in a corner of the room discussing the problems of the world with a shy unknown.

As I’ve already said. Christopher Hill believed absolutely in the spirit of equality. But he did know that it was a hard thing to achieve – and that was why he loved the radicals in the English civil wars of the mid-seventeenth century. They were outsiders who sought new ways of organising politics and religion. Indeed, they struggled not only to define equality – but to live it. And, although there was sometimes a comic side to their actions, he admired their efforts.

When I refer to unintentionally comic aspects, I am thinking of those Ranters, from the radical and distinctly inchoate religious group, who jumped up in church and threw off their clothes as a sign. The sign was that they were all God’s children, equal in a state of nature. Not surprisingly, such behaviour attracted a lot of criticism – and satirists had good fun at their expense.

Well, Christopher Hill was far too dignified to go around throwing off his clothes. But he grew up believing a radical form of Methodism, which stressed that ‘we are all one in the eyes of the Lord’. As I’ve said, his egalitarianism came from within. But he was clearly influenced by his Methodist upbringing. His parents were kindly people, who lived simply and modestly (neither too richly nor too poorly). They didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, didn’t swear and didn’t make whoopee. Twice and sometimes even three times on Sundays, they rode their bikes for several miles to and from York’s Central Methodist Chapel; and then discussed the sermon over lunch.

In his mid-teens, Hill was particularly inspired by a radical Methodist preacher. He was named T.S. Gregory and he urged a passionate spiritual egalitarianism. Years later, Hill reproduced for me Gregory’s dramatic pulpit style. He almost threw himself across the lectern and spoke with great emphasis: ‘Go out into the streets – and look into the eyes of every fellow sinner, even the poorest beggar or the most abandoned prostitute; [today he would add look under the hoods of the druggies and youth gangs]; look into these outcast faces and in every individual you will see elements of the divine. The York Methodists, from respectable middle class backgrounds, were nonplussed. But Hill was deeply stirred. For him, Gregory voiced a true Protestantism – which Hill defined as wine in contrast with what he saw as the vinegar and negativism of later Puritanism.

The influence of Gregory was, however, not enough to prevent Hill in his late teens from losing his religious faith. My mother, Christopher’s younger sister, was very pleased at this news as she welcomed his reinforcement. She herself had never believed in God, even though she too went regularly to chapel. But their parents were sincerely grieved. On one occasion, there was a dreadful family scene, when Christopher, on vacation from Oxford University, took his younger sister to the York theatre. Neither he nor my mother could later remember the show. But they both vividly recalled their parent’s horror: going to the theatre – abode of the devil! Not that the senior Hills shouted or rowed. That was not their way. But they conveyed their consternation in total silence … which was difficult for them all to overcome.

As he lost his faith, Hill converted to a secular philosophy, which had some elements of a religion to it. That was Marxism. Accordingly, he joined the British Communist Party. And he never wavered in his commitment to a broad-based humanist Marxism, even when he resigned from the CP in 1956. Hill was not at all interested in the ceremonies and ritual of religion. The attraction of Marxism for him was its overall philosophy. He was convinced that the revolutionary unfolding of history would eventually remove injustices in this world and usher in true equality. Hill sought what we would call a ‘holistic vision’. But the mover of change was now History rather than God.

On those grounds, Hill for many years supported Russian communism as the lead force in the unfolding of History. In 1956, however, the Soviet invasion of Hungary heightened a fierce internal debate within the British Communist Party. Hill and a number of his fellow Marxist historians, struggled to democratise the CP. But they lost and most of them thereupon resigned.

This outcome was a major blow to Hill. Twice he had committed to a unifying faith and twice he found its worldly embodiment unworthy. Soviet Communism had turned from intellectual inspiration into a system based upon gulags, torture and terror. Hill never regretted his support for Soviet Russia during the Second World War; but he did later admit that, afterwards, he had supported Stalinism for too long. The mid-1950s was an unhappy time for him both politically and personally. But, publicly, he did not wail or beat his breast. Again, that was not the Hill way.

He did not move across the political spectrum, as some former communists did, to espouse right-wing causes. Nor did he become disillusioned or bitter. Nor indeed, did he drop everything to go and join a commune. Instead, Hill concentrated even more upon his teaching and writing. He did actually join the Labour Party. Yet, as you can imagine, his heart was not really in it.

It was through his historical writings, therefore, that Hill ultimately explored the dilemmas of how humans could live together in a spirit of equality. The seventeenth-century conflicts were for him seminal. Hill did not seek to warp history to fit his views. He could not make the radicals win, when they didn’t. But he celebrated their struggles. For Hill, the seventeenth-century religious arguments were not arid but were evidence of the sincere quest to read God’s message. He had once tried to do that himself. And the seventeenth-century political contests were equally vivid for him, as he too had been part of an organised movement which had struggled to embody the momentum of history.

As I say, twice his confidence in the worldly formulations of his cause failed. Yet his belief in egalitarianism did not. Personally, he became happy in his second marriage; and he immersed himself in his work as a historian. From being a scholar who wrote little, he became super-productive. Books and essays poured from his pen. Among those he studied was the one seventeenth-century radical who appealed to him above all others: Gerrard Winstanley, the Digger, who founded an agrarian commune in the Surrey hills. And the passage in Winstanley’s Law of Freedom (1652) that Hill loved best was dramatic in the best T.S. Gregory style. What is the greatest sin in the world? demanded Winstanley. And he answered emphatically that it is for rich people to hoard gold and silver, while poor people suffer from hunger and want.          

          What Hill would say today, at the ever widening inequalities across the world, is not hard to guess. But he would also say: don’t lose faith in the spirit of equality. It is a basic tenet of human life. And all who believe in fair does for all, as part of true freedom, should strive to find our own best way, individually and/or collectively, to do our best for our fellow humans and to advance Hill’s Good Old Cause.

1 For documentation, see P.J. Corfield, ‘“We are all One in the Eyes of the Lord”: Christopher Hill and the Historical Meanings of Radical Religion’, History Workshop Journal, 58 (2004), pp. 110-27. Now posted on PJC personal website as Pdf5; and further web-posted essays PJC Pdf47-50, all on www.penelopejcorfield.co.uk

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MONTHLY BLOG 94, THINKING LONG – STUDYING HISTORY

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2018)

History is a subject that deals in ‘thinking long’. The human capacity to think beyond the immediate instant is one of our species’ most defining characteristics. Of course, we live in every passing moment. But we also cast our minds, retrospectively and prospectively, along the thought-lines of Time, as we mull over the past and try to anticipate the future. It’s called ‘thinking long’.

Studying History (indicating the field of study with a capital H) is one key way to cultivate this capacity. Broadly speaking, historians focus upon the effects of unfolding Time. In detail, they usually specialise upon some special historical period or theme. Yet everything is potentially open to their investigations.

Sometimes indeed the name of ‘History’ is invoked as if it constitutes an all-seeing recording angel. So a controversial individual in the public eye, fearing that his or her reputation is under a cloud, may proudly assert that ‘History will be my judge’. Quite a few have made such claims. They express a blend of defiance and  optimism. Google: ‘History will justify me’ and a range of politicians, starting with Fidel Castro in 1963, come into view. However, there’s no guarantee that the long-term verdicts will be kinder than any short-term criticisms.

True, there are individuals whose reputations have risen dramatically over the centuries. The poet, painter and engraver William Blake (1757-1827), virtually unknown in his own lifetime, is a pre-eminent example. Yet the process can happen in reverse. So there are plenty of people, much praised at the start of their careers, whose reputations have subsequently nose-dived and continue that way. For example, some recent British Prime Ministers may fall into that category. Only Time (and the disputatious historians) will tell.

Fig. 1 William Blake’s Recording Angel has about him a faint air of an impish magician as he points to the last judgment. If this task were given to historians, there would be a panel of them, arguing amongst themselves.

In general, needless to say, those studying the subject of History do not define their tasks in such lofty or angelic terms. Their discipline is distinctly terrestrial and Time-bound. It is prone to continual revision and also to protracted debates, which may be renewed across generations. There’s no guarantee of unanimity. One old academic anecdote imagines the departmental head answering the phone with the majestic words: ‘History speaking’.1 These days, however, callers are likely to get no more than a tinny recorded message from a harassed administrator. And academic historians in the UK today are themselves being harried not to announce god-like verdicts but to publish quickly, in order to produce the required number of ‘units of output’ (in the assessors’ unlovely jargon) in a required span of time.

Nonetheless, because the remit of History is potentially so vast, practitioners and students have unlimited choices. As already noted, anything that has happened within unfolding Time is potentially grist to the mill. The subject resembles an exploding galaxy – or, rather, like the cosmos, the sum of many exploding galaxies.

Tempted by that analogy, some practitioners of Big History (a long-span approach to History which means what it says) do take the entire universe as their remit, while others stick merely to the history of Planet Earth.2 Either way, such grand approaches are undeniably exciting. They require historians to incorporate perspectives from a dazzling range of other disciplines (like astro-physics) which also study the fate of the cosmos. Thus Big History is one approach to the subject which very consciously encourages people to ‘think long’. Its analysis needs careful treatment to avoid being too sweeping and too schematic chronologically, as the millennia rush past. But, in conjunction with shorter in-depth studies, Big History gives advanced students a definite sense of temporal sweep.

Meanwhile, it’s also possible to produce longitudinal studies that cover one impersonal theme, without having to embrace everything. Thus there are stimulating general histories of the weather,3 as well as more detailed histories of weather forecasting, and/or of changing human attitudes to weather. Another overarching strand studies the history of all the different branches of knowledge that have been devised by humans. One of my favourites in this genre is entitled: From Five Fingers to Infinity.4 It’s a probing history of mathematics. Expert practitioners in this field usually stress that their subject is entirely ahistorical. Nonetheless, the fascinating evolution of mathematics throughout the human past to become one globally-adopted (non-verbal) language of communication should, in my view, be a theme to be incorporated into all advanced courses. Such a move would encourage debates over past changes and potential future developments too.

Overall, however, the great majority of historians and their courses in History take a closer focus than the entire span of unfolding Time. And it’s right that the subject should combine in-depth studies alongside longitudinal surveys. The conjunction of the two provides a mixture of perspectives that help to render intelligible the human past. Does that latter phrase suffice as a summary definition?5 Most historians would claim to study the human past rather than the entire cosmos.

Yet actually that common phrase does need further refinement. Some aspects of the human past – the evolving human body, for example, or human genetics – are delegated for study by specialist biologists, anatomists, geneticists, and so forth. So it’s clearer to say that most historians focus primarily upon the past of human societies in the round (ie. including everything from politics to religion, from war to economics, from illness to health, etc etc). And that suffices as a definition, provided that insights from adjacent disciplines are freely incorporated into their accounts, wherever relevant. For example, big cross-generational studies by geneticists are throwing dramatic new light upon the history of human migration around the globe and also of intermarriage within the complex range of human species and the so-called separate ‘races’ within them.6 Their evidence amply demonstrates the power of longitudinal studies for unlocking both historical and current trends.

The upshot is that the subject of History can cover everything within the cosmos; that it usually concentrates upon the past of human societies, viewed in the round; and that it encourages the essential human capacity for thinking long. For that reason, it’s a study for everyone. And since all people themselves constitute living histories, they all have a head-start in thinking through Time.7

1 I’ve heard this story recounted of a formidable female Head of History at the former Bedford College, London University; and the joke is also associated with Professor Welch, the unimpressive senior historian in Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim: A Novel (1953), although upon a quick rereading today I can’t find the exact reference.

2 For details, see the website of the Big History’s international learned society (founded 2010): www.ibhanet.org. My own study of Time and the Shape of History (2007) is another example of Big History, which, however, proceeds not chronologically but thematically.

3 E.g. E. Durschmied, The Weather Factor: How Nature has Changed History (2000); L. Lee, Blame It on the Rain: How the Weather has Changed History (New York, 2009).

4 F.J. Swetz (ed.), From Five Fingers to Infinity: A Journey through the History of Mathematics (Chicago, 1994).

5 For meditations on this theme, see variously E.H. Carr, What is History? (Cambridge 1961; and many later edns); M. Bloch, The Historian’s Craft (in French, 1949; in English transl. 1953); B. Southgate, Why Bother with History? Ancient, Modern and Postmodern Motivations (Harlow, 2000); J. Tosh (ed.), Historians on History: An Anthology (2000; 2017); J. Black and D.M. MacRaild, Studying History (Basingstoke, 2007); H.P.R. Finberg (ed.), Approaches to History: A Symposium (2016).

6 See esp. L.L. Cavalli-Sforza and F. Cavalli-Sforza, The Great Human Diasporas: The History of Diversity and Evolution, transl. by S. Thomas (Reading, Mass., 1995); D. Reich, Who We Are and Where We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past (Oxford, 2018).

7 P.J. Corfield, ‘All People are Living Histories: Which is why History Matters’. A conversation-piece for those who ask: Why Study History? (2008) in London University’s Institute of Historical Research Project, Making History: The Discipline in Perspective www.history.ac.uk/makinghistory/resources/articles/why_history_matters.html; and also available on www.penelopejcorfield.co.uk/ Pdf1.

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MONTHLY BLOG 92, HISTORIANS AT WORK THROUGH TIME

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2018)
Historians, who study the past, don’t undertake this exercise from some vantage point outside Time. They, like everyone else, live within an unfolding temporality. That’s very fundamental. Thus it’s axiomatic that historians, like their subjects of study, are all equally Time-bound.1

Nor do historians undertake the study of the past in one single moment in time. Postmodernist critics of historical studies sometimes write as though historical sources are culled once only from an archive and then adopted uncritically. The implied research process is one of plucking choice flowers and then pressing them into a scrap-book to some pre-set design.

On such grounds, critics of the discipline highlight the potential flaws in all historical studies. Sources from the past are biased, fallible and scrappy. Historians in their retrospective analysis are also biased, fallible and sometimes scrappy. And historical writings are literary creations only just short of pure fiction.2

Historians should welcome scepticism this dose of scepticism – always a useful corrective. Yet they entirely reject the proposition that trying to understand bygone eras is either impossible or worthless. Rebuttals to postmodernist scepticism have been expressed theoretically;3 and also directly, via pertinent case studies which cut through the myths and ‘fake news’ which often surround controversial events in history.4

When at work, historians should never take their myriad of source materials literally and uncritically. Evidence is constantly sought, interrogated, checked, cross-checked, compared and contrasted, as required for each particular research theme. The net is thrown widely or narrowly, again depending upon the subject. Everything is a potential source, from archival documents to art, architecture, artefacts and though the gamut to witness statements and zoological exhibits. Visual materials can be incorporated either as primary sources in their own right, or as supporting documentation. Information may be mapped and/or tabulated and/or statistically interrogated. Digitised records allow the easy selection of specific cases and/or the not-so-easy processing of mass data.

As a result, researching and writing history is a slow through-Time process – sometimes tediously so. It takes at least four years, from a standing start, to produce a big specialist, ground-breaking study of 100,000 words on a previously un-studied (or under-studied) historical topic. The exercise demands a high-level synthesis of many diverse sources, running to hundreds or even thousands. Hence the methodology is characteristically much more than a ‘reading’ of one or two key texts – although, depending upon the theme, at times a close reading of a few core documents (as in the history of political ideas) is essential too.

Mulling over meanings is an important part of the process too. History as a discipline encourages a constant thinking and rethinking, with sustained creative and intellectual input. It requires knowledge of the state of the discipline – and a close familiarity with earlier work in the chosen field of study. Best practice therefore enjoins writing, planning and revising as the project unfolds. For historical studies, ‘writing through’ is integral, rather than waiting until all the hard research graft is done and then ‘writing up’.5

The whole process is arduous and exciting, in almost equal measure. It’s constantly subject to debate and criticism from peer groups at seminars and conferences. And, crucially too, historians are invited to specify not only their own methodologies but also their own biases/assumptions/framework thoughts. This latter exercise is known as ‘self-reflexivity’. It’s often completed at the end of a project, although it’s then inserted near the start of the resultant book or essay. And that’s because writing serves to crystallise and refine (or sometimes to reject) the broad preliminary ideas, which are continually tested by the evidence.

One classic example of seriously through-Time writing comes from the classic historian Edward Gibbon. The first volume of his Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire appeared in February 1776. The sixth and final one followed in 1788. According to his autobiographical account, the gestation of his study dated from 1764. He was then sitting in the Forum at Rome, listening to Catholic monks singing vespers on Capitol Hill. The conjunction of ancient ruins and later religious commitments prompted his core theme, which controversially deplored the role of Christianity in the ending of Rome’s great empire. Hence the ‘present’ moments in which Gibbon researched, cogitated and wrote stretched over more than 20 years. When he penned the last words of the last volume, he recorded a sensation of joy. But then he was melancholic that his massive project was done.6 (Its fame and the consequent controversies last on today; and form part of the history of history).

1 For this basic point, see PJC, ‘People Sometimes Say “We Don’t Learn from the Past” – and Why that Statement is Completely Absurd’, BLOG/91 (July 2018), to which this BLOG/92 is a companion-piece.

2 See e.g. K. Jenkins, ReThinking History (1991); idem (ed.), The Postmodern History Reader (1997); C.G. Brown, Postmodernism for Historians (Harlow, 2005); A. Munslow, The Future of History (Basingstoke, 2010).

3 J. Appleby, L. Hunt and M. Jacob, Telling the Truth about History (New York, 1994); R. Evans, In Defence of History (1997); J. Tosh (ed.), Historians on History (Harlow, 2000); A. Brundage, Going to the Sources: A Guide to Historical Research and Writing (Hoboken, NJ., 2017).

4 H. Shudo, The Nanking Massacre: Fact versus Fiction – A Historian’s Quest for the Truth, transl. S. Shuppan (Tokyo, 2005); Vera Schwarcz, Bridge across Broken Time: Chinese and Jewish Cultural Memory (New Haven, 1998).

5 PJC, ‘Writing Through a Big Research Project, not Writing Up’, BLOG/60 (Dec.2015); PJC, ‘How I Write as a Historian’, BLOG/88 (April 2018).

6 R. Porter, Gibbon: Making History (1989); D.P. Womersley, Gibbon and the ‘Watchmen of the Holy City’: The Historian and his Reputation, 1776-1815 (Oxford, 2002).

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MONTHLY BLOG 91, PEOPLE SOMETIMES SAY: ‘WE DON’T LEARN FROM THE PAST’ AND WHY THAT STATEMENT IS COMPLETELY ABSURD

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2018)

People sometimes say, dogmatically but absurdly: ’We don’t learn from the Past’. Oh really? So what do humans learn from, then? We don’t learn from the Future, which has yet to unfold. We do learn in and from the Present. Yet every moment of ‘Now’ constitutes an infinitesimal micro-instant an unfolding process. The Present is an unstable time-period, which is constantly morphing, nano-second by nano-second, into the Past. Humans don’t have time, in that split-second of ‘Now’, to comprehend and assimilate everything. As a result, we have, unavoidably, to learn from what has gone before: our own and others’ experiences, which are summed as everything before ‘Now’: the Past.

It’s worth reprising the status of those temporal categories. The Future, which has not yet unfolded, is not known or knowable in its entirety. That’s a definitional quality which springs from the unidirectional nature of Time. It does not mean that the Future is either entirely unknown or entirely unknowable. As an impending temporal state, it may beckon, suggest, portend. Humans are enabled to have considerable information and expectations about many significant aspects of the Future. For example, it’s clear from past experience that all living creatures will, sooner or later, die in their current corporeal form. We additionally know that tomorrow will come after today, because that is how we habitually define diurnal progression within unilinear Time. We also confidently expect that in the future two plus two will continue to equal four; and that all the corroborated laws of physics will still apply.

And we undertake calculations, based upon past data, which provide the basis for Future predictions or estimates. For example, actuarial tables, showing age-related life expectancy, indicate group probabilities, though not absolute certainties. Or, to take a different example, we know, from expert observation and calculation, that Halley’s Comet is forecast to return into sight from Earth in mid-2061. Many, though not all, people alive today will be able to tell whether that astronomical prediction turns out to be correct or not. And there’s every likelihood  that it will be.

Commemorating a successful prediction,
in the light of past experience:
a special token struck in South America in 2010 to celebrate
the predicted return to view from Planet Earth
of Halley’s Comet,
whose periodicity was first calculated by Edward Halley (1656-1742)

Yet all this (and much more) useful information about the Future is, entirely unsurprisingly, drawn from past experience, observations and calculations. As a result, humans can use the Past to illuminate and to plan for the Future, without being able to foretell it with anything like total precision.

So how about learning from the Present? It’s live, immediate, encircling, inescapably ‘real’. We all learn in our own present times – and sometimes illumination may come in a flash of understanding. One example, as Biblically recounted, is the conversion of St Paul, who in his unregenerate days was named Saul: ‘And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus; and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven. And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?”’1 His eyes were temporarily blinded; but spiritually he was enlightened. Before then, Saul was one of the Christians’ chief persecutors, ‘breathing out threatening and slaughter’.2 Perhaps a psychologist might suggest that his intense hostility concealed some unexpressed fascination with Christianity. Nonetheless, there was no apparent preparation, so the ‘Damascene conversion’ which turned Saul into St Paul remains the classic expression of an instant change of heart. But then he had to rethink and grow into his new role, working with those he had been attempting to expunge.

A secular case of sudden illumination appears in the fiction of Jane Austen. In Emma (1815), the protagonist, a socially confident would-be match-maker, has remained in ignorance of her own heart. She encourages her young and humble protégé, Harriet Smith, to fancy herself in love. They enjoy the prospect of romance. Then Emma suddenly learns precisely who is the object of Harriet’s affections. The result is wonderfully described.3 Emma sits in silence for several moments, in a fixed attitude, contemplating the unpleasant news:

Why was it so much worse that Harriet should be in love with Mr Knightley, than with Frank Churchill? Why was the evil so dreadfully increased by Harriet’s having some hope of a return? It darted through her, with the speed of an arrow, that Mr Knightley must marry no one but herself!

I remember first reading this novel, as a teenager, when I was as surprised as Emma at this development. Since then, I’ve reread the story many times; and I can now see the prior clues which Austen scatters through the story to alert more worldly-wise readers that George Knightley and Emma Woodhouse are a socially and personally compatible couple, acting in concert long before they both (separately) realise their true feelings. It’s a well drawn example of people learning from the past whilst ‘wising up’ in a single moment. Emma then undertakes some mortifying retrospection as she gauges her own past errors and blindness. But she is capable of learning from experience. She does; and so, rather more artlessly, does Harriet. It’s a comedy of trial-and-error as the path to wisdom.

As those examples suggest, the relationship of learning with Time is in fact a very interesting and complex one. Humans learn in their own present moments. Yet the process of learning and education as a whole has to be a through-Time endeavour. A flash of illumination needs to be mentally consolidated and ‘owned’. Otherwise it is just one of those bright ideas which can come and as quickly go.   Effective learning thus entails making oneself familiar with a subject by repetition, cogitation, debating, and lots of practice. Such through-Time application applies whether people are learning physical or intellectual skills or both. The role of perspiration, as well as inspiration, is the stuff of many mottoes: ‘practice makes perfect’; ‘if at first you don’t succeed, try and try again’; ‘stick at it’; ‘never stop learning’; ‘trudge another mile’; ‘learn from experience’.

Indeed, the entire corpus of knowledge and experience that humans have assembled over many generations is far too huge to be assimilated in an instant. (It’s actually too huge for any one individual to master. So we have to specialise and share).

So that brings the discussion back to the Past. It stretches back through Time and onwards until ‘Now’. Of course, we learn from it. Needless to say, it doesn’t follow that people always agree on messages from former times, or act wisely in the light of such information. Hence when people say: ‘We don’t learn from the Past’, they probably mean that it does not deliver one guiding message, on which everyone agrees. And that’s right. It doesn’t and there isn’t.

One further pertinent point: there are rumbling arguments around the question – is the Past alive or dead? (With a hostile implication in the sub-text that nothing can really be learned from a dead and vanished Past.) But that’s not a helpful binary. In other words, it’s a silly question. Some elements of the past have conclusively gone, while many others persist through time.4 To take just a few examples, the human genome was not invented this morning; human languages have evolved over countless generations; and the laws of physics apply throughout.

Above all, therefore, the integral meshing between Past and Present means that we, individual humans, have also come from the Past. It’s in us as well as, metaphorically speaking, behind us. Thinking of Time as running along a pathway or flowing like a river is a common human conception of temporality. Other alternatives might envisage the Past as ‘above’, ‘below’, ‘in front’, ‘behind’, or ‘nowhere specific’. The metaphor doesn’t really matter as long as we realise that it pervades everything, including ourselves.

1 Holy Bible, Acts 9: 3-4.

2 Ibid, 9:1.

3 J. Austen, Emma: A Novel (1815), ed. R. Blythe (Harmondsworth, 1969), p. 398.

4 P.J. Corfield, ‘Is the Past Dead or Alive? And the Snares of Such Binary Questions’, BLOG/62 (Feb.2016).

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MONTHLY BLOG 84, INVENTING WORDS

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2017)

Speakers and writers constantly adopt and play with new words and usages, even while the deep grammatical structures of language evolve, if at all, only very slowly. I remember an English class at school when I was aged about twelve or thirteen when we were challenged to invent new words. The winning neologism was ‘puridence’. It meant: by pure coincidence. Hence, one could say ‘I walked along the pavement, puridence I slipped and fell on a banana skin’. The winner was my class-mate Audrey Turner, who has probably forgotten. (I wonder whether anyone else remembers this moment?)

2017-12 No1 slip-man-black-banana-md

Fig.1 Slip Man Black Banana:
‘Puridence I slipped and fell on a banana skin’

Another new word, invented by my partner Tony Belton on 26 October 2013, is ‘wrongaplomb’. It refers to someone who is habitually in error but always with total aplomb. It’s a great word, which immediately summons to my mind the person for whom the term was invented. But again, I expect that Tony has also forgotten. (He has). New words arrive and are shed with great ease. This is one which came and went, except for the fact that I noted it down.

No wonder that dictionary compilers find it a struggle to keep abreast. The English language, as a Germanic tongue hybridised by its conjunction with Norman French, already has a huge vocabulary, to which additions are constantly made. One optimistic proposal in the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1788 hoped to keep a check upon the process in Britain, by establishing a person or committee to devise new words for every possible contingency.1 But real-life inventions and borrowings in all living languages were (and remain) far too frequent, spontaneous and diffuse for such a system to work. The Académie française (founded 1635), which is France’s official authority on the French language, knows very well the perennial tensions between established norms and innovations.2 The ‘Immortels’, as the 40 academicians are termed, have a tricky task as they try to decide for eternity. Consequently, a prudent convention ensures that the Académie’s rulings are advisory but not binding.

For my part, I love encountering new words and guessing whether they will survive or fail. In that spirit, I have invented three of my own. The first is ‘plurilogue’. I coined this term at an academic seminar in January 2016 and then put it into a BLOG.3 It refers to multi-lateral communications across space (not so difficult in these days of easy international messaging) and through time. In particular, it evokes the way that later generations of historians constantly debate with their precursors. ‘Dialogue’ doesn’t work to explain such communications. Dead historians can’t answer back. But ‘plurilogue’ covers the multiplicity of exchanges, between living historians, and with the legacy of ideas from earlier generations.

Will the term last? I think so. Having invented it, I then decided to google (a recently-arrived verb). To my surprise, I discovered that there already is an on-line international journal of that name. It has been running since 2011. It features reviews in philosophy and political science. My initial response was to find the prior use annoying. On the other hand, that’s a selfish view. No one owns a language. Better to think that ‘plurilogue’ is a word whose time has come. Its multiple coinages are a sign of its relevance. Humans do communicate across time and space; and not just in dialogue. So ‘plurilogue’ has a tolerable chance of lasting, especially as it’s institutionalised in a journal title.

2017-12 No2 plurilogue Vol 1
A second term that I coined and published in 2007 is ‘diachromesh’.4 It defines the way that humans (and everything in the cosmos for good measure) are integrally situated in an unfolding through-Time, also known as the very long term or ‘diachronic’. That latter word is itself relatively unusual. But it has some currency among historians and archaeologists.

The ‘diachronic’ is the alternate pair to the ‘synchronic’ (the immediate fleeting moment). Hence my comment that: ‘the synchronic is always in the diachronic – in that every short-term moment contributes to a much longer term’. Equally, the conjunction operates the other way round. ‘The diachronic is always in the synchronic – in that long-term frameworks always inform the passing moment as well’.5 Therefore it follows that, just as we can refer to synchromesh gear changes, operating together in a single moment of time, so it’s relevant to think of diachromesh, effortlessly meshing each single moment into the very long-term.6

So far so good. Is diachromesh liable to last? I can’t find a journal with that name. However, the word in is circulation. Google it and see. The references are few and far between. But! For example, in an essay on the evolution of the urban high street, architectural analyst Sam Griffiths writes: ‘The spatial configuration of the grid is reticulated in space and time, a materialisation of Corfield’s (2007) “diachromesh”.’7

2017-12 No3 clock in Guildford high street

Fig.3 Guildhall Clock on Guildford High Street, marking each synchronic moment since 1683 in an urban high street, diachromeshed within its own space and time.

Lastly, I also offered the word ‘trialectics’ in 2007. Instead of cosmic history as composed of binary forces, I envisage a dynamic threefold process of continuity (persistence), gradual change (momentum) and macro-change (turbulence).8 For me, these interlocking dimensions are as integral to Time as are the standard three dimensions of Space.

Be that as it may, I was then staggered to find that the term had a pre-history, of which I was hitherto oblivious. Try web searches for trialectics in logic; ecology; and spatial theories, such as Edward Soja’s planning concept of Thirdspace.9 Again, however, it would seem that this is a word whose time has come. The fact that ‘trialectics’ is subject to a range of nuanced meanings is not a particular problem, since that happens to so many words. The core of the idea is to discard the binary of dialectics. Enough of either/or. Of point/counter-point; or thesis/antithesis. Instead, there are triple dimensions in play.

Coining new words is part of the trialectical processes that keep languages going through time. They rely upon deep continuities, whilst experiencing gradual changes – and, at the same time, facing/absorbing/rejecting the shock of the new. Luckily there is already a name for the grand outcome of this temporal mix of continuity/micro-change/macro-change. It’s called History.

1 S.I. Tucker, Protean Shape: A Study in Eighteenth-Century Vocabulary and Usage (1967), p. 104.

2 http://www.academie-francaise.fr/.

3 P.J. Corfield, ‘Does the Study of History “Progress” – and How does Plurilogue Help? BLOG/61 (Jan. 2016), www.penelopejcorfield.com/monthly-blogs/.

4 P.J. Corfield, Time and the Shape of History (2007), p. xv.

5 Ibid.

6 This assumption differs from that of a small minority of physicists and philosophers who view Time as broken, each moment sundered from the next. See e.g. J. Barbour, The End of Time: The Next Revolution in our Understanding of the Universe (1999). I might call this interpretation a case of ‘wrongaplomb’.

7 S. Griffiths, ‘The High Street as a Morphological Event’, in L. Vaughan (ed.), Suburban Urbanities: Suburbs and the Life of the High Street (2015), p. 45.

8 Corfield, Time and Shape of History, pp. 122-3, 211-16, 231, 248, 249. See also idem, ‘Time and the Historians in the Age of Relativity’, in A.C.T. Geppert and T. Kössler (eds), Obsession der Gegenwart: Zeit im 20. Jahrhundert/ Concepts of Time in the Twentieth Century (Geschichte und Gesellschaft: Sonderheft, 25, Göttingen, 2015), pp. 71-91; also available on www.penelopejcorfield.co.uk.

9 www.wikipedia.org/Edward_Soja

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MONTHLY BLOG 77, IDEAS TAKING A WRONG TURN

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2017)

2017-05 No1 Rising phoenix tattoo - CopyMeditating about ideas taking a wrong turn (there are a lot of wrong turns around), I was reminded of the eighteenth-century saga of phlogiston – or the spirit of fire. It was a concept that held sway in scientific circles for many years, before it was found to be wrong. Not fruitfully wrong, stimulating fresh research and new developments. Just simply erroneous – in intellectual terms, a wrong turning.

There may be similarly erroneous ideas around in science today: superstring theories in theoretical physics,1 for example, or ‘dark matter’ in astro-physics (let alone ‘dark energy’ and/or ‘dark electromagnetism’).2 Such big concepts are intriguing ‘fillers’, often triggering intense debates. They fill a gap in knowledge, where there is perceived to be a problem but, as yet, no research-based solution with an accompanying explanatory theory. Sometimes such ideas are later empirically substantiated. Equally, however, sometimes not.

In the case of phlogiston, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century scientists were keen to understand what happens in the process of combustion. Some large logs are burned – and all that is left is a small pile of ashes. Hence one apparently logical answer was that combustion had released into the atmosphere a fiery element, almost like the spirit of fire itself, which, once freed, was released into the air. Substances that burned easily were full of this ignitable matter. The idea was formulated in 1667 by a German alchemist and physician, Johann Joachim Becher; and developed in 1703 by his former student Georg Ernst Stahl, a professor of medicine and chemistry. He was not the first to coin the term phlogiston, derived from the Greek for ‘inflaming’; but his analysis propelled the term into scientific currency.3

Research doubts, however, began eventually to circulate. Not all physical matter was reduced in weight by combustion. Some metals did the contrary. But somehow the principle of phlogiston as the spirit of fire remained an attractive one. The term remained widely in use among the developing community of researchers in Britain and France. Thus when in 1772 the Scottish chemist and botanist Daniel Rutherford4 managed to isolate and identify nitrogen as a separate gas, he named it ‘phlogisticated air’ (burnt air). The Nonconformist minister-cum-experimental-scientist Joseph Priestley was another who accepted the concept of phlogiston. In his path-breaking explorations of the composition of air, he was one of the first to identify oxygen as a gas. But he stuck with the old vocabulary, calling it ‘dephlogisticated air’. Accordingly, when Priestley was satirised for his radical political ideas, he was shown by the cartoonist as the fiery Dr Phlogiston – trampling underfoot the Bible, whilst simultaneously igniting the laws of England.5
2017-05 No2 priestley phlogiston

Satirical print of Priestley as Dr Phlogiston:
The Priestley Politician or the Political Priestley

However, chemical theories and practice changed fundamentally after 1778. The French chemist Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier (1743-94) not only identified and named ‘oxygen’ but also showed its key role as an oxidizer during combustion. There was no spirit of fire waiting to be released into the cosmos. References to phlogiston still lingered but were increasingly sidelined. Quietly, the entire theory behind the concept was dropped.6 Lavoisier also identified and named hydrogen (1783).7 The study of chemistry was advanced onto a new footing, aided by the increasingly international pooling of research. Henceforth ‘Air’ was not just air; and ‘Fire’ was not just fire.

Now phlogiston is known in the scientific lexicon as a category error. It commanded belief for a surprising amount of time, despite research doubts. But the concept did not lead to any interesting intellectual outcomes. It held sway and then quietly vanished.

Three morals for later generations. Firstly, there is often a hidden romantic idea (like the spirit of fire) or a cosmic vision behind apparently coldly rationalistic scientific concepts. Secondly, theories, even if very widely and genuinely accepted, remain no more than theories, until they are tested and confirmed empirically. Big organising ideas may become adopted because they are plausible or useful or powerful or attractive. Yet they don’t become world beaters, until they are verified. Thirdly and lastly, wrong turnings make for easy walking, until they suddenly don’t. Maybe that last proposition applies not only in the realm of ideas but in today’s politics too.

1 Compare B.R. Greene, The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions,  Theory, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory (1999); and L. Smolin, The Trouble with Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next (Boston, 2006).

2 R.H. Sanders, The Dark Matter Problem: A Historical Perspective (Cambridge, 2010).

3 J.H. White, The History of Phlogiston Theory (1932).

4 For Daniel Rutherford (1749-1819), see wikipedia.org/wiki/Daniel_Rutherford.

5 For Joseph Priestley (1733-1804), see R.E. Schofield, The Enlightenment of Dr Priestley: A Study of his Life and Work from 1733-73 (Philadelphia, 1997); idem, The Enlightened of Dr Priestley: A Study of his Life and Work from 1773-1804 (Philadelphia, 2004).

6 J.B. Conant (ed.), The Overthrow of the Phlogiston Theory: The Chemical Revolution of 1775-89 (Harvard, Mass., 1950).

7 F.L. Holmes, Antoine Lavoisier – The Next Crucial Year: Or, the Sources of his Quantitative Method in Chemistry (Princeton, 1998); J. Jackson, A World on Fire: A Heretic, an Aristocrat and the Race to Discover Oxygen (New York, 2005).

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MONTHLY BLOG 76, HUMANS AS COLLECTIVE TIME-TRAVELLERS

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2017)

Particularly in troubled times, it’s enticing to think of escaping not just to another place but to another time: a temporal bridge over troubled waters. In the old folk stories, an individual falls very soundly asleep … and then awakens, to his or her surprise, in another epoch completely. What a relief? Or perhaps not. There’s a myriad of potential destinations both past and future.

Sleeping Beauty, cursed by an evil fairy, lies dormant for one hundred years.1 (Sometimes her hand-maids sleep alongside her too). When she awakes, the Beauty is as young and bonny as ever. The world has grown older but she has not. Moreover, she is being kissed by a young and handsome prince (technically, one hundred years her junior), with whom she falls in love. The story is charming, with many potential meanings, both erotic and otherwise. But what if (a) she recoils from the kiss? or (b) she suddenly shrivels and dies, since she must be well over one hundred years old. That fate befalls ‘She’ in Rider Haggard’s She (1886): the enigmatic and imperious beauty has lived, by dark magic, for endless aeons but, once her real age catches up with her, she ages with extreme rapidity and expires.2 So much for tarrying outside Time.

2017-04 No1 sleeping beauty william breakspeare
In another variant from an American author in 1819, Rip Van Winkle drinks too heavily and falls asleep for over twenty years. (Hangovers sometimes feel like that). But no-one is kissing him welcome. Van Winkle wakes to find that his beard is long and matted, his rifle rusty, his neighbours changed, and his faithful dog disappeared.3 The story is an updating of a very old folk tale, which appears in many variants in different cultures. It makes a personal drama about change over time. Rip falls asleep as a subject of George III but awakes to find that he an American citizen. There is another change too. His ‘nagging’ wife is dead. In the tale, other ‘henpecked’ husbands in the village wish that they had a similar chance to escape. Ho ho (sarcastically): the benefits of time travel.

2017-04 No2 RipvanwinkleInterestingly, however, there are very obvious conceptual limitations within this imaginary process. Time itself hasn’t actually been stopped or reversed or turned into something different. It’s the individual who has, notionally, jumped from one epoch to another. Within the entire time-travel genre, which was greatly boosted by H.G. Wells’s ingenious Time Machine (1895), it’s axiomatic that the travelling is done by humans while Time continues to unfold as a unidirectional force, in its own mysterious but unalterable style. Its trajectory is often referred to as temporal ‘flow’. Or, more poetically, as ‘Time’s arrow’.

That non-stop background quality is needed to make time-travel stories work. The individual time-jumpers arrive in a new temporal location, either in the past or in the future. Generally, they are unharmed, if sometimes shaken or bemused (or naked, as in the husband of The Time Traveller’s Wife).4 Their subsequent encounters with other humans in either earlier or later worlds then lend themselves to comedy, romance, adventure, satire, terror, political philosophy, prophesy, and/or any combination of such reactions.5

Nonetheless, once in the new situation, the time-travellers find that Time is still flowing on equably. The aberrant circumstances which have permitted their personal shift has not stopped or otherwise disrupted the rest of the cosmos.6

One experiment with reversed-time living was imagined enjoyably by Lewis Carroll in Alice Through the Looking Glass (1871). The scatty White Chess-Queen experiences some of her life backwards. She cries: ‘Oh, oh, oh!’ first, and then pricks her finger painfully. Yet the White Queen does her time-reversal only fitfully. She doesn’t cry ‘Ho, ho, ho!’, as she would if she were yelling in a completely reversed temporal framework. Instead, she carries on talking to Alice in the normal way – not sdrawkcab.7
2017-04-No3-White-Queens-in-Looking-GlassIt’s virtually impossible to envisage absolutely everything in the world happening in total temporal reversal. When we run films backwards, often to amusing effect, we are still watching a sequence of images appear in the normal ‘onwards’ time-frame. We are not reversing Time or stepping outside our own temporal framework. If we were, then everything would be utterly transformed. Conversations, which unfold ‘onwards’, would be impossible in reverse-Time. We’d be getting younger, as well as speaking in reverse, thinking in reverse … including, no doubt, speaking before we think.8

Indeed, if Time did something totally astonishing, like disappearing down a cosmic black-plug-hole, then Space and everyone within Space-time would go there too. To our collective amazement and, no doubt, total consternation.

There is a cosmic ‘Chronology Protection Agency’, in the words of physicist Stephen Hawking.9 It binds each era into its own time, preventing it from overlapping or tangling with any other. And given that Time and Space constitute an integral continuum, it means that there is simultaneously a ‘Space-Time Protection Agency’ within the cosmos. Different experiences of motion and speed may occur within its ambit. At ultra-supersonic speeds, the process of time dilation will slow things down, affecting relative time measurements.10 None of those conditions, however, occur outside the framework Space-time.

Two observations follow. One is that we are all time-travellers, travelling collectively at the pace of Time, nano-second by nano-second – or, more accurately, at the pace of Space-time. We can’t jump off on our own. But we do have company for the ride.

And secondly, because we live in Space-time, we can study its manifestations. We are synchro-meshed into the immediate moment: the ever-changing Now! And we are also diachro-meshed into the long term, which means that we can think about both past and future.11 Time is our medium, around us, within us: in all our bodies and in our minds.

Sleeping Beauty began as a traditional folk tale, conveyed in classic form by Charles Perrault (1697), adapted by the Brothers Grimm (1812), and much reworked in literature, dance and film: see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sleeping_Beauty.

H. Rider Haggard, She: A History of Adventure, first published in The Graphic (1886/7).

3 From W. Irving, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent (1819). For antecedents and cultural variants, see also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rip_Van_Winkle.

4 A. Niffenegger, The Time Traveller’s Wife: A Novel (2004; 2014).

5 See A. Roberts, Science Fiction (2000); D. Wittenberg, Time Travel: The Popular Philosophy of Narrative (New York, 2013); J. Gleick, Time Travel: A History (2016).

6 P. Davies, How to Build a Time Machine (2001); J.R. Gott, Time Travel in Einstein’s Universe: The Physical Possibilities of Travel through Time (2001); E. Everett and T. Roman, Time Travel and Warp Drives: A Scientific Guide to Shortcuts through Time and Space (Chicago, 2012); and M. Rothman, A Physicist’s Guide to Skepticism: Applying Laws of Physics to Faster-than-Light Travel, Psychic Phenomena, Telepathy, Time Travel, UFOs and Other Pseudoscientific Claims (Buffalo, NY., 1988).

7 L. Carroll, Alice through the Looking Glass (1871).

8 Incidentally, not all cultural systems describe Time as flowing ‘onwards’ or ‘backwards’. Some reverse those directions, identifying Time as coming from ‘in front’ and disappearing ‘behind’. And others prefer ‘upwards’ and ‘downwards’. In all cases, however, there is one prime direction and its reverse.

9 S. Hawking, ‘The Future of the Universe’, in L. Howe and A. Wain (eds), Predicting the Future (Cambridge, 1993), p. 22.

10 P. Davies, About Time: Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution (1995), pp. 57-8.

11 P.J. Corfield, Time and the Shape of History (2007), pp. xiv-xv, 19-25.

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MONTHLY BLOG 75, HUMANS AS TIME-SPECIFIC STARDUST

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2017)

‘We are stardust’, sang Joni Mitchell in ‘Woodstock’ (1970) soulfully and, as it transpires, presciently.1 Poets, song-lyricists and writers of scifi are often ahead of the scientific curve (as well as sometimes barking completely up the wrong tree). A.E. Housman’s Shropshire Lad (1896) had voiced a similar starry thought:

From far, from eve and morning
And yon twelve-winded sky,
The stuff of life to knit me
Blew hither: here am I.2

Today scientists confirm that the physical materials, from which humans are composed, ultimately originate from interstellar dust, which swirls throughout the cosmos. As it does so, it transports a range of elements which are the outcomes of distant galactic explosions. These prove to be vital for life on Earth. Our genetic blueprint comes in the form of the slowly evolving human genome. And our parents, whether with or (chiefly) without medical help, are our immediate progenitors. Yet, beyond that, all human bodies contain combinations of six core elements of calcium, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, and phosphorus, plus five trace elements of chlorine, magnesium, potassium, sodium, and sulphur. These materials reach earth from outer space, in the form of stardust.

2017-03 No1 wallpaper_stardust3

Illus.1 Stardust Wallpaper
Source: http://wallpaperswide.com/star_dust-wallpapers.html

It’s a stirring thought, whilst simultaneously being rather romantic. This theory (with many rival variants) is known as Panspermia and has been around in scientific communities for some time.3 It seeks to explain the origins of the organic building blocks for all living beings, linking our small segment of the universe with the much, much wider context. ‘The cosmos is within us. We are made of star-stuff’, remarked the American cosmologist Carl Sagan, adding the further striking thought that: ‘We are a way for the universe to know itself’.4 And a recent study extends the analysis to stress that humans are life-long dynamic works-in-progress, absorbing star-sourced organic nutrients from plants and using them constantly in renewing all our bodily cells.5

A summary might state that all living beings exist in Space (defining that phenomenon as stretching from our immediate physical locality into the farthest reaches of Outer Space), whilst Space is simultaneously within all living beings. As George Harrison and the Beatles sang (1967): ‘Life flows on within you and without you’.6 And since the arrow of Time is integrally linked with Space, it’s as true to remark that all living beings exist in Time, just as Time is also within all living beings. No surprises there.

Space as place is the easier phenomenon to understand, as it is visible in all its three-dimensional glory and locally tangible in the form of our immediate environments. Time, by contrast, is famously intangible and invisible. However, since the two are integrally linked, it may be argued that Space/place is actually the physical manifestation of Time/temporality. So a more accurate proposition is that all living creatures exist in Space-time, just as the combined force of Space-Time is simultaneously within all living creatures.7

What does that mean for people-as-stardust? It means that, as packages of living star-dust, we are time-specific. Individuals appear at one date and depart at another. The materials that make and continually remake us come from before our living existences and survive thereafter. But those same elements combine to form specific humans at specific points in Space-time. Incidentally, that proposition remains true even for those who believe that, via reincarnation, we live multiple lives. Each period of existence is still time-specific and sequential, so that any repeated lives are lived successively rather than concurrently.

Immediately, living in Time means that exhortations to positive self-help, which offer to teach Ten Steps to Achieving Anything You Set your Mind To, don’t really mean ‘anything’.8 Humans can’t stop Time or even alter its pace by a fraction. Hence, while people might sincerely want to be younger – or older –they can’t make themselves belong to another era which is not their own.

2017-03 No2a You Can Do Anything2017-03 No2b I want to be younger

Illus.2.1 YouTube and many other variants;
2.2 Muriel’s Good Sense of Humour, from
www.facebook.com/Muriels-Good-Sense-Of-Humour-Quotes-Pics-Sayings-166181823474070/

True, individuals sometimes manage to look younger – or older – than their actual years. They can also act younger – or older. They can try every known biological, medical, sporting and psychological method to modify their age-related physical condition. They can even try to fool the world by doctoring their birth certificates, if they think that would help. Yet people still can’t make themselves to have been born (say) one hundred years earlier than their actual birth-date – or wait to be born one hundred years later – no matter how much they might prefer an epoch change.

That proposition may seem a bit too fatalistic for go-getters in today’s aspirational culture. People can’t inhabit any era in history that they want. But, viewed the other way round, there is a reverse consolation. Each individual occupies his or her own specific slice of Space-time that can be taken by no other person. Twins, triplets or children of multiple births come very close. Yet they are still birthed in sequence and occupy neighbouring spaces. And the many other non-related people, who may be born on the same day at the same split-second, occupy their own specific segments of Space-time and have their own individual destinies. People’s life-chances may fall into broad patterns which can be analysed. Each specific trajectory, however, is individual. Thus (for example) only one of all those born in Ulm (S. Germany) on 14 March 1879 went on to become world-renowned.

Some theoretical physicists argue the opposite. They speculate whether it is possible for the same mix of physical materials to recombine at different times and in different places to form duplicates, not just of the human species, but of specific individuals, as known to history. The argument, put in non-technical terms, states that: ‘In an infinite universe, anything that can happen will happen, and happen infinitely often’.9 Of course, there is a large proviso at the start of that sentence. But, given an infinite universe, there’s scope for endless permutations and material duplications.

Hence, it is suggested that at different times and places across the cosmos: ‘There may be a trillion Albert Einsteins’.10 That would mean countless physical replicas of one baby born in Ulm on 14 March 1879. What an apparent bonus for the cosmic stock of genius.

2017-03-No3-Albert_Einstein_(Nobel)

Illus.3 Multiple Images of Albert Einstein (1879-1955) aged 42, in official 1921 portrait as winner of Nobel Prize in Physics.

However, that multiple-beings argument does not take Time seriously, as an integral part of Space-time. It would be a major surprise to identity an identical physical replica of Albert Einstein, to say the least, at some other point in the galaxy … or even down the road, in Basingstoke. Yet there’s a big difference between finding a genetically identical twin and rediscovering a historically identical personage. To find a complete historical duplicate, we would have to go to a duplicate point in Time and Space.

An Einstein physically identical twin, born in another galaxy at another time, would have a different life: he would not have learned the same languages as did the 1879 Einstein, would not have learned the same mathematics and physics, would not have worked as a junior official in the Bern Patent Office, would not have encountered Jost Winteler, the Swiss linguist who wrote on language relativity and was an intellectual mentor, and so on and so forth. In short, it was not just nature but also nurture, as welded into his own lived experience, which made Einstein into the historically pre-eminent Einstein. Equally, in another era the reception of Einstein’s physics of relativity might also be completely different. Perhaps, in another galaxy many light years away, a pronouncement from a proxy-Einstein that E = mc 2 would be greeted with yawns of boredom and the remark: why labour the obvious?

While many things can be replicated within this cosmos, unidirectional Time cannot. So, while we are stardust, we are also, as living beings, time-specific combinations of stardust. Viewed one way, that’s frustrating. Viewed another way, each one has his/her personal slice of Space-time which is shared with no-one else. Optimistic/pessimistic? Either way unavoidable. Yet, in our minds, we can and do travel to different times and places … So we must cultivate our star-dusted brainpower and imaginations instead.

1 J. Mitchell, ‘Woodstock’ (1970): ‘We are stardust./ We are golden./ And we’ve got to get ourselves/ Back to the garden’.

2 A.E. Housman, ‘From Far, from Eve and Morning’, A Shropshire Lad, Poem 32 (first pub. 1896; in Penguin edn. 1956), p. 61.

3 F. Hoyle and C. Wickramasinghe, Evolution from Space (1981).

4 C. Sagan, Cosmos (1980); and see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xaj407ofjNE.

5 K. and I. Schrijver, Living with the Stars: How the Human Body Is Connected to the Life Cycles of the Earth, the Planets and the Stars (2015) and interview in http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2015/01/150128-big-bang-universe-supernova-astrophysics-health-space-ngbooktalk/.

6 G. Harrison’s song on The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), subsequently covered by many other musicians.

7 Again, a minority of analysts, myself included, prefer the formulation of Time-space, rather than Space-time, in recognition of the unidirectional leading power of Time. But the conventional usage is adopted here for the purposes of discussion.

8 See e.g. M. Seetubtim, ‘Ten Steps’, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mo-seetubtim/10-steps-to-conquering-an_b_8101046.html (2015; updated 2016).

9 P. Davies, Are We Alone? Implications of the Discovery of the Extraterrestrial Life (1995), p. 97.

10 Ibid., p. 98.

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MONTHLY BLOG 74, WHY CAN’T WE THINK ABOUT SPACE WITHOUT TIME?

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Well, why not? Why can’t we think about Space without Time? It’s been tried before. A persistent, though small, minority of philosophers and physicists deny the ‘reality’ of Time.1 True, they have not yet made much headway in winning the arguments. But it’s an intriguing challenge.

Space is so manifestly here and now. Look around at people, buildings, trees, clouds, the sun, the sky, the stars … And, after all what is Time? There is no agreed definition from physicists. No simple (or even complex) formula to announce that T = whatever? Why can’t we just banish it? Think of the advantages. No Time … so no hurry to finish an essay to a temporal deadline which does not ‘really’ exist. No Time … so no need to worry about getting older as the years unfold in a temporal sequence which isn’t ‘really’ happening. In the 1980s and 1990s – a time of intellectual doubt in some Western left-leaning philosophical circles – a determined onslaught upon the concept of Time was attempted by Jacques Derrida (1930-2004). He became the high-priest of temporal rejectionism. His cause could be registered somewhere under the postmodernist banner, since postmodernist thought was very hostile to the idea of history as a subject of study. It viewed it as endlessly malleable and subjective. That attitude was close to Derrida’s attitude to temporality, although not all postmodernist thinkers endorsed Derrida’s theories.2 His brand of ultra-subjective linguistic analysis, termed ‘Deconstruction’, sounded, as dramatist Yasmina Reza jokes in Art, as though it was a tough technique straight out of an engineering manual. In fact, it allowed for an endless play of subjective meanings.

For Derrida, Time was/is a purely ‘metaphysical’ concept – and he clearly did not intend that description as a compliment. Instead, he evoked an atemporal spatiality, named khōra (borrowing a term from Plato). This timeless state, which pervades the cosmos, is supposed to act both as a receptor and as a germinator of meanings. It is an eternal Present, into which all apparent temporality is absorbed.4 Any interim thoughts or feelings about Time on the part of humans would relate purely to a subjective illusion. Its meanings would, of course, have validity for them, but not necessarily for others.

So how should we think of this all-encompassing khōra? What would Space be like without Time? When asked in 1986, Derrida boldly sketched an image of khōra as a sort of sieve-like receptacle (see Fig.1).5 It was physical and tangible. Yet it was also intended to be fluid and open. Thus the receptacle would simultaneously catch, make and filter all the meanings of the world. The following extract from an explanatory letter by Derrida by no means recounts the full complexity of Derrida’s concept but gives some of the flavour:6

I propose then […] a gilded metallic object (there is gold in the passage from [Plato’s] Timaeus on the khōra […]), to be planted obliquely in the earth. Neither vertical, nor horizontal, a extremely solid frame that would resemble at once a web, a sieve, or a grill (grid) and a stringed musical instrument (piano, harp, lyre?): strings, stringed instrument, vocal chord, etc. As a grill, grid, etc., it would have a certain relationship with the filter (a telescope, or a photographic acid bath, or a machine, which has fallen from the sky, having photographed or X-rayed – filtered – an aerial view). …
2017-02-No1b-Derrida's-sketch-and-Khora

Fig. 1 (L) Derrida’s 1986 sketch of Spatiality without Time, also (R) rendered more schematically
© Centre Canadien d’Architecture/
Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal.

In 1987, the cerebral American architect Peter Eisenman (1932- ), whose stark works are often described as ‘deconstructive’, launched into dialogue with Derrida. They discussed giving architectural specificity to Derrida’s khōra in a public garden in Paris.8   One cannot but admire Eisenman’s daring, given the nebulousness of the key concept. Anyway, the plan (see Fig. 2) was not realised. Perhaps there was, after all, something too metaphysical in Derrida’s own vision. Moreover, the installation, if erected, would have soon shown signs of ageing: losing its gilt, weathering, acquiring moss as well as perhaps graffiti – in other words, exhibiting the handiwork of the allegedly banished Time.2017-02-No2-Model-of-Choral-Works

Fig.2 Model of Choral Works by Peter Eisenman
© Eisenman Architects. New York

So the saga took seriously the idea of banishing Time but couldn’t do it. The very words, which Derrida enjoyed deconstructing into fragmentary components, can surely convey multiple potential messages. Yet they do so in consecutive sequences, whether spoke or written, which unfold their meanings concurrently through Time.

In fact, ever since Einstein’s conceptual break-through with his theories of Relativity, we should be thinking about Time and Space as integrally linked in one continuum. Hermann Minkowski, Einstein’s intellectual ally and former tutor, made that clear: ‘Henceforth Space by itself, and Time by itself, are doomed to fade away into mere shadows, and only a kind of union of the two will preserve an independent reality’. In practice, it’s taken the world one hundred years post-Einstein to internalise the view that propositions about Time refer to Space and vice versa. Thus had Derrida managed to abolish temporality, he would have abolished spatiality along with it. It also means that scientists should not be seeking a formula for Time alone but rather for Space-Time: S-T = whatever?

Lastly, if we do want a physical monument to either Space or Time, there’s no need for a special trip to Paris. We need only look around us. The unfolding Space-Time, in which we all live, looks exactly like the entire cosmos, or, in a detailed segment of the whole, like our local home: Planet Earth.
2017-02 No3 Earth-from-Space-Vector

Fig.3 View of Planet Earth from Space
© http://boxist.com/view-of-planet-earth-in-space/

1 For anti-Time, see J. Barbour, The End of Time: The Next Revolution in Our Understanding of the Universe (1999), esp. pp. 324-5. And the reverse in R. Healey, ‘Can Physics Coherently Deny the Reality of Time?’ in C. Callender (ed.), Time, Reality and Experience (Cambridge, 2002), pp. 293-316.

2 B. Stocker, Derrida on Deconstruction (2006); A. Weiner and S.M. Wortham (eds), Encountering Derrida: Legacies and Futures of Deconstruction (2007).

3 Line of dialogue from play by Y. Reza, Art (1994).

4 D. Wood, The Deconstruction of Time (Evanstown, Ill., 2001), pp. 260-1, 269, 270-3; J. Hodge, Derrida on Time (2007); pp. ix-x, 196-203, 205-6, 213-14.

5 R. Wilken, ‘Diagrammatology’, Electronic Book Review, 2007-05-09 (2007): http://www.electronicbookreview.com/thread/electropoetics/intermingled

6 Letter from Derrida to Peter Eisenman, 30 May 1986, as cited in N. Leach (ed.), Rethinking Architecture: A Reader in Cultural Theory (1997), pp. 342-3. See also for formal diagram based on Derrida’s sketch, G. Bennington and J. Derrida, Jacques Derrida (1993), p. 406.

7 A.E. Taylor, A Commentary of Plato’s Timaeus (Oxford, 1928).

8 J. Derrida and P. Eisenman, Chora L Works, ed. J. Kipnis and T. Leeser (New York, 19997).

9 Cited in P.J. Corfield, Time and the Shape of History (2007), p. 9.

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MONTHLY BLOG 73, WRITING INTO SILENCE ABOUT TIME

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2016)

Time – great subject. Lots of it around. Universal application. Paradoxical too: time flies, time crawls … time heals, time festers … time is short, time is long … time is money, time is priceless. And the list continues: humans can do time, have time, lose time, borrow time, gain time, forget time, remember time, miss time, or beat time. What a cornucopia of possibilities. Just right for the turning of the year, with its phoenix-like imagery of interlocking death and rebirth.

2017-01-no1-rising-phoenix-tattoo
What’s more, it’s a great subject for historians. Our subject focuses upon the workings of Great Time, as evidenced in human history. (Or as evidenced in cosmic history, for those who stretch Big History to cover the entire existence of the cosmos).1   So, one way or another, Time lies at the heart of all historical studies. Without temporality, there is no chronology and no sequencing; no cause and effect; no short term and no long term.

Incidentally, the reference to temporality should properly be spatio-temporality, because, since Einstein, the integral linkage of Time and Space must be understood as a given. The usual summary of that proposition is encapsulated in the terminology of Space-Time, as coined by Minkowski in 1908. But a minority of analysts, including myself, prefer Time-Space. That formulation gives the dynamic priority to temporality, which seems right.

Writing my own study of Time and the Shape of History (2007) took me many years and was thoroughly enjoyable. Mostly I worked on my own. And, having published the book and numerous related essays, I find that I’ve basically written into silence. Not complaining. Simply an observation.

Some people say vaguely: ‘how fascinating’. Or even: ‘Wow’. But mainly they don’t say anything. Even many close colleagues, with whom I’ve worked and debated for years, never mention the book. They don’t mock or laugh or give me a critique. They simply don’t mention it. That attitude is strange to me but instructive. It’s been that way for ten years, ever since the book was published. Very few reviews. And only modest sales.

Why should that be? One general reason is that Time is one of those things that’s always around but it’s so intangible and abstract that it’s taken for granted. It’s in the aether, as it were. Why bother to say more? People do write excellent books about the history of attitudes to Time, including clocks, watches and time measurement.3   And, of course, some (not many) physicists and philosopherswrite books about the evolving study of Time and the tensions/paradoxes/mysteries within the concept. But there is relatively little literature from historians on the nature of temporality, rather than on the effects of change over Time. As a result, there were very few people willing to act as publisher’s readers, before the book was published; few willing to review; few who teach anything along these lines; and few who are interested enough to read for themselves.

Yet obviously I’ve also reflected upon the qualities of the book itself. There are two major criticisms. One is that the book’s too long. In fact, at 309 pages, it’s not exceptionally lengthy. But readers tell me that they find it so. From my point of view, the length was exactly what it took for me to work through my views. I couldn’t then have written less. Maybe now I might publish a more accessible short version, with illustrations.6

My original hope was that the brief self-contained interlink sections, appearing between each big chapter, would provide different ways into reading the whole. The book does not have to be read sequentially. The main chapters are more like the spokes of a turning wheel. So the interlinks were intended as way-stations on the journey. They play with different ideas about Time, such as time travel; time cycles; time lines; time ends; time pieces; and so forth. Furthermore, I ideally wanted these interlinks to appear on different coloured paper, to alert readers to the reading options. Alas, however, that did not prove technically possible. The compromise was to print them with a different type-face; but the visual variation is not marked enough. Perhaps I should have held out for shaded paper, or distinctive margins, for the interlinks – but anyway I didn’t.

The second criticism is related to the first. Some readers do find the book hard to read. I find that verdict difficult to understand, because it’s not written in technical language. Nor are the concepts in themselves very difficult to grasp. I think it’s because the book is densely crammed throughout with information and ideas. The effect is a ‘heavy read’. Ouch! I’m deeply sorry to have written a seemingly boring book. Particularly because to me, it’s enthralling and completely the reverse of tedious.

Having said that, it’s also good to record some cheering responses. I’ve applied my three-dimensional interpretation of Time and History to a global overview essay entitled ‘Cities in Time’. People have found that instructive rather than boring.7

And I have had one truly great compliment. An early reader told me that it made her ‘think strange thoughts’. (She meant the comment in a positive way). I was thrilled. My aim is/was to get readers to look at Time and History anew.

2017-02-melting-clock
Writing into silence is a valuable learning experience. I have not stopped communicating my ideas on my ‘home period’ in research terms, the long eighteenth century. Nor have I stopped writing concept-pieces about History, Time and the long term.8   Interest in such matters is growing. Scattered evidence comes in the form of unexpected invitations from colleagues to contribute to conferences/books. Or messages from students, raising fresh questions.

Meanwhile, I’m trying even harder to make my ideas as plain and clear as I can. And I use humour wherever possible. Interestingly, there are only few jokes about Time itself (as opposed to jokes about the effects of Time) … it’s not that sort of subject. Glad to say that I can laugh at myself instead. And, yes, I’m persevering. Time isn’t going to disappear.

1 D.G. Christian, Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History (Berkeley, Calif., 2004).

2 P.J. Corfield, Time and the Shape of History (London, 2007).

3 E.g. L. Holford-Strevens, The History of Time: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2005) and a popular overview in S. Garfield, Timekeepers: How the World became Obsessed with Time (Edinburgh, 2016).

4 See the best-selling S. Hawking, A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes (London, 1988); and the more accessible J. Gribbin, The Birth of Time: How We Measured the Age of the Universe (London, 1999).

5 E.g. D. Cockburn, Other Times: Philosophical Perspectives on Past, Present and Future (Cambridge, 1997); J.T. Fraser, Time, the Familiar Stranger (Amherst, Mass., 1987).

6 For shorter accounts, see P.J. Corfield, ‘History’s Big Picture in Three Dimensions’, The Historian: Journal of the Historical Association (Winter 2007), pp. 26-30; idem, ‘History Viewed Long’ (2008), for London University’s Institute of Historical Research History: Making History Website www.history.ac.uk/makinghistory/resources/articles/long_history.html; also posted within PJC website as Pdf2; and idem, ‘Teaching History’s Big Pictures: Including Continuity as well as Change’, Teaching History: Journal of the Historical Association, 136 (Sept. 2009), pp. 53-9; also posted within PJC website as Pdf3.

7 P.J. Corfield, ‘Cities in Time’, in P. Clark (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Cities in World History (Oxford, 2013), pp. 828-46; also posted within PJC website as CorfieldPdf29.

8 P.J. Corfield, ‘History and the Temporal Turn: Returning to Causes, Effects and Diachronic Trends’, in J-F. Dunyach (ed.), Les âges de Britannia: Repenser l’histoire des mondes Britanniques – Moyen Âge-XXIe siècle (Paris, 2015), pp. 259-73; also posted within PJC website as CorfieldPdf37; idem, ‘Time and the Historians in the Age of Relativity’, in A.C.T. Geppert and T. Kössler (eds), Obsession der Gegenwart: Zeit im 20. Jahrhundert (Göttingen, 2015), pp. 71-91; also posted within PJC website as CorfieldPdf38.

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