Time is but the stream . . .

In Walden, Henry David Thoreau wrote,

Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains.

Thoreau is using the ancient distinction between time and eternity, along with the metaphor of time as flow or movement. In order for time to be seen as movement or a flow, there must be a nonmoving substratum or background (the riverbank or riverbed) which we can call eternity. But these aren’t realities that exist independent of an observer. This is a semantics that reflects the structures of a particular society.

Luhmann wrote,

The stationary societies of the old world had described themselves as objects, using such concepts as being, essence, nature, and genre. Within this structural and semantic framework, the possibilities of evolution were not excluded; but their observation and description could remain on the surface and work with the graphic concept of motion, which as counterconcept presupposes something fixed, like the banks of a river. (Theory of Society, vol. 2, 344)

Rather than seeing time as flow or movement over a stationary background, we can see time as the difference between past and future. There is a continuous differentiation between past and future.

The Aristotelian unmoved mover is another way of envisioning eternity. But for a functionally differentiated society, the old semantics doesn’t work very well. Different social systems observe time in different ways. For instance, the commercial (or economic) system might observe or focus on smaller increments of time than the religion or education system would. When people talk about a “New York minute” they are talking about a particular pace of life or sense of time, which reflects particular social structures.

Social structures have changed; therefore, semantics must ultimately change, although we often observe a semantic lag. For instance, when people speak of evolution in the sense of getting better or improving, we see a semantic lag. Evolution is about differentiation, not improvement or progression; it’s not about movement. In evolution, there are no points of origin and ending, no alpha and omega. There is no linear narrative. The emphasis on progress fits the 19th-century view of life.

It must be emphasized that differentiation does not mean a difference in essence. Essence as a concept belongs to the “old semantics,” or the semantics of a stratified or centralized society. Essence is the basis of classical ontology. But in modern, functionality differentiated society, one social system is not simply different than another social system. A system differentiates out of society, or “out-differentiates.” Society, in other words, becomes different from itself. A social system becomes different from itself. Similarly, as as a person changes, she becomes different from herself. There is no movement toward perfection or completion, but just continual differentiation from oneself.

Becoming different from oneself is not the same as being judged to be different by other people. Someone might say “You seem like a different person.” But that’s not the same as becoming different from oneself. If you become different from yourself, you experience a different world.

The other thing about Thoreau’s view of time as a stream is that time is understood as moving through space. Time, in this way of thinking, is assimilated to space, as Bergson showed. Time is seen as a moving object, like the dials on a clock. But Bergson unmixed time and space, arguing that Kant failed to differentiate time from space. If we watch the dials moving around the clockface, we tend to understand time as moving through homogeneous space. In other words, space is treated as prior to time. But as a differentiation, time and space (as invented concepts) must arise together; one cannot exist before the other or be more fundamental than the other.

It must be remembered, whenever we discuss Luhmann, that we are talking about observations not some reality existing apart from an observer. 

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