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Emily Thomas (Durham University), "Mary Calkins, Victoria Welby, and the spatialization of time"
British Journal for the History of Philosophy, 2023
Is Time Like Space? Mary Calkins and Victoria Welby Disagree
Is time like space? The turn of the twentieth century saw a trans-Atlantic clash over this question. In 1899, American philosopher Mary Calkins argued we shouldn’t spatialise time. In 1907, British philosopher Victoria Welby argued we should. I find their views fascinating for all kinds of reasons. Metaphysically, their views are rich, anticipating theories today; and both thinkers plug time into broad, intricate systems of reality. Historically, this disagreement also offers a rare case of women philosophers engaging in print.
Spatialising time dates to at least Aristotle's view that space is conceptually prior to time. Some philosophers merely attribute the features of space to time. Others go further: literally conceiving time as a dimension of space. The latter, more extreme view emerged in the wake of mathematician Charles Hinton’s 1880s work, which described time as the ‘fourth dimension’ of space. H. G. Wells’ 1895 The Time Machine popularised this, arguing that if time is a kind of space, we can travel there.
Calkins argues it is a ‘fundamental error’ to spatialise time. For Calkins, the flying, fleeting succession of time is distinctively temporal. The succession of moments in time is utterly different to succession in space, such as a row of houses. She argues that the unique irreversibility of time arises from the dependence of the present on the past, and the future on the present. Calkins argues for her position using experimental psychology, citing the latest experiments of her day to show that our consciousness of time involves the consciousness of fleeting change. This makes her one of - if not the - first philosophers to use experimental psychology to support a temporal metaphysic.
In contrast, Welby held that time should be fully spatialised - that time is a kind of space. Whilst advancing her position, Welby critiques many other philosophers, including Calkins. For Welby, our language, ideas, and thus our experience of time derives from space. Our idea of time lacks an ‘empirical source’: it is merely a metaphorical application of our experientially-grounded idea of space. Humans have a mental ‘blindness’ that prevents us from seeing temporal succession as it really is - spatial variety. She finds that chronophotogaphy comes closer to seeing the world how it really is:
Here, the movement of a horse over time is spread out through space. I read Welby’s position as nothing less than full-blown anti-realism about time. I support this reading using unpublished documents in Welby’s archives, including an early, 1902 draft of Welby’s paper.
Having set out their views, I ask what lies at the root of the Calkins-Welby disagreement. Welby’s explicit critique of Calkins concerns the nature of time: for Calkins it is a distinctively temporal succession, whereas for Welby it is space. But we can go deeper. Welby claims our idea of time is sourced in our experience of space, whereas Calkins claims our idea of time is sourced in our experience of time. Welby takes an extra step: reasoning from our lack of temporal experience, to the unreality of time. I argue Calkins makes the same step, but in the opposite direction: reasoning from our temporal experience, to the reality of time. And this is really what they are disagreeing over: Welby is anti-realist about time, whereas Calkins accepts its reality.
Emily Thomas, Durham University
This article is based on my paper “Mary Calkins, Victoria Welby, and the Spatialization of Time” (2022, British Journal for the History of Philosophy)
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