Non-Liberal Philosophical Conceptions of Time

Any reading of The Fourth Estate, most notably its Treatises, will come away with the impression that History is highly valued. To understand the present, uncover the past. To reshape the future, redefine the present. The world of the 21st century is in many respects a continuation of what was revolutionized in the 20th century, the 20th century a response to the excesses of the 19th century.  From technological disruptions and economic turmoil to world wars and ecological destruction, the 20th century is full of instructive lessons and alternative perspectives on the world. This was the century when Neoliberalism found itself challenged by a plethora of Ideologies and their Weltanschauung (Worldview), a conflict that remains ongoing as of late.

One notable philosophical development that emerged around the turn of the 20th century is Phenomenology. Phenomenology refers to the study and analysis of personal everyday experiences and expectations in connection with other fields of Philosophy. Key to Phenomenology is the concept of “Human Consciousness,” the ability of a Self to demonstrate self-awareness of itself and its interactions with the world. By focusing on the realities of everyday life, Phenomenology invites inquiry into how the Self relates with their Totality and State. For when transposed into the study of a nation, Human Consciousness becomes a “National Consciousness” informed by a “National Essence,” defined by a “National Identity,” and expressed through a “National Culture.”     

It is significant that Time has become a notable topic within Phenomenology. Martin Heidegger remains the most well-known proponent, as Time itself is pivotal to his own contributions to Ontology as a related subset of Phenomenology. But Time is not just exclusive to Philosophy; History also addresses Time as it insofar as it seeks to learn the past and it impacts the present.

The determination to understand the past and anticipate the future is where History tends to gain specific Ideological tendencies backed by a related Weltanschauung. How somebody interprets History will influence how they understand the historical and contemporary forces. Certain phenomena may be the byproducts of older historical forces, whereas others may be the results of more contemporary ones. There may be phenomena which are specifically tied to particular moments in History, as “products of their Time,” and then there are those which remain timeless and eternal.

Could someone anticipate the future by inferring from past events and present trends? It has been suggested that it is difficult to predict what the future holds and how History will unfold. After all, very few in the 1970s thought that Japan would experience the Lost Decades from the 1990s onward. Something similar has also been said about those adamant that the Soviet Union would not collapse in the manner that it did and that the Cold War would persist well into the 21st century. The argument here is that making predictions about the future is difficult, if not downright impossible as there are countless different forces and matters at play that could invalidate any given prediction.

Why should anyone, assuming they are not a Liberal Capitalist, attempt to draw inferences from History to anticipate a future that could only be achieved under proper conditions? In Marxist Theory, the historical development of a Totality from Feudalism to Capitalism, then Socialism and Communism is understood to be a gradual, protracted process. Those seeking to revisit past ideas from the National Essence of a given nation requires an intimate understanding of those ideas in order to properly recontextualize them within contemporary conditions.       

Thanks to the works of Oswald Spengler and those who wrote favorably or unfavorably of his analysis of World History, there are three fundamental ways in which someone could interpret History any reapply it to the present or draw conclusions about the future. There is a “Linear Model of History,” a “Spiral Model of History,” and a “Cyclical Model of History.”

In a Linear Model, History is advancing toward a well-specified and well-known direction based on a trajectory of past events and present trends. The Historical Materialism within classical conceptions of Marxist Theory is one notable example, but there is also the Liberal Capitalist version, and the versions outlined by the three Monotheistic religions (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam). The Liberal Capitalist version needs no introduction and the same could be said for the Monotheistic ones. Barring the Monotheistic religions, the problem with the Linear Model is that it presupposes that a particular event is guaranteed to happen despite any evidence to the contrary.  

As peculiar as this may seem, the Linear Model is arguably the most common interpretation of History. It is the stuff of Alternate History, the bedrock of Futurism, and the primary method in which most historians study history. Here, History is oftentimes portrayed in most school history textbooks. It leaves very little to the imagination, limiting it to a small number of possibilities and opportunities for the current trajectory to go in a completely different direction. One loses sight of older historical forces that lie within the domain of Human Consciousness and paralleling trends that have occurred previously in another section of World History.

It is for these reasons that the Cyclical Model is touted to be the polar opposite of the Linear Model. The Cyclical Model maintains that “History repeats itself,” that specific events happen as part of a much larger process that History is self-aware of but beyond the control of those affected by it. Depending on how someone defines the Cyclical Model, one can opt for the belief that Life is a downward spiral from a Culture to a Civilization awaiting some Second Religiousness to wipe the slate clean. It is possible to easily draw inferences from the past, apply them to the present, and formulate conclusions about the future because History within the Cyclical Model is unchanging, unyielding, understandable. Spengler is undoubtedly the most well-known historical figure in recent times to have advocated for the Cyclical Model, even though are a few disadvantages.

Obviously, a Cyclical Model cannot make precise predictions. At best, it can facilitate generalizable conclusions whose implications may not always be connected back to previous trends. One could use the Cyclical Model to understand how Human Consciousness as part of World History or the National Consciousness of a nation. However, the Cyclical Model is not ideal for when it comes to understanding why historical events tend to unfold in similar variations of the same phenomenon.

This leaves us with the Spiral Model, a conception of History that informs the direction of my Treatises when discussing historical events. The Spiral Model can be best understood as an intermediate compromise between the Linear Model and the Cyclical Model. Rather than assume that History will develop toward a given direction or as part of a much larger process, the Spiral Model recognizes that nothing can be guaranteed. Whatever prediction we make about the future could be invalidated by the unexpected or the unknown. Anyone or anything, if given enough power and influence, could alter the current trajectory of History in any direction.

Of course, there are a few limitations associated with relying on the Spiral Model. How certain should we be in expecting some force or influence to play an instrumental role in the realization of a particular sequence of events? What happens if there are no such forces or influences that are in any real position of affecting the course of History? I ask these questions because National Consciousnesses rarely change in terms of good or bad. Values and beliefs held by one Totality can persist across untold decades or centuries. A Totality, unlike the Self, is comprised of countless different groups of people who are bound to a shared State as a nation. Determinism has its limits.      

Categories: Philosophy

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