skip to primary navigationskip to content

Theories of Time - Steineck

Raji Steineck (Zurich University) Theories of Time in the study of premodern Japan

Raji Steineck (Zurich University)

Theories of Time in the Study of Premodern Japan


Recent theories of time –starting with J.T. Fraser’s Time as a Hierarchy of Creative Conflicts (1970) have acknowledged that their subject comes in many more forms than the  A- and B-series (time as the universal, one-dimensional and unidirectional sequence of (A) past, present and future or (B) of earlier and later events) that dominate current philosophical discussions. Indeed, as sociologists Maki Yūsuke (Jikan no hikaku shakaigaku, 1981) and Günter Dux (Die Zeit in der Geschichte, 1989) have argued independently of each other, the modern standard conceptions of time these represent appear to be historically late developments, and tied to specific societal conditions. It would thus be a mistake to assume that time as we intuit it –‘abstract world time’ in Dux’s terminology– can be found in premodern societies. Dux proposed an evolutionary theory of time in human history. His model is based on the hypothesis that there is a causal connection between the complexity of the mechanisms of coordination in social reproduction and the structure of a society’s dominant concepts of time. As I will show, Dux’s model provides a valuable heuristics for anthropological research on pre-modern Japanese culture, but it is in danger of over-emphasizing the linearity of historical developments and of underestimating the power of imagination stimulated by strong symbolic incentives. In contrast, Maki established a theory of four fundamental types of time imageries (oscillating time, circulating time, segmented linear time and continuous linear time), ordered by degrees of adhesion/transcendence to a) community and b) nature. His theory is similar to Dux’s in assuming a strong link between social organization and the dominant time imagery, but less teleological and thus more appreciative of time imageries other than continuous linear time/abstract world time. Maki also offered an analysis of time consciousness in ancient Japan, arguing that it was dominated by “mythical”, oscillating and circulating time imageries. His analysis is instructive also in its methodological weaknesses. It exposes the dangers in interpreting literary sources as representing “social consciousness” – and in letting ourselves be guided in research by a search for “otherness” in premodern Japanese culture.