Conceptions of natural, physical time, derive from human, social time, devices – Elias.


Norbert Elias interrogates the conceptual separation of natural time and social time by noting that, contrary to the impression of an autonomous natural rhythm waiting to be discovered, a sense of natural time is shaped via devices that were originally developed for the measurement of human, social time. Natural, physical time, duly manifests, and diverges, from human time concepts.

[N]ever before had human-made time-pieces been used in this manner as a measuring rod for physical processes. The clepsydra, an elaborate version of which he used in his experiments, was traditionally a timepiece employed for timing human affairs. It was a social time-meter. Timing had been human centered. Galileo’s innovatory imagination led him to change the function of the ancient timing device by using it systematically as a gauge not for the flux of social but of natural events. In that way a new concept of ‘time’, that of physical time, began to branch off from the older, relatively more unitary human-centred concept. It was the corollary of a corresponding change in people’s concept of nature. Increasingly, ‘nature’ assumed in people’s eyes the character of an autonomous, mechanical nexus of events which was purposeless, but well ordered: it obeyed ‘laws’…

The significance of this emergence of the concept of ‘physical’ time from the matrix of ‘social time’ can hardly be overrated. It went hand in hand with the emergence of a new function for human-made timepieces; it implied the timing of ‘nature’ for its own sake. Hence it was one of the earliest steps in a process of concept-formation whose results today have become fossilized and are very much taken for granted – steps on the road towards the conceptual split of the universe which has come to dominate increasingly people’s modes of speaking and thinking and which appears as a consensual axiom that no one can doubt. As an autonomous nexus represented by eternal laws, ‘nature’ appears to stand on one side, people and their social world – artificial, arbitrary and structure-less – on the other. Endowed with regularities of its own, ‘nature’ as an object of people’s studies seems to be, in some way not clearly explained, divorced from the world of humans. One has not yet come to recognize that the illusion arises from the very fact that humans have learned to distance themselves, in their reflection and observation, from ‘nature’ in order to explore it – to distance themselves more from ‘nature’ than from themselves. In their imagination, the greater distancing and self-discipline required for the exploration of the inanimate nexus of events transformed itself into the notion of a really existing distance between themselves, the subjects, and ‘nature’, the nexus of objects…

In connection with this wider conceptual divide ‘time’, too, came to be divided into two different types: physical and social ‘time’. In the former sense, ‘time’  appeared as an aspect of ‘physical nature’, as one of the unchanging variables which physicists measure and which, as such, plays its part in the mathematical equations intended as symbolic representations of nature’s ‘laws’. In the latter sense, ‘time’ had the character of a social institution, a regulator of social events, a mode of human experience – and clocks had that of an integral part of a social order which could not work without them (Elias 1992, 114-16).

Elias, Norbert. 1992. Time: An Essay. Translated by Edmund Jephcott. Oxford and Cambridge: Blackwell.

Categories: Social Science

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