Everyday cultural concepts of time are not true concepts of time – Bloch


Maurice Bloch, when commentating on Clifford Geertz’s characterisation of the dual calendars by which the Balinese population live, presents the point that an unconditional sense of time’s cultural relativity is overly reductive. Nevertheless, Bloch posits that a culture’s everyday, social concepts of time, are not true concepts of time.

[T]he Balinese evidence does not support the view that notions of time vary from culture to culture, it only shows that, in ritual contexts, the Balinese use a different notion of time from that in more mundane contexts and that in these mundane contexts categories and classification are, it may be assumed from Berlin and Kay’s findings, based on cognitive universals. Furthermore, the nature of the contexts where we find these cognitive universals itself suggests an explanation of their presence. Durkheim, like others after him, rejected the notion that cognition was constrained by nature, by pointing to the variability of concepts, especially of concepts of time; but if he is wrong in this, his objection cannot hold. What is more, since it is in contexts where man is in most direct contact with nature that we find universal concepts, the hypothesis that it is something in the world beyond society which constrains at least some of our cognitive categories is strengthened, though this need not be nature as an independent entity to man, but, as I believe is suggested by Berlin and Kay’s data and foreshadowed by Marx, nature as the subject of human activity (see also Rosch 1975)…

I am not making the empiricist mistake of thinking that concepts as concepts are given in nature, I am only talking of the constraints of nature on thought given the human condition. In this I am following Piaget (1968). It would be nonsense to say that our everyday concepts are true concepts of time. The notions of time held by physicists are not remotely like folk notions of time. On the other hand my position is totally opposed to that of Levi-Strauss who argues that nature in this respect is an unordered phenomenon only ordered by culture in whatever way the logic of thought takes it (Bloch 1977, 285, 290-91).

Block, Maurice. 1977. “The past and the present in the present.” Man 12(2): 278-92.

Categories: Social Science

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