Philosophy for passengers: reflections on “passenger time”

We are, all of us, passengers of time, witnesses of its passage, which is also ours.

For millennia, human mobility has structured our thinking about time. Photo: Alexander Shustov, via Unsplash

“Passenger time” is not a reference to the duration of a trip, as measured by the clock: 20 minutes, two hours, eight and a half hours. . . It is also not the time of departure or the time of arrival at destination. What interests me are the passengers sense of time, which can help reveal the meaning of time As such.

This article is excerpted from Michael Marder’s book “Philosophy for Passengers”, a philosophical guide to passenger life.

As the clock synchronizes our activities and allows us, for example, to board that 7:55 a.m. flight or that 2:30 p.m. bus, each of us confronts the flow of time in a unique and idiosyncratic way. The experience of time largely depends on the mood you find yourself in: bored, you feel time dragging on, a thick, viscous substance you get stuck in; excited, you feel like time is passing, almost too fast for you to obey Carpe Diem injunction. As a branch of philosophy, phenomenology studies, among other things, multiple subjective perspectives on time, or, technically speaking, time consciousness.

However fast it seems to be flowing, time is passing. We pass with him and in him. There is a tinge of fatalism in this passage from Virgil’s “Georgics”: “fugit inreparabile tempus”, “irremediably, time escapes”. Thus, time is to be sought in passage, in a passage, a section or a stretch which determines its activity as time. We are, all of us, passengers of time, witnesses of its passage, which is also ours. Time travel in science fiction follows the passage of time. As passengers of any means of transport, we therefore reflect the activity of time. This is why the passenger offers us a privileged look at this philosophical and existential leitmotif.

The time of our lives passes between two black boxes, two Xs, two poles of flight: unrepresentable, inaccessible.

For millennia, human mobility has structured our thinking about time. Changes of location have been the signs and measures of time, ever since the “Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh” and Homer’s “Odyssey”. Even though its form was circular – the arc of narrative curving, the end meeting the beginning – an epic journey defined the imagination of time until the 19th century, with Hegel’s “Phenomenology of Spirit” at its peak. The time of an epic relied on cohesive plot development, where the final denouement eclipsed and retrospectively illuminated the rest of the story. Gilgamesh’s failure to attain immortality, Odysseus’ return to Ithaca, and Spirit’s reunification with himself in absolute knowledge gave ultimate meaning to all previous events in their respective histories and made other changes of place and time insignificant in comparison.

As the accounts of the great masters and traditionally authoritative sources of meaning came under attack in late modernity, and travel began to weave rather than perforate the social fabric, the thought of the time suffered a number of major changes. Transition, transit and transformation have prevailed over the initial state, more or less static, and over the final result. The origin and the destination pale in importance compared to the middle. In accordance with Taoist philosophy and the old German proverb “Der Weg ist das Ziel”, the path has become the goal.

Twentieth-century physics faithfully reflects this change. Quantum mechanics elucidates the interference of the observer with the observed, the act of observation mingling with the reality that it records. In Einstein’s general theory of relativity, gravity distorts time (or, more precisely, the space-time field around an object); in his special theory of relativity, time slows down or speeds up depending on how fast you are traveling relative to something else. The emphasis on observation at the quantum level and on the relationship in relativity is the emphasis on what lies between two or more elements, as opposed to autonomous, independent and autonomous objects and subjects. According to the same logic, the temporal node of the passenger’s life is the perceived and measurable duration of a passage between places (and between times – in particular, of departure and arrival) which is not subject to the concerns motivated and goal-oriented of a trip. , a journey or a journey. Everything happens as if, in the time of the travellers, time took on its full meaning precisely by refusing to take flight, by refusing to be reconciled with a higher end that would extinguish its agitation.

To enter into this temporal mindset, try to examine your life from the perspective of periods of transit and transition, rather than departures, arrivals, and sojourn phases. Visualize the places you leave and those that welcome you from the middle of the passages that stretch between them, and not the other way around. The main events of our lives are also framed in the middle, between other events, their past and future horizons extending to the objective framing of human life between birth and death. Curiously, these cardinal points of our existence are inaccessible to our consciousness as a pure beginning and end. The time of our lives passes between two black boxes, two Xs, two poles of flight: unrepresentable, inaccessible. Life is an intermediate passage without shores from which to depart or moor. In a paraphrase of the 17th century French mathematician, theologian and father of the first modern form of public transport Blaise Pascal, who in turn paraphrased the 15th century thinker Nicholas of Cues, life is an infinitely finite sphere, of which the middle is everywhere and the circumference nowhere.

In the paradigm of passing time — time marked primarily by its activity of passing, the activity indistinguishable from the passivity of pathetic — the past is the predominant tense. For passengers on a train, bus, plane or any other means of transport, each place they leave immediately passes from spatial to temporal: they go beyond it, and the moment of having it crossed drifts towards the past. The future is cobbled together from portions of air, sea or land routes not yet abandoned but potentially convertible in the past, that is, prepared for the passenger experience. Armed with an arsenal of recording technologies, we create memories for ourselves. The present has no chance. Born old, it is about to pass away, and the moment it is presented (or re-presented) before our perception and cognition, it is no longer present.

Passengers, passing with and as time passes, can be divided into two groups unrelated to conventional classes. The former strive to pass time (of a journey or of a life); the second attempt to Craft time for various occupations. I take note of this division without implying any positive or negative value judgment on either group, between which we all alternate according to circumstances. Those simply wishing to pass the time may not be particularly productive or alert, as they nap on board or resort to anything that might dull their senses and drown them out. . . what? The evidence of time as such, with which we are constantly bombarded in our role as passengers. To pass time in passing time is to let oneself be carried away — not only by the means of transport one uses, but also by duration, by the seemingly endless lengthening of a passage from A to B. Zeno’s paradoxes exemplify that glimmer of awareness that we try to forget the moment it strikes us, passengers, with all its disconcerting power.

According to the so-called paradox of the dichotomy, “however close the mobile is to a given point, it will always have to cover half of it, then half, and so on without limit before arriving there” (Aristotle, “Physics”, VI). Suppose your bus is less than 100 meters from a stop. He will first have to cover half of this distance (i.e. 50 meters), and half of this half (i.e. 25 meters), and so on, before reaching stopping, if ever. Infinity hides in a finite period; each journey lasts an eternity. Duration is persistence. If spending time as a passenger is like spending an eternity, a life sentence numbered on each bus trip, then why not spend this time in complete oblivion of its passage?

In another of Zeno’s paradoxes, the super-fast runner Achille can never outrun a turtle. Why? Because “the slowest will never be caught up in his race by the fastest, insofar as, from a given instant, the pursuer, before being able to catch up with the pursued, must reach the point from which the pursued is left at that instant, and thus the slowest will always have a certain distance ahead of the fastest. Assuming you are traveling in a horse-drawn carriage that leaves a station five minutes before a high-speed train, the train will never catch up with the horse, because by the time it reaches a mark, the horse will have already passed, the animal will have a little more advanced compared to the mechanical means of transport, and still To infinity. For Zeno, a horse goes faster than a train from the point of view of human thought which decomposes the line of movement into an infinity of points. Spending time on a trip means abandoning yourself to the inevitable lag of our latest technologies vis-à-vis the speed and demands of thought.

Passengers who want to do nothing more than have a trip with the least awareness react to having too much time put on them. Those who, in a caffeine-saturated state, find it difficult to find time for work or “active rest” react to chronic lack of time. These two types of passengers go together in a strange combination that slips infinity into finitude. In a dance of figure and ground, to pass the time which apparently refuses to end is to bring infinity to the fore, while to make time which ostensibly passes before having it at our disposal. , is to focus on the finished. On the one hand, we pass the time which passes slowly, almost motionless; on the other, we experience time itself as flowing ineluctably, the moment entirely swallowed up by the past before it could make itself known. This is the temporal scheme of the passenger, the impassible engine of today.


Michael Marder is Ikerbasque professor-researcher at the Department of Philosophy of the University of the Basque Country (UPV-EHU). He is the author, among others, of “The Philosopher’s Plant: An Intellectual Herbarium”, (Columbia University Press), “Dump Philosophy: A Phenomenology of Devastation” (Bloomsbury) and “Philosophy for Passengers”, from which this article is taken.

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