- Tragic Time: The Problem of the Future in Cambridge Philosophy and To the Lighthouse
But for all their vagueness, for all their lack of definition, these controlling presences, these sources of power, these things with an inner life, with their own richness of content, these beings, with the destiny of the world hidden in their natures, are what we want to know about. As we cross a road busy with traffic, we see the colours of their occupants; but at the moment we are absorbed in using this immediate show as a symbol for the forces determining the immediate future.—Alfred North Whitehead, Symbolism (1927)
It is the business of the future to be dangerous.—Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (1925)
There are two competing aesthetics of temporality in modernism, one “spatialized,” its model of time marked by breaks and often attacked as “static”; the other a celebration of movement and speed. Their points of reference are competing conceptions of time. Recent commentators on British modernism usually have seen both these philosophies as continental. Leaving aside Martin Heidegger, whose Sein und Zeit (1927 [Being and time]), while certainly one important expression of the period’s preoccupation with time, was not a direct influence on any of the modernists writing in English, the two currents are generally attached to Hegelianism and Bergsonism, [End Page 43] respectively. Critics have had little to say about any specifically British philosophies of time and any controversies about time in England in the first decades of this century. 1 Yet an immersion in the intellectual life of the period leads to the discovery of a debate about time that counterposes two British philosophies of time, both equally hostile to Bergson. One is Hegelian and the other, while anti-Hegelian, could be said to incorporate important features of Hegelian idealism in the cause of a new realism. In particular, it relates a spatialized and seemingly still time to a theory of change. The locus of the debate was Cambridge; its protagonists were largely members of the Cambridge Apostles, the philosophical society that included Alfred North Whitehead, G. E. Moore, Bertrand Russell and, briefly, Ludwig Wittgenstein. The young Apostle John Maynard Keynes, who had attended J. M. McTaggart’s lectures, delivered a paper on “Time” to the Society in 1903. 2 The Apostles included Roger Fry, Lytton Strachey, Leonard Woolf, and E. M. Forster, which suggests that this time-thinking may have had repercussions beyond the immediate circle of Cambridge philosophy.
To the extent that one can claim the existence of a coherent Cambridge philosophy of time, it developed as part of the project Moore called in 1903 “The Refutation of Idealism,” for there were British Hegelians, the most preeminent of which was Oxford’s F. H. Bradley. The Apostle J. M. McTaggart, “the idealist philosopher Cambridge took seriously,” 3 had, like Bradley, maintained that time is unreal, which Moore found “a perfectly monstrous proposition.” 4 McTaggart had published “The Unreality of Time” in Mind in 1908, but 1927 saw the publication of Sein und Zeit as well as the posthumous appearance of McTaggart’s account of time in The Nature of Existence. 5 It coincided with a series of publications at least partly addressing the subject of time in the wake of Einstein’s general theory of relativity: Whitehead’s The Principle of Relativity (1922), C. D. Broad’s Scientific Thought (1923), Jean Nicod’s La Geométrie dans le monde sensible (1923), and Arthur Eddington’s Mathematical Theory of Relativity (1926). 6 1927 was also the publication date of Russell’s The Analysis of Matter, partly delivered at Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1926. The debate generated interest beyond the philosophical world. Leonard Woolf asked Russell in 1926 to review Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World (1925) for The Nation and Athenaeum, as he had asked him to review Broad’s The Mind and Its Place in Nature; both reviews discuss time. 7 Wyndham Lewis’s idiosyncratic Time and Western Man (1927) on what Lewis calls “contemporary time-philosophy” likewise registers these wider repercussions, as does Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, his 1927 Clark lectures also given at Trinity...