Gurevich (1976). Time as a problem of cultural history.

Gurevich, A. J. (1976). Time as a problem of cultural history. In L. Gardet (Ed.), Cultures And Time (pp. 229-245). Paris: UNESCO Press.

“Representations of time are essential components of social consciousness, whose structure reflects the rhythms and cadences which mark the evolution of society and culture.” (p 229)

“Every civilization perceives the world through language and other semiotic systems peculiar to itself (the ‘languages’ of art, religion, science, etc.), systems which are formed in the course of men’s practical activity, on the basis of their own experience and of the tradition inherited from preceding generations.” (p 229)

“… perception and apperception of time …” (p 229)

“Time and space are seen as abstractions which alone make it possible to form the image of a unified cosmos, to conceive the idea of a single, coherent universe. In the modern age, these categories have acquired an autonomous character, and they can be used as instruments without reference to specific events of which they are absolutely independent. Time, in our minds, is linked not so much to the phenomena which occur in time as to the instruments by which the passage of time is measured. Having mastered time, having, that is to say, learned to measure time and divide it up with great precision, to save it and to spend it, man finds himself, at the same time, a slave to it.” (p 230)

“… other epochs. … Consciousness perceives the world simultaneously in its synchronic and diachronic totality, and is thus ‘in temporal’. An event which took place before and one taking place now can, in certain circumstances, be perceived by the archaic consciousness as phenomena situated on the same plane, occurring in the same temporal duration.” (p 230)

“In this society, time does not proceed in linear fashion from the past to the future; it is either immobile or cyclical. That which has already been returns at fixed intervals. This cyclical conception of the apperception of time, which is also found much later, in a new form, and in far more evolved social systems, is linked in large measure to the fact that man has not freed himself from nature and his consciousness is subordinated to the periodical changes of the seasons.” (p 231)

“The very nature of this society makes its capacity for change extremely limited, and its stability can only be guaranteed by a rigid and total control mechanism. The idea of the eternal recurrence of time forms part of this mechanism. The individual, like time, is not unique of his kind. … With the myth of the renewal of time, archaic culture gave man the possibility of transcending the briefness and oneness of his life.” (p 231)

“But the future also participates in the present: man can look into it and exercise a magic influence on it; and from this stem fortune-telling, soothsaying, prophetic dreams and also the belief in fate.” (p 232)

“The world, in the representation of the ancients, emerged complete from the hands of the creator, the past and the future existing in the present.” (p 233)

“… the Renaissance, which marks the transition to a new conception of the world and a new apperception of man by himself (individualism and a body ‘withdrawn’, ‘isolated’ from the world).18” (p 234)

“Christianity, breaking with the pagans’ cyclical vision of the world,20 took from the Old Testament the notion of time experienced as an eschatological process, a fervent waiting for the great event in which history is fulfilled — the coming of the Messiah.” (p 234)

“Then secondly, historical time acquires a definite structure, being clearly subdivided both quantitatively and above all qualitatively, into two main epochs, before and after Christ. … Thus the new apperception of time is based on three decisive moments: the beginning, the apogee and the end of the human race.” (p 235)

“The interpretation of the history of the earth as the history of the salvation of mankind has given it a new dimension.” (p 235)

“But good and evil are not impersonal, cosmic forces; they are rooted in man himself, and to ensure the triumph of good in his soul and in history, man’s free will is necessary.” (p 236)

“Man must be prepared at any moment to die and appear before the Creator; his attitude to time and eternity was thus specific, immediate and personal. Time became an essential aspect of his spiritual life, an integral part of consciousness. Is not this psychologization of time linked to the general ‘dematerialization’ of the world by Christianity, and is it not a reaction against the ancient pagan corporeal and physical perception of the world?” (p 237)

“Time was thought of in terms of time in man’s life, having no existence outside; the mind of the peasant was incapable of seeing beyond the implacable rhythms of nature. Throughout the whole of the Middle Ages, people believed indefectibly in fate, and in the ability of certain persons to foresee the future, prophesy and influence the course of time by magic means.” (p 237)

“The lives of the saints, which are the form of biography most typical of the Middle Ages, usually say nothing about man’s progress towards saintliness: either the hero is converted suddenly, passing immediately and without preparation from a state of sin to saintliness; or else saintliness is given in advance, and is only revealed gradually. Since man did not perceive his own essence in terms of the categories of development, he could clearly [page break] not regard the world as a process.” (p 237-238)

“It is no less significant that the portrait was long neglected in mediaeval painting. … De-concretization is the reverse of a-temporality. Man did not see himself as existing in time; existence for him meant being and not a process of becoming. But a portrait depicts one of the numerous states of man in concrete space and time.” (p 238)

“Social time is an important element of the mechanism of social control, which is wielded by the ruling class.” (p 239)

“In the Middle Ages, the Church was mistress of social time. … The population was informed of the passage of time by the church bells summoning them to matins, mass, vespers and so on. … The total control exercised over social time led to the subjugation of man to the ruling social and ideological system. Time for the individual was not his own individual time, it belonged not to him, but to a higher, dominating force.” (p 239)

“Ecclesiastical time could remain preponderant so long as it corresponded to the slow, measured rhythm of the life of feudal society. … In the Middle Ages, there was no need to make the most of time and save it, to measure it exactly and know its minutest intervals.” (p 240)

“The production cycles of the craftsman were not determined by the alternation of the seasons. Whereas the farmer was directly dependent on the cycle of nature, from which he could never completely escape, the town-dwelling craftsman had more complex and contradictory relations with nature, from which he had sundered himself by creating an artificial milieu constituted by the various tools of his trade and by a variety of devices and mechanisms … Man saw himself as the independent creator of his own artificial world, distinct from the world of nature.” (p 240)

“Work came to be measured by time (or more precisely the clock), which acquired great importance, becoming an essential factor of production.” (p 241)

“Hence its qualitative determination: it could be either ‘good’ or ‘bad’, sacred or profane. The notion of a time of unspecified quality, neutral as to content and unconnected with those who experience it and lend it emotional tone, was, in general, alien to the consciousness of the men of antiquity and the Middle Ages.” (p 241)

“Time for the first time, and for good, ‘extended’ in a straight line, from the past to the future, passing through a point called the present. … Man for the first time discovered that time, whose passing he had noted only in relation to events, did not cease even in the absence of events.” (p 242)

“Time was seen as a thing of great value and a source of material values. Manifestly, the significance of time was increasingly realized as the individual became aware of himself, and began to see himself not as a generic being but a unique individuality, a person situated in a specific temporal context and exercising his capacities in the limited span of life allotted to him. … But it is true also that it was precisely in the town that man ceased to be master of time, for time, being now free to pass by independently of man and events, established its tyranny, to which men are constrained to submit.” (p 242)

“During the pre-capitalist era, time was always local. There was not a single scale of time for wide expanses of territory, not to say States or whole regions. … But inherent in this new way of determining time was the possibility of unifying it, and with the responsibility for measuring time passing to the State, the State began to proclaim its time as the only true time and impose it on all its subjects. Local time was split up, while nation-wide — and subsequently zonal — time became a means of intensifying relations.” (p 243)

“We have seen that, in primitive societies and the civilizations of antiquity, as also among certain non-European peoples, the predominant concept of time was not vectorial but cyclical, engendered by another style of life, by a particular view of the world and a certain type of personality preponderant in society.” (p 243)

Selected References

  • 18. M. M. Bakhtin, Tvorcestvo Fransua Rable i Narodnaja Kultura Srednevekov’ja i Renessansa [The work of François Rabelais and Popular Culture during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance], Moscow, 1965. (French trans.: L’Oeuvre de François Rabelais et la Culture Populaire au Moyen Age et sous la Renaissance, Paris, 1970).
  • 20. St Augustine, De Civ. Dei, XII, 13, 17.
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