Penn Humanities Forum on Time

Topic Director: Holly Pittman
Professor, History of Art

Time is one of humanity’s most perplexing and challenging concepts. What is time? Is it a universal concept? Is it uniquely human? Will there ever be a unified theory, or must we accept time as an ever changing notion shaped by physical and cultural contexts?

Early in the 20th century, scientific ideas of time were turned completely on their head. Newton's prevailing belief that time was unchanging and objective, an ether surrounding events, suddenly gave way to Einstein’s theory that time does not flow equally without relation to anything external. Instead, time came to assume the full historical nature of particular moments. Like space, time was relative to the speed of light.

But time is not only a problem for science. Uniquely for humans, time pervades every experience, every environment, every action. While all life and indeed all matter exists in time, only humans struggle with it. Only humans divide experience into past, present, and future, or before and after. Only humans remember long distant events. Only humans project events into the future. Only humans struggle with the myriad irresolvable dualities presented by our ability to "know" time.

All humans measure time, beginning, no doubt, as observations on the regularity of change, both internal—the beating of the heart—and external, the rising of the sun. But only in the West has time been categorized, commodified, controlled, and measured down to the nanosecond. In the last 200 years, social time, or the time needed for a message to travel from sender to receiver has been reduced to almost nothing. Around the world in eighty days can now be accomplished physically by any one of us in a matter of hours. And, a message, an image, or a virtual experience can be sent and received almost instantaneously.

How will this collapse of time affect humans and the world—or worlds—we inhabit? Will it alter the ways in which we experience time? Will it lead to new creative solutions or spiritual and physical dilemmas?

Humans, and especially humanists, must approach time from multiple directions. No one discipline, philosophy, science or experience can adequately describe the ever increasing complexity of time. Only by coming together and crossing boundaries can the limits of our understanding and feelings about time expand, like the universe, ever faster.

How does history, a backbone of the humanities, use time, and how does that affect the story told? Time has pervaded literature since antiquity: heroes struggle with mortality, seek immortality; stories, poems, and drama play with simultaneous, reversed, and experienced time. The visual arts and especially music have time at their very essence.

What are some of the millions of ways we use time to express emotions, thoughts, intuitions?

The construction of the past, the structure of memory, the physics and metaphysics of time, the measurement of time, the social construction of time, the temporal art of music, the biology of time, and especially the inevitable fact of life, aging, and death, all are subjects the Penn Humanities Forum explores through lectures, exhibits, movies, musical programs, literary readings and more.

When was the past, how is the now, and what will the future be? These only begin to sample its rich and open-ended potential.