Time, where did you come from, where did you go?


The view of the calendar year, from top to bottom, with months spelled out.

Time flows up and down, or in a circle (a nautilus perhaps); it flows from left to right. Where time comes from, and where it goes, depends on the observer.

Every time I present my work on spatial conceptions of time, I ask students to draw their own examples. Not everyone has an image that comes to mind, but for those that do, there is unlimited variety.

What strikes me most, perhaps, is that so many historians and philosophers of history stand with a simpler linear view of time. They think that time is universal, and that history always moves from left to right at the same rate for everyone. You don’t have to be a specialist in Einstein’s theory of relativity to recognize that we all deal with time in our own ways. There is no such thing as a single timeline of History, with a capital H, containing all that has happened, from some single omniscient point of view. There is no direct path of cause and effect running through this single, simple linear conception of the past.

History, instead, is in the mind of the maker. History is dependent on the views of the person thinking about the past. Our views can be right or wrong, so far as they correspond or fail to correspond with the evidence from the past. But there are always multiple ways, and multiple correct ways, to interpret the past. This is why I am a historical pluralist, standing with those who wish to view the past in new, interesting ways.

By recognizing the diversity of views of time, we become more sympathetic to the ways others see the world, and we become more open and creative to possible ways of representing the past.

Time’s influence is not linear. The events of the past circle back upon us; we backtrack and foreshadow, we go on mental asides to think about other times and places. History is composed of the mystic chords of memory.


Time flowing from upper-left to bottom-right, representing the year and the week.


The history of the world composed in nautilus time.

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