Time Deconstructed | Augustine: Extension of the Mind

In the article on the Stoic philosopher Seneca, we analysed an ethical or practical take on time. He characterised it as the only possession man can have. Time appeared to be the place of the dispersal of human life. But what is time?

Do we perceive it passively as something external?

The most profound things are the most common – they make us wonder when we stop receiving them and attempt to perceive. Time is one of them. Everyday life greatly depends on the notion of time and its application. The notion comes from everyday experience, but it should be refined in order to be able to contemplate over profound questions.

We will examine in the article how Augustine reconstructs the way the concept of time appeared out of the human experience. One can say that eventually he does not give a definition of time, yet, as we believe, he intimates what that is, and also shows the activity of consciousness with its three acts in the construction with the prominent role of memory as that which makes time extended.

Augustine: Extension of the Mind

Phenomenal consciousness does not know that in everyday activity, it operates within the universal called ‘time.’ Time appears to it as an object (an image of a line where the point of the present is ever moving further). It takes the division into the past, present, and future for granted as if it discovered it by chance. However, the negative point that has ever disappearing moments in itself is a universal, that is, the now. Consciousness needs to give the now an extension to speak comprehensively about it. When the extension is provided, where and by which time will be measured if it proved itself to be, in experience, only a disappearing point? To answer all these questions, Augustine reconsiders the givens.

Immediately we notice that the future and the past are not present, and, consequently, out of existence. The present would be a good candidate for existence; however, it cannot be experienced at all for it has not extension (praesens … nullum habet spatium)1: whatever is grasped is already the past, and whatever is awaited for is the future.

But we feel time. How can we experience it as extended, short or long? The past and future cannot be long since the former is not and the latter will be; so there is only the present which is left. Ordinarily, time is presented as centuries, years, months, days, hours, minutes, and seconds. However, any of them is not the immediate present, they are universals containing what is not. The real present, devoid of those non-existents, would be something fleeting and non-perceivable2, indivisible, and for that reason immeasurable. And yet we perceive the intervals of time (et tamen … sentimus intervalla temporum)3. Where are all they contained? Augustine shows that is it senseless to talk about the moments of time without taking consciousness into consideration:4

At any rate it is now quite clear that neither future nor past actually exists. Nor is it right to say there are three times, past, present and future. Perhaps it would be more correct to say: there are three times, a present of things past, a present of things present, a present of things future. For these three exist in the mind, and I find them nowhere else: the present of things past is memory, the present of things present is sight, the present of things future is expectation. If we are allowed to speak thus, I see and admit that there are three times, that three times truly are.

However, just because Augustine talks about subjectivity here, it is not that unessential and accidental ordinary mind. The real mind bears necessity with it: its measurement of time is universal. So, he inquires about the possibility of it:5

But how do we measure time present, since it has no extent? It is measured while it is passing; once it has passed, it cannot be measured, for then nothing exists to measure. 

But where does time come from, and by what way does it pass, and where does it go, while we are measuring it? Where is it from?—obviously from the future. By what way does it pass?—by the present. Where does it go?—into the past. In other words it passes from that which does not yet exist, by way of that which lacks extension, into that which is no longer.

Therefore, we can neither measure time by the non-existents or by the non-extended. And yet we measure and say that something is longer or shorter or the same. Here the consciousness can appear that believes the answer is easy: we derive a notion of time from the movement of bodies (of the planets, more precisely) and, therefore, measure it by that movement. Augustine sets himself to disprove such a belief. He asks that if time is the movement of those bodies upwards, why then not of those downwards also? Thus, time would depend on the movement and stillness of bodies. He wants to know the nature of time by which we measure the movement of bodies.

He gives an example. The Sun goes from East to East, and this constitutes the day. Our day includes in itself the day itself and the night, that is 24 hours. Since a day is formed by this movement, then a day either the movement itself, or the time it takes, or both. In the first case, we would run into dependency or relativity of a day, if the sun has made its course within some other duration. In the second, the movement would not matter at all; we would not have an objective measurement. That is, 24 fours, or any casual number whatsoever, would dictate what day is. The Sun would have to go round as many times as needed to complete one day. The third possibility creates interdependency, where the change in one would change the other: what if the planet would move faster or slower, or stand still but the hours would still pass?

Looking closer, we will notice that our measurement does not depend completely on the perception of the external world for daylight may be shorter or longer, nights (darkness) may not come, and yet we count that as the day. Moreover, we measure stillness as well. We create first a framework of stability in consciousness and then apply it to phenomena. Thus, we can’t depend on the external or perceptual to find out what time is. However, time is not subjective as well. We do not decide by chance the passage of time. It goes whether we want it or not. Thus, we intuit both the interiority of time and its necessity, we intuit that there is some correspondence between subjective and objective, and only this unity can be time.

Not being completely aware of what time is we can still measure it. Augustine wants to know if with measuring the movement of a body, time itself measured. Would it be possible? And through what? All external means are relative. What does give time its concreteness? What is, again, time?:6

… what am I measuring, when I say either, with no aim at precision, that one period is longer than the other, or, precisely, that one is double the other? That I measure time, I know. But I do not measure the future, for it is not yet; nor the present, for it is not extended in space; nor the past, which no longer exists. So what do I measure? Is it time in passage but not past?

Thus, time is measured only in the present, which is unrestful. Time in passing is stretched over some space of it. The present itself occupies no space. Moreover, we can state the exact length of some process only when it has ceased to be7. Where is the process itself stored? In the example of Augustine – speech intervals, be they long or short, are not present to each other to compare them. Once a sound is completed, it is out of existence, and yet only what is complete can be measured and compared. Passing existents are engraved in memory, and that is what is measured8.

Time is measured in the mind

Augustine asks not to bring disorderly affections that try to prove otherwise. Things in passing is impressed on the mind, and the impress is measured:9

It is in you, O my mind, that I measure time. Do not bring against me, do not bring against yourself the disorderly throng of your impressions. In you, I say, I measure time. What I measure is the impress produced in you by things as they pass and abiding in you when they have passed: and it is present. I do not measure the things themselves whose passage produced the impress; it is the impress that I measure when I measure time. Thus either that is what time is, or I am not measuring time at all.

The mind is active in the measurement and is independent of impressions: it can measure silences and compare them within itself with what would be the uttered sound. That is, what is impressed and imagined to be may be realised in the future. Thus, the mind decides what can be in its free act. And moreover, the mind has its representation not piecemeal as it would be in physical reality, but wholly and at once present. Whatever is represented as a whole is the whole exactly because it is the whole of the mind.

In the act of attention, there seems to be the past growing through consumption of the future. But how does anything grow when it is not, or consumed? When it is not yet, and the present has no extension? The present is the attention:10

But there is a present act of attention, by which what was future passes on its way to becoming past.

Thus, if the present is the act of the mind, then the past and the future should be also:11

But how is the future diminished or exhausted, since the future does not yet exist: or how does the past grow, since it no longer is? Only because, in the mind which does all this, there are three acts. For the mind expects, attends and remembers: what it expects passes, by way of what it attends to, into what it remembers … Thus it is not the future that is long, for the future does not exist: a long future is merely a long expectation of the future; nor is the past long since the past does not exist: a long past is merely a long memory of the past.

Hence, Augustine interprets time as the extension of the mind itself, with its three acts: expectation, attention, and memory.

In a sense, Augustine reconstructs the concept of time as it was worked out through the experience of man. In this, he pays heed to the activity of consciousness which through its three acts builds the “now” into time (now disappears all the time, but it is as present as it will be). Surely, there is the change in the world, but that change need not be time – time, instead, is the extension of the mind that grasps the change.

At first, the experience was to realise the change; then to conceptualise; and finally, it became appropriate to recognise the active subjectivity in that construction, what Augustine, thus, did.

On a level of man’s life, Augustine wanted us to be not dispersed or scattered but extended with the intention and not scattering (… non distentus, sed extentus, non secundum distentionem, sed secundum intentionem …)12. In other words, there should be a center out of which we stretch forth and come back (concentrate) while conducting life. That is, the mind can be either dispersed or collected, lose itself in the images, or be self-present in its acts. We can fathom that the difference here is between consciousness and self-consciousness, with the former not knowing its own activity and affected by things. Only an active mind, systematically ridding itself of a habit to support its knowledge with illusory signs (things) can grasp the true.


Augustine. Confessions XI / Confessions (Second Edition). Sheed, F. J., Augustine. Hackett Publishing, 2007.

Augustinus Hipponensis. Confessiones. Liber Undecimus // Migne, J.-P., acc. (1887) Patrologiae cursus completus: Series Latina. T. 32. Parisiis.

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  1. Confessiones XI, XV–20 PL 32, 0816.
  2. Augustine uses the verb ‘sentire’ which can mean to feel, perceive, observe, notice.
  3. Confessiones XI, XVI–21 PL 32, 0817.
  4. Quod autem nunc liquet et claret, nec futura sunt nec praeterita, nec proprie dicitur: tempora sunt tria, praeteritum, praesens et futurum, sed fortasse proprie diceretur: tempora sunt tria, praesens de praeteritis, praesens de praesentibus, praesens de futuris. Sunt enim haec in anima tria quaedam et alibi ea non video, praesens de praeteritis memoria, praesens de praesentibus contuitus, praesens de futuris expectatio. Si haec permittimur dicere, tria tempora video fateorque, tria sunt. [Sheed 2007, 246–7 / Confessiones XI XX–26 PL 32, 0819].
  5. Praesens vero tempus quomodo metimur, quando non habet spatium? Metimur ergo, cum praeterit, cum autem praeterierit, non metitur; quid enim metiatur, non erit. Sed unde et qua quo praeterit, cum metitur? Unde nisi ex futuro? Qua nisi per praesens? Quo nisi in praeteritum? Ex illo ergo, quod nondum est, per illud, quod spatio caret, in illud, quod iam non est. [Sheed 2007, 247 / Confessiones XI, XXI–27 PL 32, 0819].
  6. Quid enim metior … et dico aut indefinite: «Longius est hoc tempus quam illud» aut etiam definite: «Duplum est hoc ad illud?» Tempus metior, scio; sed non metior futurum, quia nondum est, non metior praesens, quia nullo spatio tenditur, non metior praeteritum, quia iam non est. Quid ergo metior? An praetereuntia tempora, non praeterita? [Sheed 2007, 252 / Confessiones XI, XXVI–33 PL 32, 0822].
  7. Augustine deals with a sound.
  8. Of course, we allude to memory. A modern man could retort that we can store passing sensual information with current technology. But if there is no mind to interpret that information according to its meaning and extension, what is the use of preservation? If there were no mind at all to attest the length, would it still be objective?
  9. In te, anime meus, tempora metior. Noli mihi obstrepere, quod est: noli tibi obstrepere turbis affectionum tuarum. In te, inquam, tempora metior. Affectionem, quam res praetereuntes in te faciunt et, cum illae praeterierint, manet, ipsam metior praesentem, non ea quae praeterierunt, ut fieret; ipsam metior, cum tempora metior. Ergo aut ipsa sunt tempora, aut non tempora metior [Sheed 2007, 253 / Confessiones XI, XXVII–36 PL 32, 0823].
  10. praesens tamen adest attentio mea, per quam traicitur quod erat futurum, ut fiat praeteritum [Sheed 2007, 254 / Confessiones XI, XXVIII–38 PL 32, 0824].
  11. Sed quomodo minuitur aut consumitur futurum, quod nondum est, aut quomodo crescit praeteritum, quod iam non est, nisi quia in animo, qui illud agit, tria sunt? Nam et expectat et attendit et meminit, ut id quod expectat per id quod attendit transeat in id quod meminerit … Non igitur longum tempus futurum, quod non est, sed longum futurum longa expectatio futuri est, neque longum praeteritum tempus, quod non est, sed longum praeteritum longa memoria praeteriti est. [Sheed 2007, 254 / Confessiones XI, XXVIII–37 PL 32, 0824].
  12. Confessiones XI, XXIX–39 PL 32, 0825.
2 replies on “ Time Deconstructed | Augustine: Extension of the Mind ”
  1. I enjoyed reading your article about Augustine’s take on time. There was a particular passage you wrote that stood out for me, “Surely, there is the change in the world, but that change need not be time – time, instead, is the extension of the mind that grasps the change.” This really drove it home for me and made me think. I also liked reading about Augustine’s notion of being extended with the intention and not scattering.

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