Emily Thomas, Absolute Time: Rifts in Early Modern British Metaphysics, Oxford University Press, 2018, 236pp., $61.00 (hbk), ISBN 9780198807933.
Reviewed by Douglas Jesseph (University of South Florida) in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews.
Philosophers have long been concerned with the nature of time, and quite a number of seventeenth-century British thinkers theorized on the subject in some detail. Emily Thomas proposes to guide the reader through “the development of absolute time during one of Britain’s richest and most creative metaphysical periods, from the 1640s to the 1730s” (p. 1). The result is a book that contains some significant insights into the philosophy of time in Early Modern Britain, but is ultimately unsatisfying. Part of the problem lies with the scope of authors and doctrines considered. Newton’s Principia is scarcely considered (although his enigmatic unpublished essay “De Gravitatione et Equiponderatione Fluidorum” merits a chapter). Further, the views of Thomas Hobbes and George Berkeley are left out of this developmental story for the odd reason that the current extent of scholarship on their doctrines makes the consideration of their views otiose (p. 5). Despite the fact that notable topics and authors are left out of the story Thomas tells, her book does have the virtue of bringing attention to some hitherto neglected authors.
Thomas discerns four different approaches to the philosophy of time in seventeenth-century British philosophy (pp. 7-9). Those who deny that time is anything at all are deemed adherents of the “void theory”; Thomas assigns Anthony Collins and William Wollaston to this group. Assuming that the world has a temporal structure, one might opt for “idealism” or the doctrine that time consists of “abstract, mind-dependent relations” (a view Thomas attributes to Hobbes, Edmund Law, Isaac Watts, and Berkeley). Those who opt for “realism” about time agree that it is independent of all forms of mental activity, but this group subdivides into “absolutists” who take time to be independent of the actions of material bodies, and “relationalists” who identify time with the motions of bodies or some sort of relations holding among them. Thomas’s concern in the book is almost exclusively with the debate between absolutists and relationalists. The issue separating the two theories can be phrased in terms of the coherence of the notion of temporal vacua: could there be a stretch of time in which literally nothing happens, aside from the mere passage of time? Absolutists agree that such vacua are conceptually possible, where relationalists deny such a possibility.
The book’s ten chapters are arranged chronologically. The first offers what Thomas terms a “Cook’s Tour” through the philosophy of time from Antiquity through Descartes, and then attempts to summarize competing approaches to time in early seventeenth-century British philosophy. The second chapter is devoted to Henry More’s absolutist conception of time, and the third is concerned with the absolutism of Pierre Gassendi and its further elaboration by Walter Charleton and Jean Baptiste von Helmont. Chapter four examines Isaac Barrow’s treatment of space and time, while the fifth chapter summarizes early British reactions to temporal absolutism. The sixth chapter is a study of time in Newton’s “De Gravitatione.” Chapter seven makes the case for reading John Locke as a “steadfast relationalist” about space and time. The last three chapters examine late seventeenth and early eighteenth century British reactions to spatio-temporal absolutism.
For the complete review, including a discussion of Thomas’ treatment of Henry More on time, see here.