what is the organ for our sense of time?

By skiour / Posted on 27 November 2010

“And how long does that take?” Hans Castorp turned around to ask.

Joachim raised seven fingers.

“Seven minutes must be up by now.”

Joachim shook his head. After a while he took the thermometer out of his mouth, looked at it, and said, “Yes, when you pay close attention to it – time, I mean – it goes very slowly. I truly like measuring my temperature four times a day, because it makes you notice what one minute, or even seven, actually means – especially since the seven days of a week hang so dreadfully heavy on your hands here.”

“You said ‘actually’. But ‘actually’ doesn’t apply,” Hans Castorp responded. He was sitting with one thigh hiked up on the railing; the whites of his eyes were bloodshot. “There is nothing ‘actual’ about time. If it seems long to you, then it is long, and if it seems to pass quickly, then it’s short. But how long or how short it is in actuality, no one knows.” He was not at all used to philosophizing, and yet felt some urge to do so.

Joachim contested this. “Why is that? No. We do measure it. We have clocks and calenders, and when a month has passed, then it’s passed – for you and me and everyone.”

“But wait,” Hans Castorp said, holding up a forefinger next to one bloodshot eye. “You said that a minute is as long as it seems to you while you’re measuring your temperature, correct?”

“A minute is as long as… it lasts, as long as it takes a second hand to complete a circle.”

“But how long that takes can vary greatly – according to how we feel it! And in point of fact… I repeat, in point of fact,” Hans Castorp said, pressing his forefinger so firmly against his nose that its tip was folded to one side, “that’s a matter of motion, of motion in space. But that is the same thing as trying to measure space with time – the way uneducated people do. It’s twenty hours from Hamburg to Davos – true, by train. But on foot, how far is it then? And in our minds – not even a second!”

“Listen here,” Joachim said, what’s wrong with you? I think being up here with us is getting to you.”

White Creep painting by Peter Doig, 1995-1996

White Creep by Peter Doig, 1995-1996. Oil on canvas.

“Just be quiet. My mind is very clear today. So then, what is time?” Hans Castorp asked, bending the tip of his nose so forcefully to one side that it turned white and bloodless. “Will you please tell me that? We perceive space with our senses, with vision and touch. But what is the organ for our sense of time? Would you please tell me that? You see, you’re stuck. But how are we ever going to measure something about which, precisely speaking, we know nothing at all – cannot list a single one of its properties. We say time passes. Fine, let it pass for all I care. But in order to measure it… no, wait! In order for it to be measurable, it would have to flow evenly, but where is it written that it does that? It doesn’t do that for our conscious minds, we simply assume it does, just for the sake of convenience. And so all our measurements are merely conventions, if you please.”

The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann


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