The best books about time and its impact on human existence

Yael Lin Author Of The Intersubjectivity of Time: Levinas and Infinite Responsibility
By Yael Lin

Who am I?

I have time, save time, spend time, waste time, write, and teach time. I am fascinated with the question of time both as a cosmological phenomenon and as an aspect that is inseparable from our existence. I channeled this fascination into a PhD dissertation, books, and articles examining the relationship between time and human existence. But like Saint Augustine, I am still baffled by the question of time and like him: "If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it …, I do not know."


I wrote...

The Intersubjectivity of Time: Levinas and Infinite Responsibility

By Yael Lin,

Book cover of The Intersubjectivity of Time: Levinas and Infinite Responsibility

What is my book about?

The essential theme of my research is the deformalization of the notion of time,' asserted Emmanuel Levinas in a 1988 interview, toward the end of his long philosophical career. But while the notion of time is fundamental to the development of every key theme in Levinas's thought - the idea of the infinite, the issue of the alterity of the other, the face of the other, the question of our ethical relations with other people, the role of fecundity, speech and language, and radical responsibility - his view of time remains obscure.

Yael Lin's exhaustive look at Levinas's primary texts, both his philosophical writings and his writings on Judaism, brings together his various perspectives on time. Lin concludes that we can, indeed, extract a coherent and consistent conception of time from Levinas's thought, one that is distinctly political.

The books I picked & why

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Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness

By Henri Bergson,

Book cover of Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness

Why this book?

It is in Bergson's Time and Free Will that I first encountered an inspiring way to think of time. A way of thinking about time that does not focus on the time of clocks and calendars; that does not emphasize the physical homogeneous aspect of time, but rather reveals the relation between time and human existence. This book opened up not only an entirely new way of thinking about time, but a new way of approaching life: instead of focusing on the spatial, static, exterior, homogeneous milestones of life, I rather focus on the temporal, fleeting, inner, heterogeneous qualities of my life. Bergson writes in a relatively clear style, and his texts are accessible also for the interested layperson.

Being and Time

By Martin Heidegger, John MacQuarrie (translator), Edward S. Robinson (translator)

Book cover of Being and Time

Why this book?

In Being and Time Heidegger shifts his inquiry from the traditional question 'what is time?' to the question of temporality: 'what does it mean to be as time?' Like Bergson before him, Heidegger considers time as closely tied with human existence. But, for him time is not an internal experience of the consciousness, but rather includes aspects of our existence in the world. I am particularly inspired by his interpretation that goes against our intuitive common view of time where it is closely linked with cosmology, but at the same time offers a view of temporality that is compelling and captivating.

Otherwise Than Being or Beyond Essence

By Emmanuel Levinas,

Book cover of Otherwise Than Being or Beyond Essence

Why this book?

The notion of time appears in many of Levinas's articles and books, but Otherwise than Being offers the most profound view. I was troubled by Bergson's and Heidegger's focus on the time of the individual, and their reduction of collective time to a vulgar, inauthentic, unreal experience. I found an answer to this discomfort in Levinas's view of time as inter-subjective. For him, time is not exterior to the subject (like the traditional view of time) nor tied with the individual, but rather is an experience in-between myself and the Other. Time is created when I am interrupted by the Other. This approach is challenging in the context of Levinas's ethical views as well as raises various questions regarding the relation between Levinas's view and our intuitive understanding of time.

The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality

By Brian Greene,

Book cover of The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality

Why this book?

The question "what is time" troubles not only physicists and philosophers, but also captivates every human. The Fabric of the Cosmos offers a lucid examination of time (and space) that is accessible to the layperson. The book focuses on the notion of time from a cosmological perspective and explores questions from the realm of physics and philosophy. This book offered me ways to address questions that perplex me, such as: relative time and absolute time; whether time flows; whether time has a direction; the relation between quantum mechanics and time.

Collected Fictions

By Jorge Luis Borges, Andrew Hurley (translator),

Book cover of Collected Fictions

Why this book?

Time plays an explicit or implicit role in numerous of Borges's texts. Through his essays and fiction, he explores questions such as the possibility of changing the past, the direction of time, Zeno's paradoxes, etc. For me, The Secret Miracle is especially fascinating, since in many ways it offers a concrete manifestation of Bergson's philosophy. The protagonist experiences two different types of time: the internal time of consciousness and the external cosmological time. Through his experiences, we face questions such as: Does each one of us experiences time differently? What is the relation between exterior cosmological time and interior subjective time? What is the relation between time and change?

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