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WHY DOES ARISTOTLE SAY THAT THERE

IS NO TIME WITHOUT CHANGE?

by Ursula Coope

A ristotle famously claims that there is no time without


change. Bill Newton-Smith, in his book The Structure of
Time, refers to this claim as ‘Aristotle’s principle’.1 Sidney Shoe-
maker begins his article ‘Time without Change’ with a discussion
of Aristotle’s argument for this claim.2 But what is Aristotle’s
argument? Why does he think that there is no time without
change? In this paper I shall argue that this is something modern
interpreters have misunderstood.
In claiming that there is no time without change, Aristotle is
standardly taken to be assuming a kind of verificationism about
time. On this standard interpretation, Aristotle starts from the
premise that it is impossible to know that time has passed with-
out knowing that there has been some change and argues, on the
basis of this, that there is no time without change. As Shoemaker
puts it, Aristotle’s argument ‘seems to be that time involves
change because the awareness, or realisation, that an interval of
time has elapsed necessarily involves the awareness of changes
occurring during that interval’.3 Richard Sorabji, endorsing this
interpretation, says, ‘Aristotle here moves from an epistemologi-
cal premise (we notice time, when and only when we notice
change) to an ontological conclusion (time does not exist without
change).’ 4 He adds that, in order to defend the argument, we
need to supply Aristotle with ‘some sort of verificationist prem-
ise, either that it is meaningless or that it is false to postulate
undetectable times’.5 I shall argue that this standard interpret-
ation of Aristotle is mistaken. Aristotle is not making a verifi-
cationist assumption at the start of his account of time. Instead,

1. Newton-Smith (1980: 14).


2. Shoemaker (1969: 363–368).
3. Shoemaker (1969: 365–366).
4. Sorabji (1983: 74).
5. Sorabji (1983: 75). Compare Edward Hussey (1993: 142): Aristotle’s argument
‘seems to require the extra premiss that all lapse of time is perceptible’.
360 URSULA COOPE

he is reasoning in an altogether different and much more reco-


gnisably Aristotelian way. On my interpretation, Aristotle thinks
that the belief that there is no time without change is a belief
that is presupposed in our ordinary thinking about time. Because
of this, he thinks that it is reasonable, in an inquiry into the
nature of time, to start out by assuming that this belief is true.
If my interpretation is right, then this section of the Physics
sheds an interesting light on Aristotelian method. In particular,
it shows how Aristotle was prepared to use a certain kind of
common belief as a basis for physical inquiry.
In the first section of this paper, I show that the standard ‘veri-
ficationist’ interpretation is seriously flawed. In the second sec-
tion, I defend my alternative interpretation. I end with some brief
remarks about the relevance of my interpretation to questions
about Aristotelian method.

I
Against the ûerificationist interpretation. Aristotle discusses the
relationship between time and change in Physics IV 11, 218b21–
219a10. He says that he is going to start out his enquiry into the
nature of time by assuming that time is something essentially
related to change (219a2–3).6 This assumption is reasonable, he
thinks, because time and change cannot exist apart from each
other: there is no time without change and no change without
time. In support of this claim, he points out that we think that
time has passed if and only if we think there has been change.
As I have said, this argument is usually thought to rest on an
assumption that there can be no undetectable passage of time.
This standard interpretation has two main weaknesses. In this
section, I shall discuss each of these weaknesses in turn.
The first weakness is that, on the standard interpretation, some
of Aristotle’s remarks seem strangely beside the point. As the
standard interpretation would lead one to expect, Aristotle
claims in this passage that we are aware that time has passed only
when we are aware that there has been some change (218b21–27,
218b29–32, 219a7–8). But he also claims that we think that there

6. He says that time is tês kinêseôs ti, literally ‘something of change’. He takes this
to mean that the definition of time (the account of what time is) will make reference
to change.
ARISTOTLE: THERE IS NO TIME WITHOUT CHANGE 361

has been a change only when we think that time has passed
(218b32–3, 219a3–6). On the standard interpretation, this second
claim seems to have no role in Aristotle’s argument.7 There is no
plausible verificationist premise that might allow us to use this
second claim to reach a conclusion about the relation between
time and change.
The second weakness in the standard interpretation lies in its
demand that we supply Aristotle with an unstated premise.8 Aris-
totle does not himself say, in the passage with which we are con-
cerned, that there can be no undetectable times. If we are going
to supply him with such a premise, we have to show that there
is some reason to think he would have accepted it.
Edward Hussey has suggested that a later argument of Aris-
totle’s ‘may be an attempt to supply the missing premise’.9
Towards the end of his account of time, Aristotle argues that
time can only exist in a world in which there are animate beings.10
Hussey suggests that we can use this argument to justify the
premise that there are no undetectable times.
However, Aristotle’s later argument cannot provide the sup-
port that Hussey is seeking. In that later argument, Aristotle is
spelling out the consequences of his definition of time as a kind
of number.11 This definition is derived, in part, from his claim
that time is something essentially related to change. But the claim
that time is something essentially related to change is in its turn
supported by his argument that there is no time without change.
It would thus be viciously circular to justify a premise of the
argument that there is no time without change by appealing to a
consequence of his definition of time. That definition presupposes

7. Shoemaker ignores this second claim: ‘The awareness ... that an interval of time
has elapsed necessarily involves the awareness of changes occurring during that inter-
val’ (1969: 365–66). Sorabji is more careful: ‘We notice time when and only when we
notice change’ (1983: 74). But he does not remark on the fact that, on his interpret-
ation, half of this premise seems redundant.
8. In fact, as Sorabji notes (1983: 75), the standard interpretation has to supply two
unstated premises. This is because Aristotle does not actually say that it is impossible
to perceive time without change. One might expect him to make this point explicitly,
if the standard interpretation were right.
9. Hussey (1993: 142).
10. Physics IV 14, 223a21–29.
11. Aristotle defines time as a kind of number of change. He then argues that, since
time is a kind of number, it can only exist in a world in which there are beings with
the capacity to count.
362 URSULA COOPE

that the claim that there is no time without change has already
been established. What Aristotle says in this later argument gives
us, then, no reason to suppose that he is making a verificationist
assumption at the beginning of his account of time.
I have cast some doubt upon the standard interpretation. But
is there a better interpretation to put in its place? I think there
is. In the next section I shall propose an alternative interpretation
and show that it is free from each of the two weaknesses I have
described.

II
An alternatiûe interpretation: ordinary judgements and the starting
points of inquiry. If, as I claim, Aristotle does not make a verifi-
cationist assumption, how does he argue that there is no time
without change? His view, I believe, is that our practices in judg-
ing whether or not time has passed embody certain assumptions
about the relationship between time and change. In making these
judgements we take it for granted that there is no time without
change:
Whenever it seems that a certain time has passed, a certain change
seems to have passed together with it (219a7–8).
When we do not mark any change but the soul seems to remain in
one indivisible, it follows that we think there is no time (218b29–32).

Aristotle thinks that when we make these ordinary judgements


about whether time has passed, we are assuming that there is no
time without change. On his view, the fact that we make this
assumption in our ordinary judgements provides a prima facie
ground for taking it to be true. He concludes that there is no
time without change (218b33–219a1).
This is Aristotle’s argument that there is no time without
change, but it is only part of his argument in the passage as a
whole. In this passage, he is trying to set up a starting point for
his inquiry into time. He wants to start out by assuming that
time is essentially related to change. He needs some justification
for this assumption. It is in order to provide such justification
that he argues that there is no time without change.
But the fact that there is no time without change does not by
itself provide enough justification. Some further ground is needed
ARISTOTLE: THERE IS NO TIME WITHOUT CHANGE 363

for assuming that time is essentially related to change. This


further ground is provided by Aristotle’s observation that we
think time has passed whenever we think there has been a
change. The point of this observation is, I claim, to establish that
there is no change without time.12 The fact that there is no change
without time gives Aristotle a further reason for assuming that
time is something essentially related to change.
Why does Aristotle think that the fact that there is no change
without time gives him a further reason for making this assump-
tion? After all, the assumption in question is asymmetric. It is
an assumption that time is essentially related to change, not an
assumption that change is essentially related to time.13 Perhaps
the point of claiming that there is no change without time is to
suggest that it is change in general (rather than some particular
change) that figures in the definition of time.14
Although Aristotle does not explicitly say here that there is no
change without time, he provides evidence that we assume this
in our ordinary thinking:
Whenever we perceive and mark off [alteration], then we say that
time has passed (218b32–3).
Even if it is dark, and we suffer nothing through the body, but
there is a certain change in the soul, immediately it seems that also
some time has passed together with the change (219a4–6).
Aristotle thinks that, in making these ordinary judgements, we
assume that there is no change without time. Once again, the

12. It may be objected that the claim that there can be no change without time is
too obviously true to need justification. But for Aristotle, it may not have seemed so
obvious. His definition of change makes no explicit reference to time. Change is
defined in terms of actuality and potentiality (Physics III 1, 201a9–11). Moreover, if
we take the creation story in the Timaeus literally, as Aristotle did (De Caelo I 11),
then Plato thought that there were disorderly movements before the creation of time
(Timaeus 30a, 52d–e).
13. Because of this, even if he can establish that there is no time without change and
no change without time, Aristotle will still not have proûed that time is essentially
related to change. He has not given any argument for the claim that it is time that is
defined as something related to change. For all he has said, we might equally well
conclude that change is defined as something related to time. Perhaps it is because
he wants to draw the former conclusion rather than the latter that he places so much
more emphasis on the claim that there is no time without change than on the claim
that there is no change without time.
14. The occurrence of any change is enough to show that time has passed. This gives
Aristotle some reason to define time as a number of change rather than as a number
of the change of the outermost heaûenly sphere.
364 URSULA COOPE

fact that we make this assumption in our ordinary judgements


provides a prima facie ground for thinking that it is true.
Note that the structure of this passage offers some support for
the interpretation I am proposing.15 Immediately after saying
that there is no time without change, Aristotle draws the con-
clusion that time is something essentially related to change
(219a2–3). But he then backtracks and provides some additional
support for this conclusion (‘for we perceive time and change
together’, 219a3–4). In giving this additional support, he empha-
sises both that we think there has been change whenever we think
there has been time, and that we think there has been time when-
ever we think there has been change. He then goes on to restate
his conclusion that time is something essentially related to change
(219a9–10).
On my interpretation, then, Aristotle claims both that there is
no time without change and that there is no change without time.
Both claims are supported by appeals to ordinary judgements.
Together, these claims provide grounds for assuming that time is
something essentially related to change. He concludes:
Since we are inquiring into what time is, we must start from this,
and ask what it is in relation to change (219a2–3).

I have claimed that this interpretation escapes the weaknesses I


found in the standard interpretation. It remains to show that this
is so.
First, my interpretation explains the relevance of Aristotle’s
observation that we think that time has passed whenever we
think there has been change. Note that proponents of the stan-
dard interpretation cannot offer the same explanation. To do so,
they would have to maintain that, while Aristotle uses a ûerifi-
cationist assumption to show that there is no time without
change, he uses a different assumption (an assumption about the
reliability of ordinary judgements) to show that there is no
change without time. But this would be wildly implausible. The
two claims (the claim that we perceive change whenever we think

15. Though there is, admittedly, one thing that is puzzling about the structure. Aris-
totle writes as if his remark at 218b32–3 (where he says that whenever we perceive
change, we say that time has passed) is one of the grounds for concluding that there
is no time without change. This is a difficulty for any interpretation. I am not sure
what to say about it.
ARISTOTLE: THERE IS NO TIME WITHOUT CHANGE 365

there has been time, and the claim that we think that there has
been time whenever we perceive change) occur together in Aris-
totle’s argument. On my interpretation both of these claims have
the same sort of role. They both provide evidence of the assump-
tions that lie behind ordinary judgements.
Second, proponents of the standard interpretation have to say
that Aristotle is making a verificationist assumption. I too take
Aristotle to be relying on an unstated principle. Instead of a veri-
ficationist premise, my interpretation supplies a principle about
what it is reasonable to believe. Aristotle’s reasoning is based on
the principle that, when we can identify assumptions underlying
the judgements we all ordinarily make, then we have prima facie
grounds for taking these assumptions as starting points in an
inquiry.16 However, this principle, unlike the premise supplied
on the verificationist interpretation, is a principle that is already
familiar from elsewhere in Aristotle’s work. Consider, for
instance, Aristotle’s account of place in the first half of Physics
IV.17 Aristotle says there that an inquiry into the nature of place
should be conducted in such a way that the difficulties about it
are solved and the things thought to be true of it (ta dokounta
huparchein) are shown really to be true of it (211a7–10).
G. E. L. Owen has argued that, in the Physics, Aristotle often
starts out an inquiry by listing ‘things that men are inclined or
accustomed to say’.18 He cites Aristotle’s discussion of place as
an example of this method:
It opens with four arguments for the existence of place of which
the first states what dokei or seems to be the case (it appeals to

16. I have spoken of beliefs that ‘lie behind’ or are ‘embodied in’ the judgements we
make. But what is it for a belief to be ‘embodied in’ the judgements we make? Aris-
totle is not claiming that we all explicitly believe that there is no time without change
or change without time. His claim is only that these beliefs would explain and justify
the particular judgements we make about whether or not time has passed. Compare
his discussion of the voluntary in the Nicomachean Ethics. He claims there, ‘The acts
whose moving principles are in us must themselves also be in our power and volun-
tary’ (Nicomachean Ethics III 5, 1113b20–1). As evidence for this, he describes the
way that we assign punishment and praise (1113b21–30). When he cites this as evi-
dence, he is not saying that we all have the explicit belief that the acts that originate
from moving principles in us are the ones that are voluntary. He is saying, rather,
that this is a belief which explains and justifies our judgements when we assign praise
and blame.
17. Physics IV 1–5.
18. Owen (1961: 87)G(1986: 241).
366 URSULA COOPE

established ways of talking about physical replacement) (Phys. IV


1, 208b1,5), the third states what certain theorists say (legousi: ibid.
208b26), the fourth quotes what Hesiod and the majority think
(nomizousi: ibid. 208b32–3), and the remaining one relies on the
doctrine of natural places which is later taken as an endoxon... Nor
are these arguments merely accessory to the main analysis: those
of the dokounta which survive the preliminary difficulties are taken
over as premises for what follows.19
The beginning of Aristotle’s discussion of time, if interpreted as
I have suggested, provides an interesting variation on this
method. He starts out by raising various difficulties about time,
difficulties to which he gives no explicit solution.20 He then goes
on to mention certain common views about time. Many people,
he says, think of time as a kind of change.21 He dismisses this
view, saying that it is open to obvious objections.22 After this,
comes the passage I have been discussing in this paper. In this
passage, Aristotle defends the view that time, though not a
change, is something essentially related to change. This view,
again, is rooted in common opinion. We assume, in our ordinary
judgements, that time passes if and only if there is change. This
suggests that time is something essentially related to change.
Since this suggestion escapes the obvious objections that Aris-
totle has brought against other proposals, it provides a fitting
starting point for an inquiry into the nature of time.23

Department of Philosophy
Uniûersity College London
Gower Street
London WC1E 6BT

19. Owen (1961: 87–8)G(1986: 241–2).


20. Physics IV 10, 217b29–218a30.
21. Physics IV 10, 218b9–10.
22. If time were the change of something, then it would not be ‘equally everywhere
and with everything’. Further, if time were a kind of change, it would be the sort of
thing that could be faster or slower. (Physics IV 10, 218b10–18)
23. I would like to thank Verity Harte and Zena Hitz for their comments. I am
grateful to the STS department at University College London for giving me the
opportunity to present the paper at its departmental seminar. When the paper was
written, I held a Jacobsen Fellowship in philosophy at the University of London.
ARISTOTLE: THERE IS NO TIME WITHOUT CHANGE 367

REFERENCES
Aristotle Physics, ed. W. D. Ross, 1956 (Oxford: Clarendon Press).
Aristotle De Caelo, ed. D. J. Allan, 1936 (Oxford: Clarendon Press).
Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics, ed. I. Bywater, 1894 (Oxford: Clarendon Press).
Hussey, E., 1993, Aristotle’s Physics Books III and IV, translated with an intro-
duction and notes (Oxford: Clarendon Press).
Newton-Smith, W. H., 1980, The Structure of Time (London: Routledge and
Kegan Paul).
Owen, G. E. L., 1961, ‘Tithenai ta phainomena’, in Aristote et les problèmes de
méthode, Papers of the Second Symposium Aristotelicum, ed. S. Mansion
(Louvain: Publications Universitaires de Louvain). (Reprinted in Logic,
Science and Dialectic, 1986, ed. Martha Nussbaum (Ithaca: Cornell University
Press).
Plato, Timaeus, in Platonis Opera IV, ed. J. Burnet, 1902 (Oxford: Clarendon
Press).
Shoemaker, S. S., 1969, ‘Time without change’, Journal of Philosophy 66: 363–
381.
Sorabji, R., 1983, Time, Creation and the Continuum: Theories in Antiquity and
the Early Middle Ages (Ithaca: Cornell University Press).