BMCR 2006.04.17

The Syntax of Time. The Phenomenology of Time in Greek Physics and Speculative Logic from Iamblichus to Anaximander. Studies in Platonism, Neoplatonism, and the Platonic Tradition, 2

, The syntax of time : the phenomenology of time in Greek physics and speculative logic from Iamblichus to Anaximander. Studies in Platonism, Neoplatonism, and the Platonic tradition ; v. 2. Leiden: Brill, 2005. 1 online resource (viii, 177 pages) : illustrations.. ISBN 9789047408390 €99.00.

The book by Peter Manchester, the second volume in a new Brill’s series “Studies in Platonism, Neoplatonism, and the Platonic Tradition”, covers a very long period of time (from the early Greek philosophers up to the Late Antiquity, presented, surprisingly enough, in the reverse order). The studies collected in the book, published (according to the author’s preface) since 1979, and revised and partially rewritten for the present edition, vary both in content and approach. Despite obvious authorial attempts to put them together as parts of the same ‘project’, they still fall somewhat apart. The book consists of five chapters, a preface, bibliography, and (obviously enough) has no general conclusion. I shall review each chapter in turn.

Chapter One: ‘Two-dimensional Time in Husserl and Iamblichus’ (pp. 1-54). Having first outlined the concepts of time in Newton, Locke, and Hume, Manchester comes to the ‘two-dimensional time’ in Husserl’s ‘The phenomenology of the Inner Time-Consciousness’ (p. 19f). According to Husserl, in the unity of the one unique flux we discover both double intentionality and two-dimensional time: no appearances of time can be identified except in consciousness, and no appearances of consciousness can be identified except in time (p. 22). Then Manchester analyses two diagrams by Husserl published in 1928 by Heidegger and, in a more definite form, by Boehm in vol. 10 of the Husserliana (1966). The details of this complicated schema unfortunately cannot be reproduced here. It is important, however, to notice that the diagram is designed to demonstrate that a genuine objective time should not be identified with the quasi-timelike arrangement of the phases of the flux (p. 40). In the next section we come to the point crucial for the rest of argument advanced in the book. Manchester introduces here the figure of time, the oldest version of which is attributed to Archytas, who “likened the Now of time to the point at which a breaking occurs, to a line, broken (bent) in such a way that it forms an angle” (Iamblichus, ap. Simplicius, Categ. 355, 11-20, p. 30, 14-25 Sambursky-Pines).

This subject matter is continued in the second section of the next chapter (The schema of participation, p. 60f), which opens with a discussion of ‘two-dimensional’ time in Plotinus: a higher or intellectual one and a lower or sensible one. Manchester believes that in this way we can learn not only from the theme of time about Plotinus, but also from Plotinus about time (p. 56). Following Hans Jonas, he proposes to interpret the Plotinian theory of time in a psychological and existential manner and make it a motif in the phenomenology of religion. Plotinus’ double time, as it is perceived by Iamblichus, forms a united phenomenological time which is the life of the World Soul.1 Single in its substance, it is, as it were, ‘double-aspected’: the Soul both contemplates the noetic reality directly and administers the disposition of logoi into the phase-series of natural processes and voluntary actions (p. 59). The final section of the chapter is dedicated to analysis of Plotinus’ text, mostly the central part of his treatise ‘On Eternity and Time’ (pp. 72f), where the process of downfall in time is described. After a fruitful discussion of terms ἐκπίπτω and τάξις, involving such disparate contexts as Archimedes’ spiral and the taxis of DNA-molecule, Manchester makes another step back in time and comes to Aristotle.

Chapter Three, ‘Everywhere Now: Physical Time in Aristotle’, should be read in conjunction with Appendix 1 (‘Physical Lectures on Time’ by Aristotle: A Minimal Translation, pp. 87-105; 153-169). Here Manchester analyses the Aristotelian concept of time as ‘number of motion’ with respect to place, insisting that time is the Number as ‘count’, not measure. “For someone who thinks that time is ‘made of’ nows, and that nows are, in turn, instants, this is a mistake” (p. 101). According to Manchester’s wording, “time is the spanning, framing and scaling of motion”. Consequently, he first considers the spanning of motion (p. 91ff), and then the scaling of spans (p. 96f). Here (p. 98f) he suggest a physical experiment (called the Aphasia Machine) to show that (from phenomenological point of view) “the intervals opened by spanning are in some sense circular”. The experiment, as is quite clear from the physical point of view, certainly proves nothing of the sort.

Chapter Four, ‘Parmenides: Time as the Now’, pp. 106-135 (and Appendix 2: Fragment 8 of the Poem of Parmenides, pp. 170-174), a long and detailed chapter on Parmenides, is based upon fr. 8 DK, subdivided by Manchester (following fr. 8, lines 1-2) at four signposts ( σήματα). The analysis is based upon a translation of Parmenides, which is ‘minimal’ and not always clear. Minor differences in translation are also hardly justified. I cannot enter in the details of this complicated analysis. An example will suffice: on p. 106 we read (I quote the passage since its reading is important for the author’s argumentation and demonstrates well his style):

The same: to think, and therefore is the thought upon
For not apart from being, in which it is what has been uttered,
will you find thinking, as little as if time is or is going to be2
other outside of being, since fate has shackled it
whole and quiescent to be.

while on 173 the same fragment of Parmenides is translated as follows:

The same is thinking and therefore is the thought upon.
For not without being, in which it is what has been uttered,
will you find thinking, as little as if Time is or is going to be
something other outside of being, since Fate has shackled it
whole and quiescent to be.3

Chapter Five: Heraclitus and the Need for Time (p. 136-152). This last short chapter starts with a summary to the entire book, where the author outlines his major findings. Then he translates and analyses Fragment 1 of Heraclitus.4 Manchester notes that Heraclitus never uses the word χρόνος. Temporal categories are expressed with the word αἰών to be rendered in English as duration, epoch, lifetime and even time, and has nothing in common with its later Platonic developments. A careful ‘minimal’ translation and textual analysis shows certain ambiguities, which prove, according to Manchester, the two-dimensionality of time in Heraclitus. ” Αἰών is eternity, says Manchester (p. 150), but the need for time is the same as the need for eternity”.

The very last short section of the chapter, ‘Heraclitus as a Gloss on Anaximander’ (pp. 150-151), evokes the title of the book, being his rendering of the famous τοῦ χρόνου τάξις — ‘the syntax of time’,5 which, according to Manchester, can be understood in the sense that the eternity of time is its τάξις. The concluding passage of this striking interpretation deserves quoting:

Time gives the Boundless syntax in the following way. Origin within the Boundless is gravity, downward motion, converging towards center. Time is the circular outreach, ecstatically crossing the downward and inward direction, creating the spiral and counter-spiral of the Flux. Syntax is the form of the inward agreement of gravity and time. Its most perfect utterance is silence. In the end, it is αἰών. It is the “Now!”, pronounced by the goddess of Parmenides, the numbering power of the soul in Aristotle, the soul in the two-dimensional self-constituting ecstases of consciousness that connect Plotinus and Iamblichus to Husserl, and ourselves


Finally, I have to mention some mistakes and shortcomings:

P. 92, n. 14, referring to Phys. 10, 218b8, is a mistake. On page 79 ‘nust’ is obviously printed for ‘must’.

As I have noticed above alterations in translation of the same passage in different places are also hardly justified (cf. Chapter 4).

It appears that a ‘minimal’ translation of a selection from the Physics, supplied at the end of the book, is very helpful, but hardly necessary for better understanding of Aristotle’s position, since textual analysis of the relevant passages in the third chapter is quite generalizing and in no way covers all the problems addressed by Aristotle.

The hermeneutical methods of the book are surprisingly uneven: on the one hand we have a ‘minimal’ translation of the texts that have already been quite adequately translated into English, on the other hand we have utterly innovative renderings of the basic terms, most notably τοῦ χρόνου τάξις as ‘the syntax of time’ (which is simply wrong despite justification given at pp. 60ff and elsewhere).

Generally speaking, however, this well produced, although expensive, book is definitely a serious contribution in the area of the philosophy of time, and can be recommended to scholarly libraries and individuals working in the field; but the majority of the historians of philosophy will probably find it too speculative.


1. The Soul ‘first of all made herself timelike’ (Enn. III 7.11.14). All kinds of souls, the World Soul included, are, according to Plotinus, ‘eternal, and time is posterior to them, and that which is in time is less then time’ (Enn. IV 4.15.17).

2. Manchester prefers Simplicius’ text οὐδ’ εἰ χρόνος ἐστὶν ἢ ἔσται to the traditional reading οὐδὲν γὰρ ἢ ἐστὶν ἢ ἔσται (DK and elsewhere).

3. Note the period, absent in the previous quote, variant wording, etc.: seven alterations in one passage!

4. He accepts a popular view that this piece of writing is an introduction to a collection of sayings, composed by Heraclitus himself.

5. ‘… according to the assessment of Time’ (in Kirk-Raven).