Years ago when doing my first postgraduate work at Andover Newton, I took theology courses with Paul Tillich. One of his notions—heteronomous time—has returned. In more ordinary terms this idea refers to time layering, a sort of overlap of times.
Here’s an anecdote to illustrate this: In my next graduate program, studying for a Ph.D. in philosophy, I was eagerly reading both Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger. I had purchased an isolated piece of land in the mountains of Vermont in 1961 and by 1962 was busy constructing a small, a “Heidegger’s Hut” sized log cabin, room by room to three. It was there that in the evenings and summers, I read my Husserl and Heidegger. But since this place was far from any road, it had no electricity, so returning to my boyhood on a Kansas farm, I read by the light of three kerosene lamps. Time lap. Much later I returned to these godfathers and did my own books on their thinking.
Like any academic, I read and read and my favorites are examples of heteronomy or time laps. Russell Shorto is one of my favorites, The Island at the Center of the World, is the original Dutch Manhattan and as he draws from the original documents, preserved in Albany, its tolerance, multiculturalism, and progressive “New York Values” can be seen to overlap today. Later, his Descartes Bones which follows the intellectual history of this “modernist” thinker from Sweden to an eventual resting place in Paris centuries later leads one through what make our times what they are.
Such basically philosophical histories became enchanting. There is also Charles C. Mann and his 1491, which compiles the latest sciences about pre-Colombian Americas, revealing the agricultures, cities, thriving populations and cultures of the Americas before colonization. Here I reflect back to my own discovery of Coronodo’s expedition to Kansas in 1541, seventy-nine years before Plymouth Rock, 1620, and the late-comer English who dominated our elementary school history back then. It was an early lesson in distrusting master narratives.
Or Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines which trace the oral musics which Australian Aboriginals used to map that entire continent. Recently there was Michael Pye’s The Edge of the World, a tracing of the sea faring, lowland peoples of Europe who in practice anticipate modernity in their money, trade, counting (mathematical) lifeworld. And W. Jeffrey Bolster’s shocking The Mortal Sea, which traces first the decimation of fishing along the European coast then immediately following, before Columbus, the North American fishing banks.
No longer do I read with kerosene lamps, but into this time-lap, heteronomous time, the world I see is far from the triumphal Euro-Centric world of the modernist master narrative. From our high rise in Manhattan, there is still the city in the center of the world.
Don Ihde is Distinguished Professor, Emeritus, at Stony Brook University. His most recent book is Husserl’s Missing Technologies (Fordham University Press, 2016) His others books include Heidegger’s Technologies (Fordham, 2010) as well as Chasing Technoscience (edited with Evan Selinger) and Technology and the Lifeworld (both Indiana University Press)
The image of an Acheulean hand ax at the beginning of the post is copyright of Don Ihde.