Exploring the Mystery of Time | Back to Mystery of Time

Language, Time, and the Value of Lives

Much work is being done these days on “mental time travel” (MTT) in humans and other animals.  MTT refers to the ability to recall the past (retrospection) and plan for the future (prospection). This ability to project ourselves both backwards and forwards in mental time is central to what is also referred to as our “autobiographical sense of self”. This is the sense of self that really matters to us; to see someone who has lost this sense of self is to see someone who has, in essence, “slipped away”, even if they are still biologically alive and even if they remain sentient (i.e., capable of experiencing pleasure and pain) in the moment.  Obviously, memory systems are central to our autobiographical sense of self, but what is much less appreciated is that our language systems are central to this sense of self too.  In discussing the foregoing matters, I will present some largely unknown evidence that shows what happens to an otherwise intelligent person’s sense of time if they either do not gain language or gain it but subsequently lose it.  In essence, languagelessness = timelessness = no autobiographical sense of self.  If this “equation” holds, then it has significant implications for the ways in which humans and animals of various kinds can be harmed.


Warwick Fox

Warwick Fox is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, University of Central Lancashire.  His published work has focused on ethics, environmental ethics, the nature of the interior lives of humans and other animals, and the nature of selfhood. His books include Toward a Transpersonal Ecology: Developing New Foundations for Environmentalism; Ethics and the Built Environment (ed.); A Theory of General Ethics: Human Relationships, Nature, and the Built Environment; and On Beautiful Days Such as This: A philosopher’s search for love, work, place, meaning, and suchlike. Further information, including downloadable papers (and home demos of some of his songs!), can be found at www.warwickfox.com