Is Time Universal? Discuss whether the anthropological evidence tends to support or refute the idea that there are human cognitive universals.
Essay 2012 6 Pages
Discuss whether the anthropological evidence tends to support or refute the idea that there are human cognitive universals.
The original debate on human universals was fought on metaphysical grounds long before anthropologists started to write ethnographies. Framed as the argument between Continental Rationalism and Anglo-Scottish Empiricism (see Gell, 1992:7), Descartes and Kant believed in a priori reason as constitutive of categories whereas Hume defends the ‘realness’ of sensitive experience. The former are supportive of the universalism, whereas the latter strictly deny it. This abstract controversy does not further concern us here, however. More concretely, the following essay deals with the universal character of ‘time’ in ethnographic studies. Looking at conceptions of time in the context of the Nuer (Evans-Pritchard, 1987) and most particularly Bali (Bloch, 1977; Geertz, 1993; Howe, 1981), the argument can be made that it is hardly possible to find ethnographic evidence against the notion of a universal concept of time. I will demonstrate with the above examples that on the one hand ethnographies can rarely be used to refute the universality of time but that secondly to differentiate the particularly ethnographic viewpoint is essential.
Nuer – Apparent differences resolved
In a classical Durkheimian study, Evans-Pritchard (1987) introduces the two partite time system of the African Nuer. The people of the Nuer has two time-reckoning schemes working in parallel. The first – what Evans-Pritchard calls ‘oecological time’ - "a conceptualization in terms of activities or of physical changes that provide convenient points of reference for activities of those phases of the oecological rhythm which have peculiar significance for them" (ibid.: 135). The most telling device in this system is the ‘cattle clock’ (ibid.: 101) that structures the peasant’s day according to the rhythm of the cattle (milking, meadow, stable etc). This system allows the passage of time to be perceived “in relation of activities to one another” (ibid.: 102) but is mostly confined to the annual natural cycle. In contrast to this, the Nuer structural time is based on the social structure, i.e. relations in lineages, clans and with ancestors. This time is mainly backwards looking in order to explain the relationships in terms of their history (ibid.:108). Time units are in this way “co-ordinate with units of structural space” (ibid.:135) that are in turn linked to oecological, political and territorial dimensions. To put it simply, the Nuer differentiate between a system of time that reflects their relation to nature and a scheme that is associated with their relation to one another in the realm of sociality. In this way, Evans-Pritchard (ibid.: 103) admits that the Nuer have only "very limited means of reckoning the relative duration of periods of time intervening between events, since they have few, and not well-defined or systematized, units of time." Most strikingly, in the Nuer language no word for time exists (ibid.:103).
 In the examples I give below it is important to keep in mind, that they can only serve as counter-cases – a proof of the argument for a universal conception can not be achieved by empirical examples (Popper, 2002).
 What this paper does not set out to do – as it is not asked in the question – is define this universalist conception of time. The argument will instead focus on the ‘logical’ possibility of such a universal concept of time.