Political philosophers have always understood that there was a close relationship between conceptions of time and politics. Modern, and now postmodern politics, are no different. Patrick Deneen has recently argued that modern ideologies are defined first and foremost by their relationship to time.


“The time is out of joint. O cursèd spite, / That ever I was born to set it right!”Hamlet, Act I, Scene 5

Ancient political philosophers going back to Plato and Lao Tse have always understood that there was a close relationship between conceptions of time and politics. Modern and now postmodern politics are no different. In his essay “Progress and Memory: Making Whole our Historical Sense,” political philosopher Patrick Deneen argues that modern ideologies are defined first and foremost by their relationship to time.[*]

Liberal centrists, he argues, tend to focus on the present, ignoring both past and future. They see life as lived in the eternal now, fixating on the pursuit of material goods and honors while relatively indifferent to both previous and future generations. Such an ideology is no doubt powerful, appealing to us by providing “exceedingly well” for those alive right now. But it is also a myopic, materialistic, selfish outlook.

Moreover, as Dr. Deneen points out in Why Liberalism Failed, the myopic fixation on the present is contributing to liberalism’s downfall, because it inevitably means increasing calls for an increasingly overbearing state whose authority will supposedly liberate citizens from the consequences of living only for the present.

Dr. Deneen then goes on to describe progressives: individuals whose conception of time is fixated on the future. Progressives accept the premise of liberalism—that the satisfaction of human needs is the highest end in life—but this liberation from want, and its attendant freedom and empowerment, is always yet to come, which means the present is always regarded as in some sense radically deficient. According to Dr. Deneen, progressives exhibit a paradoxical attitude toward time. They aspire to a future of absolute freedom and the satisfaction of human needs, but to achieve it they require tremendous control and authority to remake the priorities of the present.

Finally, the dark cousin of the progressive is the nostalgist. The nostalgist is a figure who also rejects the present, but in this case for the past. Nostalgists believe that the long march of history has been one of slow decline from a proverbial golden age of long ago. Like progressives, with their unrealistic utopian aspirations, this past exists largely in the fantasy world of the nostalgist. The past is stripped of all its ugliness and injustice in order to serve the ideological purpose of criticizing the present for its banality. Consequently, nostalgists are also prone to demanding tremendous power and authority to bring the present into line with their reactionary visions. Interestingly, Dr. Deneen cites Martin Heidegger as a paradigmatic example of the nostalgist.

Conservatism and Time

For Dr. Deneen, each of these orientations toward time has an appeal but also profound flaws. If we focus too intently on the present, the future, or the past, we effectively break up our experienced conception of time and consequently fail to live in the “reality of temporal fullness.” The solution is conservatism, rightly understood.

Dr. Deneen points out that the nostalgist is often mistaken for a conservative when the two are really quite different. The nostalgist does not appreciate the fullness of time, given a fixation strictly on the past. By contrast, an authentic conservatism “conserves time in its full dimension”; though Dr. Deneen wryly acknowledges that many conservatives give particular pride of place to tradition and inheritance:

The conservative disposition conserves time in its full dimension—past, present, and future—and above all defends those forms of culture that provide safe transmission of the past through the present and into the indefinite future. Conservatism misunderstands itself when it considers itself as solely or exclusively about the past—though of course, it gives a special pride of place, centrality, and importance to inheritance, memory, and tradition. It was none other than Burke who articulated the essential wholeness of time, positing—against the likes of Hobbes and Locke—that the social contract was not merely “a partnership between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.

This is a very powerful articulation of the conservative conception of temporality, but I would offer a critique. Augustine asserted that only an eternal and omniscient being could fully “conserve time in its full dimension.” Our finite capacities mean that each of us will invariably be tempted to live more completely in one dimension of temporality. Indeed, Dr. Deneen himself occasionally flirts with various forms of nostalgism when he pines for the virtues of the Ancients, who emphasized the relationship between freedom and duty rather than demanding utter liberation from the traditions of the past. But Dr. Deneen is a sufficiently rigorous thinker to recognize that we cannot simply turn back the clock and demand people live as Aristotle or Aquinas did. At the end of Why Liberalism Failed, while he calls on us to resist the “impulse to devise a new and better political theory in the wake of liberalism’s simultaneous triumph and demise,” he invites us to begin experimenting with new postliberal forms of politics that can transcend its limitations.

For Dr. Deneen, the most important thing to consider about time is not what it may be in and of itself, but our experience and relationship to it. What he wants is for us to develop a more authentic understanding of the relationship between past, present, and future, one that will heal the wounds brought about by individualistic liberal ideology and its progressive and reactionary cousins. But these calls for an authentic human relationship to time is very much based on a phenomenological outlook that could only have emerged in modernity and now postmodernity, and are consequently subject to many of their same limitations. Time is understood as something like the horizon of human experience, rather than an independently existing force that follows its own laws quite distinct from our experiences of it.

This demonstrates, for all its power, Dr. Deneen’s account of time still falls into some of the traps that ensnared other modern thinkers. One unfortunate example is how closely Dr. Deneen’s arguments about time parallel those of Martin Heidegger’s, despite his being dismissed as a nostalgist. When Heidegger wrote his epochal Being and Time, he was heavily influenced by contemporary phenomenological accounts of the subject; put more simply, he was interested in how human beings related to and experienced time authentically. Heidegger insisted that in modern societies we often conceive of temporality as “clock time”—we live in this moment or that moment, and so lose our connection to the fullness of time. The consequence is that many of us largely live within the present, where we can hide from the burdens imposed on us by the past and avoid the anxiety that comes from facing up to our inevitable future annihilation. By contrast, Heidegger wants us to adopt an “ecstatic” conception of time, one in which human beings authentically unite past, present, and future in their projects of holistic individual or collective self-realization (the Nazi sympathizer gave a notably ominous interpretation to the latter).


While Dr. Deneen might rightly insist that his own arguments about “conserving” the wholeness of time are far more communitarian in their emphasis on the traditions, inheritance, and so on of our culture—which in turn should direct our attentions and love to those around us—they are still mired in the individualism, or better, subjectivism, of modernity´s approach to time. Ironically, Dr. Deneen, like Heidegger, would probably sympathize with the ultimately liberal claim that what finally matters is the human experience of time. What time itself is, and whether the meaning of existence reflects itself beyond the human experience of temporality, Dr. Deneen doesn’t say. What we need to break out of this modernist and postmodernist phenomenology is a more radical approach to the philosophy of time, one that breaks decisively with the subjectivist orientation.

This is a key limitation to his work, since unless we break with the subjectivist orientation to time there will be little possibility we can generate an understanding of meaning and significance which eschews its limitations. This was well recognized by Søren Kierkegaard in the 19th century, when he wrote his epochal book Either/Or analyzing different spheres of life. Kierkegaard examines the ethical life which looks very much like one lived in the “fullness of time” described by Dr. Deneen. The life of an ethical person embedded in the traditions and mores of his community has a significance which it carries from birth to death, as he acts to restore the meaningfulness of the past in the present and hopes for the future. The problem is there is nothing beyond this life and its human all too human concerns which provides greater significance than this. The ethical, conservative life is still one which tries to draw infinite significance from a finite existence. Even a community whose traditions last for thousands of years cannot overcome this dilemma. A philosophy of time which analyzes time as it is in and of itself without regressing to a mere nostalgist appeal to the ancient ideas can take a few steps in the right direction.

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[*] Read the lecture in Patrick Deneen, “Time Past, Present and Future,” What I Saw in America (blog), August 3, 2009.

The featured image is “An Allegory of Truth and Time” (1584) by Annibale Carracci (1560-1609) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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