Fraser’s theory of time as conflict

Fraser’s theory of time as conflict “comprises a class of principles in the scientific and humanistic study of time.”[1] Fraser postulates the “idea […] that time is not a single, one-way thrust in which the furnishings of the world partake equally, but a hierarchy of temporalities associated with a hierarchy of structurally stable integrative levels.”[2] Time, as we humans perceive it, is an evolutionary result built upon the conflict between “structurally stable integrative temporal levels.”[3] In order to traverse these temporalities, one thinks of traversing the temporalities that begin from physics and move on to biology. Organized in the order of their appearance and causal complexity[4] in the beginning we have


“The substratum of the world is the (idealized) universe of radiation or, pars pro toto, the world of light. The next level is that of indistinguishable and hence completely interchangeable particles. Above it, as it were, we find the astronomical universe of heavy masses. Upon one of these masses we recognize life. One of the living species is man. Individuals of this species know how to transform their experiences into signs and signals that tie them into societies.”[5]


Therefore, Fraser distinguishes three lower temporal Umwelten[6]: 1. Atemporality, which is the Umwelt where “no meaning can be given to the idea of ‘event’, to conditions of ‘before-after’ or ‘past-present-future’.”[7] 2. Prototemporality, which is the Umwelt where “events may be identified but their temporal positions never precisely determined.”[8] This Umwelt is applicable to the quantum world, in that “connections among prototemporal events may only be specified probabilistically.”[9]  3. Eotemporality, which is the Umwelt that “displays the dyadic relationship of before/after but not a preferred direction of time.”[10] This temporality of pure succession is where the Lacanian order of the real operates. Looking past these three lower temporalities, we observe the “crucial break in the development of temporalities [which] came with biogenesis; specifically, with the need of organisms to provide for continuous internal synchronization of biochemical processes.”[11] Continuing further, Fraser distinguishes three upper temporal Umwelten: 4. Biotemporality, which is linked to the Lacanian imaginary order in that “the emergence of the biotemporal present is defined in terms of needs of the organism” and its “demand for immediate satisfaction that characterizes [Freud’s] pleasure-principle [further reminding] one of the creature present [that] displays no long-term expectation or memory.”[12]  5. Nootemporality, which is the Umwelt that “extends the if-then relationship of conditional probability […] into the long-term memory of man.”[13] Common usage describes this Umwelt as “human time,” by clearly distinguishing between past, present, and future thus constituting the temporality of the Lacanian symbolic order. Finally, 6. Sociotemporality, which is the Umwelt for “human groups if they are sufficiently coordinated to act in self-interest.”[14] Table 1,[15] succinctly presents Fraser’s temporalities hierarchically ordered from atemporality to the emergence of organic evolution.


Nested integrative levels of natureHierarchy of temporalitiesCanonical forms of causationWorld
sociotemporalcollective intentionality/ historical causationsocial world/society
5.human “minding”
nootemporal[noetic] individual long-term intentionalitymental world of individual human matter       (organic being)biotemporal[organic] short-term          intentionalityphysical world of living organism
3.matter (material being)eotemporaldeterministic lawfulnessinorganic physical world
2.particles + mass (stochastic being)prototemporalprobabilistic lawfulnesswave-particle world
1.photons no mass (becoming)atemporalnone—chaos [absolute chaos]electro-magnetic radiation


Table 1. Hierarchical representation of Fraser’s theory of time.


Fraser’s temporal hierarchy rejects Plato’s wide-spread dualistic conception of time. For Plato (as well as the European Christian tradition that derived from it), the source of truth (what is good and moral) resides in a timeless, godly realm. Heaven’s forms are timeless and eternal, whereas we poor folk on earth must come to terms with temporality in the form of shadows cast on the wall. Time itself is a shadow, since its pure, ideal form is unlike our earthly temporality and in unity with itself. Deities are atemporal, hence time in that realm is meaningless. In the history of western music, examples abound when a composer dedicates a major work to a stationary “heavenly father.” From Machaut to Monteverdi to Messiaen and on, one wanted nothing else other than to honor through music a Platonic timelessness.[16] Fraser’s theory, on the contrary, posits that “it is the timeless which comprises what is dark in the mind, what is primitive, determinate, and unfree.”[17] This conclusion is moreover aligned with the stated characteristic of delegitimizing absolute authority in postmodernist thought as mentioned in the previous section. Even in the instance where a future physicist could conceivably find the notion of time to be mathematically only a human “appearance”[18], Fraser’s theory will not cease to still be useful since it necessarily deals with the Umwelt of the human species as a Phenomenological theory (in the same way that Plato’s does), similar to how Einstein’s theories have not invalidated Newton’s as far as everyday life on earth is concerned. This last comparison, however, does not do justice to Fraser, since at present no theory has been put forward and proven to contradict Fraser’s temporal structures.

Nevertheless, the reason why I find Fraser’s theory influential is not solely based upon a philosophical kinship. It is useful to think of temporality as evolutionary hierarchical structures circumscribed by a species’ Umwelt because such structures could be metaphorically represented in music, the temporal art par excellence.[19] Humans perceive and experience the world within the boundaries of a nootemporal Umwelt, which is a distinctly human conception of temporality. However, a prototemporal metaphor for example, triggers within our human Umwelt a vague approximation of a prototemporal Umwelt. Iannis Xenakis’ stochastic sound-mass compositions draw from such prototemporal probabilistic Umwelt. Although one would never directly experience a probabilistic Umwelt akin to theorized quantum cosmology, one can still revel in its metaphor. Time perceived as an endless succession without direction is a metaphor upon which both drone and minimalist music draw much of their inspiration. Karlheinz Stockhausen’s moment-form, or Donatoni’s direct adaptation of “composing in panels”, draws its inspiration from a biotemporal Umwelt, although one cannot fully experience such a regressive state of listening as intended. Musical quotations likewise give a sense of sociotemporality’s expansive historical direction. Fraser’s vocabulary, therefore, equips us to better describe the way time flows in music. Although one can describe any musical work by referencing Fraser’s theory, in my own music, I have also modeled his evolutionary temporal hierarchy.



[1] J.T. Fraser, Time and Time Again (Leiden: Brill, 2007), 153

[2] Ibid., 153

[3] Ibid., 153

[4] “It is a generally accepted hypothesis of contemporary science that the history of the universe involves the emergence of increasingly more complex structures and processes, in the continued presence of surviving earlier structures and processes. If time were indeed a correlate of complexity, as I propose it is, then it would follow that time itself has evolved with the increasing complexification of nature. That this in fact is the case is one of the claims of the [hierarchical] theory [of time].” Ibid., 90. “In trying to assimilate the idea that time itself has evolved, it is useful to remember that the expanding universe does not expand into preexisting space; it is space itself which expands. Likewise, the evolution of time is not a progress into preexisting forms of time but the creative emergence of increasingly more complex temporalities.” Ibid., 92

[5] Ibid., 155

[6] “Early this century the German theoretical biologist Jakob von Uexküll drew attention to the epistemological significance of the fact that an animal’s receptors and effectors determine its world of possible stimuli and actions (Uexküll, 1909). He called these circumscribed portions of the environment that were effective for a given species the Umwelt of that species.” J.T. Fraser, Ibid., 154. “To grant ontological status to these epistemic conditions, the theory introduces a definition of reality, called the extended Umwelt principle. It asserts that what we know of the world is the way the world must be assumed to be at least—in Newton’s words—“till such time as other phenomena occur by which [those beliefs] may either be made more accurate, or liable to exceptions”(Newton, 1687, p. 400).The extended Umwelt principle authorizes the assumption that each temporality is complete for the organizational level where it is identified, even if incomplete when compared with the human experience of time. Trying to imagine them as human experiences is inhibited by the difficulties of regressive sharing. It is not easy to imagine the temporal world of an infant; imagining the temporal world of a snail or a hummingbird is even more problematic. And we seem to have poor capacities to imagine ourselves into the temporal Umwelten of viruses or objects traveling at the speed of light. One can proceed only by trusting the validity of reasoning.”  Ibid., 91-92

[7] Ibid., 155

[8] Ibid., 156

[9] Ibid., 156

[10] Julius T. Fraser, Of Time, Passion, and Knowledge, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975), 239

[11] J.T. Fraser, Ibid., 156

[12] Julius T. Fraser, Ibid., 438

[13] Ibid., 438

[14] J.T. Fraser, Ibid., 157

[15] Table 1 is taken from Rosemary Huisman, “The origin of language and narrative temporalities”, from The Study of Time, Vol.14, Ed. Raji Steineck and Claudia Clausius (Leiden: Brill, 2013), 50. Fraser summarizes the structure of his theory accordingly: “As the universe cooled, many of these objects jelled into ponderable matter and collected in galaxies. Upon a speck of such matter living organisms arose; from among them came our species with its ability to transform experiences and feelings into symbols and employ these symbols in the building of civilizations. Corresponding to these evolutionary steps, the hierarchical theory of time recognizes five stable, hierarchically nested integrative levels of nature. By hierarchically nested is meant that each integrative level subsumes the functions and structures of the one or ones beneath it, and each adds to the potentialities of its predecessors certain new degrees of freedom. Beginning with the most complex one, those organizational levels are the mental processes and their universe of symbolic representations; the processes of life; the physical processes of the astronomical universe of massive matter; the processes of elementary objects; and the chaos of radiative energy […] When the time-related teachings of the sciences and the humanities are systematically surveyed and arranged to correspond to the hierarchy of the stable organizational levels, five distinct concepts of time and five different types of causations are recognized.” J.T. Fraser, Ibid., 90-91

[16] In page 16 of his Treatise on Rhythm, Color, and Ornithology vol.1, Messiaen writes at length on the question of time and eternity: “Alone, God is identical to his being, and by the same token, identical to his eternity. […] Anteriority and posteriority are the essential conditions of time; […] They do not exist in that which is stable, uniform, indivisible. That is to say, they do not exist in eternity […] [but] characterize human time.” From Olivier Messiaen, Treatise on Rhythm, Color, and Ornithology Vol.1, trans. Melody Baggech (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Oklahoma, 1999), 16

Messiaen’s idea of time is undoubtedly Platonic. Just like Plato, Messiaen via Saint Thomas also treats the duality time-eternity, as including a region of ambiguous in-betweenness: “We know that the angels live in the aevum, that is the intermediary between time and eternity.” (Messian, 16) At least we have learned where they reside! Nevertheless, this “angelic” region is also similar to Fraser’s eotemporal level of pure succession, or as Fraser points out the physicist’s small “t” which in classical physics can take both positive and negative values without disrupting the correct solution of a problem.

[17] Ibid., 17

[18] Physicist Julian Barbour’s popular book The End of Time, uses quantum mechanics to hypothesize, ironically enough considering my rejection of Plato’s dualistic approach, the “logical possibility, [that] the appearance of time can arise from utter timelessness.” (Julian Barbour, The End of Time (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 35. By “appearance” he means the illusory appearance of time as perceived by e.g. humans.

[19] “If artistic expression truly derives from the capacity of the artist, via his specific skills, to roam freely among the temporal Umwelts of man, then music—with its intimate auditory entry into man’s self-definition—is the art of arts, par excellence; not simply because it is not [only] spatial, but primarily because it embraces all levels of temporality.” From, Julius T. Fraser, Ibid., 411