Time as History

George Grant


Grant, George. Time as History. 1969. Toronto, CA: University of Toronto Press, 1995. Paperback: 9780802075932.


“In Time as History, a collection of his 1969 Massey lectures, George Grant reviews the thought of Nietzsche and concludes that the conception of time as history is not one in which it is possible to live a fully human life. Grant was the first Canadian philosopher to pay serious attention to the thought of Friedrich Nietzsche, and his analysis of the German philosopher forms the central focus of the lectures. William Christian has restored material from the broadcast version of the lectures. His introduction places Grant's interest in Nietzsche in the perspective of Grant's developing analysis of technology and draws extensively on Grant's unpublished notebooks and lectures.”


I. Analysis

Following Nietzsche, Grant is concerned with the way in which the West, in its modernity, has come to be shaped by its conception of time as history. Time as history is a synchronic chain of events, purposive moments or acts of will that have shaped the world, and thus the course of historical time as well. Such a conception is at war with the essential finitude of man, and is expressed in the will to power and mastery. Again through Nietzsche, Grant argues that this will is trapped by the desire for revenge against temporality, finitude, and limitation, and that the technological, imperial West, is the culmination of this desire. In man’s warring against his own “inescapable temporality” Grant sees a sort of alienation from man’s natural condition, an alienation that, in Nietzsche’s thought, terminates in the weak-willed, pleasure-seeking last men, or the brutal, destructive nihilists. Grant knows this is a problem, but in the end does not come to a truly satisfactory conclusion. But his thesis remains: future-oriented man, living life through the willing of a tomorrow shaped by his desire, will always bring about destruction, a destruction we already see playing out before our eyes.

II. Arguments and Supporting Evidence

“Time as Historical Process”

In this chapter, Grant argues that unique feature of Western civilization that has led to its global dominance is its conception of time as a historical process. For Grant, Friedrich Nietzsche was “the thinker who thought the crisis of Western civilization most intensively and most comprehensively” (4), and so he delves into Nietzsche’s philosophy to explicate the current state of the West.

a) Man is historical

  • We “have believed that man is essentially an historical being and that therefore the riddle of what he is may be unfolded in those studies … Our interest in history as a study is directly related to our belief that we are historical beings” (10).

  • “The modern concentration on man as historical is but an aspect of a whole way of conceiving temporality, which, it is claimed, allows us to understand more adequately the story not only of our own species, but of everything” (11).

  • Our word ‘history’ encompasses “all forms of reality” (11). For us, to “know about anything is to know its genesis, its development up to the present, and as much of its future as we can” (11).

b) History is a process

  • History is distinguished from the determinism of nature in that the word ‘history’ “was used to describe the particular human situation in which we are not only made but make … to distinguish the collective life of man” (12)

c) As a process, history is something that can be shaped

  • Man “is seen not only as a part of evolution, but as its spearhead who can consciously direct the very process from which he came forth” (12).

  • We talk of this thing called time because we need a concept to understand the fact that “existing is a coming to be and a passing away. Our doing and our making (perhaps even our thinking) occur within time’s thrall. Because ‘has been,’ ‘is now,’ and ‘will be’ make possible our purposes but also dirempt us of them, it is no wonder that through the ages men have tried to understand the temporality of their lives” (13).

Thus, for Grant, time as history is a way of controlling change in the world. It both a mode of being and a way of knowing, an epistemic frame that shapes the actions and projects of those who perceive the world through it.

“Temporality and Technological Man”

In the second chapter Grant concerns himself with the intersections of temporality and technology, and the way in which technology has been harnessed by men, but particularly Western man, to shape the flow of time.

a) History is something to be accomplished

  • We accomplish things in history by “our mastery through prediction over human and non-human nature” (16). This is time thought “as that in which human accomplishments would be unfolded” (16).

  • This “orientation to the future” coincides with the “will to mastery”; indeed, the “the word will is used as an auxiliary for the future tense, and also as the word that expresses our determination to do” (17).

  • The future is the home of our potentialities, and so we become more and more aware of it, and thus oriented toward it, as “it becomes slowly clear that eventually and inevitably there will be no future for us as individuals” (17).

  • Thus to “speak of the future as potential and not actual does not deny its presence to us” (18). Though indistinct, the future is nevertheless always present in our orientation to time as history. There is always an apprehension of the being of the future in our understanding of time as the concurrence of events.

b) History conceived in this way leads men to adopt a future-oriented posture

  • “Human purposive doing is both possible and potent. And the more complex that which we wish to accomplish, the more we have to envisage the future in which it will be accomplished” (19).

  • Men are so “effective in their doing” because the future is always present “in our imagining” (19). Men “have to take continuing steps in arranging and using other parts of nature so that these ends can be achieved … But men are so much more potent and therefore so much more violent than other animals in this using and arranging” (19).

  • This violence is the closing off of potentiality, the “imagined future,” in the decisiveness of planning the future, taking action to make a particular future real (19).

  • So the “concentration on mastery [in the West] eliminated from their minds any partaking in time other than as future” (20). The result is the “reign of technique” (21).

c) Future-orientedness leads to mastery which leads to technological control

  • Because history is an acting out of the will in events, time is thus a “developing history of meaning that we make,” and so our will is made responsible for the “whole burden of meaning” (24). Meaning, in the frame of time as history, is novelty, progress, an increase in the “good,” regardless of how that good is conceived. Thus, the meaning of history as the “will to change the world” required the “will to change it through the expansion of knowledge” (25). And this will to the “expansion of knowledge” is manifested through reason.

  • “The coming together of willing and reasoning lies essentially in the method that has made possible the successes of modern science” (25).

  • The “very act of the thinking-ego standing over the world, and representing it to himself as objects, is a stance of the will” (26).

  • “The burden on the will to make meaning of the world is thus limited by the belief that in some unspecified future the age of willing will be at an end,” but because this end never comes, the willing itself becomes the end (27). Thus we will live in a perpetually future-oriented way, always looking to “that which we can yet bring to be” (27).

In technology, Grant sees the will to power and mastery made material. As the spear-head of time, man is able to shape “other parts of nature” to achieve his desires. But such shaping is a closing off of potentiality, and is inherently violent. Man is the most purposive, and so also most potent of creatures.

“Nietzsche and Time as History”

Here Grant fully enters into Nietzsche’s philosophy so as to more clearly think about the technological imperialism of the West.

a) Time as history is a dream of control

  • Since Machiavelli men “have dreamed of controlling the planet by technology” and now they are our “unquestioned rulers” (28). Think Elon Musk, or Steve Jobs.

  • What we must ask is why “was it our destiny to raise up ‘willing’ and ‘orientation to to the future’ so that they have become universal ways of men’s existing?” (28).

b) Time as history derives from Christian teleology

  • Certainly this mode of being in the West arose from the Bible and the Greeks, but Grant emphasizes that these cannot be separated from each other. They are entirely intermingled. As in Gadamer, particular ideas of reason in the Greek were taken up by Christianity and fused together with Christian reason. Thus, “Christianity so opened men to a particular consciousness of time, by opening them to anxiety and charity … willing was exalted through the stamping proclamations of the creating Will … time was raised up by redemption in time, and the future by the exaltation of eschaton” (29).

  • Thus, the “modern conception of progress may be characterized as secular Christianity” (30).

c) Nietzsche saw the poverty of the secularized Christian thought that had shaped the West

  • “Nietzsche thought the conception of time as history more comprehensively than any other modern thinker before or since” (32).

  • Nietzsche accepted that “temporality enfolds human beings and that they experience that temporality as history” (32). Through this acceptance he is able to think through the “profundity of the crisis that such a recognition must mean” (32).

  • Whether or not we agree with Nietzsche, “we are still caught in [his] implicit presence” (33). Nietzsche did not just “invent the situation of our contemporary existing” but rather “made explicit what had been implicit” (34, 35). By labelling his thought as “fascinating” or “controversial” we “castrate” it, “cutting off those thoughts from any connection with actuality” (35). We must, as Gadamer, approach the subject matter as an answer to a question which itself poses a question to us, the question of understanding.

d) Becoming is our condition

  • Nietzsche wrote: “we believe that becoming is the rule even in the spiritual things. We are historians from top to bottom … They [philosophers] all to a man think unhistorically, as is the age-old custom among philosophers” (36).

  • All “species, human as much as non-human, can only be understood as continually changing, that is, as having histories … What is fundamental about all human behaviour (including our understanding of it—itself a behaviour) is its historicity” (36).

e) “Truth” was the horizon that gave reason to the changeableness of being

  • In the West, truth “was the most disciplined attempt to sedate consciousness against the terror and pain of becoming” (38). Again, “Nietzsche turns with irony to the fact that the centuries of Western belief in rationality as the highest for man finally produced from itself that science which was to show that there is no reason for this belief … The very greatness of Christianity was to produce its own grave-diggers” (39).

  • “Great living comes forth from those who are resolute in the face of chaos. Such resolution has been sustained by the horizons within which men lived. Horizons are the absolute presuppositions within which men lived. Horizons are the absolute presuppositions within which individuals and indeed whole civilizations do their living. He uses the metaphor ‘horizons’ because everything which appears, appears to us within their limits. The lives of ordinary men are lived from within their horizons; the deeds of historical men, such as Caesar or Napoleon, come forth from the strength of their horizons. The greatest have been those such as Socrates, the Buddha, or Christ, who have themselves created horizons, within which the people of whole civilizations have henceforth lived” (40).

  • So here is the danger of time conceived as history: “The historical sense shows us that all horizons are simply the creations of men … they are not true statements about actuality. They are man-made perspectives by which the charismatic impose their will to power. The historical sense teaches us that horizons are not discoveries about the nature of things; they express the values which our tortured instincts will to create” (40).

  • Nietzsche sees that once “we know [our horizons] to be relative, they no longer horizon us. We cannot live in an horizon when we know it to be one” (40).

  • This is the significance of “the death of God”: “the death of the Christian God in Western civilization is not just the death of one horizon, it is the end of all horizons. The Christian God might be called the last horizon, because its formidable confidence in truth-seeking as the way of contending with the primal anguish brought forth that science and critical philosophy which have made evident that all horizons are man-made” (41).

  • We are left with the knowledge that we “make ourselves as we go along” (41): “what a burden falls upon the will when the horizons of definition are gone” (41). We “cannot deny history and retreat into a destroyed past,” but “how can we overcome the blighting effect of living without horizons?” (41).

What Nietzsche reveals, and what Grant demonstrates in his discussion of him, is that the purposive future-orientedness of mankind has led to the dissolution of the very horizons which sustained such a posture. The horizon of will and progress and overcoming has lost all ground, and yet the West persists in its headlong rush, willing itself forward in its willing for what? To keep willing. This is the emptiness of the Western project that Nietzsche assaults, and the crisis with which Grant is so concerned.

“Nietzsche: Revenge and Redemption”

At the core of future-oriented man’s willing is the will to power, the desire to shape the world according to one’s desire. But this will, this desire, requires mastery of the world, and man in his finitude is always mastered by it. No matter how hard one works, no matter how deeply one wills, we will all ultimately come to an end, and all our willing and striving will be for naught.

a) The will to mastery is the desire to shape history and thus control time

  • We see that “the realized fruits of that drive to mastery are pressed upon us in every day of our lives … We have been taught to recognize as illusion the old belief that our purposes are ingrained and sustained in the nature of things. Mastery comes at the same time as the recognition that horizons are only horizons” (42).

  • So the question that is posed: “Who will deserve to be those masters?”

  • We see in Nietzsche two inheritors of this recognition.

  • The last men are those men who inherited the “secularized Christianity” that grew out of Platonic “optimism,” the fusing of rationality, virtue, and happiness (43). With Christianity came the “addition of equality” and as such, Platonic optimism was “laid … open to the masses” (43). The last men have “inherited rationalism in its last and decadent form” and the “little they ask of life” is “entertainment and comfort” (45).

  • The nihilists are the strong who are not satisfied with a happiness that must be “shrunk to fit what can be realized by all” (44). Because “men are will, the strong cannot give up willing. Men would rather will nothing than have nothing to will” (45).

  • Thus in this dialectic we see that the “optimism of philosophy destroyed the ecstatic nobility that been expressed in the tragedies” (47). The weak resent the strong, the strong resent the weak, and so both seek to master the other. This issue of resentment and mastery, condensed as revenge, is a critical insight. For Nietzsche, the “very curse of mankind” is “the spirit of revenge” (49). This is the “violence of nihilism” (49).

b) The finite self despises its finitude

  • Before Freud, Nietzsche was the “first to use consistently that description of … [the] elemental in man [as] an ‘it,’ that is, an impersonal chaos of instincts out of which comes forth as epiphenomena, reason and morality … thinking is carried out over an abyss that it can never fathom” (51).

  • This ‘it,’ when it recognizes that its “instincts are impotent to live in the world” (52), resents the finitude that limits it. This finitude is the temporality of man’s becoming, and it is ultimately against this that the spirit of revenge is directed: “revenge arises most deeply in our recognition that all our existing is subject to time’s thrall … [when] we recognize that inescapable temporality in every lived minute” (53).

c) We must love our finitude to overcome the need for revenge

  • For Nietzsche, to overcome the will to revenge “requires the act of amor fati” (54), the love of fate. “For Nietzsche, the possibility of that love of fate is related to his discovery of ‘the eternal recurrence of the identical.’ This ‘discovery’ was that as the number of possible combinations of what exists is finite, yet time is infinite; there has already been and will be again an endless recurrence of the present state of affairs, and of every other state possible” (55).

  • In amor fati, the recognition of the eternal recurrence of the identical creates an “openness to the immediate future” which does not “hypostatize[]” time “into a comforting horizon” (56).

But Grant does not accept Nietzsche’s amor fati as a viable solution. Certainly, the elemental it is finite and it resents this finitude. And certainly, this resentment, when expressed by the willing, purposive man, is actualized by revenge. But an abstract “love of fate” precipitated by an “openness” to and acceptance of finitude and futility is not a viable alternative. Grant saw how Nietzsche’s philosophy was appropriated, how the nihilists he sought to resist turned him to their own nihilistic ends. “Love of fate” is nothing but an empty acceptance of time as history that is inevitably subsumed back into the destructive dialectic of master and slave.

“Time as Mastery”

In the final chapter of Time as History Grant attempts to conclude his thought and reckon with the futility he saw in Nietzsche’s project. His alternative is receptivity and remembering, an openness to tradition (which, for Grant, is Christianity and its truths) that will liberate man from his desire to overcome time, the constraints of past and future that limit him. There must be some redemption, but one cannot have redemption without an idea of perfection to which one can attain. Nietzsche has no such idea, or at least not one that Grant can believe in.

a) Nietzsche’s influence is unavoidable

  • Grant does not think we can live time as history as Nietzsche would have it, in embracing fate, but before “speaking against Nietzsche, one must affirm the language one shares with him, even as one negates his use of it” (58-59).

b) We must think about how we can be redeemed from our conception of time as history

  • The most significant shared language between Grant and Nietzsche is the idea of redemption and its necessity, and it is here that Grant diverges from Nietzsche. Grant does not think it possible “to assert the love of fate as the height and, at the same, the finality of becoming” (60). For such a love to be possible there must be “intimations … of perfection” in the “details of our fates … in which our desires for good find their rest and their fulfilment” (60).

c) We need an idea of perfection to work toward

  • The “desire for good is a broken hope without perfection” (60). Nietzsche desires a good beyond revenge, a good beyond our hatred of our finitude. But because Nietzsche sees the way to this good in a love of finitude, which Grant would seem to equate with imperfection, Grant cannot accept his conclusion. For Grant, “only the desire to become perfect does in fact make us less imperfect” (60). There must be some perfection to which we are related for us to even think of an increase in or movement toward perfection.

d) Receptivity to and remembrance of tradition will give us this idea

  • In the ancient view, reason was a receptivity, but in the modern view reason is will and mastery. Marx saw the problems of his day and his “thought abides because he thought some of what is happening in the modern world” (64). But he himself did not escape the modern framework. Marx’s philosophy is still concerned with revenge. Grant doesn't want to fall into this frame, but he knows that the “conception of time as history is not to be discarded as if it had never been” (68).

  • His alternative is remembering, which is a sort of reverence of tradition. In tradition there is “a handing over,” “a surrender,” a collection “out of that remembrance,” and from this collection an “assertion” of the perfection desired (66). But “remembering is clearly not self-sufficient. Any tradition, even if it be the vehicle by which perfection itself is brought to us, leaves us with the task of appropriating from it, by means of loving and thinking, that which it has carried to us” (68).

  • “It may be that at any time or place, human beings can be opened to the whole in their loving and thinking, even as its complete intelligibility eludes them” (68). This is not simply optimism but faith, a faith that Grant holds all the more firmly in knowing that our horizons are gone. He does not have a true answer to Nietzsche’s question, but he proposes an alternative: perhaps “the essential question about the modern project is not that of Nietzsche—Who deserve to be the masters of the earth?—but the very question of mastery itself” (69).

  • He leaves this to the “great thinkers and the saints” (69).

III. Critique

For the first time Nietzsche makes sense. He is still the bleakly cynical, often hysteric thinker that I thought he was, but Grant takes Nietzsche’s thought and, to use one of his words, enucleates it, presents it, highlights its core. How strange that a Christian would make Nietzsche relevant. But as Dr. Charles Malik says in the Appendix to the text, Nietzsche is a “perverted and inverted Christian prophet” (72), and so we can see that his is a sort of negative philosophy. He projects the world as he sees it, emphasizing such ideas as revenge, and it is through this emphasis that we see his philosophical commitments. And it is these commitments that demand a reckoning.

Nietzsche puts the hypocrisy of the West on display, and to ignore his charge is to persist in that hypocrisy. Even if we propose an alternative to Nietzsche’s solution, as Grant does, we must, nevertheless, engage with Nietzsche’s thought. We must think it through in order to move beyond it. The thinking through Grant does wonderfully, but it is with the moving beyond that he falls short. He himself recognizes this. So the movement beyond is what concerns me here.

The logic Nietzsche demands we follow is thus:

  1. Time has come to be conceived of as history

  2. History is a series of events

  3. As such, time has come to be the field for the exercise of the will

  4. Against the finitude of our being, man seeks mastery over his conditions through the exercise of the will

  5. When thwarted, the will falls into resentment and desires revenge

  6. Because ultimately all men in their willing are thwarted by death, all men carry within them a hatred of their finitude and a desire for revenge against it

  7. This desire for revenge has shaped our world

Grant’s thoughts on Marx in relation to Nietzsche are pertinent here. Marx accurately identified much of the condition of man in the modern era. The power structures of capitalism, the effect of ideology, the fetishization of objects—these are all real problems that require real solutions. But as Grant points out, Marx is still grounded in an understanding of time as history, as the field for the exercise of the will. In the dialectic of revenge, every man seeking his will, his desire, his enjoyment, we see the Hegelian master-slave dialectic emerge as it is materially inverted in Marx. From feudalism to modernity, the slave continually rises up to overthrow the master, but in turn the slave becomes the master. Thus the bourgeoisie, having at last supplanted the lords and the church and the nobility, have come to control the majority of society, and capitalism is their chosen structure of control. All of this Marx incisively critiques, and yet he remains in the spirit of revenge, positing just another overcoming, a mastery, that in his view will “finally” accomplish the movement of history. But if we truly think through Nietzsche’s thought, we see the impossibility of such a dream, and why every successful and potent Marxist movement has come to blood and collapse. So this is not to say that Marxist thought is invalid, but rather that its practice needs to more thoroughly take account of Nietzsche’s insights in order to overcome its own limitations. Time as history must be superseded.

But neither Nietzsche nor Grant propose a satisfactory alternative. Marxism is attractive because it is potent. It harnesses man’s historicity, his future-orientedness, and directs it into action. Nietzsche’s amor fati seems an impossibility, perpetually descending into the nihilism he hoped to transcend. Grant’s remembering is simply too vague, too abstract and ideal, for it to be really effective. He reverts to his faith and its basic principles of his faith—i.e. love—which is admirable, but not much of an alternative. Malik’s criticism of Grant is relevant here: “You named a few people, but you soon dissolve them into their ideas rather than retained their distinctive individuality ... I wish you had spoken about Jesus Christ of Nazareth, who lived and died and said what He said and thought himself in the way He thought about Himself and was understood as He was by the church” (72 – 73). Malik’s is a call to particularity, to look to the person rather than the absolute, to see in such a person as Jesus Christ what loving looks like, not how it has been “thought” (i.e. idealized) by what Malik thinks an absurd generality, Christianity. “Christianity is a system” (73), he writes, and systems are just as much a product of the West as is the notion of time as history. And I think this is where we can really move beyond both Grant and Nietzsche.

Two thinkers I am acquainted with aid us greatly in our thinking of a history of particularity. Heidegger and Gadamer were both acquainted with Nietzsche’s thought, with time as history, with the finitude, the temporality of being, with man as a projective creature, with the horizons of understanding, but rather than react, as Grant, and retreat into his limpid solace, Gadamer and Heidegger think Nietzsche further. They are both indebted to Nietzsche, but they are not enclosed by him.

With Heidegger we again are confronted with the temporality of our being, but now we learn that this temporality, time itself, is the horizon of our very being. Our historicity is undeniable. And so it would seem that the one undeconstructable horizon we have is this historicity. Certainly we can conceive of this historicity in different ways, as Prof. Shelvey demonstrated in class. But regardless, our historicity is clear. Our finitude is definitive, unconstructed, universal. But as a universal it is also peculiarly particular, indeed it is the universality of particularity. One’s history is always particular to oneself, and so in our encounter with our others there is never the total sameness of universality. We will never come to a totality of understanding of one another. There is always more, always excess.

The question of understanding in relation to our finitude and historicity is truly taken up by Gadamer. His opus Truth and Method delves deep on the matter. With time as the horizon of our being, and thus of our understanding, the question of interpretation is brought to the fore. His conclusion are too many to discuss here, but at least with he and Heidegger we see those “great thinkers” (69) Grant called for stepping forward to continue the work.

For now, these are my thoughts. Time as History is invaluable, but it leaves the conversation open to much further thinking. That is a good thing. As we learned, the receptivity of the past that Grant wants to reclaim, that we must fuse with our own horizon as Gadamer would have it, is fundamentally an openness, an openness to questions, to dialogue, and to possibility.

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