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Scots Philosophical Association

University of St. Andrews

Aristotle, Number and Time

Author(s): Julia Annas
Source: The Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 25, No. 99 (Apr., 1975), pp. 97-113
Published by: Oxford University Press on behalf of the Scots Philosophical Association and the
University of St. Andrews
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VOL.25 No. 99 APRIL 1975


In his account of time in Physics A Aristotle exploits heavily the idea
that time is a kind of number. His more careful statement is that time is
the number of motion, and when he is being really careful he gives the full
definition: time is the number of motion in respect of before and after.
Aristotle's definition of time as a kind of number is like many other definitions
of time: striking and appealing, but obscure. In this paper I shall restrict
my focus to this attempt to analyse time by appeal to number; I shall discuss
what I think is the rationale for it, and then indicate some ways in which
it does not seem to fit other important things that Aristotle wants to say
about time.'
At 219b 3-5, after introducing the definition of time as a kind of number,
Aristotle adds "we judge more and less by number, and more and less motion
by time; so time is a kind of number". He adds that 'number' has two
senses, and time is a number in the sense of what is counted or countable,
not in the sense of what we count with.2 As often, Aristotle's analysis
develops from what we find it natural to say, and these points seem to be
read off from ordinary idioms which show that it is in fact natural to think
of time as a kind of number.3
1An earlier version of this paper was read in a seminar on Aristotle's philosophy of
science at the Institute of Classical Studies in London. I am grateful for the helpful
discussion on that occasion. I am especially grateful to James Dybikowski, G. E. L.
Owen and James Tiles, who have improved the paper in various ways.
2219b 5-9; the point is repeated at 220b 8-9.
"The significance of the second point in particular for Aristotle's concept of time
has been much exaggerated. It is contradicted within the analysis at 220b 3-5, where
time is said not to be quick or slow because neither of these applies to number that we
count with. Cf. footnote 27 below.

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But of course this is no argumentfor Aristotle's definition of time, and

the use he makes of it goes far beyond anything licensed or suggested by
ordinary idiom. One apparent licence in particular suggests that the origin
of the notion that time is a kind of number lies in a philosophical analysis
of Aristotle's own.
Throughout his account of time Aristotle is apparently quite happy to
interchange 'number' and 'counting' with 'measure' and 'measuring'. This
has been noticed, and some commentators have discussed the relation of
time as number to time as measure.4 However, the difficulty is deeper than
one would suspect from the commentators. It is not just that Aristotle
treats time as a number in some passages and as a measure in others, with-
out explaining the connexion. Rather, he uses the two interchangeably even
within the same passage, as for example at 221b 2 ff., where time turns up
quite indifferently as number and as measure within the same line of thought.5
This free and easy interchange of 'number' and 'measure' goes well beyond
any ordinary uses of the terms, and is nowhere explained in Physics A. I
believe, however, that the usage in the Physics passage is explained if we
turn to Metaphysics I 1-3, where Aristotle discusses the logic of 'one'. The
account of number given in Metaphysics I makes essential use of the idea
of measure, and the equation of number with measure in the Physics account
of time can be explained if we take Aristotle to be assuming there the analysis
of number which is to be found in Metaphysics I.
Of course it is not in general a reliable principle of method in studying
Aristotle to clarify a passage in one work by appealing to a passage in an-
other work for understanding of the terms involved. There is always the
danger that similarity of terminology may conceal deep differences of con-
cern. In the case of Physics A 10-14, however, some such appeal has to be
made not only in the present case but elsewhere. Throughout this passage
Aristotle makes certain assumptions about what he calls "the now", as for
example that it is indivisible, durationless and akin to a point. No argument
is offered for these statements in Physics A. We have to turn to Physics Z
(especially ch. 3) for the arguments about continuity which largely give
sense to Aristotle's concept of the now. In view of this I think that we are
justified in going outside the passage in Physics A for clarification of what
Aristotle understands there by number also. The treatment of time is not
the only passage in Aristotle which appears self-contained but for full under-
standing presupposes acquaintance with other parts of Aristotle's works.
Let us then look at Metaphysics I, in particular at the kind of analysis
of number,offered there.
4E.g. P. Conen, Die Zeittheorie des Aristoteles (G6ttingen, 1962), pp. 138-42.
5Time is the number of motion (221b 2); the being of eternal things is not measured
by time (b 5); time is the measure of motion (b 7); time is not motion but the number
of motion (b 11); time measures moving and resting things qua moving and resting
(b 16-7), since it measures the quantity of their motion and rest (b 18-9); time is the
measure of motion and rest (b 22-3, cf. b 25-6).

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Metaphysics I 1-3 is nominally an account of 'one', but in the process

gives an account of number and counting in general. Aristotle's other main
discussion of number is to be found in books M and N, in the context of a
discussion of all mathematical objects. All these passages show a consistent
attitude to the question of the existence of numbers. In the philosophy of
mathematics there is a great divide between those who believe that there
really are such objects as numbers, and those who find their existence un-
acceptable. Those like Plato and Frege who believe that numbers do exist
are usually called Platonists; those who think that statements about the
existence of numbers cannot be interpreted literally occupy a variety of
philosophical positions and have little in common other than being anti-
Platonists. Aristotle is always an uncompromising anti-Platonist about
numbers. He does not believe in the independent existence of abstract
objects like, say, the number 2, conceived of as an individual item existing,
but not in time or space. He has many varied arguments to this effect.
But while he denies that statements about numbers can be interpreted
literally, he is not denying sense to the statements of mathematicians which,
for example, specify properties of numbers. Met. I is of interest because it
is the only place where Aristotle presents anything like an anti-Platonist
alternative to the Platonist theories he criticizes elsewhere. Briefly, its up-
shot is that statements apparently about numbers do not in fact require
reference to be made to any such entities as numbers. Their sense is fully
given by statements in which no such apparent reference occurs, which
involve reference only to counting and measuring.
Thus Aristotle begins by denying that one is a substance or independent
item, as Plato had thought. Instead, he says, one is the measure of number.
This is not a metaphor; Aristotle is explaining counting in terms of measur-
ing, and he begins from the idea of a unit of measurement. We cannot just
measure something, for measurement is always relative to a unit chosen.
We measure something as 6 feet or 60 degreesFahrenheit. Aristotle extends
this idea to counting. To count a group of objects we first have to pick out
something to count as our unit; we have to know what we are counting-
chairs, colours or whatever.6 We can, of course, choose the unit differently,
depending on how we regard the group, and Aristotle regards this as analog-
ous to the use of different units of measurement. At 1052b 20 ff. he says
that measure is that by which quantity is known, and quantity qua quantity
is known by number and the one. Whereas we regard it as natural to think
of measurement as applied arithmetic, Aristotle regards counting as a kind
of pure measuring.
There are, I believe, many decisive objections to this analysis of counting
61053b 28 ff.: "In colours the one is a colour, e.g., white. . . . Therefore if all
existent things were colours, existent things would have been a number, indeed, but
of what? Clearly of colours; and the one would have been a particular one, e.g., white.
And similarly if all existing things were tunes, they would have been a number, but a
number of quarter-tones . . ." (Oxford translation).

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in terms of measuring. But, leaving this aside, let us look at what the theory
achieves. It demystifies counting: to count is not to relate counted groups
to the Platonist's abstract objects, numbers, but simply to fix on a type of
thing to use as unit, and then tell off those things using the numeral sequence.
Counting can be adequately explained without reference to abstract objects.
The one that we use in counting is not, as Plato thought, an independent
item; it is just a particular thing that we fix on as our unit, different in each
case. It might be a chair, or a colour, or any kind of thing.7
The main point of the Met. I passage, then, is to provide an anti-Platonist
alternative to the literal understanding of statements about number and
the idea that numbers are existing entities. Aristotle's ideas could be crudely
summed up as follows: In the world there are things, but there are not also
units and numbers over and above those things. There is only the fact that
those things can be counted.
I have suggested that the Met. I account is in the background of what
is said about number in Phys. A. There are three points that suggest this, even
before we come to the details of the way the idea of time as a number is applied.
Firstly, as already noted, 'number' and 'measure' are sometimes used inter-
changeably in Phys. A, and this needs some explanation. Secondly, Aris-
totle's theory has the awkward consequence that strictly speaking 1 is not
a number; in both Met. I and the Physics passage he notes this, but con-
tinues to use 1 as a number.8 Thirdly, he notes casually at 223b 13-5 that
things are counted by means of something of the same kind; this is totally
unexplained in Phys. A, but explained at length in Met. I at 1053a 24-30.
If Aristotle has the latter in mind in his treatment of time, and it is an
anti-Platonist account of number, this suggests that in saying that time is
a kind of number Aristotle may intend to give an anti-Platonist account of
time. I believe that this is so, and that the point of "Time is a kind of
number" is to make it possible to analyse statements about time in a non-
Platonist way.
Is Aristotle worried by the problem of whether time exists, as he clearly
is by the problem of whether numbers exist? I think that there are signs
that he is.
Firstly, he opens his account of time by asking whether or not it exists.
7The theory has another advantage: it explains how the unit can be indivisible.
Plato argues at Philebus 56-9 and 61-2 that because the things we count are never
indivisible, when we count in the strict sense we are counting not things but distinct
logically indivisible units. Aristotle's theory obviates this ontologically inflationary
move. Units are not abstract objects over and above counted objects: they just are
those counted objects, regarded as indivisible for purposes of counting. Mathematicians
regard their units as in every way indivisible (1052b 35-1053a 2), i.e., fission in the
physical world is not allowed to refute a calculation. This characterization of a unit
as what is taken to be indivisible turns up elsewhere in Aristotle (1089b 35, 1016b 25,
Physics 206b 30-1).
8Metaphysics 1056b 25, 1085b 10, Physics 220a 27-32. In spite of the fashionable
assumption that 1 was not naturally regarded as a number by the Greeks because
&pL0,66q connoted plurality, both Plato and Aristotle use 1 as a number (Laws 818c,
Sophist 238b, Categories 5a 31, Metaphysics 1080a 24, 1082b 35).

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It is true that he opens his discussions of the infinite, place and the void in
the same way. But the enquiry into time opens with a different and stronger
expression: not just "Does time exist or not?" but "Is time among the things
which exist or among the things that don't exist?".9 And the first two
puzzles about time discussed by Aristotle concern the existence of time.10
It is also worth noting that Aristotle is careful to restrict time to the sphere
of motion and therefore to that of natural objects capable of motion and so
of coming into being and passing away. Items that exist eternally are not
in time." The whole structure of his account of time makes it derivative
from the natural objects which are what for him exist in the proper or
basic sense.
Moreover, it is only in the case of time that Aristotle explicitly raises
the question of its relation to soul. Would time exist if there were no soul
(223a 16-7, 21-9)? He answers that it would not. Many have found here a
radically "subjective" view of time.12 But the point is simply that time is
the countable aspect of motion, and there can be nothing countable without
someone to do some counting. For Aristotle the problem of whether time
would exist even if we were unaware of it is not a problem about subjectivity
or the phenomenology of time. His point is that since time is a kind of
number it has the sort of existence appropriate to a number: that is, it has
no existence independently of activities of counting. The clear implication
of this is that (as with number) it is misleading to say that time exists if
this is taken to imply that the existence of time is independent of that of
human activity-in this case the activity of time-keeping. Statements
about time lose their sense if they are cut adrift from the statements about
counting and measuring that specify their sense, just as statements about
numbers do. And this is true of time becauseit is true of number, since time
is explained as being a kind of number.
9Cf. 202b 35-6, 208a 28, 213a 13; compare 217b 31-2.
10217b 33-218a 3, 218a 3-8. These puzzles are not unequivocal support for my
thesis, however, since they pose the question of time's existence in terms of the non-
existence of past and future; the present moment exists in a way that these do not.
But although these puzzles cannot be identified with the problem which I claim is
Aristotle's main concern, it can be pointed out in mitigation that Aristotle does not
in fact answer these puzzles in his account of time which follows, at least not in the
form in which they are set up.
llTime is T xLVj6aeco (219a 9-10). Only changeable ("movable") things are in time;
nothing is in time that does not change or move (221b 23-222a 10). All change (motion)
is in time (222b 30-223a 15). These arguments should be carefully distinguished from
the point at 218b 21-219a 10, that perception of time is impossible without perception
of motion. It is wrong to take this passage as a claim that the existence of time depends
on the existence of motion (see J. Moreau, L'espace et le temps selon Aristote, pp. 101-8;
Conen, pp. 39-44). It would in fact be an error to make time logically derivative from
motion, because motion or change already involves time. Aristotle recognizes this at
222b 30-223a 15: all motion is (relatively) fast or slow, and this involves the notion
of covering a distance in more or less time. But he does not remain sufficiently aware
of this, or he would have suspected a covert circularity in the scheme in which before
and after in time is derived from before and after in motion and this in turn from a
primary before and after in space.
12See Conen, pp. 156-69, for discussion of such views.

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It seems clear, then, that Aristotle is worried about Platonist interpreta-

tions of statements about time, and that part at least of his concern in
Phys. A is to offer an acceptable alternative. It does not seem, however,
that he has Plato in mind as the main Platonist opponent, as he has in the
case of numbers.13 There is no need to supply him with a specific philo-
sophical position as target. Ordinary talk about time tempts us naturally
enough into the Platonist view, or at least into a vague acceptance of Time
as a mysterious cosmic entity or container. And this is already obnoxious
for Aristotle, since it would mean that our statements about time were made
true by an entity mysterious to us, over and beyond what we can describe
in statements whose truth-conditions are given by activities like timing
things. In Greek particularly there are many idioms with this kind of
implication. Time is what "includes" or "enfolds" everything, and is thought
of as a boundless resource that will never give out; there is a time greater
than anything in time. We shall see that Aristotle takes these idioms very
seriously, and thinks it important to give a non-Platonist interpretation of
them, as also of the idiom 'in time' which suggests that Time is a kind of
container. The Platonist interpretation of time, then, is for Aristotle probably
just the ordinary pre-reflective notion of time. (Indeed, it is when reflection
suggests that time might not exist after all that we get the philosophical
puzzles which suggest the need for a philosophical analysis of time.)
Still, even if Aristotle has an anti-Platonist motivation, why does he
choose to give such an account of time in terms of number rather than in
some other way? In answer to this I shall offer first a very general suggestion
and then a more specific remark about the strategy Aristotle adopts.
Firstly, the idea that problems about the existence of time will yield to
the same sort of technique as problems about the existence of numbers will
seem more appealing if one sees both problems in the perspective of a general
concern with Platonism about abstract objects in general. I think it is
reasonable to ascribe such a concern to Aristotle. Metaphysics M, which
contains his arguments against the "separate" existence of mathematical
objects, is presented as an enquiry into the question of whether there is any
"unchanging and eternal reality over and above the perceptible ones" (1076a
10-2). In M and N it is Forms and mathematical objects that Aristotle
considers as candidates for this status. But clearly the Platonist conception
of time puts it forward as just such an abstract object, existing independently
of concrete objects. This makes it plausible to argue that Aristotle may
have regarded the existence of time as the same sort of problem as the
13Plato's account of time in the Timaeus is vague, because of its metaphorical
presentation. Crombie (An Examination of Plato's Doctrines, vol. II, p. 208) claims
that it contains an "absolutist" theory of time, but it is doubtful that Aristotle took it
this way. Since he took the Timaeus creation literally, he would have to make some
sense of the "disorderly motion" involving temporal succession before the creation of
measured time; on this view Plato's theory approaches Aristotle's, tying our concept
of time closely to the regular measurability of events. See Vlastos, pp. 385-90 and 409-
14 in Studies in Plato's Metaphysics, ed. Allen.

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existence of number, even though he does not consider time in the Meta-
physics, presumably because time is a concept involved in physics or the
study of nature.
Secondly, Aristotle's treatment involves quite close and specific attempts
to reduce apparent problems about time to problems about number that
have already been solved in a non-Platonist way. This is true not only of
the general application of the idea that time is a kind of number, but of
Aristotle's attempts to deal with the apparently Platonist idioms in which
it is natural to speak of time. So one at any rate of Aristotle's reasons for
saying that time is a kind of number is that the reduction of the problems
of time to those of number can be carriedout in a fairly systematic way. This
of course needs to be supported by an examination of the relevant passages.
If we look at the passages in Phys. A that offer most help in actual
application of the idea that time is a kind of number, it will become clearer
that the argument is analogous to that of Met. I. Important here is the
passage 220b 14-221a 9, where time is called the number of motion and some
attempt is then made to explain this by reference first to counting and then
to measuring. Aristotle shows no awareness that these are significantly
different (as we would expect if he has the Met. I analysis in mind), and we
shall see that what he wants to emphasize is something common to both of
them, namely the fact that a unit is involved.
The analogy of counting is brought in at 220b 18-24. When we say that
much or little time has passed, we are measuring it by the motion, just as
when we say a number is large or small we are measuring it by the units
counted. While Aristotle expands on this in the case of number, he makes
no helpfully specific application to time. (He contents himself with the
general comment that we measure time by motion and motion by time, and
say that the road is long if the journey is, and vice versa.) I think a parallel
can be drawn, however, and that it is not illegitimate to draw it if the
analogy is to be taken seriously..
We know whether there are many horses or few by knowing what the
number of them is, i.e., by knowing how many there are. But knowing this
involves just knowing that the unit in question is horse,i.e., that horses (rather
than, e.g., stallions or piebalds) are being counted. Knowing how many
there are in the group is not a matter of comparing it with some number
in a Platonist heaven. It is simply a matter of knowing how to count it,
i.e., of knowing what the unit is. If the analogy carries over to time, we
should get the following: to know how long a process took (or some other
kind of "motion" broadly understood) is not a matter of comparing it with
the passage of Time, as we might be tempted to think if we conceive of
Time as a something objectively progressing against which we can compare
processes as they occur. To know how long a process took is simply a matter
of being able to count or measure its duration (just as to know how large a
group is, is just a matter of being able to count its members). Doing this

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involves knowing what period is being taken as unit (just as counting a

group involves knowing what type of thing is being taken as unit). Once
we know what the unit period is, we can use it to check off against the
duration of the process, and conclude that the process lasted, e.g., 3 hours.
The length of time taken is related to the period of time taken as unit in
the way that the size of number is related to the type of object counted.
In each case the latter is necessary if there is to be any determination of the
former, because the latter is the unit by means of which we count or measure
the former.
At 221a 1-4 Aristotle proceeds to use measurement also to elucidate the
relation of time to motion indicated by saying that time is the number of
motion. Here we are told that time measures motion in the way a cubit
measures length. Again the point emphasized is the unit involved. A cubit
is a unit of measure of length by means of which the whole length of an
item is measured. So a specified period of time, like an hour, would be a
unit measure of time by which the duration of an event can be measured.
So Aristotle concludes that the measurement of time is relative to the
measurement of motion, and vice versa. We measure motion by time; we
measure events in hours and days. But we also measure time by motion,
because a unit period of time is determined by the occurrence of a change
or other motion. There is a difficulty here, of course: how can motion measure
time, since motions can be irregular and spasmodic? At this point Aristotle
needs and argues for (at 223b 12-224a 2) the existence of a uniform standard
motion by which time can be measured, i.e., by which units of time can be
standardly specified. This is found in the uniform circular motion of the
heavens. One such revolution measures a day, a unit of time. This can
then be used to measure other motions, e.g., a day's journey. So, depending
on the original standard uniform motion, we measure time by motion and
motion by time, and each serves as a progressively more accurate check on
the other.
The similarity of this account to the account in Met. I should now be
clear. In both cases a process that seemed to involve reference to an abstract
object has been explained as thoroughly straightforward and requiring no
such reference. The Platonist wants to say that when I count a group of
three apples I am relating them to the number 3, which exists whether
groups are counted or not. Similarly he wants to say that when I say that
the movie lasted three hours I am relating the performance of the movie to
Time, which proceeds independently of the timing of events. In both cases
Aristotle wants to say that this is a wrong analysis, that what is going on
is just an ordinary unmysterious process of measurement. Hours and days
are units of measurement on the scale of time in just the same way that
cubits are units of measurement on the scale of length, and are no more
problematic. It is just as implausible in the case of time as it is in the case
of length to cut off the concept from activities of measuring.

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So the analysis of Phys. A is meant to achieve a demystification of the
concept of time, by means of the similar account of number in Met. I. This
general point has been recognized already,14but the thoroughgoing nature
of the analogy has never been sufficiently stressed.l5 I have tried to show
that in one passage at least the argument is strikingly similar to that of
Met. I, and that both treatments are alike in their overall anti-Platonist
aim. It could be objected that I have made the treatment of time look
artificially like that of number by drawing out analogies which are not given
to us in the text. I must admit that the similarities between number and
time which I have concentrated on so far are indeed implicit in the text
rather than stated for us. But I think one can point to more than overall
likeness of aim between Physics A and Metaphysics I. Aristotle actually
applies his general definition of time as a kind of number at specific points.
Twice he carefully disinfects a potentially misleading time idiom. In both
cases it is very plausible that what is wrong is that the idiom might suggest
the Platonist concept of time. And in both cases the cure is found by show-
ing that the idioms should be analysed like the correspondingnumberidioms.
This suggests that Aristotle does himself regard the analysis of number as
more than a general analogue to the analysis of time, and that he does think
that the similarity of time and number can be pressed in detail to anti-
Platonist effect.
The first case is that of 'in time' (221a 9-30, 221b 14-6). Aristotle says
that 'to be in time ' has two possible senses. One, 'to be when time is', is
not a proper sense.'6 In its proper sense, 'to be in time' is to be explicated
as like 'being in number'. The latter expressions can have two senses.
Firstly, the now and before and after are in time in the way unit and odd
and even are in number. What this sense involves is the way that concepts
figure in the analysis of other concepts. The alternative sense of being in
number is to have a number, which is for a thing to have "its being" measured
by number. This sense comes down to saying that a thing can be counted.
A group of three apples is "in" the number 3 in this sense in that, if we talk
about the group in terms of 3 then we are talking about apples (and not
molecules, etc.); in this sense the "being" of the apples is measured by the
number. 'In time' is to be understood in the same way; the point, that is,
is being extended from objects to processes. A thing is "in number" if it
can be counted; a process is "in time" if it can be timed. So a play would
be "in" the period of time 3 hours if what lasted 3 hours was the play, rather
than, say, one of its acts.
14See W. Wieland, Die aristotelische Physik, Gottingen 1962, pp. 316-34.
15Aristotle even follows up fairly trivial likenesses of idiom. We judge more and
less by number, more and less motion by time (219b 4-5); time itself is not quick or slow
any more than number is (220b 3-5).
16At 221a 19-26 Aristotle says that it is clear that 'to be in time' does not mean
this; it is merely something that happens to be the case with things that are in time.

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It seems rather odd to us that Aristotle worries at such length about this
expression 'in time', but it makes sense if we realize that his worry is the
Platonist picture of time that this expression suggests. It indicates that
Time is there already for events to be timed in, and independent of them,
in the way a house exists independently of what is in it. For Aristotle it is
important that we realize that this is a completely wrong picture. So we
are steered away from the misleading possibilities of the idiom by being
directed to the parallel idiom (parallel in Greek anyway, as it appears,
though Aristotle is our only source here) 'in number', which we are assumed
to know has already been given a suitably non-Platonist interpretation.
The deflationary intent of this is even clearer in the corollaries Aristotle
draws for connected idioms. Things are included in time only in the sense
in which they are included in number or space.17 Time is not in any sense
there already to include all the processes that can be timed, as the Platonist
picture suggests. There is a difficulty here for Aristotle's conception, as
there is in the equally natural assumption that there is a time greater than
anything in time (221a 26-7). How are we to understand them without the
Platonist picture? It appears that we are to understand the latter by refer-
ence to the possibility of saying that there is a number greater than any
given number.18 But Aristotle is never very explicit about the anti-Platonist
way of dealing with statements like this, though his general approach is
clear from his treatment of the infinite: they are not to be taken literally
as referring to strange entities, but rather to be interpreted in terms of the
possibility of continuing the process of counting or timing without ever
having to stop.
The second case in which the suggestions of a time idiom are deflated
by reference to the correct interpretation of number idioms is that of 'same
time' and 'same number', which comes up frequently.19 We often want to
say that two processes took the same time, because they began together
and ended together. But if time just is the measure or number of motion,
how can two different motions take the same time? We seem to be forced
into saying either that every motion is measured or numbered by its own
time, so that strictly no two motions can take the same time; or that if two
motions do take the same time, then the time they both take must be some-
thing that exists over and above the measurement of both of them (cf. 218b
17I follow Ross' text at 221a 17-26.
18The parallel is not explicitly drawn, but seems clear from the preceding bret 68
iaTtV o &v pLV
a0p) TOiv Xp6vc (221a 26) and the conclusion that things in time will be
included in time (28-30); we have seen how this is to be understood. At Physics 207b
13-5 it is made clear that there will be a number greater than any given number, but
not one "separate" from the process of counting.
19220a 21-4 (but the text is corrupt and confusing), 220b 5-14, 223b 1-12, 224a 2-15.
The last is a relevant passage about number which has been neglected or even omitted
on insufficient grounds. Wicksteed in the Loeb edition brackets it as "worthless"; his
only serious argument is that Themistius may not have read it. Cornford and Ross
both point out that Themistius does elsewhere refer to the "10 sheep" which are men-
tioned only here.

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10-3). But of course we want to say neither of these. Aristotle answers

this dilemma by appeal to the logic of 'same number'. If we have 100 men
and 100 horses then we have the same number even though the units are
different, being in the one case men and in the other case horses. Similarly
the times of two equal and simultaneous motions are the same time, although
the motions are different. At 224a 2-15 Aristotle says even more carefully
that when we have 10 dogs and 10 sheep we have different units and there-
fore different tens (because they are tens of different kinds of thing) but we
still have the same number.20 We know from the Met. I analysis that this
does not imply that there exists a number independent of both groups,
which they are both related to. No more does the logic of 'same time' compel
us to accept that there exists a time independent of both motions and their
measurement in hours, minutes, etc. So in this case too we are to be dis-
abused of Platonist assumptions about time by being referred to similar
idioms with number, which we are assumed to know already to require no
such Platonist assumptions (a further argument for the contention that we
require Met. I for a full understanding of Phys. A, if we are supposed to
know this already).
To sum up so far: I have argued that Aristotle's analysis of time as a
kind of number can best be understood as an attempt to produce a theory
of time that is anti-Platonist, tying the sense of the concept very closely
to human activities of timing things, and hence rejecting the notion that
time exists over and above the existence of beings to time things. The
analysis of time as a kind of number or measure relates Aristotle's concept
of time closely to his (relatively) well-worked-out anti-Platonist concept of
number. The analogy is, moreover, not just made in general terms but is
carried into some detail, and always with the same anti-Platonist intent.
I shall conclude by pointing out some ways in which Aristotle's use of
the Metaphysics I analysis of number in Physics A creates problems for him
in his account of time.
There is first an oddity in the actual definition of time as a number, in
the passage 219a 10-b 2. This is a careful and well-worked-out passage,21
and it appears that Aristotle wants us to understand from it the way in
which time can be said summarily to be a number. Aristotle argues that
time is continuous because motion is, and motion is continuous because
magnitude is. "Before" and "after" hold primarily of magnitude, deriva-
20Aristotle for this purpose takes the two 10s to be two species of 10, as isosceles
and scalene triangles are two species of triangle. Ross criticizes this on the ground
that the two 10s are only numerically, not specifically, different. But Wieland defends
Aristotle's procedure here as an attempt to give sense to what he understands by 'same
21Cf. Conen, pp. 62-5: after this point the discussion is no longer linear, but consists
of a collection of notes in which various items are discussed in a somewhat unconnected

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tively of motion, and derivatively again of time. We recognize time when

we distinguish the before and after in change or motion, and we do this
when we recognize two nows. When we only perceive one now, we distinguish
no time. We only perceive time when we distinguish different nows, an
earlier and a later, with a period of time intervening between them. And
Aristotle concludes straight away from this that time is the number of
motion in respect of before and after.
But there is surely something at least odd about this. Aristotle is con-
cluding that time is the number of motion in respect of before and after,
merely given our ability to distinguish different nows in time. But for
Aristotle, as we have seen, the concept of number is tied very closely to
that of counting. But to mark off different nows is not yet to do any count-
ing; for that we need to mark off the periods of time as units of some kind.
Only with a unit do we have counting, and thus number, if we are taking
Metaphysics I seriously. So, given the presence in Physics A of ideas which
are undoubtedly very like those of I, it is at least surprising that the very
definition of time as a number omits this essential point.
It might be objected that this omission is not very significant, that
Aristotle is perfectly aware that picking out different nows does not amount
to counting, but that he sees no difficulty here because he is assuming,
though not explicitly mentioning here, the point that we compare the chunks
of time we distinguish as units of some kind. Later (223b 12 ff.) he will
argue that the uniform standard motion gives us the possibility of marking
off units of time; but he is not obliged to make this point every time he
talks of time as a number.
There is force to this objection; we cannot read too much into Aristotle's
silence here. None the less, it is significant, I think, that this omission of a
feature crucial to the Metaphysics I concept of number occurs where it does,
in a context in which time is treated in relation to the other continua of
motion and magnitude.
There are several passages in Physics A where Aristotle treats time in a
way explicitly analogous to his treatment of the other two continua, motion
and magnitude. Time is continuous;22 the detailed arguments are to be
found in Physics Z, but in Physics A Aristotle indicates his grounds when
he says that time is continuous because it is derivative from motion, which
is continuous because it is derivative from magnitude. Aristotle also draws
the parallel between distance covered, motion and time,23 and the parallel
between the point of space, the moving body and the now.24 This last
parallel is in turn the basis for many of the things that Aristotle wants to
say about the now, such as his solution to the problem of how the now is
always the same and yet always different, and also the analogy of the now
22219a 10-14; 220a 4-5, 24-6; 220b 2-3.
23219a 10-14, b 15-16; 220b 24-8.
24219b 16-33, 220a 9-11.

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with a point. When Aristotle says that time is made continuous by the
now and divided at the now, he has in mind the analogy of a line and a
point, both magnitude and time being continuous.
This complex of ideas, resting on the elaborate arguments of Physics Z,
has no obvious connexion with the ideas of Metaphysics I, or the use of
these in Physics A. In the passage leading up to the definition of time as
a number Aristotle is clearly not thinking about the Metaphysics I require-
ments for number, but thinking rather of the type of argument in Physics
Z. Hence the odd omission of the essential Metaphysics I requirement of a
unit if there is to be counting, and so number.
But it does seem at any rate as though at this point in Physics Aristotle
has not been sufficiently careful in uniting the two approaches to time.
In his treatment of motion in Physics r he makes the anti-Platonist point
that there is no motion over and above the individual moving things (220b
32-201a 3, cf. Metaphysics 1077b 22-34), but it is hard to see how the
Physics treatment could accommodate the notion that motion is a kind of
number. There is more of a puzzle with magnitude, where there is no separate
treatment like that of motion. There seems to be little to prevent the ex-
tension of Aristotle's treatment of time as a number to magnitude or length,
which is a product of measuring space, and just as dependent on the avail-
ability of soul to do some measuring or counting. It would be of interest
to determine whether Aristotle has philosophical reasons for treating time
as a number, because it is the product of measuring procedures, but not
magnitude, or whether this merely reflects personal preferences. He cer-
tainly seems to find the existence of time more problematic than that of
magnitude (as opposed to unmeasured space), but it is hard to see why.
It should be noted that there are no corresponding difficulties in the case
of magnitude and motion, since Aristotle's treatment of them makes no use
of ideas from Met. I. This raises the interesting question of why Aristotle
makes his sole application of the Met. I ideas to time, and not to the other
continua; a question that cannot be properly pursued here.
Finally, I shall discuss some residual unclarities about the now, which
likewise seem traceable to the influence of ideas from Metaphysics I.
Aristotle's concept of the now in Phys. A is put forward clearly: the now
is not a period but the limit of a period, and does not itself have any duration.
A now determines time by marking off the future from the past, but without
taking up any time itself. Time is not made up of nows (218a 8), as it would
be were they periods. These assertions are argued for not in Phys. A but
in Phys. Z (especially ch. 3). There are, however, three passages where the
now seems to be compared rather to the unit of number and appears to
have the logic of a period rather than a durationless instant marking off a
period. This is, of course, consistent with the notion of time as a number
which I have been emphasizing, but it clashes with Aristotle's usual charac-
terization of the now. These passages are all incidental and raise difficulties

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independently of this point, and even if they do indicate an inconsistency

it is not one that affects any of Aristotle's major arguments in Phys. A.
They merely indicate that occasionally Aristotle is not very clear about the
relation of the now to time, and under the influence of the analogy with
number can be led to say things about the now which have implications
that clash with his explicit account of the now.
At 220a 1-4 Aristotle says that time and the now imply one another, and
adds the rather mysterious lines: "Just as the moving body and its loco-
motion involve each other mutually, so too do the number of the moving
body and the number of its locomotion. For the number of the locomotion
is time, while the now corresponds to the moving body, and is like the unit
of number" (Oxford translation).
Here, bafflingly, the now is said to be not only like the unit of number,
but the number of the moving body, and said to correspond to the moving
body. Whatever Aristotle means here by comparing the now to a unit, the
passage is hard to square with the characterization of time and the now
elsewhere in Phys. A. It is best, therefore, to concentrate on the fact that
Aristotle is here giving an analogy: the relation of time and the now is
compared with that of motion and the moving body. We must work out-
wards from this analogy to understand what is said about time and the
now.25 To help us understand how time and the now imply each other, we
are told that the number of motion and the number of the moving body
are related as are motion and the moving body. We are also told that time
is the number of motion, and it is in the light of this that we have to under-
stand the puzzling final words that the now corresponds to the moving body
and is like the unit of number. The simplest way to understand the point is to
take it that the now is related to the moving body as time is related to the
motion of the moving body. (The correspondence has to be exact, or the
analogy would fall flat.) Now the relation of time to the motion is that time is
the number of motion. Correspondingly,the now must be the number of the
moving body. But this is not very illuminating; we do not know how to
understand this. In the present passage it makes some sense in the context
of the analogy: just as time is (nothing but) the number of motion (and not
something existing separately), so the now is (nothing but) the number of
the moving body (and not a separate existent either). Time and the now
are related as are motion and moving body because the former pair are
ontologically parasitic on the latter pair in parallel fashion. However, out-
side the immediate context of the analogy, this characterization of the now
can hardly be made to fit the rest of Physics A, and this is presumably why
Aristotle at once improves on it. He at once restates the point by saying
that the now is like the unit of number, an alternative way of describing
its correspondence to the moving body. This can only be understood as
5Here I agree with Conen, p. 100-2. Ross in his note does not, and so accuses Aris-
totle of an implausibly crude mistake.

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saying that the now stands to time as the unit stands to number:26a point
which fits well the characterization of time as a number, but clashes rather
obviously with Aristotle's other ideas about the now, notably the idea that
the now is like a point which divides the continuum of time. The now can
hardly be compared both to a point and to the discrete units making up a
number-not, at least, without a good deal of explanation, which Aristotle
never provides.
My interpretation of this passage can be contested on the grounds that
logically it makes time a number in the sense of number with which we count,
for it is this which is composed of discrete units. But Aristotle says at 219b
5-9 and 220b 8-9 that time is number not in this sense but in the sense of
number that is counted. This is not conclusive, however, for elsewhere
(220b 3-5) he goes against these statements by treating time as number
with which we count. These conflicts are not very surprising, for this dis-
tinction of two senses of 'number' seems to rest on a confusion of number
with numbered group, a confusion transcended by the Met. I analysis. The
real puzzle is why Aristotle insists on the distinction in Phys. A, which is
influenced by that analysis.
The second passage is 220b 5-12-again a passage which as it stands is
not very clear. "There is the same time everywhere at once, but not the
same time before and after, for while the present change is one, the change
which has happened and that which will happen are different. Time is not
number with which we count, but the number of things which are counted,
and this according as it occurs before or after is always different, for the
nows are different. And the number of a hundred horses and a hundred men
is the same, but the things numbered are different" (Oxford translation).
What is most unclear about this passage is exactly what Aristotle means
in saying that time is different insofar as it is time before and after. He
gives as a reason for this a difference between present change or motion
and future or past change or motion, but the nature of the distinction he
is drawing is not obvious.27 But even without settling this problem, some
things canl be clarified about the structure of the argument as a whole.
Aristotle is saying that time is in one way the same and in another way
different, and explaining this by the way a number can be said to be in one
26That is, it can only be sensibly understood in the context of the analogy dominating
this passage. There are other possible interpretations, as that the now is being treated
as one thing, but this is obvious and weak. Conen's comment (p. 101: "[das Jetzt]
entspricht . . . dem Ding, das sich als eine Einheit bewegt; es ist gewissermassen die
Einheit des Dinges insofern, als dieses seine Einheit wihrend der Bewegung beibehalt")
is unconvincing; can we not time an explosion? The general problem of finding a sense
for "unit" outside the context of the analogy is that here the unity of the object is
irrelevant and the unity of the now is pointless.
27The argument is best understood, I think, in the light of the similar arguments
about 'same time' and 'same number' (see fn. 19). But there is undoubtedly an extra
problem in this argument, because of the obscurity of the way in which time and num-
ber are said to be different. Any account which builds on the difference between present,
future and past tends to leave it obscure how this is to be illuminated by reference to

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way the same and in another different. Aristotle appeals to number to show
firstly how it is that time is different, and then how it is that time is the
same.28 While it is not very clear how number and time are different in the
sense required, the way in which they are the same is familiar, and has been
discussed above. A number can be the same, e.g., 100, even if the units
counted are different, e.g., horses and men. Similarly, time is the same even
though the nows are different. Here again we find that in the context of
an analogy, here between time and number, the now is made parallel with
a unit. It is true that here it is not obvious how we are to understand "the
nows are different", and Aristotle may not mean that periods of time are
different.29 Nonetheless, we find that in the service of an analogy Aristotle
is prepared to compare the now with a unit, and this raises the same question
as the first passage: how, without more explanation, are we to reconcile this
with the repeated assertions that nows are not like tiny little periods, but
are rather comparable to durationless points?
Thirdly, there is an odd passage at 219b 11-2, where Aristotle says that
the now measures time qua earlier and later.30 To do so it would have to be
a period with some duration, for something with no duration could hardly
measure something with duration. This passage stands in striking contra-
diction to the concept of the now as durationless, and in particular to 218a
6 ff., where Aristotle denies that the now is a part of time on the ground that
a part of something measures the whole. Because of this conflict, Ross in
the Oxford Classical Text removes the offending reference to measuring.31
(The Oxford translation, however, retains the MSS reading.) Since, how-
ever, there are no good grounds for emending the text apart from a desire
to eliminate the inconsistency, it is surely better to retain it as a minor
point of friction between the idea that the now correspondsto a point divid-
ing a continuum, and the idea that the now corresponds to the unit of
number, time being a number.
These problems do not affect any of Aristotle's main points about time,
but they do indicate that it is not altogether simple to combine Aristotle's
28Here I agree with Conen's interpretation of the structure of the argument (pp.
94-5). Aristotle sets out the problem: time is the same in one way, different in another;
then (as often) he deals with the points in reverse order, the difference in 11. 8-10, the
sameness in 11. 10-12.
29Aristotle could avoid making nows into periods here by saying that what are
different are the durationless instants which mark off different periods. But in fact he
makes no move to free his analogy from the dangerous implication that the now is a
period, since it stands to time as the unit stands to number.
30The "qua earlier and later" clause seems to echo the definition of time as the num-
ber (or measure) of motion in respect of before and after, and so does not provide any
problems for the reading "measures" (though it would also suit Ross' emendation).
31Ross emends izeTpzeto op~zEL, though Jzerpetis read by all the MSS but one (E)
and by all the Greek commentators. It might be claimed that 'the now measures time'
is an odd phrase, but at 218a 6-7 a part measures the whole, and at 221a 1 time measures
motion. Euclid says of a number that is a fraction of another number that it xocTaisTpeL
that number, and since Aristotle uses pzETpeZo0ain this sense (at Metaphysics 1092b
32-5) there seems to be little difference between terpeZv and xaraoctppeZv, in spite of
221a 1-2.

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two ways of looking at time: that deriving from the arguments of Physics
Z and relating time as a continuum to the other continua of motion and
magnitude, and that deriving from the ideas in Metaphysics I and finding
expression in the thesis that time is a number. Interesting questions suggest
themselves here about the consistency and viability of Aristotle's different
approaches to the problems of time and measurement; but these questions
go beyond the scope of this paper.
St Hugh's College,Oxford

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