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Whose Time is it Anyway?

by YPU Admin on June 20, 2013, Comments. Tags: Humanities, Law, Philosophy, Research, and Time


My name is Tanzil Chowdhury and I am a Ph.D researcher in the School of Law. My work lies in the field of Jurisprudence which, generally, is a fancy word describing philosophical questions about law.These, for example, can include basic questions, such as: what is a law (how is it different from the rules you have in the classroom)? What role does law have in our lives (to control us? protect us?)? Are law and justice the same thing? 

My research looks at a very specific aspect of law which is ‘time’ or temporality (the two mean roughly the same thing). A famous philosopher, St Augustine, once said: ‘What, then, is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks me, I do not know’. Whilst we often think of time as being what our watch or clock tells us (called objective time), we also have experiences of time, like the feeling we have of time passing slowly when sitting through a boring film or ‘time flying when we are having fun’ (called subjective time). Law, as a ‘thing’ that exists in society, also has its own temporality. But why should it matter what the law’s time is?

In Depth

Bear this in mind: that time and temporality is intrinsically linked to how we construct events.

To explain what this means, imagine this: your mother has been forced to sort out a conflict between you and your brother. According to your elder sibling, he says you hit him in the leg. You don’t necessarily disagree, only that this was not the entire story. You tell your mother that your punch was a response to years of pent up aggression at the hands of your brother’s bullying. Your mother, preoccupied with more pressing matters, looks to you both and hands down her judgement: ‘this is going to stop now! From now on, if either of you complains about the other, you shall both be grounded’.

Her justice is firm and swift; her construction of the event is directed toward guiding both your future actions.  Your focus, however, was rooted firmly in the past. Put simply, your mother and you have different temporalities (your mother is more concerned with the future, and you the past) and this directly effects how you construct the pattern of events. Lawyers, judges and law makers exercise construction in very much the same way. 

The main question, therefore, is to look at how laws construct their own time (what we might call ‘legal temporality’). The clearest way of determining this is looking at the way legal actors (such as judges and law makers) apply legal principles to facts when they are ruling on a case and how this directly affects the way they reconstruct events in those cases. Interestingly, we don’t all share the same ‘temporality’. For example, the law aims to guide future conduct but I may be preoccupied with an event in the past which affects my future conduct. Because humans and the law courts have‘competing temporalities’, it maybe that the legal system can never really work.

I hope that my work will contribute to understanding how the law is a unique phenomenon within society and allow others to criticise and discuss the law from an entirely new angle. It may hopefully help to inform how the law can be more sensitive to the temporalities of humans’ who use the courts, and also help us to understand why a person may have committed wrongdoings.

Going Further

For another explanation of my research check out my university webpage and for information about studying Law at the University of Manchester, the department's pages are a good resource.  

 If you would like to learn more about the jurisprudence, and the philosophy of law generally, Law Teacher and Princeton University's Wiki provide useful resources. The Legal Theory Blog also contains some great information. 

Sixth Form Law provides opportunities for you to explore the questions that legal philosophers ask, and Stanford University's Encyclopedia of Philosophy an interesting section on Justice as a VirtueThis website is generally good for anything related to philosophy.

Discussions about time and temporality vary in philosophy, sciences and the social sciences. A good starting point for understanding this is the video attached to an article on time in the Huffington Post, while Stanford's Philosophy encyclopedia again provides a detailed overview of the experience and perception of time

The Guardian's Law Student section is great reading for those studying, or interested in, law.

Bright Knowledge, from the Brightside Trust, has some excellent information on studying law and pursuing a career in law.