Absolute Time

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CATEGORY: Academics
TYPE: Articles
RELATED PROGRAMS: Philosophy

By | Andrea Wilhelmi ’14

Next month Sam Eklund will give a talk at a conference being held at Texas A&M University. He is the only student from a liberal arts college presenting.

“Most of my colleagues would turn green with nausea at the thought of working on Leibniz and Spinoza for a summer,” laughs Philosophy Professor Geoff Gorham. But as the summer of 2013 approached, Gorham wanted to tackle the chapter of his forthcoming book, The Emancipation of Time in the 17th Century, which wrestled with these thinkers.

Although collaborative projects are uncommon in the humanities, Gorham liked the idea of having someone help him work through his ideas about Leibniz and Spinoza. So he approached Sam Eklund ’14 (Scandia, Minn.), a philosophy major who had excelled in two of Gorham’s courses, and was equally captivated by the topics: Has time always existed? When did time start, and will it ever end?

Philosophers have pondered these questions for ages. Gorham’s book deals with how Newton’s concept of “absolute time” answers these questions. Newton was the first to propose the idea that time could have always existed on its own, regardless of whether anything was moving or changing.  Before that, people had assumed that physical changes, like a falling leaf or a turning planet, caused time to pass.

Inspired by Newton, 17th century thinkers Gottfried Leibniz and Baruch Spinoza spun complex webs of thought about the nature of time itself. They got in hot water with the Catholic church, however, and have been confounding their fellow philosophers ever since.

The pair worked through the summer on “independent but intertwined projects,” as Gorham put it, exploring Leibniz and Spinoza’s thoughts about the nature of time. Funded by Macalester’s Student/Faculty Summer Research Collaboration program, Eklund spent his first month combing through the texts of Leibniz and Spinoza, and gathering critical essays about their writing. The Macalester Library’s electronic database was instrumental in tracking down research material, he says.

Despite his best efforts, Eklund didn’t find much literature dealing with the subject of his summer’s writing. This turned out to be an exciting prospect, however, as it means his honors project could actually fill a hole in the world of published philosophy. Next month he will give a talk based on his research, “A Cardinal Sin: The Infinite in Spinoza’s Ethics,” at Texas A&M University. He is the only student from a liberal arts college presenting.

By helping Gorham tackle these philosophers for his book, Eklund not only got a head start on his honors project but is hopeful that the summer’s efforts will help him get into graduate school as well. “Having a solid writing sample is huge for getting into grad school in philosophy,” he says.

Besides, philosophy research, he found, is a far superior kind of work to what he’d done the previous summer: putting up stop signs and retouching highway paint in his hometown.

PUBLISHED: 10/16/2013