As Augustine famously put it, we think we know what time is until someone asks us for a definition. Although labouring on the peripheries of mainstream academic philosophy and physics, the Anglo-Irish philosopher J. W. Dunne (1875-1949) attempted to define the ineffable with his own highly influential theory of time. In the words of the playwright and novelist J. B. Priestley, “those of us who are Time-haunted owe him an enormous debt.”
John William Dunne was the son of an Irishman General, Sir John Hart Dunne and his English wife, Julia Elizabeth Dunne. Serving as a trooper and infantry officer, he fought in the Boer War. Like Wittgenstein, he was also originally an aeronautical engineer, designing early tailless swept-wing aircraft — his designs being secretly tested by the War Office as early as 1907. As officially witnessed by Orville Wright, Dunne’s D.5 was certified as the first aircraft to achieve aerodynamic stability in flight. This unassuming eclectic also wrote children’s books and was something of an authority on angling, credited with inventing a new approach to dry-fly fishing. And yet it is his challenge to the so-called dogma of chronological unidimensional time which marks Dunne out as a philosopher of note; his work constituting, as he put himself, “an extremely cautious reconnaissance in a rather novel direction.”
A seemingly precocious child, Dunne questioned his nurse as to the true nature of time; she obliged, explaining how we are travelling from yesterday to today and are moving onwards to tomorrow. Unconvinced, the young John William asked her, “which did she mean was time: yesterday, to-day and tomorrow: or the time which it took us to travel from the one to the other?” From that point onwards, Dunne was unable to rid himself of the conviction that time flowed; but without, as he later put it, replicating “Newton’s error of supposing that the ‘flow’ was ‘without reference to anything external.’”
These early thoughts coalesced into a full-fledged theory in 1927 when Dunne published what became a somewhat unlikely best-seller, An Experiment with Time. Therein, Dunne outlined the two central tenets of his philosophy: Pre-cognitivism and Serialism. The former idea stemmed from a series of supposedly precognitive dreams that Dunne experienced, many of which were mundane in nature and soberly recorded. Dunne “did not feel he was about to become a prophet” nor did he take leave of his rational faculty and ascribe such puzzling experiences to astral wanderings, telepathy or clairvoyance. Buoyed by the corroborating testimonies of others, he inquired as to whether it was possible that such phenomena were not abnormal, but normal. As he asked, were dreams “composed of images of past experience and images of future experience blended together in approximately equal proportions?” This line of inquiry led to a radical and influential reformulation of the concept of Time itself. It was just conceivable, he argued, that “the universe was, after all, really stretched out in Time” — the “lop-sided view” we have of it, “a view with the ‘future’ part unaccountably missing, cut off from the growing ‘past’ part by a travelling ‘present’ moment — was due to a purely mentally imposed barrier which existed only when we were awake.”
Distancing himself from any accusations of occultism, Dunne developed his notion of Serial Time (or Serialism) as a means to rationalise this precognitive vision, armour-plating his account with appeals to mathematics, science and psychology. Despite its complexities, he claimed that his central thesis was “considerably easier to understand than are, say, the rules of Contract Bridge”. With a nod to both Einstein and burgeoning quantum theory, Dunne argued that there was no place for the individual observer within the orthodox scientific paradigm of his day. By way of redress, he argued that whilst we experience time in a chronological manner when awake, there is, by necessity, a higher dimension of Time which serves to frame the lower — a time that times the linear passage of Time so to speak. Happy to invite into the equation that bugbear of philosophers, the infinite regress, he argued that if Time “passes or grows or accumulates or expends itself or does anything whatsoever except stand rigid and changeless before a Time-fixed observer, there must be another Time which times that activity […] and so on in an apparent series to infinity.” In this manner, Dunne added what he termed a sensory centre of observation to the fourth dimension of Time, beckoning in its wake a seemingly infinite series of self-observing selves.
In light of Dunne’s systematic study of flight, this serial schema can perhaps be metaphorically mapped on to the vantage point of the pilot. Whilst by terrestrial day we move forward in time (one-second-per-second), from the lofty perspective of sleep, we are freed from the fetters of linear temporality. In other words, from the vantage point of eternity, we are able to travel both forwards and backwards, looking down, as it were, upon our alter-ego, that plodding time-bound pedestrian labouring within a set chronology. Flying at a still higher altitude, another pilot (or serial observer) looks down upon the first and so on and so forth in perpetuity. Interestingly, prior to the outbreak of the First World War, Dunne helped facilitate H. G. Wells’ first flight in an aeroplane. Yet unlike the author of The Time Machine, Dunne set aside the need for fanciful mechanical contraptions: open to all, sleep being the medium of temporal liberty.
In J. B. Priestley’s estimation, Dunne’s An Experiment with Time was “one of the most fascinating, most curious, and perhaps the most important books” of the age. Priestley’s early enthusiasm for Dunne’s philosophy gave shape and form to his seminal time play, Time and the Conways (1937). The First Act, set in 1919, depicts the joys of a post-war family reunion. In the Second Act, set in Priestley’s present, the self-same characters appear, albeit twisted by time and disenchanted with their lives. Act Three marks a return to 1919, a return tempered by the pre-cognitive vision of future anguish and disillusionment. There is even a direct reference to Dunne’s text in the play: “No… it’s hard to explain […] there’s a book I’ll lend you — read it in the train. But the point is, now, at this moment, or any other moment, we’re only a cross-section of our real selves.” But more than this, in Priestley’s play, Dunne’s Serialism is peddled as something akin to an ethical panacea: “You know, I believe half our trouble now is because we think Time’s ticking our lives away. That’s why we snatch and grab and hurt each other […] as if we were all in a panic on a sinking ship.”
Yet despite influencing such literary greats as James Joyce, J. R. R. Tolkien, W. B. Yeats, Jorge Luis Borges and T. S. Eliot to name but a few, Dunne’s philosophy has not endured. In spite of stripping away any suggestion of the miraculous with his hardnosed reason and complex diagrammatical illustrations, his research into precognitive dreams is at best anecdotal. Moreover, Dunne’s invocation of an infinite regress is often interpreted as an act of ad-hocism perpetrated by an amateur philosopher delighting in the role of l’enfant terrible. As J. B. Priestley put it: “Just as the medieval map makers, once they had left behind them a known coastline, filled in the great blanks spaces with dragons and other monsters, Dunne rushed in his regress.” This said, Dunne also somewhat paradoxically invokes a “superlative general observer”— this observer being a final term set within a series, which, by the very nature of its internal logic, can abide no such final term. With a mind to the self-contradiction, Dunne concedes that he has wandered from his main task into “what appears to be a region for exploration by the theologian.”
In later texts such as The New Immortality (1938) and Nothing Dies (1940), Dunne explored this latent aspect of his philosophy, developing a theory of serial immortality; at the higher levels of self-observation one cannot be anything other than immortal he argued. Further expounding his ideas in a lecture with piano accompaniment recorded by the BBC in 1937, Dunne argued that whilst Observer 1 (the wakeful self) might be able to play the chromatic scale, andante, and Observer 2 (the dreaming self) ranges across the keyboard playing discords, crescendo, it is only the Observer at infinity that can play the individual notes (the events of a “lifetime of human experience”) with symphonic harmony: “Think of what you can do! The whole range of musical composition lies before you, and this with an instrument the keyboard of which is a lifetime of human experience of every description.” Dunne even went so far as to proclaim that he was scientifically certain that the “Hand of a Great Conductor will become manifest, and we shall discover that we are taking part in a Symphony of All Creation” — all of which prompted H. G. Wells to comment that his aberrant friend had lost all sense of proportion.
But despite the fact that modern thought has falsified many of his broader and more outlandish claims, there is no denying the influence of Dunne’s pioneering philosophy of time. As J. B. Priestley put it: John William Dunne “has still to be praised and honoured as one of our great originals and liberators. I should like to think there was some way of conveying these thanks and a loud and affectionate Bravo to his Observer Two or Three.