A few aphoristic thoughts…
What must the experience of the world have been like for the earliest of human beings? Before the proliferation of abstract categories — like, say, ‘history’ or ‘science’ or ‘ethics’ — and before the founding of civilization?
What would it be like, for instance, to lack a system of number? Since we have all been immersed in mathematics since early childhood, it is impossible for modern man to re-conceive in their totality the thoughts and experiences of a person who lacked such a system. A man without a system of number would, for instance, also have no system of ‘time’ (which Aristotle, rightly I think, defines as ‘the numbering of motion’). ‘Time’ is a category we totally take for granted. But what if nobody had ever told us what ‘time’ is, or if we had never been introduced to the calendar system? —
Now, of course, like the animals, early man would have an intuitive understanding of both object-differentiation — ‘this thing is distinct from that thing’ — and causality — ‘this happened because I did this’ — but does it follow from this that he had a distinct sense of ‘past’ and ‘future’? Perhaps he experienced the world as a chain of events occurring in a single point in time — always changing, but never receding into ‘the past’ nor arriving from ‘the future.’ There is matter in motion, yes — but ‘time’ is a product of the mind, not of the world.
Once we fall in love with abstract categories, we begin to filter our experiences through the implicit expectations of those categories, which necessarily limits the possible scope of our understanding. Something this limiting serves a good purpose — but sometimes it robs us of our passion and blinds us to evidence pointing in the direction of new experiences and different perspectives. Would any of our modern anxieties — cravings for luxury, status, the quest for ‘identity,’ etc. — be recognizable to early man? Our awareness of time as a numbered, systematized force that rules our lives and from which we cannot escape often seems to fill us with a sort of dread. (What if we were not in possession of an abstract system of time that told us, more or less, when we would die, for instance?) But, still — how do we begin to escape from our understanding of time?