Mad World: On the Psychotic Experience of Time

In the landscape of madness, time lies open and exposed.
Only the madman rubs up against the edges of the experience of time and ventures beyond them. Photo: Jon Tyson, via Unsplash
By: Wouter Kusters

Besides hallucinations and delusions, a common indicator of psychosis is “disorientation” in time and space. A quick test for diagnosing psychosis is to ask such questions as Where do you think we are? What day is it today? Where were you last week? Being unable to answer such questions, or answering them incorrectly, can indicate a psychosis-related disorder. But what does “disorientation” in time and space mean exactly? What kind of world is it in which someone doesn’t understand time?

This article is adapted from Wouter Kusters’ book “The Philosophy of Madness: The Experience of Psychotic Thinking

No sooner do we begin pondering time than things quickly start getting more complicated. One of the first philosophers to concern himself with the subject, Augustine, put it this way: “What, then, is time? As long as no one asks me, I know. As soon as I wish to explain it to him who asks, I know not.” For the philosopher, the question of time is usually no more than a theoretical problem that will have no impact on his daily existence. For while he reflects on the direction or the reality of time and is amazed by it, he still keeps using the calendar and jotting down appointments in his datebook. However, for the madman, as we’ll see, these kinds of questions about time are actual life problems; he no longer knows “when he is” or which way time is going. He no longer understands the clock or the calendar.

Before we dive into the mad experience of time, it would help to better understand time in the normal world. If you wish to skip ahead, feel free to do so. But I’ll begin by briefly explaining the two irreconcilable views of time: the external-objective-static view and the internal-subjective-dynamic view.

Fixed Time: Aristotle

According to the static view, time exists outside our consciousness as part of reality. Time is the background or the grid on which events occupy a temporal position. This was the opinion of thinkers such as Newton and Leibniz, as well as that of modern physics and analytic philosophers such as J.J.C. Smart. The French philosopher Paul Ricoeur calls this notion of time cosmological time or universal time. It is an understanding of time that was thoroughly worked out by Aristotle.

Time, says Aristotle, has something to do with the movement of an object in space — indeed, without movement, there is no time. When movement occurs, you can say that a moving thing goes from one place to another, that there is an “earlier” place and a “later” place. The same can be said about time, even though it is different from space as an aspect of movement. Once we have determined an earlier (a “before”) and a later (an “after”), and we have therefore observed two different moments of movement, then what is between those two moments is a segment of measured time. When time is described like this, it is stretched out, since it is “bounded” by two moments.

According to Aristotle, time is a feature of the outside world, of the physis, or nature. In later physics, this is the dominant view. There are also variations of this view: In the theory of relativity, the “speed” of time is related to space, mass, and gravity. In even more modern physics, there is talk of particles that “go back” in time. Despite the differences, the basic idea is always the same: Time is something that can be measured, divided, and examined as part of nature beyond our conscious awareness.

In this static understanding of time, time is a motionless background against which events are placed that can relate to each other in three different ways: “earlier than,” “later than,” and “at the same time as.” These are objective “temporal” relations between events that take place in the world. These relations have nothing to do with “us,” with the observer or the mind. The fact that it is the mind or the observer who must fix and compare the two moments of the movement is not dealt with by Aristotle and the theoreticians of static time. Even if humans did not exist, all events would still be connected to each other absolutely by means of these temporal relations. This view of time is good for organizing and explaining events that are governed by the laws of nature, which is why it is so suitable to scientific reflections on the world.

To orient yourself in time, says philosopher Paul Ricoeur, you need a “time of the soul,” from which you can set a goal and see where you’re going.

Yet this is only one approach to time. Strict supporters of this view would find themselves in a dead world, one without purpose, direction, meaning, or orientation. Indeed, for orientation you need a viewpoint. To orient yourself in time, you must occupy a position in time, you must anchor yourself in a here-and-now perspective. You need a “time of the soul,” as Ricoeur calls it, from which you can set a goal and see where you’re going. The static view of time has no now, no present.

Another way to look at it: Time is an immobile timeline or time path, and it’s impossible to imagine any car ever riding on it. Indeed, where on the timeline should the car be placed? At each moment the car is somewhere else, and in that sense you cannot say anything about the car without introducing a “metatime,” and thereby a vicious time circle. Yet such a “car” is necessary; how else can two moments “ever” be grasped, with a period in between, if they are not “gathered together” in the car? Time requires an observer who is able to grasp two nonsimultaneous “nows” simultaneously.

Moving Time: Husserl

The dynamic or subjective view of time speaks of experienced time, lived time, the time of the soul, inner time, and so forth. Dynamic time is based on the here and now — in this view, the only time that really exists is the present. It is within this present moment that we can have memories of a vague past and expectations of an uncertain future. In this view, past, present, and future each has a different status. The present is not a static fact or “given moment” but a fluid, dynamic reality. It’s like a ship sailing on the river of events. The events flow toward us from a not-yet-existing, undetermined future, we meet them in a flash of actual presence, and we immediately leave them behind us in the bygone, no-longer-existing, and unchanging past.

In this vision, there is an essential difference between past and future that is consistent with our normal experience. In fact, we are always here and now. When we think about it, there is really nothing else beyond the horizon of the pure being-in-the-present. Someday we’ll be in the future, but we’ll never again be in the past. We once were in the past, but we have yet to be in the future. If we reflect on these last statements, we realize that, ultimately, the dynamic view is equally untenable: The difference between past and future can only be explained in terms of words (and verbal conjugations) that already presume a familiarity with that difference. The philosopher Edmund Husserl tried, in his “On the Phenomenology of the Consciousness of Internal Time,” to base his views of time on this dynamic experience of time, which results in a model that is insightful for both ordinary and mad time experiences.

For Husserl, the present is a continuum with an internal structure. Perception in this present is not like a point on a timeline; rather, it encompasses or “reaches out to” a temporal field filled with phantasms and sensations. Sensations are experiences that happen right now, while phantasms refer to the immediate past and future within this temporal field of the present. According to Husserl, the present always contains a residue of the “fresh” past and an expectation of the immediate future. The length of this fresh past varies. If you concentrate on a single note in a melody, you “forget” the melody; if you concentrate on the melody, then the larger whole of, say, the symphony is not in the temporal field; and so forth. For Husserl, a point-like present is an ideal limit that can never be completely attained.

For Husserl, the basis of time is not solid ground, not a quantifiable expanse, but a flowing. The problem with this view is that the more deeply we analyze or delve into the experience and consciousness of and in the present, the more concepts we must borrow from the static view of time. Terms such as “flowing,” “springing from,” and “source” are all concepts and metaphors borrowed from the “objective outside world.”

The static view, for Husserl, is secondary to the dynamic view. But his theory runs into major problems, as all subjective time theories ultimately do: When we make a distinction between past and future, what exactly is being distinguished? How can this distinction be made without already assuming it? Are we not bound to assume an independently given time path (static time), part of which is located before us and part after us? Following Husserl’s logic, this path can consist of neither a road with side roads branching off of it nor a circular road. The limited view from the car on the road, however, makes this incomprehensible. The notion of coherence or continuum cannot be found in the car either. A purely dynamic view, without elements from the static view, is impossible.

Human Time: Ricoeur

I have now discussed the two philosophical views and argued that, while they can’t live together, neither can they live apart. Lurking behind time is a paradox that cannot be resolved but can at least be made livable. My theory of mad time is that psychotics deal with this paradox differently than “normal people” do. The latter articulate, sublimate, or cover the paradox by means of shared stories, symbolic forms, or habits that together can be regarded as a third form of time: “human time.” (This idea of a third kind of time can be found in the works of Ricoeur, Achterhuis, Blankenburg, and Lacan, among others.)

“Human time” is made possible by the narrative character of language and the stories in language that people share with each other. Such stories, such “narratives,” have to do with the history of the world, with one’s own family history, or with one’s personal past, and they provide hints as to what a successful life is, what goals and actions are worth emulating, and how to think, feel, and speak in a meaningful way. They allow for a shared vision of the world and for the existence of consciously shared time.

It is in stories that the mysterious status of the “past” as “history” is grasped and explained, and a distinction is made between fiction in imaginary time and histories that really happened and occupy a place on the calendar. According to Ricoeur, the calendar is one of the most important means by which “human time” makes the connection between inner and outer (dynamic and static) time. Thanks to the calendar, my experience of time is linked to that of my contemporaries and is related to the commonly accepted sequence of history. There is a historical time, a real past, distinct from fictional, unreal time and fantasy.

In addition to consciously told stories, there are also habits and commonly accepted practices that are essential to the way humans (not mad ones) deal with time. Thanks to habits, the contrast between static and dynamic time is not so much articulated as it is made livable. Because of habits, whenever we go shopping, for example, we do it according to a fixed pattern, a fixed rhythm, and for a certain length of time. We trust in a knowledge that is half-conscious and half-automatic, and as a result we can manage quite well in life. We don’t have to analyze the operation of the clock or wonder whether we can be sure that “Monday really does follow Sunday” every time we go out shopping. A great deal of what happens in time is automatic, according to common sense or habit. The normal human way of relating to time implies a trust in automatically accepting things that are not “true” or for which there is no logical proof. Although every such accepted thing can, in itself, be doubted, together they constitute the fabric of our social and personal lives, which may be made more explicit in narratives. They are the shared background that makes it possible to live in time without slipping into madness. This background is not so much a collection of statements of knowledge as it is a practice of habits, modes of behavior, and attitudes that together form the substructure, or the framework itself, within which disagreement and knowledge about time can be understood.

Mad Time

Madmen sometimes lose track of what day it is. They do experience “now,” dynamic time. They also understand the historic order, static time. But they cannot make a connection between the two. They no longer know what “human time” is, and they end up in the extremes of deadlocked time and moving, unsettled time. The calendar and the clock can no longer be taken for granted or applied to anything. The philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty writes this about one particular schizophrenic in his book “Phenomenology of Perception”: “Another patient can no longer ‘understand’ the clock, that is, first the passing of the hands from one position to another and above all the connection of the movement with the thrust of the mechanism or the ‘workings’ of the clock.” It’s madness, but it does have a lot in common with philosophy when it is consistently implemented. Academic psychiatrist Matthew Broome presents this train of thought, but in a different way, in his discussion of McTaggart and psychoses.

John M. E. McTaggart was the author of the famous article “The Unreality of Time,” published in 1908, which made him the founder of the present-day analytic philosophy of time. He argues that reflecting on time leads to an insoluble contradiction between two views, just as I expounded above. According to McTaggart, time therefore does not exist. In a more recent article, “Suffering and Eternal Recurrence of the Same,” Broome, in turn, argues that by taking McTaggart seriously, you would end up in the same condition as that of a psychotic. This is also my line of reasoning. Broome writes, “McTaggart notoriously claimed that time was unreal and that nothing that exists can have the property of being in time. … Presumably McTaggart did not act on his unusual belief, or else kept it to the philosophy study; however, some of our patients do. … Such patients may describe a determinate, static almost crystalline structure of time where there is no change. Others may state that they have no date of birth, have never been born, and will always ‘be.’ Such an existence is almost divine-eternal and unchanging, ‘pure being.’ … This ‘McTaggart’s syndrome’ can radically affect a patient’s rationality.”

According to Broome, the madman is someone who experiences McTaggart’s idea in actual practice, who reflects on it and applies it in his daily life. The real concerns of the psychotic are the theoretical ponderings of the philosopher, which is all the more reason to investigate the mad experience of time in this light. Unfortunately, Broome follows this up by saying that such patients are almost impossible to interview. “An illness that included such bizarre beliefs would likely render communication with the patient, and phenomenological description of their symptoms, almost impossible,” he concludes.

Unlike Broome, I have decided to attempt a description of the most extreme forms of mad time. In other words, what does happen when McTaggart is taken seriously?


The concept of time is closely related to the concept of the number. Aristotle already noted that “time is just this: number of motion,” and later, in Kant, the foundations of mathematics are linked to the human experience of time. The ability to count is related to the capacity to experience time, to relate multiple moments to each other, and to compare long and short durations of time. In addition, the management of (human) time is expressed with the help of numbers, such as those on the calendar and the clock.

Numbers, and the ability to calculate, give us something to hold onto in a chaotic, changing world, not only where time is concerned but in other domains as well. Numbers possess a different “reality” than trees, colors, or people. For many people, the world of numbers is closer to the truth than that of other phenomena. Numbers are solid, stable, and inescapably real, yet they are abstract at the same time. You can “count on numbers,” literally and figuratively.

Madmen hope that by juggling numbers they can once again connect their inner world with the outer world.

So it’s not surprising that numbers play a special role in madness, too. Human knowledge and thought are uncertain and fleeting, and in situations of madness, they are always moving and changing, but the stability of numbers remains as solid as a rock. Even when the psychotic doubts everything else, he always has the certainty that 1 + 1 = 2. One of psychiatrist Giovanni Stanghellini’s patients said to him, “Everyone’s talking to each other and I can’t figure out the mechanism. Is it really a secret? Are the others all talking in code? One day the day will come and we’ll see that it’s all quite mathematical …”

In madness, the calendar no longer works as an intermediary between inner and outer time; instead, it breaks down into fragmented dates and separate moments. The numbers on the calendar become objective numbers rather than moments in a consecutive movement of figures. The year 1945 comes after 1944, not because 1945 dynamically “follows” or “grows out of” 1944, but only because the numbers 1944 and 1945 relate to each other in a consecutive way.

Although numbers cease to automatically issue from one another, they are still the means by which people in the mad world connect different things. Numbers no longer express a relationship, however; they are the relationship itself. If a madman reads that it’s three degrees warmer than it was the previous day, for example, he doesn’t see this “three” as an expression or measure of a rise in temperature between yesterday and today. Rather, the number three itself is the connection between two given facts. As Aristotle wrote in the “Physics”: “Number, we must note, is used in two ways — both of what is counted or the countable and also of that with which we count. Time, then, is what is counted, not that with which we count: These are different kinds of things.” In madness, this is no longer clear: Time becomes a number.

When time becomes a collection of numbers, it is in a certain sense “closer by.” That is to say, time is vague and intangible, but numbers are exact, concrete, and comprehensible. In madness, time can become so concrete that it literally comes within the psychotic’s reach. You can write time-numbers down, use them in calculations, or change them, and in this way time can be manipulated. By tinkering with numbers, the madman can also determine events in the future — or at least predict them. Madmen hope that by juggling numbers they can once again connect their inner world with the outer world. They embark on a kind of private Kabbalistic exercise.

In my book “Pure Madness,” I wrote, “The psychotic approaches the calendar just as he approaches other figures. When the psychotic sees a CD costing €19.45, there is for him a demonstrable connection between that CD and the Second World War.” In this way, important events from the past are linked to a number on which new experiences in the present can be forged. These numbers could be years, such as 1940, 1945, 1492, or 2001, but they could also be dates, like September 11, or personal numbers, such as the madman’s birth year, birth date, house number, or PIN. The structure of the calendar, which normally is the matrix of history, is replaced in the mad world by a magical-Kabbalistic structure.

A nice example of this is given in a story from a patient recounted by psychologist Fransje De Waard in her book “Spiritual Crisis”:

I was standing on a street, leaning against a building, and I turned around and looked at the parked cars on the other side of the street. There I saw a license plate with three ones on it. Well, that’s just an ordinary number, 111, in Van der Helst Street or whatever, so it’s also nothing, really. But for me at that moment it was 3 times 1, the number 3 and the number 1. At that moment you have answers for everything, and for me it was clear that it was absolutely the last day. There were lots of hallucinatory things happening as well: I saw clouds gather together all at once above me, for example, and I heard thunder. I also rang people’s doorbells, even in the middle of the night, to warn them.

This mad way of dealing with the number of the time, the “o’clock,” is “static” or “spatializing” (more on that in a moment). Time becomes a physical clock, an object in space. The dynamic, rhythmic number of the clock becomes a static, geometric number. The different times are spread out, here and now, within the measurable space. Counting takes place in the space of time. One of Stanghellini’s patients says, “I often happen to count. Counting means I trace the outline of things with my gaze. For example, a dog has five sides. A tree has seven. It started off as a voluntary action, a sort of game. But then it got out of hand, and sometimes I can’t stop myself. We created everybody in a secret lab.”


In her 2003 autobiography, Fiona Jong writes, “In my psychosis I live in two worlds, the real world and an unreal world. This is very difficult, because I live more in the unreal world, where everything is immobile. Time seems to be standing still. And the days of the week don’t move, either. I don’t even know what day it is anymore, or what time it is.” The static experience of time is what stands out here: Time is no longer variable or fluid, but stationary. “Human time” has disappeared, for Jong no longer knows “what day it is,” no longer knows how to deal with the paradox of time. Jong can no longer relate the inner passage of time to the outer cosmic rhythms of time. The calendar doesn’t work anymore. Outer time is frozen and seems to have come to a halt.

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This stopping of time has a “spacializing” or “space-creating” effect, as the psychiatrist Eugène Minkowski called it. In madness, events take place only in space. The temporariness of events is experienced as “something spatial.” Time is “vast” and “comprehensive,” just as space and the things in space are. Since we can change the location of things in space, the madman believes we should also be able to manipulate their “location” in time. You can move through both space and time. Spacializing has also been reported by people under the influence of LSD. With regard to madness, spaciousness or spacializing has three relevant characteristics: fragmentation, extensiveness, and reversibility.


Because there is no “human time” in madness by which dynamic and static time are connected, the static order of time is in danger of disintegrating. The static time axis is divided by means of moments. Moments cut time into pieces; they cause natural time to become fragmented. Each moment is like a cutting edge between a past period and a coming period. In the purely static view, calendar “dates” degenerate into a loose collection of temporal elements, without any inherent coherence or lived continuity. Quoting psychologist Wolfgang Blankenburg, in reference to a patient: “She clearly was suffering from a lack of continuity going back in time, but of a special sort. It was not about the relationship to an interval of time that could be objectively grasped — so not a defective memory — yet her relationship to the past had changed profoundly.” The dynamic continuous stream no longer makes a single unit of the separate elements of time. There is no longer a calendar by which events can be organized and connected.

In order to form a unit consisting of more than “loose sand,” moments would have to reach forward and backward in time — that is, to other moments. This is possible only if the moment itself already refers to the future and the past. In madness, however, past and future are not experienced as belonging to — or as aspects of — the present. This discontinuity creates fragmentation, and such fragmentation can affect the whole sense of the reality of time.


When the various moments in time disconnect themselves from each other and are no longer organized in terms of time, they end up being “adjacent” in a certain sense. One event or time period is no longer connected to another event or period; rather, the two stand side by side. Louis Sass, in his book “Madness and Modernism,” describes an experiment with schizophrenic patients in which they were asked to construct a story from a series of pictures: “One is given a sense neither of understandable human intentions nor of deterministic events that might lend causal structure to the discourse by linking together past, present, and future. The story has a quality one might call presentism or, equally well, timelessness. Actually, it is in a sense more spatial than temporal.” Instead of making up a human story with a dynamically driven narrative, the patients assembled scraps of observations and associations, as if everything were present at the same time in a quasi-reality. Time “no longer extends itself” (in the temporal sense) back to the past but acquires a spatial extensiveness.

The mad clock encompasses all times, but it no longer ticks.

The mad world is spatial and filled with spatial objects instead of temporal actions. Sass writes, “It has been found that schizophrenics tend to use adverbs of a spatial type to replace those of a chronological type (‘where’ may replace ‘when,’ for example) and to speak in ways that emphasize the static and deemphasize the dynamic and emotional aspects of the world, thereby evoking a universe more dominated by objects than by processes or actions.” Space is filled with time, and if you remember something, you have the feeling that you are literally looking at it, searching in a temporal space. One psychotic acquaintance of mine once said, “I can look through time,” when she noticed how vivid a certain memory was.

In my book “Alone,” about my earlier experiences in isolation cells, I wrote this just before finding myself once again in the “waking dream”:

It’s different in the waking dream of madness: there’s a moment when the magpie drops down, there’s a moment when the magpie sits in the grass, and there’s a moment when the magpie jumps onto the chair. All three of these moments are equally real and eternal. They stand side by side, frozen. The magpie does not fly in time but stands still, like Zeno’s arrow. A collection of moments placed side by side, with no transition between them. Time stands still; the clock encompasses all times.

The mad clock encompasses all times, but it no longer ticks.


If time is “like space,” you should be able to move back and forth through time just as you can walk back and forth through space. And in the mad world, that possibility does indeed exist. Time here is only what the clock reports; the dynamic flow of time no longer counts. The clock and the calendar no longer have any meaning in common human time, and they are no longer essentially different from, say, chemistry’s periodic table of the elements. They show a relationship between numbers and dates, but they have little else to do with the inner experience of time. They have become objects amidst other objects in a static spatial world. And as soon as something becomes an object it can be manipulated and reversed. So if the hands of the clock are turned back (if the psychotic turns them, for example), there’s no reason why time can’t be made to go in the other direction.

Such mad crystal time is what the mad world looks like. In the landscape of madness, time lies open and exposed. The psychotic can direct time and the way time is structured, and he can adjust and change his observations. He controls the crystals of space and time. He can evoke prehistoric time, for example, or even experience it by entering a section of virgin forest, or he can explore the future by walking into a computer store. Past, present, and future are three adjacent domains that can be entered. Yet he does not control every world or possibility; there are still stubborn irreversibilities remaining.

In “Pure Madness,” I wrote,

Besides the reversible processes there are also irreversible ones. When a glass falls on the floor and shatters, it’s difficult to imagine the process taking place in reverse order; it’s rare for shards of glass to join together and rise up to become an intact glass on the edge of the table. In such processes it’s obvious that time has only one possible direction. In psychotic observations, these irreversible processes assume a separate status. It’s as if reality has said that the game of reversibility is over. It may also seem as if an ‘exit’ to a different reality has been found. For the psychotic, a glass that falls, food that is being digested, and paper that is being burned are all anomalies in an otherwise reversible world. They’re intruders in reversible, timeless existence.

Irreversible events can serve as signals that “something really irrevocable” has happened. Time in the mad world resembles the space of a computer game. Everything can be manipulated and repeated; everything is spatial. Irreversible things are like promotions to the next level.

Eternal waiting

An hour can take a long time, a month and a year even longer, and if you keep expanding this in your mind, you arrive at the idea of eternal duration. This notion of eternity is an extension or expansion of the dynamic experience of time on an endlessly long, static timeline. Such a notion could be called static eternity, since it has to do with a spatial representation of time; just as you can imagine more space behind the horizon — invisible but imaginable — so you can conceive of ever distant times beyond the horizon of the present, extending the backward gaze into the past and the forward gaze into the future.

Indeed, time as we experience it here and now comes to a halt when placed against the background of endless duration. Time never advances and never makes headway, since there’s always an endless amount of time in the distance. Moreover, if you come to realize that time stretches on endlessly, then everything shrinks in significance; one moment is no different from any other in terms of its futility. And if time is eternal, negative moments may recur as well. Finally, if time stretches endlessly in two directions, then the differences between past and future are annulled, and all our present aspirations seem pointless.

Such somber thoughts of eternity are a feature of psychoses in which ordinary human dealings with time have disappeared. The psychiatrist Piet Kuiper writes the following about his own depressive psychosis: “Four and a half more hours before we have to go to bed. I sat in a corner and looked at the clock, and after a while I looked at it again. Two and a half minutes had passed, while I had estimated an hour.” This painful experience had nothing to do with an incorrect assessment of the speed of time. If that were true, Kuiper could also have been happy that he “had more time than he had estimated.”

This, too, seems to be more than a matter of ordinary boredom or passing the time in the dentist’s waiting room. Time itself seems to have an oppressive effect. Kuiper continues, “The experience of time standing still was one of the most agonizing symptoms of my illness.” Time stands still because, in the notion of eternal duration, nothing matters anymore. Time does seem to pass when he looks at the clock. He is aware of static, physical time, but he’s no longer aware of the human “protective layer” of narratives in which something meaningful happens. All he experiences is a non-event, an eternally static smile of death. For what can happen if everything is insignificant, dissolved into the great endless maw of time?

The eternal present

In a psychotic experience of time, the intense pondering of the dynamic view can also lead to obsessive brooding, to an immortalized crystal. Those of the dynamic view who recognize only the here and now as “real” reality and deny all reality from the past and the future find themselves in another kind of eternity altogether. This eternal present is also the ideal of many mystical or religious quests, but it’s the madmen who demonstrate what such a life-in-the-present may also imply in practice.

The logic here runs as follows: If there is no longer a static order but only a collection of “data” in space, a here and now that is “present” for all eternity, then there is no absence; that is, no absent past or future. The consciousness of time also includes the idea of eternity in the present, owing to the idea of infinity. Instead of static time stretching out forever in linear fashion, there is an endlessly vast and inclusive inner time. This eternity is that of the subject of consciousness, which enfolds all of time within itself. Whenever you think about other times, if you are mainly aware that all those times are being thought now by yourself, then the line of eternity that you imagine to be horizontal becomes instead vertical (or perhaps no more than a dot). The absence of the absent is less important than the fact that that absence can be thought about from the present.

In such conceptions of time and eternity, only what is present is real, and what is absent does not exist. Everything that ever was and ever shall be is already here, in a nutshell, before you. When this fact, so difficult to refute, is subjected to the most extreme reflection, it can lead to ecstatic, psychosis-like experiences and utterances. Time then comes to a halt, a beautiful crystal.

Most people are oblivious to the unfathomable miracle of time, and the normal nonphilosophical individual rarely suffers from “temporal confusion” with regard to what “real time” is. Only the madman rubs up against the edges of the experience of time and ventures beyond them. But being in a condition of madness means you are trying to resolve the most fundamental questions of existence but in an uncontrolled, wildly associative way. You want to know what it’s all about, what good and evil are, what is at the very heart of existence: You want to know the meaning of life and the cosmos. Such existential questions should not be denied but pondered, not stifled but lived through. After all, it is our fate to be confronted by unanswerable questions.

By examining extreme madness in terms of its experiences and thought, the experience of time being just one small aspect of it, I do not want to isolate, classify, or reject it so much as mobilize it productively in order to broaden normal experience and thought. The philosopher is not meant to help either the psychotic or the psychiatrist. Indeed, it is the mad person — through the psychiatrist, if necessary — who can help the philosopher.

Wouter Kusters is a Dutch philosopher and linguist. He is the author of several books, including “Pure Madness” and “A Philosophy of Madness,” from which this article is adapted. Both books were awarded the Dutch Socrates Award for best philosophy book in the Dutch language.

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