Charles Cochrane and “problems of time”

When Charles Cochrane died prematurely in 1945, age 56, his obituary in The Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science1 was written by Harold Innis, Cochrane’s friend and colleague at UT.2

Many of the stations in Cochrane’s life described by Innis were also true of Innis himself: born in Ontario, served in WW1, returned to teach at UT and to participate in its administration, active in organizations of his field. More, it is clear that Innis fully shared many of Cochrane’s intellectual persuasions, especially what he called “the philosophic approach.

The first text cited by Innis in the obituary came from one of Cochrane’s last publications, published in 1944 at a time of intense discussions between the two of them3:

[Cochrane] outlined the importance of [Thucydides] in discovering the “dynamic or principle of motion . . . in history itself, i.e., in the relationship between the aspirations and ideals of men, on the one hand, and, on the other, the material circumstances upon which their satisfaction depends”4

Since both “the aspirations and ideals of men” and their “material circumstances” are subject to incessant change, often in complex interaction with each other, and since the historian cannot extract herself from these contexts and is therefore necessarily “biased” by her situation in them, how could a “dynamic or principle of motion” be formulated for history that would not be merely a reflection of the “wills or personalities” of the formulators?5  How could it not be arbitrary and therefore not a “principle” at all?

Innis never claimed to have solved this riddle. But he knew where its nub was located:

this paper [‘The Newspaper in Economic Development’ from 1942] is designed to emphasize the importance of a change in the concept of the dimension of time, and to argue that it cannot be regarded as a straight line but as a series of curves depending in part on technological advances. (…) The concepts of time and space must be made relative and elastic and the attention given by the social scientists to problems of space should be paralleled by attention to problems of time.6

Time “cannot be regarded as a straight line but as a series of curves”. That is, time, like space, is plural. On the one hand it is “a series” that, if not “a straight line”, is perpetually different.  On the other hand, it demonstrates repeated cycles or “curves” which are perpetually the same.

The philosophic approach of Cochrane” amounted, for Innis, to the attempt to discover the  “dynamic or principle of motion in human history” as the consideration of this plurality. The obituary, short as it is, returns to this notion over and over again:

History written from the philosophical background of classicism differs sharply from history written from the Augustinian point of view with its emphasis on will, personality, and unpredictability. Paradoxically classicism assumed the unpredictable in the incalculable, in fortune or in chance, whereas Augustine admitted the possibility of understanding the unpredictable by emphasizing personality or individuality. A society dominated by Augustine will produce a fundamentally different type of historian, who approaches his problem from the standpoint of change and progress, from classicism with its emphasis on cyclical [repetition]7 and the tendency to equilibrium.

He [Cochrane] has traced the problem of weaving [together] the major strands of Graeco-Roman civilization, namely order and progress. (…) His contribution to the philosophy of history is shown in the development of general concepts at the basis of progress and the adjustment of order to meet the demands of change…

The great question was whether the historian, in “the study of toxins and antitoxins of the body politic”, has done justice to the plurality of time as both “order and progress”.

He [Cochrane] “ventured to defy the accepted convention [Innis: of dissociating classical and Christian studies] and to attempt a transition from the world of Augustus and Vergil to that of Theodocius and Augustine…”8

The history of western civilization could not be in the business of merely “dissociating”, but neither could an “attempt [at] a transition” ignore that “the philosophical background of classicism  differs sharply from (…) the Augustinian point of view”. The demand was to do justice to both identity and difference.  Moreover, this demand applied first of all to the historian’s own situation:

The social scientist is asked to check [ie, both stop and proof] his [own] course and to indicate his [own] role in western civilization. His answer must stand the test of the philosophic approach of Cochrane.

Absent such proof, Cochrane’s work stood as an indictment:

To the social scientist, he [Cochrane] might have said, your cycles, your theories of civilization, and your “creative” politics are the new fantastica fornicatio.

“Such perversions of intellectual activity,” Augustine called, “fantastica fornicatio, the prostitution of the mind to its own fancies.”9



  1. ‘Charles Norris Cochrane, 1889-1945’, Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science, 12:1, 1946, pp. 95-9. All citations in this post come from this obituary, unless otherwise noted.
  2. Seven years later, Innis himself would die prematurely at age 58.
  3. See Grant on Innis and Cochrane and Cochrane on “an all-pervasive change in outlook” in Athens.
  4. ‘Charles Norris Cochrane, 1889-1945’, originally in Cochrane’s review of Thucydides, by John H. Finley, Jr, 1942, in Classical Philology, 39:1, January 1944, 57-59. For discussion, see Cochrane on “an all-pervasive change in outlook” in Athens.
  5. “Christian realism meant an emancipation from the moral and intellectual difficulties of classical antiquity. To Augustine man was ‘the efficient cause of his own activity’. History became the history of wills or personalities.” (Innis in ‘Charles Norris Cochrane, 1889-1945’, citing Christianity and Classical Culture.
  6.  ‘The Newspaper in Economic Development’, originally 1942, the first chapter of Political Economy in the Modern State, 1946.
  7. Innis has “change” here, not “repetition”.  The substitution has been made to clarify the contrast at stake in this passage between Augustinian “progress” and classical “order”. Of course, both are types of “change”, but, as Innis says in this same passage, each “differs sharply” from the other.
  8. Innis in his obit citing Cochrane’s ‘Preface’ to Christianity and Classical Culture (1940, revised and corrected 1944) with the interpolation by Innis “of dissociating classical and Christian studies”.
  9. Innis citing Cochrane’s Christianity and Classical Culture again. Cochrane has “prostitution of mind”, not “of the mind”.