The Philosopher Limitation by Y.X. Acs




Y.X. Acs

Doctor Mandalay was not a man given to indulging in illusions. He knew things broke and things went awry, no matter how well you planned. But despite this uncertainty, the necessity of the attempt was obvious, crucial, it would occur and had, in a sense, thus already come to pass. Dr. Mandalay would travel back in time or die trying.

Mandalay had identified his conviction as the same motivating historical Christians in their willingness to become martyrs, and, in so doing, he was pleased to count himself among the ranks of a rare and select group, one that included Socrates, Galileo and even Madame Curie, in a less substantial sense.

In any case the experiment would go forward, if for no other reason than to silence the prattle of the sophist dilettantes and para-scientific muck-rakers.


As it was, the experiment did have profound implications not only for science but for philosophy as well. Mandalay had been obliged to invite an agonizing array of notables to his ‘proof of principle’ soiree. The list included many luminary philosophers, but had explicitly excluded religious figures, a choice Mandalay made for both diplomatic and methodological reasons. Natty, aged newspapermen, bloggers and physicists rubbed elbows with celebrities.

At last Mandalay called the room to attention, “Thank you all very much for coming. I feel particularly grateful for the attendance of Professor Stephen Hawking who flew all the way from a lecture tour in Bern so that he could be with us this evening.

“I will keep my introduction brief, and will only allow myself a simplified restatement of the principles underlying tonight’s experiment. For, of course, the hope is that tonight we will be given a first proof regarding the reality of time travel, but I would like to remind everyone that this evening’s endeavor is predicated upon another, very specific hypothesis, one which will likewise be proven or disproven based on the evening’s results.

“The implications of this particular hypothesis have already been well picked-over in other venues, so I will simply restate its primary claim, this being: that the influence of philosophy on history is sufficiently slight so as to enable a statistical certainty regarding its quantum non-interference. If this is true, it follows that philosophers stand as chronologically manipulable phenomena for the purposes of experimental travel in time. Or, put differently, we can meet, communicate with, and could even kill any given philosopher without damage to the time-line. Therefore, so long as a time-traveler follows certain well-established guidelines, we should be able to enter a new era in human movement, one that is no longer limited by the past or the future. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you: My Time Machine!”

The curtain fell and a gleaming copper and bronze apparatus stood revealed. It was a spherical exoskeleton of metal bands containing a seat. The flash-bulbs adored it for some time before Mandalay mounted the stage and saluted the audience.

Then, gripping the hand-brake, he proudly exclaimed, “On my return I shall have visited the past or I shall not return at all!”


Two Years Earlier:

Mandalay woke and was satisfied to see that it had rained. He’d left his copy of “Being and Nothingness” on the patio, face-down, so that the spine bore the weight of its ideas.

At this point in history he’d become convinced of the accuracy of his own ideas, all that was left to do now was illustrate it mathematically, and then publish the results. This was not personal, he reminded himself. As a scientist, he had a responsibility to ensure the safest entry possible into the era of time travel. After all, what if the scientific community had remained ignorant of the ‘philosopher limitation’? It was quite possible that a catastrophically ill-fated venture might have been formulated and executed, one that interfered with the works of engineers or artists, or, god forbid, that of other scientists.

As he’d written on his blog just the evening before: “Should anyone, anywhere, use my research for the purpose of non-philosopher limited time-travel, the results would be catastrophic, almost certainly resulting in a paradox that would take the form of a chain of atomic explosions ranging in time from the point at which the alteration was first effected to that at which the chrononaut first embarked.”

Chrononaut. . . he’d liked that word from the very start.

It was nonetheless irritating to have practically every mechanical detail regarding time travel worked out, his sphere approaching completion, and yet to remain limited by the lack of an appropriate test subject. It had been a slow process for Mandalay, who found it an odious task to read their works and biographies. Especially since he had to locate one who’d truly stayed a philosopher their entire life, one who had limited themselves solely to the philosophical in their work and hadn’t dabbled in history or education or any of the other, more practical, domains.

Still, Mandalay counted himself lucky to be living in a time when philosophy stood on its own feet, different from and even counter to religion. Without philosophy’s rise as a self-subsistent body of thought time travel may have well-remained impossible.

But still, he had to pick one…

There had been many contenders for the position, many who Mandalay had been forced to discount for one reason or another. Sartre’s brief stint in the French resistance made a disruption of his person a very uncertain proposition, with Mandalay calculating a marginal logarithmic possibility that such an assault would lead to a two-day increase in the tenure of Vichy France.

Kant and Descartes had both been promising, but again, some minor commitment in their daily lives, the rescue of a beloved dog from a river during childhood or some such thing making them insufficiently insular.

It had very nearly been G.W.F. Hegel, whose style of life had been withdrawn enough to minimize temporal and socio-historical entanglements, but his position as docent of the Lycee system in Prussia finally ruled him out.

During the height of Hegel’s plausibility as a choice, Mandalay had cut out the philosopher’s portrait and pinned it to the corner of his bathroom mirror, “I’m going to punch you in your stupid pyramid head Herr Hegel, right in your pyramid face.”

For three weeks he spoke these words before the mirror as he shaved, before he reached that horrid chapter in the Pinkard biography.

But then, he found Weber. Poor, crazy, lonely, Max Weber.

And thus it was that, two years later, Mandalay’s whirling copper sphere broke through the blue and red and purple of injured time to settle with a mighty FOOM in the city of Heidelberg, in the year 1896.


A sad-looking German man with a black beard was sitting on a park bench and he looked up, an expression of horror and awe taking hold of his face as he watched the sphere materialize. Mandalay, semi-transparent and still involved in piloting his device, took the time to steal a glance at the man, a smile playing at the corner of his mouth.

The man had been sitting alone. The park was deserted as the weather was chill and a biting, querulous wind gusted through. Frost covered the grass and made patterns across leaves adhered to the ground. The man gawked left and right, trying to find someone else equally amazed, anyone at all, who could confirm by shared terror that this event was actually occurring.

“Herr Weber?” Said Mandalay, in a careless accent.

“Ja?” Said the man.

“I have something to give you.”

Mandalay knew it would be awkward to get back inside the sphere and begin the ignition sequence after he’d acted, so he would have to hit hard, knock the man down. His scholarly life hadn’t exactly honed his body for this, but he knew the principles (put your weight into it, don’t punch with your arm, put your shoulder behind it). He made a fist and released it.

“Ah, Sprekhen ze English?” Said Mandalay, as he gripped the machine’s frame and stepped out.

The man stood, gripping a small leather notebook in both hands.

“A bitte.” Said the man, “Was is das?”

Then, a solid and successful right hook, is what Mandalay would have liked to deliver. But instead he ended up more or less striking the side of the man’s head with a kind of hammer blow, so that the man stumbled half a pace and then stared at him bewildered. Mandalay tried to continue his assault, but his poor instincts led him to deliver a flurry of slap-like punches, as when children fight, hitting more than punching.

Weber fled the park, and never spoke of that day to anyone. And from the experience gained a sense of a great fight.

Feeling simultaneously victorious and thwarted, Mandalay made his way back to the time machine. But he had done it, hadn’t he? He’d succeeded where others had only fantasized.

He hadn’t been able to register the momentousness of what had happened until just now, what he had made happen, until he was climbing back into the device. He had traveled through time itself.

Remembering protocol, he hurriedly glanced about to make sure no one else had seen anything, then stooped to examine a piece of the damaged time-line writhing on the frozen grass. The wound he’d carved through space and time had, as he’d hypothesized, left organic-looking detritus, squiggly purple-blue mottles that resembled desiccated slugs covered in cilia. They twisted on the earth in front of him, bubbling, as if they were being boiled away, as they evaporated back into time. If his suppositions were right, these bits of endochronological tissue would show signs of infection had he done any permanent damage to the time-line, but the bit of disappearing fibrous space-time showed nothing but strangeness and then was altogether gone.

Mandalay re-mounted the time-sphere and began working at the controls, releasing the hand-brake and carefully adjusting a panel of knobs.

“I must work quickly,” he thought to himself, “If Weber went to get help…”

He snapped the last knob into place and a bank of lights changed from blue to green, the sphere de-materialized.


Mandalay re-materialized in the living room of his villa. There should have been a party. The room was dark and the grand curtain that Event Co. had installed was missing. The house showed no signs of recent occupation. His rooms looked very much as they always had, only some of the furnishings maybe appeared to be a bit shoddier, as if they’d been made from sub-standard materials. His oak table lamp, even from all the way across the room, looked as if it could have been made from painted press-board or plastic.

A life-sapping nervous fever hit him and the muscled white-noise of anxiety throttled his neck and shoulders. Sweat and heat and cold competed throughout and over the top of his body. He stumbled out of the sphere and walked across to the table-lamp, noticing five, now ten, now twenty things wrong with the room.

“What have I done?” he muttered. “What is going on?”

He’d thought he’d be prepared for this inaccuracy, but he wasn’t really, he couldn’t have been. “Time is still intact,” he reminded himself, “Time is still intact, I didn’t blow up the whole mess.”

But then, as he was passing the bay window, he saw its massive marble leg through a crack in the curtains, and he mindlessly moved toward it with the conviction of revelation. He had to see.

He parted the curtain and looked out, having to crane his neck up to make out the top of the forty-foot statue. There, atop the figure that dominated his cul-de-sac he saw the stupid triangle head and the stupid triangle face.

“Oh, Christ, no…” He quailed.

The statue of Herr Hegel, the Great Leader of All and Against, Chairman of the World Government, glowered at the worm.

Food for Thought

Consider the influence of German Idealism on the political life of the 19th and 20th centuries. Is it possible to gauge the influence of a philosopher on history? Why haven’t philosophers appeared more frequently in time-travel stories? Vis a vis history, who was the most influential philosopher? And who could be considered the least? What is the influence of philosophy on the general course of history? Is there such a thing as: The Philosopher Limitation?

About the Author

Y.X. Acs is a pseudonym, and thus implies the author’s desire for hidey-ness. It is also a deliberately irritating math pun. Y.X. Acs is also a person who works and writes in Ottawa, Canada. They have another story forthcoming from Lackington’s Magazine, and you can find their translation of a fictional Marxist wizard’s grimoire in Free Paper by Paper Pusher Press.

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