In the first paragraph of his Beyond the Limits of Thought, Graham Priest notes that we have long speculated about limits, limits that may be unknown but are known to be there nonetheless. ‘For example,’ Priest claims, ‘we can only guess what the limit time for running a mile is; but we know that there is a limit, set by the velocity of light, if not by many more mundane things.’ For the longest time, the 4-minute mile was thought to be such a limit time. From 1852 to 1954 race times slowly crept down from 4:28 to 4:01.3 by Gunder Hagg in 1945. It was nearly 10 years later when, on May 6, 1954, Roger Bannister ran a time of 3:59.4. Here’s the race, with commentary by Bannister.
A little more than six weeks after this race, John Landy broke Bannister’s record, and a few months later Landy and Bannister faced one another in a race that came to be known as the miracle mile where Bannister again broke 4 minutes. Hicham El Guerrouj is the current record holder, at 3:43.13, from this great race in 1999.
The mile is not run at most track and field events, where distances are measured by the metric system, but clearly the 4 minute mile was not the unreachable limit it was once taken to be. Which brings me back to Priest’s point: we know there are limits, but can we know we know them? This question, when pushed forcefully with respect to the limits of thought, leads to contradictions. But what about more mundane matters, such as the limit time for the mile? It seems to me questions about limits here converge with questions about the limits of thought, especially if one factors in, as I do, Spinoza’s arguments about the inseparability of thought from what a body can do (which I discuss some here). But this is a topic for another post.