Anna-Lena Renqvist – The time of the self and the other

The time of the self and the other

Anna-Lena Renqvist

What is time? The question is simple, the answer evasive. I would like to approach this very question in the phenomenology of Husserl, duly characterized as “a nest of problems, among the most important and difficult ones in all phenomenology”. A nest, as we should shortly see, yet an highly important one since, as Husserl himself has indicated: “all objectification takes place within time consciousness, and no clarification of the identity of an object can be given without a clarification of the identity of temporal position” (Phänomenologie des inneren Zeitbewusstseins, s. 88)

The challenge is related to the old problem of the unity of identity and difference. Whatever is given to us is constantly streaming, ceaselessly changing (in einem beständige Fluss gegeben). “The original phenomenon of the World experience is the Heraclitean flow of the subjective ‘having of a world’ (Welthabe); which nevertheless stands forth (erschinen) as one and the same World. As a real (substantial) world it changes, but in its change it remain identical”. The words are taken from Husserl’s late writings, as they reach us in the so called C-manuscript (C2, nr 1).Throughout his different formulations of the intricate relation between time and consciousness, Husserl remains faithful to a conception of time in line with the Aristotelian doctrine of time such that the “basic unity of time” is the now. This is due to the fact that “whatever is Gegenständlisch is also present” (C2, text nr 3, s.7). Time is thought of as rooted in the original object of consciousness, in terms of perception (Wharnehmung) since, as it is perceived, is always presently perceived, which is to say perceived in a now. Or as he eloquently puts it in the PIC: “perception (Wharnehmung) constitutes the now” (s.82). Being perceived is being in time, and vice versa, because being perceived is being present and presence is a temporal quality. Recalling the title of this conference, the time we’re here dealing with is the time not of the self, but of the phenomenon given to the self. In this sense it’s the time of the other.

Due to the natural significance of the phenomenon within a phenomenological project, the investigations will henceforth be circling around the nature of the “now” of this very phenomenon. Husserl keeps following the Aristotelian indications: the now is above all a limit. A limit which, as such, has a twofold function: to separate and to unify whatever it is delimiting – in this case the earlier and the later, or as we would also say, past time and future time. According to Aristotle, it is precisely the separating function of the limit that explains the nature of time: its floating character. But what about it’s unifying function? Regarding the latter question, Husserl would dedicate a good portion of his work to complete an análisis which Aristotle left half-done; or if you prefer, hereafter he will abandon the Greeks in favour of the Africans. I’m referring to Augustine of Hippo. Because, as Husserl economically recalls, in order for the now to respond to the presence of perception, the now could not be considered a knife-edge present but must be something as a “duration-block”. In order for the present to give account for the identity of the manifold, or simply, in order for an “object” to appear, the now must be something more than a mere nunc stans of an ever streaming continuity; it has to have a temporal extension, a width able to allow that “wonderful synthesis in which the individual Being is constituted in ceaseless flow (beständigem strömmenden Gang)”. In as far as the now is a limit, it indicates differentiation, but as far as it is a unifying limit, it reaches beyond, or it transcends itself, implying not one but threedimensions, or the three dimensions that we commonly attribute to the phenomena of time: the past and the future by way of a present. As opposed to a distant past that has fallen into oblivion, and a future eventually to be expected, this very close past and future, in terms of retention and protention, is what makes us capable to apprehend the unity of the manifold. And as a matter of fact the structure of consciousness – looked at without bias – is dispersed over time. The temporal extension stands forth as a quality inherent in the perceived object itself, or with Husserl, “duration is before us as a mode of objectivity” (PIC, s. 90). We could not have a now without retention and protention because consciousness lives in the past and future as well as in the present. As Aristotle indicated and as Heidegger later recalled, the now is “ek-static”: it stands outside itself, or rather outside of the momentary “now”. Retention and protention are essential aspects of this dispersed structure.

The perception constitutes the now – and the now is the basic unit of time. Is this to be taken in the sense that time begins with perception? Following Husserl’s own line of thought, the answer is yes and no. Throughout his works Husserl will stay firm to his intuition of the now as “the basic unity of time”; never the less, he would come to vacillate as to the time and place, so to speak, of its birth. Because what about the pre-reflective experiences? Experiences not yet constituted as objects – perhaps not even possibly so, as in the eminent case of self-awareness, in the thematic sense of the word? As Dan Zahavi puts it in his book dedicated to subjectivity and the self: “Although Husserl seems to maintain that a pre-reflective experience can not be given as a temporal object, he did claim that self-awareness has a temporal infrastructure.

How is this modification to be understood?

In the Bernauer Manuscrips, the question is brought up in relation to the conditions of possibility of perception of an immanent object in general (s.191). When the object is perceived, it is perceived in a constituting process, and here it is, “esse est percipi”. But must it not also be without being thus perceived (s.191)? And if so, if we are to admit a pre-intentional object (a pre-perception, as is reiterated pronounced in the C-manuscript), is it to be considered a timeless layer of consciousness, prior only in a material or logical sense, or is it supposed to be considered prior in the sense of time? If that is the case, however, it is bound to have a time quality of its own; with which it would put into question one of the key-stones in the phenomenological edification, because it would put into question the eminence given to the “presentification” of the intentional object and, with that, the selfsame now as the “basic unity of time. (Nor is it of course coherent with the notion of the subject as an “absolute timeless subject”.)

Is there such a thing as non-conscious perception (Vorstellung)? A life of the I (Ichleben) which is not itself perceived? (BM, 205, note 1). In the Bernauer Manuscrips Husserl formulates the hypothesis of an original process (Urprocess) of such a kind that it is in principal, or potentially, perceivable even though it is not actually perceived. The implications of this assumption are major. Accordingly we would have to consider a constitutional process in different temporal layers. Because, as he goes on arguing, does not an original process necessarily belong to every perception as a process that constitutes the giveneness of the temporal object (Zeitgegenstände) but is not itself perceived? Is not the constituted object virtually quite unthinkable without the being of this constitution (Sein der Konstitution), which, as such, must be prior to the object thus constituted? In other words, “does not every grasping conception (Erfassen) presuppose a former (Vorgängiges) non-grasping perceiving (Wahrnehme ohne Erfassen)? Doubtless!” (BM, p. 191).

Within the framework of phenomenology, where it would be correct to speak of a “constitution” of intentional objects only in a following reflection upon the original process, it seems inadmissible to understand the original process as, precisely, a constitutional process of time-objects (BM, p.203) and, with that, to consider it a kind of intentional consciousness. But then again, when we pay attention to the way in which it is given (die Gegenheitsweisen desselbe), this line is a temporal line (BM, p.196). (1)

According to the Husserlian postulate, the question of the constitutive function of the pre-reflective original process turns out to be a semi-question as much as a key-one. The independent intentional character of the original process must be denied, yet the original process itself can not be denied; and this process, in relation to the time of the constituting act, belongs to a non-retentional past. It has past, it might be recollected. Which suggests that“the analysis of temporality requires something more than an investigation of the temporal givenness of objects, because it requires two – and twoquite different – orientations within the transcendental reflection: the one that turns to the constituting stream, and the other that turns to the constituted line of events (BM, p.262). Following Zahavi in the book mentioned above, Husserl’s analysis of the structure of inner time consciousness serves a double purpose. It is meant to explain how we can be aware of temporal objects, but also how we can be aware of our own fluctuating stream of experiences. (…) Our perceptual objects are temporal, but what about our very perceptions of these objects? Are they or are they not subjugated to the strict laws of temporal constitution?” (Zahavi, p. 58)

Even though Husserl would come to revise his former position with regard to a pre-reflective temporalisation, the question – in my understanding – was to remain unsettled. In as far as the function of the reflective subjectivity is to reveal, and not to create, what is being thus constituted, the now in question will be hopelessly turned into past; and not only into the “just” (Soeben) past, but into a past that calls for recollection. For much width we would attribute to the present, sooner or later the phenomenon in question – the thing reflected upon – can no longer be said to be (part of the) present, with less than its distinctive features – as a non-past and a non-future – having been lost.

A suggestive complement to the Husserlian ambivalence regarding the temporality of the original process is found within the so called real-idealism elaborated by the 19th century philosopher Schelling (1775-1854). Well rooted in the idealistic tradition, Schelling shares Husserl’s point of departure. The beginning of knowledge is to be found in an act of reflection, moreover, this act must have a “before” of a generically different kind. Whatever is brought to knowledge by way of reflection is bound to have a pre-reflective material or, with Husserl, a “hyletic” underlayer. They furthermore coincide in the idea that this “something” (=x) prior to reflection may not be constituted as such until unfolded or grasped through a reflective act.

The difference between these two, in many ways closely related German philosophers, is to be found in the place – and time – assigned to the “presenciating” act in question. While, according to Husserl as we know him, this must be a matter of a reflective act, according to Schelling, it can only be an act in between the potential level and the time of reflection. In as far as this event refers to a moment not of separation but of unification, we are due speak of an act; but as the very act in between, it is also foreign to any distance, oblivious of any outside, and quite unreachable by way of a reflective concept according to the old dictum determinatio est negatio. And still, it is precisely as such it would be able to offer what Husserl so eagerly sought for: “an Halt in the stream of unconscious life moments through which the Uremfindungsdatum could be given to apperception”. (BM,p.201). In other words, both Husserl and Schelling presuppose the hyletic process in terms of what is potentially – as a nacheinander or a flow – and both of them claim the reflective act to be the beginning of knowledge, but in Schelling’s outspoken understanding of the dynamics underlying the reflective act, we have not one but two stages because in-between we have the all-inclusive act in the proper sense of actualisation; which is to say the moment – or the time – when that which was but potentially, as a scattered and differentiated being, coincides with its telos as a reconciledwhole. As Schelling remarks, the unity of this act is immediately creative (Die Einheit dieses Gesetzes ist unmittelbar schöpferische”) (SW VII, 345-346), and vice versa, it is only in virtue of the unifying force of this act that all there is, was and will be may come into being: be it the object of consciousness or consciousness itself – here Bewusstsein is understood as Bewusstwerden –, be it Sein or Seiende or time alike. The intentional constitution of which belongs to a posterior moment, in a posterior time.

In terms of the Aristotelian dynamics the act in question corresponds to the time of the conjugated, unified now: a simultaneous time in which the three dimensions of time – past, present, future – are at the same time, only not as the same time. Such a mood of time would, surly, betray the flowing nature of time because it would be a time at rest (unthinkable within the Aristotelian universe), yet on the other hand, as a mood of time able to embrace identity and difference, it would answer well to the conditions of (its) being. But then again, is this not just another way to pronounce the very act that Husserl himself explores in terms of the spontaneous act of the anonymous I; the act of “affection” in which I am not directed to myself but captured by the other, and in which, consequently, the direction of time is the opposite to that of the intentional act? An “original now” (Urgegenwart), furthermore eloquently characterized as “the time of the original phenomenon to which all transcendental question (Rückfrage) in the method of phenomenological reduction is brought back”If we are to take this very distinction at face-value, the late teachings of Schelling might serve us. Understood as the instant of actualisation in-between the mere potential level and the act of reflection, the original now would be at odds with the notion of the “intentional now” for structural reasons. Whereas the latter speaks of a retentional past and a protentional future as the edifying moments underlying duration, the original now assign us a past in terms of a vital history and a future in terms of an enigmatic aimed for end, unified in the manner of fusion – confusedly exposed within a presence without duration, for a swift moment, yet eternal enough to respond to the old image of the one-and-all, hen kai pan. A non-conceptual totality which would grant us not just a Halt in the stream, but a founding event: that of a new, and ever new, beginning – for the conceptual labour to determine whatever was swiftly exposed as such. Moreover, recalling the issue of the present paper, it would grant us a time which is no longer the time of the other but the time of the inbetween the self and the other as the time of it all. Where after follows –we may hope – yet some time for reflection.


(1) As Husserl goes on saying: “Must not these Lebensreihen, in some sense or another, remain either we pay attention to them or not. In other words does not the process remain in its (due) time? (p. 204). If the latter is the case, we would have to admit something prior in terms of time to the first stage (erster Stufe) of immanent experience understood in terms of an unconscious process as a series (Urfolge) of “hyletic” moments which, again, would not themselves have the structure of a consciousness… of” (p. 200).


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