This week, I’ll be using Philosopher Fridays to add to my current thematic mini-series on Literary Time Consciousness. For this post, I draw lightly from my undergraduate philosophy thesis on time, and as such I owe much of my understanding to the professors who guided me.
Husserl: Edmund Gustav Albrecht Husserl (1859-1938) was a Moravian-born German philosopher who is considered the father of phenomenology, which is essentially the study of the first-person subjective consciousness. His work extends to mathematics, psychology, science, epistemology, and more, making him a pillar of the philosophical canon. For a thorough introduction to his life and works, check out his entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. For now, let’s turn to his understanding of time as a subjective experience.
According to Husserl in his Phenomenology of Internal Time Consciousness, no matter how regimented our experience of time may seem, we are still only able to understand it insofar as we are perceiving it. Attempts at an objective perspective are inherently naive, as each perception of an objective or subjective phenomenon is always added to a history of perceptions, the order of which is a perception in itself. As we perceive something new, all other perceptions are altered in light of it. If the meaning of the ordered content can change with new perceptions, then even time, as we think of it, is an object of intention.
As such, we have temporal order only as it relates to the streaming present, where there is order but no meaning, retention but not reflection, and protention (that is, looking intentionally forward) without expectation. The only thing that we can know for certain is that the present connects to what has come before and what will come after. That to which we expect it to connect is not an objective truth, but an intentional perception, and is thus subject to revision and manipulation.
The only inescapable tenant of time is the streaming consciousness. Retention and protention are facets of narrativity that proclaim some kind of order – though it is not necessarily one that is meaningful, durative, or purposeful. How we interpret that order itself part of our perception, and thus relies on other perceptions.
A great model for seeing this is to get into the headspace of partner dancing. Social partner dances are broken into two roles: leaders decide what moves to do and guide the motion, and followers receive that information and execute it fully. I particularly like following because it forces me to live inside the central moment of the present, even as it is inexorably connected to a past moment (retention) and will be connected to the next moment (protention). In order for me to really do my job as a follow well, I have to think of each piece of information I get from my lead as a moment. I must be connected to the previous moment, as the end of one moment is the set-up of the next moment (a move that winds me up will build momentum that will be released, for instance) but I can’t look intentionally forward with expectation – I have no real way of knowing what my lead is going to do next (the lead could release the momentum in any number of different directions relative to either of us), and so to be properly prepared, I need to be ready for something, but I cannot anticipate what.
While I can, after the fact, draw out some meaningful pattern – common moves, bits of famous choreographies, a musical structure, etc. – if I’m to succeed in executing that pattern, I need to be fully in the moment, executing each piece of the puzzle as fully as possible until I get new information. And yet (when I succeed – it’s challenging, and I’m no professional) it feels like continuous motion – I perceive it as streaming, well connected, and fluid.
What this means for Husserl is that our understanding of the present moment cannot be objective, as it depends upon the next moment to become meaningful. Following in a partner dance forces me to see that and embrace it. A talented follower could even use that knowledge to make subtle suggestions without taking over (it’s called “Ninja”ing the lead – playing an active role without “back leading”).
Next week, I’ll take a closer look at Husserl’s understanding of internal time consciousness, and explore the possibility that through literature, we might be able to “Ninja” our consciousness into a different experience of time, even if we cannot escape our temporal streaming. At the very least, through literature we might be able to see how we reflectively create subjective meaning in our experience of time, and realize that our foundation of reality is a lot less objectively solid than we typically assume.