Time In Phenomenology

By now, it should be clear that time is a profound mystery that has by no means been understood in any ultimate sense by physics or philosophy. Although it may seem like we know what time is, when we actually examine it our conceptions of it seem to dissolve. So, with our preconceptions of the nature of time loosened up, let us take a fresh and open-minded look at the nature of time through the eyes of phenomenology.

Introduction to Phenomenology

Phenomenology is a form of modern philosophy initiated by Edmund Husserl (1859-1938). The phenomenological approach to doing philosophy begins by acknowledging that much of philosophic activity is tainted by hidden, unquestioned presuppositions that slip unnoticed into our thought. Moreover, even our experience itself is conditioned by interpretive presuppositions and their related habits of attention. This natural attitude toward the world presents us with what amounts to a naive semblance of reality, together with its associated set of unquestioned concepts and categories. Because much of philosophy is based on this natural attitude, it has become sterile and superficial. It neither recognizes deeper levels of reality, nor dares to look for them.

The phenomenological turn or phenomenological reduction is a courageous turning back “to the things themselves” involving a radical suspension of all our natural attitudes about them, including their objective existence. Through this bracketing of our preconceptions and attitudes (called the epoche), we shift from the natural attitude to the more reflective phenomenological attitude. Husserl’s epoche is a bracket of the natural attitude we have about the world, a suspension of judgement with regard to the existence of objects of consciousness. Whereas the natural attitude accepts the world as a horizon or matrix or context for various experiences, the phenomenological attitude makes an inquiry into that horizon itself, and opens our inquiry into the mysteries of the ground beneath our normal experience of the world. Although Descartes doubted the world, Husserl is more radical than Descartes because he brackets even the belief in a psychological ego that is a thinking thing or essence. For Husserl, however, the transcendental subjectivity cannot be bracketed, since it is not an object or phenomenon or thing. Husserl thus distinguishes between the psychological ego as part of the world, and the transcendental ego as that which has a world and transcends the world to some extent.

The phenomenological attitude liberates the philosopher’s vision from the pregivenness of the world, and allows us to clearly see and describe objects of consciousness as phenomena in themselves. In addition, we can also clearly see and describe acts of consciousness, as well as their relationship to their objects.  As Husserl says, “Given in and through this liberation is the discovery of the universal, absolutely self-enclosed and absolutely self-sufficient correlation between the world itself and world-consciousness” (Crisis, p. 151). Husserl uses the term noesis to refer to an act of consciousness, and the term noema to refer to its intended object. The phenomenological description of the object is a noematic analysis and that of the subjective intentions is a noetic analysis. The phenomenological analysis reveals the essence of an act, its object, and their correlation to each other. The essences are not revealed by a generalization from instances but through a process of free variation or imaginative variation, in which various features are removed in analysis to discover those that are essential and those that are not. This process leads to eidetic intuition of the essence, an insight that certain features necessarily belong to the eidos, the essence, of the thing in question. This inquiry is directed at both objects (noema) and to the forms of intentionality (noesis), e.g., so as to determine the essence of perception, memory, judging, or subjective time consciousness. The goal or purpose of this phenomenological analysis, however, is not to discover final axioms or principles upon which to build a systematic philosophy. Rather, it is to peel away still more layers of preconception, to progressively deepen our insight into the nature of things.

To wrap up this introduction, it is important to note that Husserl viewed the phenomenological reduction not as a mere tool for improving academic philosophy, but as a technique of profound and far-reaching significance for humanity:

Perhaps it will even become manifest that the total phenomenological attitude and the epoche belonging to it are destined in essence to effect, at first, a complete personal transformation, comparable in the beginning to a religious conversion, which then, however, over and above this, bears within itself the significance of the greatest existential transformation which is assigned as a task to mankind as such (Crisis, p. 137).

Husserl’s Phenomenology of Time

Using his phenomenological methods, Husserl analyzed time in his Lectures on the Phenomenology of Internal Time Consciousness (1928). Husserl distinguishes between objective time in the world, inner time of experience, and a deeper consciousness of inner time. As we will see, this deep time consciousness permits experience to have a temporal character, and provides the ultimate context for the identity of the ego as a temporally extended being. The deep living present is the foundation for the ego.

Husserl’s analysis of inner time consciousness takes music as an example of a temporal experience. A piece of music being played is a kind of temporal object, and object of experience that has temporal extension. The natural attitude toward the experience of a musical piece is that it consists of a sequence of notes. First we hear one note, then the next, and so on until the piece of music is completed. At any given now we seem to have immediate awareness of only one note. If these notes are separated in time as disconnected moments, though, how can we be aware of the musical piece as a whole? One answer might be that, through memory, our minds somehow collect all the notes together into a unity at one moment. But Husserl observes that this is not our experience of music at all. We do not recall all the notes together all at once in a single temporally comprehensive act. If we were aware of all the notes at once, it would be a cacophony and not music. Another answer might be that the successive notes are integrated in a temporally extended apprehension. That is, the temporally extended sequence of notes is not apprehended in a moment by recall, but rather by a temporally extended consciousness. But this answer merely shifts the question from understanding a temporally extended object, to understanding a temporally extended apprehension by a subject. Perhaps with a phenomenological analysis of time consciousness, however, some progress can be made in deepening our understanding.

Husserl begins his phenomenological analysis by proposing that we “exclude all transcendent apprehension and positing and take the sound purely as a hyletic datum” (PITC, p. 44). This epoche opens up the capacity to “see” the sound directly. What Husserl discovers is a whole new dimension of temporal experience. In addition to the experience of the immediately present note, and the recall in the present of a memory of a past note, there is also what Husserl calls a retention of past notes—a kind of implicit presence of the just past. Although a sound may have just ended, there is a continuing retention of it in the present that gradually fades. As Husserl says,

[the retention of the note] is continually modified and sinks back into emptiness…as points of a stationary object in space recede when I “go away from the object.” The object retains its place; even so does the sound retain its time. Its temporal point is unmoved, but the sound vanishes into the remoteness of consciousness; the distance from the generative now becomes ever greater. (PITC, p. 45.)

Retention is an implicit presence of the recent “past” in the now. Because it is present in the now, however, it is not really past in the sense of not being in the present. This begins to reveal how Husserl’s phenomenological analysis of time consciousness begins to blur the distinction between present and past, revealing that the present is constituted in part by the past. Thus, the past is present, and not strictly past. Clear and definite retentions are interpreted as belonging to a recent past, while more obscure and indefinite retentions are interpreted as belonging to a more distant past. For example, the while the first words of this sentence you are reading now are in clear retention, the previous sentence is less clearly retained, and the first sentence of this paper is probably not retained at all, even if you can recall it through an act of memory. The flow of time is related to the changing clarity of the impressions present in consciousness: as they decrease in clarity and definiteness, they are given to us as being more in the past, more in the not-present. The “now” and “past” are merely portions of our experiential flow that correspond to more or less clear and definite impressions. The picture of time this suggests is quite different from the conventional notion of time as a succession of “now” points. Rather than reifying each “now” and stringing them together in a horizontal temporal sequence, time is viewed phenomenologically as an arising of clear and definite impressions, which then sink back down into the depths of emptiness. In contrast, the natural attitude imagines that there is a real distinction between the clear and explicit impressions (called the present, or the “now”) and the implicit and obscure impressions (called the non-present, or the “past”). In the natural attitude, the implicit impressions are ignored, while the explicit impressions are reified and then used to construct an imaginary sequence of moments of “real” temporal experience. Phenomenological analysis shows that time consciousness is deeper than that. It is based on a more fundamental flow, where receding parts of that flow are sinking away and decreasing their clarity and intensity are temporally given to us as having just been part of a more clear and intense consciousness.

Husserl, however, deepens the analysis further. For it is still not clear why it is that we speak of the same note despite the fact that it is experienced as changing as it fades into emptiness. This is where Husserl connects objectification with the depths of time consciousness: objective existence requires some constancy despite the ever-present flowing nature of experience, just as objective time requires a sequence of fixed “now” instants despite the perpetual perishing of these nows. In his investigation of this question, Husserl discovers beneath the constituted unities in time a deeper constituting flow of consciousness. The objects that are sustained in time are constituted by this more fundamental flow of consciousness. This deeper level of time, Husserl emphasizes, is very different from the conventional level of objective time:

Time-constituting phenomena…are evidently objectivities fundamentally different from those constituted in time. They are neither individual objects nor individual processes. …Hence it also can make no sense to say of them…that they exist in the now and did exist previously, that they succeed one another in time or are simultaneous with one another, and so on. This flow is something we speak of in conformity with what is constituted, but it is not “something in objective time.” It is absolute subjectivity and has the absolute properties of something to be designated metaphorically as “flow”; of something that originates in a point of actuality, in a primal source-point, “the now,” and so on. …For all of this, we lack names. (PITC, p. 213.)

The nature of inner time consciousness thus opens up into an ineffable flow of consciousness that cannot be made objective because it is the very constituting basis for objectification. Out of its indeterminate multivalent nature emerge both the transitory and enduring aspects of temporal experience. One might then ask, however, what is the basis for the unity of this flow? How is this deeper level constituted? Is there an even deeper level? Husserl’s answer is no. This flow is self-constituting:

The flow of the consciousness that constitutes immanent time not only exists but is so remarkably and yet intelligibly fashioned that a self-appearance of the flow necessarily exists in it, and therefore the flow itself must necessarily be apprehensible in the flowing. The self-appearance of the flow does not require a second flow; on the contrary, it constitutes itself as a phenomenon in itself. The constituting and the constituted coincide. (PITC, p. 218)

At this level of consciousness, the flow is just what it is in itself, with reference to itself. There appears at this stage in the phenomenological analysis the first hint of a breakdown of the structure of intentionality: The constituting and the constituted coincide. If this did not happen at some point, then there would be an infinite regress of levels beneath levels, never transcending the dichotomy between apprehended and apprehending. Husserl explains:

If one says that every content comes to consciousness only by means of an act of apprehension directed towards it, then the question immediately arises about the consciousness in which this act of apprehension, which is surely a content itself, becomes conscious, and an infinite regress is unavoidable. But if every “content” is “primally conscious” in itself and necessarily, the question about a further giving consciousness becomes meaningless. (PITC, p. 221)

This deep level of consciousness, in other words, is not characterized by a duality of apprehending consciousness and apprehended content. The two at this level are identical in an ineffable primary consciousness that is conscious of itself, through itself. The mystery of time opens up to the mystery of consciousness itself. A mystery that is at once a kind of self-knowledge and identity of knowing with the known. Out of these depths of consciousness that transcend the conventional categories of time, the past, present, and future emerge together with the objective existence of things in time.

Time in Buddhism

In this final section, we will take a brief look at a Buddhist analysis of time and compare it to Husserl’s phenomenological analysis. Nagarjuna, the founder of the Madhyamika school of Mahayana Buddhism, provided a classic analysis of time in his Mulamadhyamikakarika. In these philosophical aphorisms, Nagarjuna examines time and finds that it cannot be conceived of as an entity existing independently of temporal phenomena. Nagarjuna begins with the conventional division of time into past, present, and future. He then argues than not one of these can be said to inherently exist.

The present and the future either depend on the past or they do not. If they do, then they must in some sense already be present implicitly in the past, in which case their distinction with the past does not make sense. If they do not, then there can be no relation or connection to the past, and it makes no sense to talk of them as linked phases of time. Instead, time must itself be regarded as a set of relations among temporal phenomena, and nothing in itself. This is suggestive of Husserl’s comment,

The now is precisely only an ideal limit, something abstract, which can be nothing by itself. (Husserl, PITC, p. 196).

Nagarjuna could be understood, in Husserl’s terms, to be making a logical critique of the natural attitude about time. The distinctions between past, present, and future are conventional constructs, and not inherently existing categories. Nagarjuna’s critique, however, only shows that past, present, and future are dependently existing categories. He does not go further to investigate and describe the nature of the continuous temporal flow that is the primary basis for our conventional concepts of time. Husserl dares to describe the mysterious and ineffable depths of consciousness that open up beyond the limits of both Nagarjuna’s logical critique as well as Husserl’s own phenomenological structures of intentionality. One might speculate whether Husserl could be providing a phenomenological description of the emergence of Time from Eternity that was given a metaphysical description by Plotinus. Or whether Husserl’s description has relevance to states of boundless awareness described by Buddhist contemplatives. If so, there may be a profound connection between the soteriological power of Buddhist practice and Husserl’s statement quoted earlier:

The total phenomenological attitude and the epoche belonging to it are destined in essence to effect, at first, a complete personal transformation, comparable in the beginning to a religious conversion, which then, however, over and above this, bears within itself the significance of the greatest existential transformation which is assigned as a task to mankind as such (Crisis, p. 137).


Dostal, Robert J. (1993). “Time and phenomenology in Husserl and Heidegger” in The Cambridge Companion to Heidegger, edited and introduction by Charles Guignon (Cambridge : Cambridge University Press).

Husserl (1999). “Phenomenology of Internal Time Consciousness” in The Essential Husserl, ed. Donn Welton (Bloomington : Indiana University Press).

Nagarjuna (1995). Mulamadhyamikakarika. Jay L. Garfield, tr. (New York : Oxford University Press)

Parmenides (1987). Early Greek Philosophy, tr. Barnes, Jonathan (London: Penguin Books).

Plotinus (1991). Enneads, tr. Stephen MacKenna (New York : Penguin).

St.Augustine. Confessions.

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