Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Husserl and the Deconstruction of Time

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Husserl and the Deconstruction of Time

Article excerpt

IN A RECENT AND PHILOSOPHICALLY RICH STUDY, David Wood has undertaken the deconstruction of time through an engagement with the thought of Nietzsche, Husserl, Heidegger, and, of course, Derrida.(1) The present essay is not intended to offer a sustained criticism of Wood's arguments or to canvass what he says about the quartet of philosophers noted above; rather, with his book as background, the essay's purpose is to say something about only one of the four philosophers--Edmund Husserl--and particularly about the place of presence and absence in Husserl's phenomenology of time and the consciousness of time. The results may supply ammunition both to those inclined to criticize Husserl from a deconstructive point of view and to those bold enough to defend him. In any event, what Husserl has to say about these matters is worth considering for its own sake. His discussion of the different ways in which presence and absence enter into our temporal experience is subtle and nuanced. He draws delicate distinctions and points to continuities and discontinuities that deserve the philosopher's careful and sympathetic attention. I will focus on a few of these, hoping that they will suggest something of the rich resources for reflection on this topic that are present in Husserl's texts.

I

Wood hazards the prediction that eventually philosophers will turn "to time as the focus and horizon of all our thought and experience,"(2) a view quite in keeping with Husserl's conviction that time offers not only the most difficult but also the most important of all phenomenological problems.(3) But if time is thus to come into its own as the one philosophical problem "that is truly permanent," a legacy of thought about the temporal must first be set aside: "time has to be freed from the shackles of its traditional moral and metaphysical understanding."(4) Now in the thought of Nietzsche, Husserl, and Heidegger, Wood thinks, one can see this process of liberation unfolding, even if none of them finally succeeds in securing time's freedom. Derrida, however, takes the process to a conclusion, although not quite the conclusion one might have expected: "The concept of time belongs entirely to metaphysics and it designates the domination of presence."(5) If the concept of time is intrinsically metaphysical, as this text suggests, then to purge it of its metaphysical character is to eliminate it altogether;(6) or as Wood nicely puts it, rescuing the concept of time "from metaphysics would be like rescuing a fish from water."(7) There would be no concept of time left at all.

That is a conclusion, however, that Wood wants to avoid. He thinks that there are many times and many concepts of time rather than just one, as the tradition seems to hold, and that none of them is metaphysical. I will return later to this claim and its relevance to Husserl, but first it might be helpful to summarize briefly the reading of metaphysics at work here--a reading that receives a kind of canonical formulation in Derrida, but that the deconstructionist finds adumbrated in Nietzsche, Husserl (in some respects), and Heidegger. Wood's account is especially instructive for the Husserlian phenomenologist. So what are some of the key features of the "metaphysical," according to this way of reading the tradition?

The history of philosophy, we are told, has been largely the history of metaphysics. The history of metaphysics in turn has been the history "of the privileging of a certain temporal/evidential value, that of 'presence'."(8) If one retorts that the history of metaphysics has been the history of reflection on Being and beings, the reply will be that metaphysics determines "Being as presence."(9) This does not mean that "presence" is some thing; it might be better described as a condition or state of something. But it is the sort of condition that tends to dictate the kind of thing that can enter into it. That thing is usually taken to be an "object" standing over against a contemplative knower, a "subject. …

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