Academic journal article Philosophy Today

In Praise of Presence: Rethinking Presence with Derrida and Husserl

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

In Praise of Presence: Rethinking Presence with Derrida and Husserl

Article excerpt

". . . perception is unconsciousness." Merleau-Ponty (VAI 189)1

". . . the ego can really live in its experiences without being conscious of them." Andrd de Muralt (IP 300)2

"[It is a] philosophical error... to think that the visible is an objective presence (or an idea of this presence)."

Merleau-Ponty (VAI 258)

Jacques Derrida's Speech and Phenomena fundamentally constitutes a critique of Husserl's theory of signs. More specifically, it critiques Husserl's "principle of principles," the principle of non-signification, according to which "the self presence of the living present" or pure presence can occur only where signification can not occur, only where there is an "absence or uselessness of signs" (SP 60). Contrary to this, Derrida denies the possibility of pure presence altogether and in Speech and Phenomena he sets out to prove that the thesis of temporality that Husserl advances in The Phenomenology of Internal Time Consciousness in fact fails to support the latter's philosophy of presence, and that it instead supports Derrida's own thesis that at the heart of the self we find signs (the trace), signs which forever keep the self from itself, signs that introduce a radical alterity at the heart of the self.

In this essay I will analyze and critique Derrida's critique of Husserl's notion of pure presence. I will show that Husserl's theory of temporality in The Phenomenology of Internal Time Consciousness does support a philosophy of pure presence, but that Husserl's notion of presence is not, as Derrida would have it, one which "reject[s] the `after-event' of the becoming conscious of an `unconscious content' which is the structure of temporality implied throughout Freud's texts." I will argue that Husserl's notion of presence is transcendental, hyletic, and unconscious. I will not, however, argue against the notion of dissemination which I do consider to be phenomenologically significant. Instead I will argue that dissemination, characterized by a lack of stable meaning, non-origin, and departure from the rules of logic, is constituted by the relation of transcendental presence to the mundane.

The Central Issue

In The Phenomenology of Internal Time Consciousness, Husserl maintains that an analysis of experience reveals a constant presence, a "now." The now presents us with differing content: the content that fills the now, the "primal impression," passes and gives way to new content. As it does, the primal impression is not lost but is "retained" (ITC 161). Using the example of hearing a melody Husserl describes how each tone heard in the now sinks off into retentive consciousness as the next tone takes its place in the "now." Consciousness, embracing both the now and retention, anticipates the next tone (protention). In this fashion consciousness perceives the whole succession of tones as a unified melody. In other words, according to Husserl, an analysis of experience reveals that the form of consciousness consists of a flow, of a series of "nows" or "primal impressions" which run off into retentions or primary remembrance. Retention, a non-now, and the now form a continuity or a unity since they are both moments of the flow of experience. In Husserl's words, "the unity of the consciousness which encompasses the present and the past is a phenomenological datum" (ITC 36). Because of retention (and protention) we are able to "live through" the present, according to Husserl.

While Husserl's analysis seems to reflect experience, Derrida maintains that the continuity between the now and the not-now, between the now and retention, destroys any possibility of a primordial pure presence. In Derrida's words:

As soon as we admit this continuity of the now and the not-now, perception and nonperception, in the zone of primordiality common to primordial impression and primordial retention, we admit the other into self-identity of the Augenblick; nonpresence and nonevidence are admitted into the blink of the instant. …

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