Husserl Perception and the Ideality of Time

By Hutt, Curtis M. | Philosophy Today, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

Husserl Perception and the Ideality of Time


Hutt, Curtis M., Philosophy Today


I am going to examine a problem which Edmund Husserl claimed threatened to stymie his entire phenomenological enterprise. The question of how a temporally extended melody can be given to consciousness served as an extremely challenging and disconcerting puzzle, the explication of which spurred on a key development in his mature philosophy. I will discuss how a few philosophers before and after him (Augustine, Brentano, Meinong, Broad) have dealt with this same conundrum. Husserl's answer will be examined in order to situate it amongst the most contemporary ways of addressing the issue of time-consciousness and of perception in general.

Primary Sources

By far the most important event for scholars investigating Husserl's phenomenology of time-consciousness was the publication of Husserliana X: Zur Phanomenologie des inneren Zeitbewusstseins (1966), edited by Rudolf Boehm.1 This critical edition of the earlier "Vorlesungen zur Phanomenologie des inneren Zeitbewusstseins"2 supplemented by additional material on the subject, which surfaced primarily at the Husserl Archives where it was then comprehensively dated, is an irreplaceable tool for the student attempting to flesh out the development of Husserl's ideas on this topic. The 1928 publication itself, edited only superficially by Martin Heidegger, is really little more than a somewhat confused jumble of Husserl's lectures and notes cut up, drafted, and given order (in a decidably unchronological manner) by his Freiburg assistant Edith Stein a decade earlier. This original publication, translated into English by J. S. Churchill as The Phenomenology of Internal Time-Consciousness,3 easily deceives its reader. Husserl only pushed for its release upon being presented with a manuscript of Heidegger's Sein und Zeit. Positions incompatible with each other appear side by side, the evolution that took place in Husserl's thought and the vocabulary he used to express it being completely ignored. John Barnett Brough's translation enables English speakers for the first time to access Husserl's writings on time-consciousness directly and within the context of his overall philosophical development. 4

The Puzzle Under Examination

What was it about the cogitatio of time that so occupied Husserl's attention from the years 1893-1928? Beyond the "wonder"5 and "mystery"6 generated by his fascination with the topic as described in lectures given during 1906/7, and the arduous labors he deemed necessary for any who would be successful in unlocking its treasureS,7 Husserl writes that he came to view his entire phenomenological endeavor as threatened by the flow of time. From the transcript of one often overlooked gem embedded within Husserliana X (No. 51 taken from a 1909 lecture at the University of Gottingen entitled "The Problem of Time in the Considerations Fundamental to Phenomenology")8 we read the following:

All asserting, consequently, is a matter of indifference; we really cling only to the this-there!, which at any given time is the sole thing about which we should be permitted to speak. And, of course, our whole reflection up to this point would be affected. We might have carried out the exclusion of nature, but if one also requires of us the exclusion of that transcendence that is inherent in memory and retention, then at the end we find ourselves in the moment in which we began. It is indeed easy to see that we have presupposed a certain validity belonging to memory and retention. The tug of doubt leads still further in other respects. What about the actually present phenomenon, about the consciousness that is actually carried out and about the viewing directed at it?9

And then:

These doubts seem to touch even phenomenological perception. Every grasping of an enduring phenomenon also implies retention in company with the grasping of the duration. Should we therefore say that only the absolute now is something actually given and free from the problem of transcendence, and that even the least extension into the past-which surely belongs essentially to duration-is problematic? …

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