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Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
(T.S. Eliot, Burnt Norton.)


Edmund Husserl, at the turn of our century, set himself the goal of establishing a rigorous science, that is a body of knowledge that is not based on any presuppositions. The slogan of his phenomenology is, "back to the things themselves," by which he means back to what we are really given in experience, to the "phenomena" as he calls them. The task is to intuit clearly these phenomena and then to describe what we have seen in words. This task, as Descartes long since pointed out, is a thoroughly individual one: I cannot tell you what you experience, you must look for yourselves. The ultimate meaning of redness, for instance, is based on the experience of redness, and in the case of a person born blind, no teaching, no language could ever replace this direct intuition. Words, in phenomenology, are always secondary to intuition; they can be used to point our intuition in the right direction, or to tell us when we are looking at the wrong phenomenon, but they can never replace the need to look for ourselves. Husserl is, he claims, the real empiricist.

But the task of describing the given is complicated by the fact that we have inherited many philosophical dogmas which obscure our clear intuition of our experience. We therefore need to purify our inspections by means of "reductions," that is, the suspension of any beliefs other than those we can justify from our experience. General concepts, physical objects, the world itself must not be just assumed; we must suspend belief in them until we can justify them on the basis of our experience.

This is the method we must follow in our study of the nature of time: suspend all speculative dogmas about the nature of time and our experience of it, then intuit the phenomenon itself, and finally describe what we intuit in words.


First we need to suspend philosophical interpretations of time: time as cyclic or linear; time as maya or illusion, time as emanation from the One.

Secondly, we must suspend scientific theories of time. Many assume that time is what is measured by clocks, that it goes on objectively at the same rate whether observed or not. Newton thought of time as an absolute quantity, a measurable attribute of God's sensorium. Einstein says that time is a fourth dimension, mathematically similar to the other three, but relative in its quantity to the velocity of observers. Hawkins says that time starts with the big bang and was hugely accelerated during the first seconds of the universe. The phenomenologist, without denying any of these theories of cosmic, external or objective time, suspends belief in them in order to be able to achieve a pure description of how time is actually given to us in our experience.

Hume too claimed to start from experience. He claimed that each moment of experience involved a set of isolated (sense-) impressions. This too is an unsupported dogma, for Husserl points out that we don't in fact experience impressions. Hume claimed to be an empiricist, but was prejudiced by a philosophy of atomism and failed to actually do the hard work of looking at experience itself.

Hume's error is actually based on a more crucial prejudice which he inherited from Descartes. Descartes presents his cogito as a momentary experience valid only for the instant. Every moment of conscious life is an isolated, separate event, unrelated to the past and the future except by the creative power of God. Nothing in the present state of our consciousness intimates anything about the future, even that there is one. The world is created anew every moment by divine miracle.

For a lifespan can be divided into countless parts, each completely independent of the others, so that it does not follow from the fact that I existed a little while ago that I must exist now ... For it is quite clear to anyone who attentively considers the nature of time that the same power and action are needed to preserve anything at each individual moment of its duration as would be required to create that thing anew if it were not yet in existence. (Descartes, Meditation #3.)

Descartes seems to conceive of consciousness as a point, unextended in time as in space, relying on external factors such as bodily memory or divine intervention to relate to the past and the future. I suspect this notion of consciousness depends upon Plato's notion that the soul must be absolutely simple and unified. Descartes' mind seems to be modeled on his notion of an absolutely simple, and so eternal, God, who can grasp things in their unity because she is herself without any dispersion, either spatial or temporal. I will call this, our most misleading, prejudice, "the dogma of punctual consciousness." Husserl says we must not assume without investigation that consciousness is restricted to a durationless now. Don't assume, look and see!


Let me start then by suspending all beliefs in such dogmas and offering two concrete descriptions of the experience of a temporal object: understanding a sentence and listening to a tune.


I'll start by describing the experience of understanding a spoken sentence: "the cat is on the mat." If we accepted the punctual dogma, then we have a dilemma. If we can hear only one word at a time, the sentence is incomprehensible. On the other hand, if, when we get to the last word, "mat," we recollect all the previous words simultaneously, we just have a jumble we can make no sense of. Presumably if we recollect all the words at the end, we would have to run over them again in their temporal order to makes sense of them. But what does "run over them again" mean? If it means relistening (in our imagination this time) to each in turn, we still have the same problem when we get to the end of the sentence a second time!

Let us forget the dogma and just describe what we are given. When we understand a sentence, each previous word is retained and remains present, but remains present in a manner that does not confuse it with the current word, that is, it is given to consciousness as past. All these past words, however, are not given as homogeneously past, for then they would be just a senseless jumble. They maintain the order in which they were originally given. That is, when we get to "mat," "the" is present as the immediate past which is sinking away, and "on" is present to us as the word which was the immediate past when "the" was the current word, and so on. The past remains present without becoming actually current. Don't ask how this is possible; just describe it!

Husserl labels this phenomenon "retention." Retention is the mode in which the past is present to consciousness. (Of course, there is also a complementary phenomenon of "protention" in which the likely future is anticipated, but for the sake of simplicity I will ignore this.)


A similar structure can be discovered if we describe the experience of a melody. Each note in a melody has a musical quality which depends on the place of the note in a sequence of notes. We do not hear a note as an objective frequency but as the musical quality that fits in at that point in the melody. Indeed moving the whole tune up an octave does not change the experience of the melody, although the objective frequency of every note is changed. Each note is heard in the context of the previous (and anticipated) notes. That is, the previous notes are still present to consciousness when we hear the current note, otherwise it wouldn't be this note with this musical quality in this tune.

If we heard every note in isolation from the other notes of a melody, we couldn't experience a melody. That is, if our consciousness were punctual, each note would have a life of its own and wouldn't be part of a tune. We can only hear a tune if the previous notes somehow remain present while we are listening to the current note. This remaining-present is what Husserl calls retention. Similarly the note can only be experienced in its melodic quality if some future sequence of notes is at least vaguely anticipated in protention.

Imagine God listening in on a performance. God eternally hears all notes simultaneously. But this is not a melody, but a massive chord (or dischord!) Hence God, not being capable of temporal experience, could never have the experience of hearing a tune (not even Gregorian chant.)

If everything we experience is actually present in the now, then either we could only hear one tone at a time, and so never hear a melody, or else we must hear the one note while recollecting the previous sequence. But recollection cannot solve our problem here. Imagine a conductor who asked you to recollect say, three note, and then played the fourth! Clearly this would not be the experience of a melody. Alternatively, if the conductor had no faith in your ability at retention and tried to solve the problem by playing all four notes at the same time, you would still not hear the melody. That is, the retained notes are neither actually present in the same mode as the current note, nor are they recollected. The experience cannot be adequately described as the addition to the actually present note of something else which is actually present, either another sounding note or another recollected note.

The previous notes which are retained are the self-same notes that we previously heard. I don't mean that they are copies of them, reproductions of them or representations of them. I mean that it is exactly the same note which was once sounding which is now experienced as present although past, indeed present as past.

The current note sinks into the past and is modified in this temporal fashion. It is now experienced as that past note which when it was current followed the previous note which is now the further-past, that which was already past when the previous note was actual. The retained past is not just homogenous, it has a layered structure with each phase being experienced as the past of another past. In a four note tune, when the fourth note is current, the second note is experienced not just as past, like the third note, but as the third note's immediate past.

Each note in a melody and each word in a sentence are, of course, themselves enduring, temporal objects in their own right, with a beginning, a middle and an end, and these phases need to be described in a similar manner. The whole note runs off as a unity, but it is the unity of a continuum, for even in the past the note never becomes a static object. Every retained now is a retention of previous nows, and each new moment is a modification of all of the previous retentions. Each note is a running-off continuum. A melody, as a continuum of notes, is then a continuum of continua. Time itself is, as Husserl puts it, "a continuum of continua." As we experience time in consciousness, it is a continual sinking-away, not a series of discrete points, although it is difficult for us to avoid this false impression when we try to put the phenomenon into words. There is a privileged point, the now, but consciousness is not restricted to this point; it embraces the whole articulated temporal structure. Indeed, if consciousness were not temporal in this way experience would not be possible, as Plato already realized in the Philebus. (21c)

Time is part of the essence of consciousness. And time is essentially the temporal structure we have described above. It runs off continuous with the previous nows getting further and further "away" until they fade off into the distance. Distant past retentions draw together as in a spatial perspective. This fading away is not a changing of the phase and its nature: a middle C is still a real, sounding middle C, not an imagined, conceptualized or recollected one, but is modified in its mode of givenness so that it is given as the past of the current now.

Husserl claims that any retained moment had to originally have been a now at some stage. In a complementary fashion, a now is always the limit of a retentional series, a boundary edge. We couldn't have a now without retention and protention, nor vice versa.


Husserl attempted to explain his findings by means of a "diagram of time:"

Unfortunately, rather than enlighten the situation this diagram only added to the mysteries to unravel! Cairns and Zaner have attempted to clarify the situation by offering us a modified version illustrating the hearing of the sequences of notes 'E,' 'G,' 'C,' 'B:'


There are three interrelated dogmas which may stand in the way of us grasping this temporal structure: the dogmas of punctuality, of homogeneity and of content. (This is not the way Hussrel himself puts it.)

We have already met the dogma of punctuality, that consciousness lives totally in an instantaneous now. In effect, Husserl is claiming that if we look without bias at the structure of consciousness, we will see that it is dispersed over time. Consciousness lives in the past and future as well as in the present. It is, as Heidegger will later say, "ecstatic," that is, it stands outside itself, or rather outside of the momentary now. Retention and protention are aspects of this dispersed structure. Consciousness extends beyond the present moment to encompass the past and the future.

Yet it does this in an articulated, not an homogeneous fashion. The second dogma that may give us trouble is the belief that consciousness is always homogeneous, that it has only one way of grasping the given. When we hear the last note of a melody all the previous notes are still present, yet neither as actually present sounding notes, which would mean cacophony, nor as actually present recollections of notes, in which case we'd be hearing only one chord, not a melody. Punctualists must say that a note is either present or absent to consciousness; they have no rooms for different modes of presence and absence. The error is to think of consciousness as analogous to a searchlight which shines indifferently on people, buildings, submarines and stars. In this analogy, only the objects change; the searchlight of consciousness is forever the same. Husserl claims that when we drop our dogmas and look at consciousness as we find it, we discover that it acts in many different ways, in different modes. Imagine then instead an observation station that had a searchlight, a radar, a sonar detector and a radio telescope. We couldn't observe stars with a searchlight, nor submerged objects with a radar. Similarly although consciousness has a privileged mode of operation by which it experiences the now, it also has another mode in which it grasps the past, and not by treating it as a now. The difference between the current note and the past note is not like that between people and buildings, but more like the difference between a sonar echo and a radio telescope image. It is the articulation of these various modes of givenness which makes up the essential structure of the experience of internal time consciousness.

If there were only one mode of givenness for consciousness, then, if I could experience a past moment at all, it could only be experienced as past if it were accompanied by a second item, a label alongside it which says, "this one is past," a temporal 'sign.' This indeed is what Brentano seemed to say. This error is based on another dogma, which we might call the dogma of content: the differences between a past, present and future moment must appear as a difference in the contents of our experience. The prejudice is related to Hume's notion that all we are ever given are isolated, unstructured impressions. If Hume were correct, then the only way a past impression could be distinguished from a present one is by being associated with a second impression, the impression of "pastness."

Husserl rejects this dogma in his description of our experience of time and claims that a true description of our experience reveals formal differences as well as content differences. A past note is experienced as different than a present note not because of any difference of content, but because it is given in a different form. The previous note has undergone a modification in its mode of presentation, in the manner of its being experienced, while remaining the same note and it is this modification which indicates that it is past. It is modified as "sinking away," as the "having-just-been." As an analogy, imagine if I look at the table and then put on pink sunglasses and continue to look at the table. I do not now see two things, a table and pink glasses; I see the self-same table as before, just coloured pink. Similarly the retained note is the self-same note modified by a different "colour," the colour of the just past.

So retention is a mode of givenness, but it is a primordial mode, i.e., the first, only and originary way the past as such is given. Through retention, the past is given itself in person. It is not that something else is given that represents or reminds us of the past, something which can be compared to, or corresponds with, or symbolizes that moment in the past. That would be to have the past or its representative present as a now. The past itself is given to us; it is not mediated by something else which stands for it or corresponds with the prior reality. This would make the past itself inaccessible; if this were the case, how could we ever know if the representative faithfully represented the past itself, since it would then be inaccessible? Retention is the mode of consciousness by which the past is presented, not represented.

However, if we call perception the act in which all 'origination' lies, which constitutes originarily, then [retention] is perception. For only in [retention] do we see what is past; only in it is the past constituted, i.e., not in a representative but in a presentative way. It is the essence of [retention] to bring this new and unique moment to primary, direct intuition, just as it is the essence of the perception of the now to bring the now directly to intuition." (Husserl, Internal Time Consciousness, p.64)

In other words, punctual consciousness is a dogma which an examination of experience does not bear out. When we come to actually describe our experience of a temporal object, we find that, far from being a absolutely simple now-point, consciousness is a highly articulated structure in which many different phases are present, though most of them have undergone the "modification" of the past, that is, they are present-as-absent.

It pertains to the essence of intuition that in every point of its duration it is conscious of what has just been and is not mere consciousness of the now-point of the objective thing appearing as having duration ... Retentional consciousness includes real consciousness of the past of sound ... and is not to be resolved into sensed sound and apprehension as memory." (Husserl, Internal Time Consciousness, p.53-54.)


Retention (and protention) are then originary, sui generis modes of consciousness which constitute the very essence of time. I cannot tell you therefore what they are; each person must intuit their own experience of these phenomena and describe them as best they can. But it may help to say what retention is not.

A retained sound is not a reverberation, an after-image, an actual sound, like an echo or a lingering note as on a piano. Nor is it a replacement sound, that is actual, like a weak image, as when I hum to myself under my breath. A retained sound is not a representation or symbolization, as in thinking of the name of the note, or an image of it. It is not the idea of the sound, not a concept or reflection on it. A retained sound is the original sound itself, but in a different mode, the mode of presence as absent, of present-as-past.

Above all, and this is the easiest mistake to make, retention is not recollection; that is, it is not the recall of a past event. Psychologists distinguish short and long term recall, but neither have anything to do with retention. There are a number of reasons why retention cannot be based on any kind of recollection.


Let me finish by pointing out that, if all our ideas are based on experience, then of course the notion of objective time, as we understand it, (and what else can we speak about?) must be based on experience. The objective notions of scientific time, and any philosophical concepts based on these, must be constituted out of our original experience of internal time. But that's another story that we must leave at the level of a vague protention...

© David L. Thompson
Philosophy Department
Memorial University
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