Nicolas de Warren: Husserl and the Promise of Time

Nicolas de Warren (2009), Husserl and the Promise of Time: Subjectivity in Transcendental Phenomenology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 322p.

Book review by Renxiang Liu, originally written on Feb 2019.

In this monograph, Nicolas de Warren investigates into the unifying role of time-consciousness in Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology. His research is based on Husserl’s works on the constitution of and in time-consciousness, some of which are made available only recently. As such, the book serves as a thematic introduction to Husserl’s philosophy of time, though it is better characterized as an interpretation of Husserl’s overall project of transcendental phenomenology as centered upon the structure of time-consciousness.

If time-consciousness were simply the consciousness of time or temporal “objects” (e.g., a melody), it would be hard to imagine how it is of an overarching relevance in the complex of Husserlian phenomenology. It would only be an application of the general structure of intentionality, the characteristics of which may be articulated without considering time-consciousness. Indeed, such seems to be the case if we study the Logical Investigations or Ideas I in isolation: in those works, intentionality or the noema / noesis structure is examined without any explicit reference to temporality or time-consciousness.

However, in Chapter 1 of this book, de Warren rejects this “marginal” interpretation of time-consciousness. As he convincingly shows by exhibiting the systematic organization of Husserl’s thought, time-consciousness is first and foremost a name for the problem of the time of (any) consciousness, in the sense that any consciousness is fundamentally temporal. The consciousness of time gets studied only because in it the time of consciousness is most explicit. As de Warren affirms, time-consciousness is the key to transcendental subjectivity in general (4), for the dynamics of emptying [Entleerung] and fulfillment [Erfüllung] underlies every achievement of constitution and indeed motivates that constitution. As transcendental subjectivity is the token under which any clarification of ontological issues is made in Husserl, time-consciousness is also an entrance to the discussion of “Being in general” (to borrow Heidegger’s term) that cannot be circumvented (12).

The basic structure of consciousness is intentionality. But intentionality is more than the “about-ness” or “directedness” of consciousness; its central claim is about a synthesis of fulfillments in the constitution of an object. Constitution, so to speak, is an ongoing movement, and this is why the time of consciousness becomes significant (47). The synthesis must be accomplished in a temporal manner, and, in order to answer questions such as “what motivates a fulfillment” or “why different fulfillments, despite their difference, can still adumbrate the same object”, we have to dive into the intriguing characteristics of time-consciousness.

Specifically, de Warren construes the central problem of transcendental phenomenology to be the enigma of transcendence in immanence (27). According to the phenomenological reduction, all problems of philosophy are referred back to consciousness and transformed into problems of constitution. It seems, then, that Being is contracted into a realm of immanence, like in Cartesianism. To distance himself from such a subjective monism, Husserl has to make sense of transcendence (of the world, of other people, of things, of oneself) in a consciousness that is nonetheless immanent, and the path he takes to articulate that transcendence in immanence, according to de Warren, is precisely through time-consciousness.

Thus, the main body of the book offers an account of Husserl’s trajectory in his study of time-consciousness, paying specific attention to how transcendence is found at the heart of immanence, or else, how presence is encroached from within by absence.

The narrative begins with the shadow Brentano casts over Husserl’s study of time-consciousness. Here, de Warren does not side with Husserl’s simplistic image of Brentano in Lectures on the Phenomenology of Inner Time-Consciousness (Hua X), but instead presents a complicate picture of Brentano that both anticipates Husserl’s later development and falls short at the threshold.

On the one hand, Brentano’s notion of “proteraesthesis” already suggests that perception of the present is “thick”: there has to be “a sensible perception [aesthesis], that is neither memory nor perception [Wahrnehmung], which reveals the immediate past along with the present” (60). Two points are worth noticing here: first, the access to the immediate past is intuitive and does not involve a deliberate act of remembrance; second, it necessarily accompanies the rigid present as an indispensable constituent of the latter, for only in this way can one really perceive the passage of time.

On the other hand, however, Brentano’s horizon is limited by what we may call a “reism of the present”: following Aristotle and Augustine, Brentano believes that something can be present to consciousness only when it exists in the present—presence is inextricably linked with the present (107). The immediate consequence of this is Brentano’s (once) identification of proteraesthesis with the “original association” between the actual perception of the now and the re-production of the immediate past: the past has to be re-produced in the now because it itself “cannot in any manner actually exist” (82). Something has to stand for the past in the present, and if it cannot be the past itself, it must be a duplicate of, or a proxy to, the past. According to Brentano, this “inauthentic presentation” (inauthentic because not fulfilled) of the past is accomplished by the faculty of imagination (88).

The problem with Brentano’s model of original association is this. The association is supposed to explain the consciousness of succession (e.g., of the notes in a melody) with a succession of consciousness—more specifically, of each present perception and its corresponding reproduction of the immediate past in imagination. Now, is the apprehending act of consciousness itself temporally distended? Either it is punctual, strictly momentary, or it is temporally distended, i.e. itself a succession (68). If the consciousness of succession is punctual, then the present and the past would have to be presented as simultaneous, albeit in different modes. The act would then remain blind to the passage of time, as Husserl notes in his critique of Brentano (98). In this way, there is no transcendence of the immediate past vis-à-vis the present (90-91). But if the consciousness of succession is itself a succession, it would seem that we are presupposing what we have intended to explain. For that succession itself has to be constituted in yet another conscious act, and so on ad infinitum.

If the first option of the dilemma is discredited in Husserl’s critique of Brentano, the second option seems to have haunted Husserl himself, at least in his early years. To be sure, he did make some progress with the “apprehension / content of apprehension schema”, developed in his early conception of intentionality in Logical Investigations. There Husserl distinguishes between (a) the transcendent object of apprehension, (b) the immanent content act of apprehension, and (c) the immanent content (meaning) that is assigned to the transcendent object in the act of apprehension.

Setting aside the curious question why meaning has to be immanent to consciousness, the advantage of the model when explaining time-consciousness is that it distinguishes between the temporality of the transcendent object (“objective time”) and the temporality of the immanent act of apprehension (“inner time”). The two may partly coincide, though they are rarely identical. In this way, Husserl acknowledges that the consciousness of time is itself temporal (thus opting for the second option in the aforementioned dilemma of Brentano), with the reservation that its temporality is qualitatively distinct from that of the transcendent object. The differentiation between the two layers of temporality allows Husserl to construe time-consciousness as a “form of apprehension rather than as a kind of sensation, a modification of sensation, or a relation (association) that unites disparate content in consciousness” (109). Time is not given on the level of sensations [Empfindungen] but nevertheless is accessed in a sensory [sinnlich] manner (76), for it is the form by which sensations are apprehended. It seems that the passage of time can find an explanation now that Husserl gives up Brentano’s reism of the present.

But things are more complicated. As Husserl takes the second branch of the dilemma, he still has to fend against an infinite regress. In his model, the temporality of the transcendent object is constituted by the immanent act of apprehension. The temporality of the immanent act, then, is constituted by what Husserl calls “absolute time-consciousness”. Now the question arises as to whether this absolute time-consciousness is itself temporal and, if so, what constitutes its temporality. Again, either the passage of time remains a mystery, or we run into an infinite regress.

Here Husserl adopts an idea, not so surprising, that the absolute time-consciousness constitutes itself, including its own temporality. The idea itself is admissible, so long as one (a) considers the temporality in question as deeper than linear time and (b) assumes no separation between the constituting and the constituted within absolute time-consciousness. In that case, the self-constitution of the absolute time-consciousness would at least be possible, though it still has to be detailed.

Husserl’s own articulation of the self-constitution, however, is problematic, primarily because he construes it as a causa sui that in principle excludes any transcendence in its immanence. In his model, the immanent act and content corresponding to an immediate past is reawakened and kept in absolute time-consciousness, so that the past can be presented alongside the present. In other words, the transcendence of the past vis-à-vis the present (transcendent in the sense that the past no longer is) is accommodated as if in a “virtual box” of its corresponding immanent act and content, situated in absolute time-consciousness. However, this move neutralizes the transcendence of the past in a unique, “extratemporal” immanence. This stems from Husserl’s conception of the immanent content (meaning) as “temporally neutral”: both the present and the past (enclosed in a virtual box) are immanently “‘present’ or ‘there’ [da] in consciousness, as its real [reell] content” (134). In other words, the “temporally neutral” is in fact still present. The past, then, is still rooted in a present virtual box, only differently tensed within it (135). In this way, Brentano’s problem reemerges. No space is left for a genuine transcendence of the past vis-à-vis the present; by rendering the past content “temporally neutral”, Husserl has in fact made it present again. Hence the passage of time remains a mystery. What claims to be past (or to-come) in this scenario is still presentified; all temporal dimensions are concentrated in the present; it is impossible to tell one from another. Moreover, the supposed overcoming of transcendence by immanence is a mystery too. We cannot even explain why and how something that no longer is can be retained in absolute time-consciousness at all.

Arguably, Husserl’s “transcendental turn” was motivated by this very difficulty. At the heart of his early account of intentionality was an identification of presence with the present. Every presence is modelled after the authentic fulfillment in a present perception, which holds, as an ideal, immanent consciousness’s full presence to itself in a supposedly “extratemporal” manner. At this stage, transcendence (of the past, the world and Others) looks more like a normative demand, a “regulative” rather than “constitutive” idea in Kantian terms. Transcendence haunts the immanence of consciousness, but after all has to be registered in the latter, leaving its trace (if any). Immanence is not threatened from within by transcendence.

In his investigations into time-consciousness, Husserl realizes that inauthenticity lies at the heart of authenticity, that transcendence encroaches immanence from within. This leads to his idea of “a transcendence within immanence” (137). When applied to the absolute time-consciousness, this means a twofold self-differentiation: in de Warren’s formulation, (a) “a differentiation from itself in terms of the transcendence of constituted time-objects vis-à-vis constituting immanent consciousness”, and (b) “a differentiation of itself in terms of the transcendence of absolute time-constituting consciousness vis-à-vis constituted immanent consciousness” (176). The first is transcendence towards the world, the second a self-transcendence of consciousness.

Though one can find some parallels between this account and the earlier “schematic” model, this should not obscure the genuine breakthrough: what was posited as a difference is now turned into a process of self-differentiation, such that transcendence is not added subsequently to immanence, but is always inherent to it.

Specifically, how does the new model differ from the old one, which featured a juxtaposition of two “present” consciousnesses (one of the now, one of the immediate past)? How is my own past consciousness “given to me as transcending the immanence of my (now) consciousness” (166)? According to de Warren, Husserl answers these questions with the new notion of “re-presentification” [Ver-gegenwärtigung], a notion exposed through an extensive phenomenological description of imagination, recollection, and, above all, retentional consciousness, which Husserl famously distinguished from recollection (168). Most importantly, the prefix “re-” [Ver-] does not signify “the giving again of an original in the manner of a copy” (155); rather, it implies that what is given in a re-presentification is given as other than itself, i.e. as given across an original delay. Retentional consciousness is a “quasi-perception” (rather than a secondary recollection) of something past, but precisely insofar as that something is past, i.e. no longer is (157). Quite contrary to any “original association” that transposes the past into the present, retentional consciousness accomplishes a “de-presentification” that releases the past into the past (170-171). The past, analogous to a spatial object, is grasped “out there” rather than incorporated into the “here” [da] of immanent content. The transcendence of the past vis-à-vis the present, and accordingly the passage of time, are thus salvaged from the reism of the present.

Apparently, Husserl’s conception of “re-presentification” is no great feat. After all, who would object to the idea that retentional consciousness grasps the past as past? Nevertheless, the formulation of the concept signals a fundamental change in Husserl’s conception of subjectivity. To allow for a de-presentification at the heart of consciousness, to allow consciousness to “go out there” into a past that no longer is, implies a reversal of priority between the authentic (the original impression) and the inauthentic (the retentional “modification” of the original impression)—despite what etymology shows, inauthenticity is now placed at the heart of authenticity: “an original impression necessarily succumbs to, or becomes, its own retentional modification” (171). To pass, to become emptied [entleert], sedimented, forgotten—all these are no longer extrinsic threats to every otherwise intact, “original” impression (192). Original impression finds a lack at its heart, so that retentional consciousness “constitutes the givenness of absence through an internal tension with the givenness of presence” (184).

This discovery of self-disintegration at the heart of immanence / presence immediately gives way to, for example, the seminal ideas of the productive lack and the fundamentality of concealment in Heidegger. For now, however, lets us stay with Husserl and see how the transcendence at the heart of immanence makes a difference to the discussion of (absolute) time-consciousness.

For one thing, it explains how in retentional consciousness (and consequently in thematic recollection) one can be delivered over to a time where one no longer is, for, under the new model, to stand in the present just is to be delivered away into the past. For another, it makes room of the constant renewal of consciousness: the upcoming nows are different, precisely because the immediate past ceaselessly fades away (186). These two aspects (of emptying and of fulfillment in the flow of consciousness) are summarized under Husserl’s idea of an “edge-consciousness” [Kantenbewusstsein] in his mature account found in the Bernau Manuscripts (Hua XXXIII), where protentional consciousness replaces original impression as the source of the new and is linked to retentional consciousness like two intersecting, yet discontinuous, planes of a cascade (201).

While the image is purged of the linear conception of time, the present gets transformed into a fringe-concept of “original presentation”, signifying the ideal maximum of fulfillment and the zero-point of time-consciousness, itself no longer a moment:

Original presentation is not an “aspect” of time towards which we have an orientation: it is that from which we have any temporal orientation towards the past or the future. (194)

The present is no longer a “there” [da] in immanence, but a “here” of absolute consciousness; subjectivity, now synonymous with absolute consciousness, is no longer understood after the model of objects, but instead restored as subjectivity. That means subjectivity is no longer a substratum, an immanent register for all transcendence. Rather, it bears a nullity at its heart, such that it necessarily dissolves into the “out-there” temporalities of the future and the past. The foundational, self-contained present turns out to be a mere abstraction.

How, then, should we understand the absolute time-consciousness, that which constitutes both the temporalities of retention, protention, and original presentation, and the temporality of itself? Clearly, none of these temporalities should still be understood as in objective, linear time; they are rather ways of self-differentiation. In the spirit of the new ontology revealed in the idea of “transcendence at the heart of immanence”, de Warren suggests a unique account of the absolute time-consciousness and its self-constitution.

To begin with, both transcendent time-objects and time-consciousness (understood as acts) are characterized as diachronic identities. It is the structure of intentionality, together with its dynamics of emptying and fulfillment, that guarantees that the same object gets adumbrated over time. But the absolute time-consciousness is absolutely transcendental, in that it is not such a diachronic identity and can never be made so, not even in phenomenological reflection. Rather, it is the precondition of any diachronic identity, for it is the dia-chronos, the diaspora of time, or (if you like) the primordial movement of self-differentiation. The metaphor of a flow means that it is always other than itself (205). Identity is thus paradoxically grounded in self-alienation, i.e. in becoming-the-Other.

If absolute time-consciousness is still a causa sui, it is a peculiar one: it grounds itself by fleeing itself. Because of this, the self-constitution of absolute time-consciousness is termed “an impossible puzzle” (254)—for absolute time-consciousness, to be temporalized is to hide its own temporalization so as to let objects emerge. Reflection arrives at the scene always “too late”: in order for reflection to take place, constitution must have already been at work (255). Unlike a traditional causa sui, the self-constituting absolute time-consciousness is an opacity that can never achieve a total clarity about itself.

In his comment on the book, John Brough (2012, p. 134) suggests that “de Warren thinks that Husserl solved the puzzle (‘solving’ here should not be confused with making all the puzzle pieces and their connections dazzlingly clear) through his mature notion of retention.” Despite the qualification in parentheses, Brough, in his reading of de Warren, identifies Husserl’s solution to the puzzle with the discovery of the “continuum of continua” of time-consciousness. However, the conceptual resources Brough draws on (including the continuum of continua and the very notion of self-constitution) represent not so much solutions than problems in Husserl, and in fact de Warren is very clear that one should by no means claim to have solved the “impossible puzzle”—not even in Brough’s qualified, “softer” sense—but can only try to make the puzzle productive rather than aporetic. Hence de Warren writes that Husserl’s work “allows us to attain a clearer understanding of the phenomenological significance of [the] impossible puzzle, not by disarming it of its puzzling character, but, on the contrary, by drawing out the significance of this puzzle by revealing what is essential to subjectivity itself.” (256)

In the last two chapters, de Warren goes on to explain how the new model of transcendental subjectivity, equipped with its temporal self-alienation, allows for our conception of intersubjective alterity (217) as well as of life, i.e. the genesis (becoming) of consciousness as such (253). His discussion here begins to wander and turns sketchy. The main message of the book, however, has already been conveyed before that.

Generally speaking, de Warren revives some seminal discoveries in Husserl’s career by putting them into a post-Husserlian language and conceptual framework. He shows how such discoveries, once properly articulated, would lead to subsequent breakthroughs in Husserl’s philosophical children, significantly Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Lévinas, Derrida and Ricœur. In a sense, all their struggle under the banner of transcendence turns out to be diverse mimeses of Husserl’s own struggle; phenomenology is destined to break out of the “evidence” in an immanent consciousness into the significance of the world, which largely remains, and will remain, an absence. The infinite task of clarification is to be carried on despite—or because of—its null basis.

To further assess de Warren’s interpretation of Husserl, let us compare his image of Husserl to (a) German idealists and (b) deconstructivists, with a focus on the temporality of consciousness.

Like German idealists (significantly Hegel), de Warren’s Husserl endorses the idea that temporality stems from the (metaphysical) demand of determination [Bestimmung]. Nothing can be given at once in its totality, and this is why each being’s articulation (coming to presence) takes time. In the Husserlian context, this is discussed under the notion of passive synthesis, where perception is construed as a determination of “determinable indeterminacy” [bestimmbare Unbestimmtheit] (278). However, whereas German idealists generally believe in the cumulation of determinations (recall Hegel’s dialectics), for Husserl it is the fate of them to be lost, forgotten, released back to indeterminacy. From the back facet of a spatial object, to the historical achievement of the culture, further to Heidegger’s “earth” [Erde], to be authentically given is, by the same token, to be released back into inauthentic sedimentation, into an absence / concealment / forgetfulness that “doesn’t really matter” to the life of consciousness. This lack at the heart of Being is arguably unique to phenomenology, and, what’s more important, the lack is necessary in order for life to remain open. Nietzsche’s following idea is corroborated: a people incapable of forgetting does not deserve a future.

The “positive” tonality when talking about a lack leads us to the second comparison, that to deconstructivists like Derrida. De Warren directly confronts Derrida’s critique of Husserl in La voix et le phenomene when writing the last chapter (259). According to de Warren, both Derrida and Husserl observe an absence at the heart of presence. However, Derrida’s charge that Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology invalidates his own “metaphysics of presence” is not sound, for Husserl in the first place never admits a “‘simply’ identity of the now” which, in Derrida’s account, may be “destroyed” by the idea of retention as transcendence in immanence (264). Sharing similar ideas with Husserl, Derrida can criticize him only because of a deliberate ignorance of their similarity. Moreover, in his polemics Derrida risks absolutifying the negative principle (absence / transcendence) to the extent that the structural nullity in presence / immanence becomes an independent and extrinsically opposing principle. For example, the “trace” is said to be “more originary than phenomenological originarity”; “the presence of what is present” is based on “the movement of repetition” (264). This brings Derrida close to a transcendental realism which reifies and mystifies the nullity, characterizing it as a distant, self-contained refusal, a Lévinasian “there is” [il y a]. On the contrary, de Warren questions Derrida’s cherished expression that retention and non-presence “infects” primordial presence. He shows that Derrida misconstrues retentional modification as “the entry of a foreign agent from the other side rather than as the necessary self-transcendence of the immanence of original presentation from within” (265-266). Presumably, Derrida’s metaphysical Manichaeism (conceiving evil as an independent principle) is rooted in his inability to recognize self-negation at the heart of immanence; he is more “Husserlian” (in the pejorative sense) than Husserl himself. By contrast, de Warren invites us to see that, rather than “an infection or menace, retentional modification represents the fruition of presence necessarily punctuated with absence” (266). The nullity, albeit “evil”, plays an indispensable, positive and productive role. There is no defeat here; rather, phenomenology lets the finite (as self-limitation) triumph because of, not despite, its finitude.

Though we may well admit that de Warren presents a forceful interpretation of Husserl, we are still left with the question whether this version remains on Husserl’s own conceptual territory. In other words, in order to articulate the idea that transcendence lies at the heart of immanence, is Husserl’s philosophy the best entrance / prototype? It seems to me that this idea gradually outgrows the problematics of transcendental subjectivity, of constitution in immanence. True, de Warren has shown convincingly that self-differentiation is intrinsic to original presentation so far as its temporality is concerned, and that the peculiar structure cannot be articulated without starting from immanence. He has certainly shown the power of transcendental phenomenology.

From an ontological standpoint, however, it seems that transcendental phenomenology is “trapped by its own trap” (which, like Husserl’s thought in general, is deeply Fichtean). As de Warren brings Husserl’s thought to its full force, he never questions the latter’s fundamental creeds that (a) every structure, transcendent or immanent, has to be constituted, and that (b) only consciousness or conscious acts are capable of constituting (138-139).

In retrospect, the question of temporality is threatened by an infinite regress, only because one must regress when looking for what “constitutes” the entity at hand. Although de Warren removes the threat of infinite regress, he did this at the price of positing an “impossible puzzle” at the end of his trajectory.

But is it possible that all this fuss is only because we have been too obsessed with tracing the meaning and intelligibility of things, as well as the ordered unity of the world, back to a singular source—be it “God” or “consciousness”? What if we regress not a single step, i.e. we admit that meaning and temporality rest in things and events themselves?

In that way, we might miss the subtle structure of “transcendence in immanence” (or only for a while?), but we can at once release ourselves from those abstract time-objects such as locomotion or melodies and study those like promise-making, forgiving, aging, or romantic love. Temporality is more than just a formal structure of the world; time is a necessary component of the meaning of events (276). The genesis of meaning is always already at work, whereas transcendental subjectivity, as de Warren admits, is but an abstraction. Whether it is more fruitful to question time starting from events remains to be seen. For now, we can safely say that being a self-differentiation is not just a property, or “essence”, of an absolute consciousness; we had to retreat into consciousness only because the world with all its significant events had been unjustifiably disenchanted in the first place.

Published by Renxiang Liu

Philosopher, Phenomenologist, Humanist.

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