Adam Berg: Phenomenalism, Phenomenology, and the Question of Time

Jason Howard

Phenomenalism, Phenomenology, and the Question of Time: A Comparative Study of the Theories of Mach, Husserl, and Boltzmann Book Cover Phenomenalism, Phenomenology, and the Question of Time: A Comparative Study of the Theories of Mach, Husserl, and Boltzmann
Adam Berg
Lexington Books
Hardcover $95.00

Reviewed by: Jason J. Howard (Viterbo University)

One indication that a book deserves to be read is that it opens up a new way of looking at a problem or person. Adam Berg’s book, which compares the theories of Mach, Husserl and Boltzmann on the nature of scientific description and observation, especially the manifold difficulties that emerge in trying to describe the phenomenon of time, accomplishes such a feat. Berg takes us back to the turn of the twentieth century and places us in the middle of some of the most complicated and compelling debates of the day on the nature of scientific description and the capacity of science to conceptually represent the inner workings of reality. In tracing the distinct contributions of Mach, Husserl and Boltzmann to these debates, exploring the cross-fertilization of their thoughts on observation, sensation, causality and time, Berg manages to reinvigorate our appreciation for the resourcefulness of these three thinkers and their continuing relevance for understanding some of the most perplexing problems in science and philosophy.

My review will highlight what I take to be Berg’s three most important contributions; first, charting the overlap and gradual differentiation of phenomenology from phenomenalism as forms of observation and description; second, explaining the key insights of Mach, Husserl and Boltzmann on the question of time, particularly its asymmetry, and third, whether Husserl’s account of internal time-consciousness can incorporate a naturalistic (evolutionary/computational) interpretation while still retaining its core insights. I draw my review to a close by pointing out some organizational shortcomings of the book; in particular, the text’s peculiar outcome of having provided a rich exegesis of three distinct positions on time without clearly indicating to what extent these positions move us forward in understanding the larger phenomenon of time.

As Berg mentions, although there has been active interest in Husserl’s development as it relates to the rise of analytic philosophy and positivism, less attention has been paid to understanding how the notion of phenomenology comes into clarification through contrast with phenomenalism and the latter’s focus on precise observation and description. (2-3) Given that Husserl, like Mach, Boltzmann, and Brentano, shared a similar formal education, were interested in understanding perceptual observation and its link to sensation, and all employed the terms phenomenology or phenomenological to describe their investigative efforts, unpacking the differences between phenomenalism and phenomenology is more nuanced than many scholars typically note. Berg cites Spiegelberg’s influential The Phenomenological Movement as an example of someone who assumes the differences between Husserl’s notion of phenomenology and the term’s use by Mach, Stumpf, and Boltzmann, at least circa 1900, is more clear-cut than is actually the case. (36)

Although it is true from the standpoint of terminology that these thinkers did clarify the sense in which they employed the term, Berg is more interested in the shared conceptual heritage of phenomenalism and phenomenology as two intertwined trajectories at odds over the nature of scientific description and the basic elements of sensation. According to Berg, the tension and overlap between these two methodologies comes into its fullest focus when seen against the on-going efforts of Mach, Husserl and Boltzmann to adequately describe the apparent unidirectional flow of time.

Already in the Logical Investigations Husserl criticized Mach for misunderstanding the self-evidentiary character of logical concepts. Like Mach, Husserl wanted to focus on description and exclude metaphysical hypotheses from getting in the way, but from early on Husserl came to realize no account of perceptual experience could be epistemologically informative if it remained tied to describing sensation alone. In a similar vein, Mach’s attempts to show the dependence of concepts on sensory elements, through a kind of parallelism, only postpones the problem of how knowledge is generated because the level of descriptive analysis is confined to seeing everything in terms of external relations. (36-48) Such a position can tell us little about the reciprocity between concepts (what solidifies meaning), and sensation, which for Husserl requires a specific notion of intentionality to be comprehensible.

Although coming at the problem from a different direction, Boltzmann had similar reservations with Mach’s “phenomenological physics.” Berg explains that Boltzmann employed the term “phenomenology” in at least three distinct ways, all of them in contrast to Mach’s belief that phenomenological description follows the complexity of sensations, their types and continuity (49-64.) Boltzmann believed such a narrow view of scientific description conflates what is “fact-like” with what is “law-like” and pushes many of the more recent types of scientific explanation, like that of statistical mechanics, which relies on probability, outside the domain of scientific description. (64)

What distinguishes Berg’s book is the patient exegesis he provides of how the respective notions of phenomenological description embraced by Mach, Husserl and Boltzmann shape their accounts of time: how the flow of time is intuited, the extent of its causal dependence on sensation, and, most importantly, why it appears asymmetric or irreversible. The problem of time’s irreversibility, Berg notes, is the key perplexity that unites the work of Mach, Husserl and Boltzmann as each one struggled to find an adequate description that could capture the dynamic processes at work in the phenomenon of time. Berg formulates the difficulties as follows:

“The problem of irreversibility in relation to time can be understood in two principle ways. The first in connection with the apparent contradiction between scientific descriptions of time-symmetry in physics and biological and thermodynamical process which are time-asymmetric. The second arises when we attempt to account for the experiential and phenomenological perception of time which place time in subjectivity in contrast to the ontological objectivity of time.” (xii)

Mach’s account of time, with his strict focus on sensation, appears at first glance to follow the methodological tenets of his phenomenalism. He insists that understanding the asymmetric character of time, which allows past, present and future to be differentiated, rests, in part, with the physiological order of sensations themselves. Although this approach would seem to follow his phenomenalism, Berg points out the complexity of Mach’s view, which embraces physical, physiological, and psychological aspects. Similar to Husserl, Mach recognizes memory or the internal consciousness of time as a crucial part of our concept of time but derives the irreversible and unidirectional force of time “not from any relational or causal, necessary conditions, but from the ‘principle of continuity’.” (101) Berg argues that even Mach himself is not that clear on what precisely is meant by reference to such a principle. What is clear, however, is that for Mach the experience of time is ultimately derived from, or reducible to, raw sensations, which themselves are atemporal, and it is the physiological internalization of these sensations within a living organism that gives rise to the asymmetric character of time. (102)

Rather than set up Mach’s account as simply a poor cousin to Husserl and Boltzmann, Berg provides a considerate and patient reading of his contributions and aptly shows how Mach’s position does not readily fit the traditional characterizations of time; it is not causal, relational, or physicalist, and parts with Newton’s view of time and space as “absolute” features of the universe. Thematically, Berg locates the challenges posed by Mach’s phenomenalistic account of time, and the many irresolvable perplexities it creates, as the foil for Husserl’s and Boltzmann’s views. Although both approached the question of time with different pressing problems foremost in mind, Mach’s insistence that the analysis of time restrict itself to sensations themselves and their consequent physiological transformations in biological organisms, was perceived by Husserl and Boltzmann as an explanation that had to be challenged and reworked.

Berg explains that Boltzmann’s reflections on time centered on the problem of entropy, thermodynamics, and the so-called “arrow of time”. From a cosmological standpoint, the development of physical structures (complicated states of matter) requires that time is both “(ir)-reversible” and (ir)-recoverable (that physical processes cannot be rewound). For Boltzmann and his interest in statistical mechanics, the underlying explanatory matrix of explanation is thermal equilibrium and the disequilibrium that gives rise to complicated (organized) states of matter. Thus, the difficulty is one of aligning micro-state and macro-state changes in order to explain the fundamental ordering principles of nature. Describing micro-states changes is impossible, since the direct observation of these states and the second-tier order they create contain so many variables that any direct description (from moment to moment) is ruled out, and thus probability theory must be employed to bridge the gap. As a result, any account of time that limits itself to the description of sensations alone and their continuity will completely gloss over the larger natural processes that generate physical materiality in the first place. For Boltzmann, the asymmetry of time is not something we impose thanks to our biology, but an ontological component of the universe and its cosmological dynamics of expansion.

Now it would seem that Boltzmann and Husserl share little in common in their respective approaches to time; one begins from the horizon of cosmology and the dynamics of physical systems, and the latter from subjectivity. Arguably the most novel aspect of Berg’s book is his facility for showing the overlapping connections between Boltzmann’s and Husserl’s descriptions of time, in particular, their concern for understanding the asymmetry of time as a defining component of its objectivity. Like Boltzmann, Husserl’s account shows the different levels or sediments that structure our experience of time, moving from the micro-level (sensations –primary impressions– and their organization through intentionality) to the macro-level (persisting objectivities and the absolute flow of time). From Husserl’s perspective, what is required to understand time is an account that explains not only how a multiplicity of discrete objects maintain distinctive, while nevertheless changing, identities throughout our experience within any given period, but also how we can access those self-same objects (via memory); and such “dual-intentionality” must be explained without reducing our experience of time to a causal dependency on physical sensation. (116-134)

It is precisely when we look to an account like Husserl’s, and his attempts to articulate the multifarious levels of synthesis that must be noted if one is to adequately explain the phenomenon of time, that the limits of phenomenalism become progressively clearer. Berg explains that Husserl’s approach, in line with his phenomenological methodology, relocates the analysis outside the metaphysical terminology of what aspects are “real” and which “ideal,” and configures the process through the lens of noetic-noematic constitution, where intentional acts work to unify manifold elements into one cohesive, on-going experience. (119) Berg deftly shows how this approach avoids the most common pitfalls of temporal analysis: reducing time to nothing but language, positing the now-point as the only reality, anchoring continuity of perception to casual association of sensations, assuming time is only a construction of the mind, or hypothesizing time as an intuition of pure duration.

As Berg sees it, Husserl’s breakthrough comes in his discovery that the riddle of time lies in the capacity of consciousness to constitute stable objectivities at multiple levels. First, the intentional acts of retention and protention describe how objects within our field of attention keep their identity within a distinct horizon of change; consider the experience of listening to a melody. It is not the sensation or content that establishes we are listening to the same melody, since that content changes from moment to moment, but the type of continuous alteration the melody expresses. There would be no such “continuity of change” without constant intentional activity (retentions and protentions). (127) Husserl distinguishes the type of continuity objects establish in direct perception, where primary impressions are given, from acts of memory. The capacity to retrieve the object, once it is no longer directly given in perceptual consciousness, is yet another type of temporal objectification. Rather than stop the analysis here, however, Husserl sees both levels of intentionality as encompassed within the temporalizing character of consciousness itself, that consciousness continually frames all of its intentional acts within one all-embracing flow. Berg formulates the advance this way:

“Husserl’s conception of time does not follow either a reduction to “experienced time” (either as sensation in the phenomenalistic sense or duration, or intuition in Bergson’s phenomenological sense) or to “objective time” as an illusion or logical fiction (McTaggart’s refutation of time). Instead, Husserl’s phenomenology undertakes a radical approach in explaining “time-consciousness” through “levels of objectivity.” (128)

Berg stresses Husserl’s reluctance to admit definitive claims about the nature of time “as such” and so in reference to the unidirectional flow of time, its asymmetric character, Husserl does not posit a concept of the Now or assume an ineradicable principle of becoming to explain our experience of temporality. Time is unidirectional, and so asymmetric, but the explanation for this is to be found with the intentional supplementation of “primary impressions,” whether as an “adumbrative continuum” that continually fills out the parameters of given identities through “retentions” and “protentions” or as hyletic content in which “recollections,” “perceptions,” “anticipations” are sufficiently internally differentiated to constitute an intersubjective world of a shared time-order. (152) As far the irreversibility or irrecoverability of time, Berg points out that Husserl would deny both claims as blanket descriptions; first, because fantasy allows us to reverse any order of events and, second, because memory allows us to access time past.

Berg closes his book by pursuing the intriguing question of the extent to which Husserl’s approach can fit into contemporary, more naturalized models, of time, especially work done in cognitive science that uses probability, computation and cognitive modeling to explain our experience of time (for example, the work of Varela, Petitot and Van Gelder). Similarly, can Husserl’s investigations into internal time-consciousness help us understand why time is asymmetric at the macro level, (the arrow of cosmological time) while symmetric at the micro level (the level of particle interaction)? Berg has an extensive grasp of the debates in this field and considers a variety of models, most of them very appreciative of Husserl’s work on time. Yet as Berg explains, it is unclear how the explanatory primacy of intentionality could remain in these new models coming out of cognitive science and evolutionary biology. Similarly, first-person experience is an indelible part of our consciousness of time and there remains a qualitative component to the constitution of temporal objectivities that resists any physicalist-causal explanation. Berg finishes his book considering whether there might not be some way of tying in Husserl’s phenomenological approach with scientific theories like that exemplified in the work of Boltzmann on probability and thermodynamics, perhaps through developing a more expansive notion of causality.

Much of my review has been spent explicating some of the highpoints of Berg’s discussion, and on this score the book is an embarrassment of riches. His familiarity with the literature, not just on Husserl but also the manifold lines of contact Husserl’s work has established within the larger scientific community is impressive. Moreover, the direction his explication takes, putting Husserl in dialogue with Mach, Boltzmann and others in contemporary cognitive science, as opposed to the usual cohort of Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Levinas, etc., is certainly one of the more commendable, and timely, features of the book. His treatment of Mach, Husserl and Boltzmann is measured and patient and shows the manifold conceptual resources each thinker still brings to the most pressing questions about time. The accessibility of this account, however, is a different story. As a theme, time is notoriously difficult to discuss and neither Husserl, nor Mach nor Boltzmann are celebrated for their clarity on these topics. One would hope the exegesis of such matters would make understanding them easier but Berg’s convoluted prose does little to aid the reader on that score. I think I can say with some confidence that if one is not already quite familiar with Husserl or at least had some extensive exposure to work on time from different perspectives, making headway with the text will be very difficult; brilliant as Berg’s exegesis is, it is not a text for undergraduate students.

In a similar vein, although there is no denying Berg’s extensive intellectual engagement with the problems and people he discusses, so many different positions are canvassed and at such levels of abstraction, that discerning a cohesive argument that ties the whole endeavor together never really manifests itself. It is not that Berg does not continually renew connections with earlier problems, because he does, but it’s not always clear which of these contributions opens up the discussion, which closes it off, what should be kept, and what should be let go. I can understand from a phenomenological perspective that one is tracking and describing varying contributions and so the point is not to demonstrate which account is the only one that works as much as it is to unfold the complexity of the contributions and see where they stick. At times this seems like Berg’s strategy, but at other times Boltzmann and Husserl are presented as two alternative explanations, that must be reconcilable to some degree at the end of the day. This too is an intriguing point, but one that requires much more explicit argument than Berg gives it. And so if one wants to cut their teeth on grappling with some of the most perplexing aspects of time, then please do read Berg’s book; just don’t expect it to be any easier to grasp than Mach’s, Husserl’s or Boltzmann’s own contributions to the topic.


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