Michael R. Kelly: Phenomenology and the Problem of Time

Marcin Moskalewicz

Phenomenology and the Problem of Time Book Cover Phenomenology and the Problem of Time
Michael R. Kelly
Palgrave Macmillan UK

Reviewed by: Marcin Moskalewicz (University of Oxford/ Poznan University of Medical Sciences)

We may tell the story of the phenomenology of time in many ways, each of them evoking (and constructing) a slightly different meaning of temporality. The story’s plot does not merely depend on the style of a storyteller and historical figures he decides to cover. It is also important what we are having in mind when we talk about time. Michael Kelly’s story in Phenomenology and the Problem of Time is about a series of radicalizations of Husserl’s transcendental theory of time, those of Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and Derrida. The story is based on the plot of rise and fall. It all begins with Husserl, who radicalizes himself, and is later radicalized by Heidegger who missed his teacher’s own radicalization. Soon afterwards, Heidegger overcomes not only Husserl but also himself. Similarly, Merleau-Ponty and Derrida do. They all overcome phenomenology. While the tension increases with the initial progress, it is released with the ultimate “regress”. Since the question of time is posited, and rightly so, as the most important question of phenomenology, the dissolution of time-constituting consciousness becomes the demise of the whole of the phenomenological enterprise.

Kelly’s initial point is that Husserl’s inheritors were not charitable enough in interpreting his account of time-consciousness so that a defense of Husserl is due. Heidegger’s perspective is that Husserl’s phenomenological reduction binds him to the modern subjective idealist sense of immanence, which reduces being to a construction of consciousness. It is only him, Heidegger, who finally liberates it (a view analogical to Husserl’s critique of Descartes and Kant). Heidegger’s criticism, however, is based on Logical Investigations (1900) and Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy (1913). Kelly argues that the view of intentionality as presented in these works is immature. If we want to truly examine the related notions of intentionality, subjectivity and time, we must look upon Husserl’s mature theory of genuine phenomenological immanence, originally given in his 1907 lectures The Idea of Phenomenology. This overlooked theory of immanence equals a theory of time-consciousness that is far more nuanced than the subjective idealistic reduction of transcendence to immanence, and certainly not simply synonymous of consciousness.

Many critics failed to appreciate the difference between the two notions of immanence in Husserl. But these two notions (and not just one that was misunderstood) exist. In the thought experiment of annihilation of the world, Husserl himself partly presented himself as a subjective idealist who suggests that consciousness may exist independently of the material world. Naturally, a phenomenological reduction only brackets a naïve engagement with the world and does not cut consciousness off the world. Nevertheless, there are certain “imperfections of immanence” in Husserl, to use Kelly’s catchy phrase, which Heidegger correctly points out. When intentionality functions as a bridge between the two realms of subject and object, Husserl still operates within a dualistic framework. Separating intentional acts from intentional contents creates a tension that prevents an exposition of their original unity. Such a notion of intentionality is not subjective idealist per se since a turn to lived experience has been already made, but it keeps attached to the ontological distinction between consciousness and its object.

In the ordinary or psychological conception of immanence, consciousness appears as a box of representations and, hence, yet another object. In Husserl’s early conception, on the other hand, immanence is given as a stream of consciousness and not as an object. It is real immanence. This stream of consciousness or the truly immanent is not intended. What is intended is an object transcendent to this stream. Intended objects (which exist extra-mentally) are perceived but not experienced or “lived through” (in the sense of the German Erlebnis and not Erfahrung). Acts, on the other hand, are experienced but not perceived. Kelly argues that this view is still haunted by the modern dualism since lived experience is divorced from intended objects situated outside of the stream of consciousness. The move away from objectified consciousness towards real immanence does not yet reach genuine phenomenological immanence.

In On the Phenomenology of the Consciousness of Internal Time (1893-1917) and in The Idea of Phenomenology (1907), Husserl abandons the still dualistic model from Logical Investigations and presents his new theory of intentionality. According to Kelly, immanence now becomes genuine and presents pure phenomena – being, appearances and their self-giveness at the same time. In this mode of intentionality we encounter transcendence in immanence. “Unlike psychological immanence, which the epoché puts out of play, and unlike reell immanence, which remained tied purely to the act of knowing without contact with the irreell or transcendence, genuine phenomenological immanence denotes the ‘absolute and clear’ giveness of whatever appears, intentions and intendeds, as it were” (53). Husserl thus discovers a difference between objectifying intentionality of acts and non-objectifying intentionality of absolute consciousness. The latter is understood not as a bridge between subject and object, neither of which is reducible to the other, but as a phenomenon preceding this distinction. The self is given through and across different acts and objects in terms of pre-reflective self-awareness immediately accompanying all of our experiences. In defending the concept of minimal or immediate self-awareness, Kelly to a great extent follows Dan Zahavi’s interpretation from his Self-Awareness and Alterity (1999). Such a tacit and non-objectifying awareness is finally different from Cartesian and Kantian objectifying intentionality of acts.

Kant, surely, was one of the great predecessors of Husserl, as Kelly is the first to admit. The inner intuition of time from the First Critique foreshadows phenomenological non-epistemic mode of intentionality. It is because time as an a priori feature of consciousness precedes the intentionality of acts. Through the consciousness of time, the subject intuits itself, even if it cannot see itself. Upon Heidegger’s reading at least (from his Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics), pure (transcendental) syntheses of apprehension, reproduction and recognition extend consciousness beyond the present. On the other hand, Kant never escaped the atemporal view of the subject and the concept of time as a series of atomistic impressions. The transcendental unity of apperception provides the “I” that thinks and is not an object while remaining atemporally identical. Kelly argues that, ultimately, Kant presented a transcendental version of psychological immanence, in which there is transcendental time-constituting consciousness and psychological time of the flux of appearances.

If we want to move away from the psychological model of the self and the dualistic model of intentionality towards absolute consciousness, we must not only step beyond the transcendent time but also abandon the psychological notion of subjective time as a quantity (studied by the cognitive sciences and experimental psychology). That is, we must look upon a “third” and basic level, which in Kelly’s book goes under many names. It is genuine phenomenological immanence, but also consciousness of internal time, living-present in the non-objective sense, non-objectifying intentionality, non-temporal temporalizing, etc. Such a consciousness is neither atemporal nor temporal in the sense of a sequence of moments (either of objectified clock time “nows” or the moments of a subjective flow). In lived experience, of course, the three levels – transcendental, subjective, and objective, if you like – exist in a unity. At least, such is the case of an ordinary experience in which everything goes smoothly and without major interruptions. “Consciousness reveals itself as a non-temporal temporalizing (or unfolding), that is, a time-constituting consciousness that makes possible the disclosure of temporal objects insofar as it makes possible the disclosure of the self’s temporality by accounting for our original sense of pastness in the retentional dimension of the living-present” (92).

Within the psychological model of immanence haunted by the modern dualism of inner and outer, one cannot account for self-consciousness other than reflectively. The self represents itself to itself in the same way that it represents external objects. The problem of temporal experience illustrates well the difference between the non-dualistic and the dualistic accounts (the latter often practiced in modern scientific studies of time perception). Upon the dualistic account, non-temporal impressions are temporalized through time-constituting acts. The mind – or the brain, as many empirical scientists would say – thus creates time through its elementary modes of processing information. Husserl’s early theory departs from this conception but remains close. Apprehension of the experiential content as past, present or future takes place thanks to three temporal intentional rays. Each momentary phase of consciousness contains those three rays so that past, present, and future overlap in lived experience. It might thus seem that the consciousness of succession successfully replaces the succession of consciousness. But the perception of a temporal object is not really temporal here. It is atemporal and momentary. What the early theory gives us is merely a succession of consciousness of succession (or a sequence of impressions of a sequence) and not a consciousness of succession (or an impression of a sequence). It is, therefore, still burdened by the clock time account of the sequence of “nows”, even if each of these conscious “nows” has now a triple intentionality directed towards immediate past, present, and future.

In order to be fully temporal and in each of its phases aware of its acts, consciousness must be construed as non-temporal in the ordinary sense. Upon the non-dualistic account, a living present “intends itself” without a need for a reflective – and, hence, spanning at least two different moments in time – mediation. In Husserl’s own language, the move to non-objectifying intentionality is marked by a shift in language from a primary memory, which is like an after-image of the past, to retention, which represents an implicit intentional relation between two phases of consciousness. Retention is not a re-presentation of the past in the present but a presentation of the past of consciousness. There is no ordinary temporal “distance” between the two moments. In other words, the difference between past and present does not yet come into the fore. Retention, primal impression, and protention are all inseparable moments of the living present and not pieces of a process. The whole process is passive, automatic and non-objectifying. In this way, consciousness is extended beyond the now before being temporal in the psychological sense (where the word “before” does not mean earlier in objective time). Such non-thematic time-consciousness grounds the objectifying intentionality of acts and of intended objects, including ordinary time perception. While the foundation is non-temporal in the sense of not being sequential, it is not atemporal in the sense of the Kantian subject. It is temporal because it is not “frozen” and it is atemporal because it is not a series. Consciousness persists outside of conventional (psychologically experienced) time, but since consciousness is time-consciousness it persists as a flow.

Kelly’s depiction of genuine immanence as time-consciousness is compelling. There are, however, important questions concerning the actual varieties of the lived experience of temporalizing left out of his considerations. Many forms of bodily and conscious temporal engagements with the world do not require an explanatory recourse to some deeper, underlying levels of immanence and time-constituting consciousness. There are, however, some that may lead us to worry about the absolutization of absolute time-constituting consciousness. One example are the experiences of time of the self coming to a standstill (as often reported in depression), despite the fact that the acts and contents of psychological time are largely left intact. Would such a frozen self, clearly inhibited at a pre-reflective level, equal a cessation of a primordial temporalization? It seems unlikely given that this temporal experience is still pre-reflectively self-aware and that objectifying intentionality (dependent upon genuine immanence) operates at least to some extent. The detachment of the self from the temporal flow (a self in a standstill) does not preclude the possibility of objectifying time-consciousness. On the other hand, some schizophrenic experiences seem to affect the deepest core of time-consciousness. According to the so-called ipseity theory of self-disorders, it happens when the tacit presence of the self is disrupted. Are we then talking about absolute or about “normal” time-constituting consciousness? The difference is far from being minute for an absolute consciousness should function in spite of any possible psychological disturbances.

If we take genuine phenomenological immanence seriously, Heidegger’s radicalization of the Husserlian phenomenology in Being and Time (1927) appears as still depending on Husserl. Indeed, from the perspective of Heidegger’s later work the notion of Being-in-the-World may seem fairly subjectivist. Kelly contends that the actual radicalization of phenomenology takes place when in Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics (1929) the self is identified with time. Only then Heidegger liberates intentionality from consciousness – a process that Kelly calls the emergence of Spinozism in phenomenology. Already in 1929, Kelly argues, Heidegger sees Dasein as depending on “clearing” (which, by that time, goes under the notion of temporality). This marks the beginning of the fall of phenomenology in Heidegger’s later work.

The fall is due to the fact that time activates itself independently of experience and that the subject depends on time’s affection of itself. Dasein as a finite mode of givenness is thus grounded in an infinite, absolute mode. Throughout the book, Kelly calls this step of radicalization the exchange of an “absolute time-constituting consciousness” for an “absolute-time constituting consciousness” – a move that gives time an autonomous ontological existence. Kelly’s rightful worry is that it implies a potential backslide to metaphysics. Another concern is that it might entail a return to physicalism and a naturalist ontology of time. Whatever the possible route, certainly phenomenology becomes an ontology. The notion of “phenomenological monism” grasps this process quite well.

Kelly’s chapter on Heidegger is partly disappointing because it wholly evades the question of finitude. It is also hardly convincing that early “Heidegger’s account of Dasein’s temporality remains tied to the now despite the emphasis often put on time coming from the future” (113). The argument is that Dasein’s temporal ecstases are a functional equivalent to the tripartite structure of Husserl’s time-constituting consciousness, which is, of course, true, but does not justify the thesis.

If Heidegger predicts and then carries out the end of phenomenology, Merleau-Ponty presents an epilogue to the fall. Merleau-Ponty’s view of the subject as the movement of transcendence evades early Husserl’s (still partly idealist) account of the subject that is out of time (or contemporary with all times) and follows Heidegger’s lead from the latter’s Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics. Later on, Merleau-Ponty fully departs from Husserl and the philosophy of consciousness as such. The notion of operative intentionality in Phenomenology of Perception (1945) is still Husserlian in spirit. In The Visible and the Invisible (1959-61) a new thought appears, namely, that time constitutes consciousness and not the other way around. In Kelly’s narrative, again, it means bringing in an ontological view of time, which he calls mythical immanence.

As far as operative intentionality is concerned, consciousness is not a quasi-eternal subject transparent to itself, but a process. The self relates to itself by transcending itself. Its essence is transcendence. The shift from such an existential reading of consciousness in The Visible and the Invisible is radical. Analogically to Heidegger’s hypothesis that time constitutes itself, Merleau-Ponty observes that Husserl’s subject was not fully temporal. In Merleau-Ponty’s own formulation of latent intentionality, which is more basic than pre-reflective self-awareness, all consciousness is constituted by time. There is no privilege of the present nor of the past, because they are simultaneous. The past, therefore, must not be derived from the present, it must not have been present before it became past. “Perhaps his [Merleau-Ponty’s] thought follows the internal logic of phenomenology? Perhaps it is the realization of ‘the end of phenomenology’ or the working out of its historical destiny?” (171). Kelly’s question is, hopefully, a rhetorical one. The very idea of phenomenology is quite far from any logic of historical development. Even if a story is a property of life, life is more than just a single story, and, certainly, not a story that has its end organically prescribed in the beginning. However, several of Kelly’s claims suggest he would support such a view. Time is “the germ of phenomenology that either consumes it from within or blooms into phenomenological theology. In the case of the former, phenomenology’s quest for certainty is unrealizable. In the case of the latter, we might find an unexpected apodicticity of absence” (177). Fortunately, a hermeneutic turn easily saves phenomenology from the dilemma. We know that certainty is unrealizable precisely because we are temporal and interpreting creatures. Life cannot be fully completed but it does not mean that the self must be lost to time. A theology or a philosophy of history is needed only if we can’t dwell in the precariousness of human existence. The question is, rather, to what extent we must abandon the idea of existential becoming to account for the shift from operative to latent intentionality.

An analogical inevitability allegedly stems from Derrida’s narrative in Speech and Phenomena (1967). According to Derrida, Husserl’s idea of a self-given subject is an example of the metaphysics of presence. Husserl privileges expression over indication by distinguishing the former through its proximity to present (at the very moment) intentional consciousness. In an expression, the signifier and the signified are one, and the voice silently hears itself speaking. Consciousness is transparent.  At stake in retaining such a fully transparent meaning of one’s own expression to oneself, without a mediation of a reflective gap, is the presence of self-presence. Derrida criticizes the privilege of the voice that is supposed to provide this indubitable meaning. Every present moment is contaminated by the movement of temporalization that contradicts pure self-presence of consciousness. Implicit in Husserl’s account is that in order to retain the notion of absolute consciousness, we must speak what we are unable to speak. In this sense, mythic immanence is already contained in Husserl’s view of time-consciousness. The movement of temporalization infects consciousness in a way that it is never pure so that Husserl’s project undermines itself.

Kelly demonstrates how Derrida’s disapproval of the privileging of consciousness follows Heidegger’s insights on absolute-time constituting consciousness. Simultaneously, taking advantage of Brough, de Warren, and Zahavi, among others, he takes a position against Derrida claiming that he missed the development of Husserl’s thought, and specifically the latter’s abandonment of the scheme-apprehension model of intentionality. At the same time, Kelly thinks that Derrida is right in asserting that an apodictically given absence stems from Husserl’s account of time-consciousness.

Kelly’s position is not clear. It doesn’t seem, as Kelly tries to argue, that Derrida confuses retention with primary memory’s recollection or that he perceives primal impression as a discreet instant of time and thus overlooks Husserl’s insights on genuine immanence. Derrida’s argument would hold well in the case of properly temporalized consciousness. Even if we accept the notion of pre-reflective self-awareness, the movement of temporalization within the living presence makes a full transparency of the self to itself impossible. The self being temporal is constantly undermined by itself and therefore itself only so far as different from itself – simply through unfolding in time and not necessarily through reflecting upon itself. Hence, the movement of temporalization is what, as Derrida postulates, produces the transcendental subject, and not something that is produced by it. This movement is more primordial than consciousness. It is true that by introducing language, Derrida “places the chip of deconstruction under the skin of phenomenology” (196). But must it all end with a phenomenological theology? Upon Kelly’s reading, the inner logic of time-consciousness grounds it in the “ultratranscendental” concept of life. Since the ultratranscendental is ontologically primordial and unnamable, there can be no pure presence. The present is itself by becoming the past. What is presently absent – and not just a retention that is literally “retained” in consciousness and, therefore, still present – is the origin of what is present. The movement of temporalization itself constitutes all presence. Again, even if the ultratranscendental life destroys ahistorical certitude, must it fully destroy phenomenology?

While Kelly proves to be an expert reader of the phenomenological tradition, his own stance vis-à-vis the discussed thinkers is not always unambiguous. If Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty and Derrida have partly misread Husserl’s conception of time, was the nutshell of their radicalizations already contained within his philosophical enterprise? And if so, did they just go too far with their “transcendentalizing” of phenomenology or was it an inevitable interpretative development stemming from the “things themselves”? Was the ultimate overcoming of phenomenology a regress? At times, Kelly does not take sides. At times, he seems to argue against the critics and hold to Husserl’s original position from his unpublished writings, as if it could save phenomenology from its alleged internal decomposition. It must be remembered, however, that academic phenomenology, historically speaking, did not simply decompose or develop into becoming more distant and esoteric. The return of applied phenomenology within the natural sciences during the last decades proves quite otherwise, not to mention many less transcendental paths phenomenology went through in the last century. Remaining within Kelly’s scope, it is perhaps right to say that if later phenomenologists have dwelled upon Husserl’s mature thinking on temporality, consciousness understood as self-presence would have been saved without the need to retreat to mysticism. Whether this retreat leads to some sort of Spinozism, as the author suggests, or something else, the consequences for academic philosophy are grim.

A few words about the shortcomings of the book are due at the end. For an unprepared reader, it is quite technical and difficult to follow. Scarce examples certainly don’t make it engaging. The justification of the claim that the story of phenomenology in the second and third generations is a series of misunderstandings of Husserl’s conception of time-consciousness, if we take this claim literally, is quite weak. Unfortunately, Kelly does not discuss the problems of historicity and finitude, even if the question of time begs for it. The book is also full of repetitions and lacks lightness. Kelly’s insightful work would not have lost its substance by being a half shorter. At the moment, it is an example of a dense academic, if not scholastic writing – an almost proverbial list of footnotes to Husserl. It must be also noted that secondary sources are limited to the English language only. Quite regrettably, the concept of time is restricted to its transcendental phenomenological notion. There is neither discussion nor mention of the varieties of pre-reflectively and reflectively lived temporalities – layers, modes, structures, and modalities of temporal experience, about which phenomenology has had so much to say. As a result, the view of the phenomenology of time presented in this book, despite its indisputable depth, is not comprehensive.


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