1 Jun 2009

2. Standard Theories of Time, the Past in General, and Bergsonism’s Critique of Husserl, in Kelly, Husserl, Deleuzean Bergsonism and the Sense ...

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Michael R. Kelly

"Husserl, Deleuzean Bergsonism

and the Sense of the Past in General"

2. Standard Theories of Time,

the Past in General, and

Bergsonism’s Critique of Husserl

Bergsonism attacks a certain conception of time. It is “a succession of irreversibly ‘‘tensed’’ instants: past, present, future.” (17) Augustine presents the paradigm for this notion in Book XI of his Confessions. We obtain our experience of time on the bases of present experiences. The past then is merely ‘a present of things past.’ Such a construal succeeds in accounting for how it is that we experience objects during a passage of time, and also how we are able to determined a fixed order of historical events. However, this model fails to explain the actual transition of the present into the past.

As Deleuze writes on Bergson’s behalf, traditional philosophical accounts of time that ‘‘believe that the past as such is only constituted after having been present’’ (Deleuze, Bergsonism, 58, qt in Kelly 17) reduce being to being-present and thus define the past as a lack of the present.

A deconstructionist might say that the now-point continually leaves a trace that is under erasure, and we are privileging the now-point at the expense of the erased-absence that is immediately a part of it. This is not the Bergsonist critique. For, it still considers the past as a diminished form of the present.

As such, the past amounts to a past-present, and a past that amounts to a past-present is but a degree of the present and not past at all. As a degree of the present, this past-present remains of the same nature or kind as the present itself.

But the past is something of its own kind, say the Bergsonists. The linear succession model says that a moment is present until a new one comes along. Then somehow the present moment becomes a past one. But we cannot say that some past moment was previously some specific present one, because it did not become past until it ceased being present. But in order for a present moment to be identical with its past tense, there must be an instant of transition during which it was both at the same time present and past. For otherwise there would be a discontinuity between present and past.

Kelly will now show how we obliterate both the past and the present when we reduce the past to the present.

One essential trait of the present is that it is always passing away. But if we make the past just a degree of the present, then the present never really passes away to the past. So then there would be no past qua past or present qua present.

So we see that one essential trait that the past should have is that it should provide the conditions for present moments to pass-away. Thus the standard theory of time which regards the past as former presents cannot really explain time’s passage; for, it provides no other place for the present to pass-into.

On this standard model, the present’s wait will be eternal, trapped as it is between ‘‘two presents: the one which it has been and the one in relation to which it is past’’ (Deleuze, Difference & Repetition, 80, qt in Kelly, 18).

The standard theory of time is unintelligible because:

1) it relegates all being to being present,

2) it regards time as a linear succession of tensed moments, and

3) it more specifically regards the present as the now-moment.

Even Bergson’s early writing, Time and Free Will, succumbs to this classical rendition of time. There he explains duration to be “the form which the succession of our conscious states assumes when our ego lets itself live” [see §64]Kelly writes:

As a form of succession, Bergson’s description of the life of the ego submits to the standard theory of time as a linear succession of instants and thus can explain neither the existence of the past nor the passage of the present. (18)

In fact, Bergson convolutes duration by saying that they melt into each other [again see §64]

[These interpretations strikes me as odd, because Bergson goes to great lengths to explain that the succession of present moments are not linear, because there is no temporal “space” between them. He says so in many places, but he illustrates it nicely in §65. Moments melt together because nothing extends between them, not even a distance of void.]

So because past, present, and future melt into each other, we cannot account either for “a succession of consciousnesses nor a consciousness of succession.” (Kelly 18d)

Hyppolite explains that on account of such reasons, Bergson gives-up his psychological view of time as being a succession of interpenetrating psychic states, and instead develops an ontology of time.

In Matter and Memory, Bergson explains his ontological idea of the past in general. Nonetheless, he locates the general past in our memory. Kelly cites this passage in Bergson’s text:

Whenever we are trying to recover a recollection, to call up some period of our history, we become conscious of an act sui generis by which we detach ourselves from the present in order to replace ourselves, first, in the past in general, then, in a certain region of the past—a work of adjustment, something like the focusing of a camera. (Matter and Memory, 133–134, qtd in Kelly, 19)

So now Bergson claims that we must have a sense for the past in general before we are able to either sense time passing or to locate in our minds some past event. As well, Bergson holds that consciousness’s prerogative to access the past, by

a) “changing its attention, ‘‘detaching’’ itself from the present, ‘‘replacing’’ itself in the past, and ‘‘focusing’’ into the ‘‘past in general’’ for a ‘‘past in particular,’” (19), and

b) perceiving a temporal object by means of “consciousness’s right to access the past.” (19)

Kelly thinks that Bergson implies that the past is the place where we retain passing moments of present experiences, and this allows us to perceive time and temporal objects thus also things remembered.

Bergsonists are concerned with something else in this description: the past as the ever-available depository for presently-forming experiences and for past completed ones as well. (20a) They ground this position in “Bergson’s claim that the past exists just as unperceived objects in space exist (MM 142, 145).” (20)

It seems to Kelly that Bergson is really just saying that events of our past life exist (MM 142, 145). But Bergsonists argue that Bergson is describing “the ontological existence of the past, the past in general, the past itself that co-exists with the present.” (20)

Also, Bergsonists think that the past coexists with the present because “a past derived from the present is no past at all.” The also hold that the past in general is necessary for time to pass-by. (20)

Bergsonists regard Bergson’s revised view of the past this way: in order to explain how the present passes, we must first account for the past’s existence.

Deleuze writes in Bergsonism that the past and present are not two moments in succession. They coexist. The present never ceases passing. The past is always where the presents pass through.

The past does not follow the present, but… is presupposed by it as the pure condition without which it would not pass. (Bergsonism, 59, qtd in Kelly, 20)

The classical linear time theory regards the present as coming first, then the past as following. But this new Bergsonist theory gives priority to the past, which never began in the present before entering the past. (DR 82, Kelly 20) We perceive time, then, when our consciousness moves from the general past to present.

The past in general is not like the pages of a book which we flip back through to find a previous sentence we wish to recall. The past is more than that. It plays an ontological role. By means of it, we may also have retention, recollection, and memory.

Deleuze writes that we do not derive the past from the present or from some mental representation lodged in our mind. In fact, all representations presuppose the past in the first place. We passively associate and synthesize impressions according to our habits. And in memory there is an active synthesis. On the one hand, the active synthesis is founded upon these empirical passive syntheses. But on the other hand, memory’s active synthesis can really only be grounded by another passive synthesis. This one is transcendental (rather than empirical), and it is peculiar to memory. (20-21)

Kelly explains that there are three moments involved here:

1) We make an active effort to remember a certain past moment.

2) This previous instant is grounded in our habits of empirical association.

3) These habits are founded upon a natural or passive leap into the general past.

Both our active remembering and our habitual associating make-up psychological memory. But the leap into the general past is an ontological form of memory. For, it provides the conditions for psychological memory.

Deleuze regards Husserl’s retentional consciousness in the living present as an associative habit. It differs from Bergson’s general past.

According to Kelly, Deleuze considers Husserlean retention as a “state of successive instants contracted in a present of a certain duration.” (DR 80 qtd in Kelly, 21)

[I here would like to clarify precisely what Deleuze writes, in case Deleuze is not specifically referring to Husserl’s retention. For it might be that he is rendering Hume’s contraction in a way that fits within Husserl’s terminology, but not that this contraction is a description of some Husserlean concept. Deleuze writes:

Conformément à la terminologie husserlienne, nous devons distinguer la rétention et la reproduction. Mais ce que nous appelions tout à l’heure rétention de l’habitude, c’était l’état des instants successifs contractés dans un actuel présent d’une certaine durée. (109b)

In accordance with Husserlian terminology, we must distinguish between retention and reproduction. However, what we earlier called the retention of habit was the state of successive instants contracted in a present present of a certain duration. (Patton Transl., 80b)

The previous time that Deleuze wrote of retention was in the context of Hume’s contraction.

Mais à partir de l’impression qualitative de l’imagination, la mémoire reconstitue les cas particuliers comme distincts, les conservant dans « l’espace de temps » qui lui est propre. Le passé n’est plus alors le passé immédiat de la rétention, mais le passé réflexif de la représentation, la particularité réfléchie et reproduite. (98a)

Rather, on the basis of the qualitative impression in the imagination, memory reconstitutes the particular cases as distinct, conserving them in its own ‘temporal space’. The past is then no longer the immediate past of retention but the reflexive past of representation, of reflected and reproduced particularity. (71c)

I seek this clarification, because I wonder if Husserl’s flowing time consciousness would not allow for a Humean instantaneous contraction.]

Kelly interprets Deleuze this way:

a) We retend in the present. We focus now on some previous event in time. For example, we might now focus our attention on a sentence we previously read.

b) We are able to retend former presents on account of the general past. It serves as the “ontological condition” for time’s passing. So consider when we focus on some particular previous event. The event itself is the former present, but the element that contains this particular event is the general past.

When a former present resembles a presently present one, they contract. In a sense, the present intention ‘represents’ the previous one. As well, we experience the presently present in such a way that it can be retained. So the past is presupposed in the present. In a sense, the past already belongs to the present. Hence both the past and the present associate in the present to some element in the general past.

Deleuzean Bergsonians come to this conclusion:

1) For Husserl, if something has being, it must be present to consciousness. Previously present things can then have being by means of retention. For, the halo of the living-present is “stretched” by its retending.

2) Time for Husserl is a “linear succession of tensed moments.” (Kelly 22)

3) The past is a retended “after-image” of the present. Hence Husserl “narrows all being to the living-present’s synthesis of the past in the present.” (22)

Kelly, Michael R. "Husserl, Deleuzean Bergsonism and the Sense of the Past in General." Husserl Studies (April, 2008) Vol 24, pp.15–30.

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