4 Aug 2009

Husserl’s Melody of Internal Time

by Corry Shores
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Husserl’s Melody of Internal Time

We will examine how Husserl articulates his philosophy of time consciousness through the example of a melody.

He explains that we perceive the whole melody, yet as well we perceive it moment-by-moment. This is because while perceiving the now point, we are retaining all our previous perceptions of the melody. All the perceptions together, past and present, unify into one melody.

The use of the word “perception” requires, of course, some further elucidation at this point. In the case of the “perception of the melody,” we distinguish the tone given now, calling it the “perceived” tone, and the tones that are over with, calling them “not perceived.” On the other hand, we call the whole melody a perceived melody, even though only the now-point is perceived. We proceed in this way because the extension and melody is not only given point by point in the extension of the act of perceiving, but the unity of the retentional consciousness still “holds on to” the elapsed tones themselves in consciousness and progressively brings about the unity of the consciousness that is related to the unitary temporal object, to the melody. (40ab, underline and boldface mine)

We only perceive the tone moment-by-moment. But because we retain all the continually passing moments, we are able to put them all together and unify them.

Each tone becomes constituted in a continuity of tone-data; and at any given time, only one punctual phase is present as now, while the others are attached as a retentional tail. (40d, emphasis mine)

We call objects that perdure through time “temporal objects.”

Temporal objects, and this pertains to their essence – spread their matter over an extent of time, and such objects can become constituted only in acts that constitute the very differences belonging to time. (41b)

When we perceive something, we are “intending” it, in Husserl’s terms. That just means that we are conscious of it. (We are not willing it or intending it in that sense of the term.) If we are hearing a melody, then, we are intending (perceiving) the tone at that given moment of our listening. But we are also retaining (retending) the parts of the melody that we just heard, and we are vaguely expecting (protending) the melody to unfold in a certain way. This retention is called “primary memory” and the protending is “primary expectation.”

Immanent contents are what they are only as far as, during their “actual” duration, they point ahead to the future and point back to the past. (89a)

Retention, intention, and protention blur together to make one extending stream of consciousness. (There are “retentional and protentional interweavings” with its current appearing. (100a))

Now if we relate the use of the word “perception” to the differences in givenness with which temporal objects present themselves, the antithesis of perception is the primary memory and the primary expectation (retention and protention) that occur here; in which case, perception and nonperception continuously blend into one another. In the consciousness that belongs to the directly intuit grasp of a temporal object – of a melody, for example – the measure or tone or part of a tone now being heard is perceived, and what is momentarily intuited as past is not perceived. The apprehensions continuously blend into one another here; they terminate in an apprehension that constitutes the now, but which is only an ideal limit. There is a continuum that ascends towards an ideal limit, just as the continuum of the species red converges towards an ideal pure red. (41d, emphasis mine)

to the essence of perception, as far as its temporal character is concerned, there does belong the necessary privilege of a “now” and a gradual gradation towards the now, a kind of relation of ascent and intensification in the direction of the zero-point; and in the opposite direction, a blurring into indistinctness, which, however, does not essentially appear as such. (173c, boldface mine) boldface and underline min

Husserl says that these ideal limits are not experienceable, and hence while they might in fact be there, we can only consider them as mathematical abstractions.

(It would be possible, of course, for the extensions of the objects in their temporal locations to appear as nonextended, namely, without sufficient breadth to permit of further division. The indivisible in this instance is an ideal limit, however, just as the indivisible spatial point is.) (172c, emphasis mine)

In fact, if we were to look at a concrete instance of a real limit, it would have to have some degree of extensive “thickness.”

Rather, the now has a “field” of extension.

The point of most distinct seeing: the now, etc. [Footnote 24: In the case of space, this point is surrounded by a space; in time’s case, the now is the border of a given time rather than its center.] Well, that may be so. But the point of distinct seeing is really not a point but a small field; and the point “now” is also a small field. (181d, emphasis mine)

The temporal object becomes constituted in a continuously unfolding act in such a way that, moment by moment, a now of the temporal object is perceived as the object’s present point while at the same time a consciousness of the past is connected at each moment with the consciousness of the present point, allowing the portion of the temporal object that has elapsed up to now to appear as just past. Apprehension-contents are there at each moment: sensations for the now and phantasms for what is past, to the extent that the past was actually intuitive. Thus far does the original temporal field extend. (241-242, emphasis mine)

Thus, we experience the now moment as a “phase” so it has a very brief extension. Within it, we might ideally designate a now-limit, but it is more of an abstraction, as far as our experiences are concerned. We do not experience such a limit, because it is not in time; it is a durationless instant. “One point by itself is indeed nothing.” (234d, emphasis mine) So part of the ideal present extends a little into memory of the past.

Perception [...] joins together a continuity [...] and is distinguished by the possession of that ideal limit. A similar continuity without this ideal limit is bare memory. In the ideal sense, then, perception (impression) would be the phase of consciousness that constitutes the pure now, and memory would be every other phase of continuity. But the now is precisely only an ideal limit, something abstract which can be nothing by itself. Moreover, it remains to be said that even this ideal now is not something toto coelo different from the not-now but is continuously mediated with it. And to this corresponds the continuous transition of perception into primary memory. (42b.c, boldface and underline mine)

We perceive a succession of tones. Each tone is found within a phase of time. But the time-phases overlap.

Certainly consciousness must reach out beyond the now. It must do this in each momentary act. But the momentary act is not the perception of the temporal object; on the contrary, it is an abstractum. In order for the perception of the temporal object to be possible, not only the final act but every momentary act must be overlapping; the perception, which itself is extended, distributed, consists in the fusion of these overlapping acts. None of these acts is entitled to be called perception. (234bc, boldface and underline mine)

There is a “continuous coinciding of the temporal fields.” (73a, emphasis mine) The temporal continua “reciprocally penetrate and connect with each other” (Philosophy of Arithmetic 20, emphasis mine). So even though they succeed one another, the end of one coincides with the beginning of the next. This forms a “unity of an overlapping consciousness of succession.” (Internal Time 45d, emphasis mine) In fact, on account of the overlap, Husserl says that there are succeeding moments of the tone which also overlap, so one comes after the other, but begins before the prior one has completely disappeared.

If we hear only a single enduring tone, then we hear [it] continuously. As a rule, the tone fluctuates, or “simultaneous” successions bestow divisions on it, such that parts belonging to the now, even if obscurely contrasted and loosely delimited, are distinguished from the just past and from the future, which we expect in advance. (172d, emphasis mine)

He explains that each individual phase is a flow-let, you might say, but each flow-let dovetails into its neighbors. So just as soon as one begins trailing-away, the next one begins fading-in.

in reflection we find a single flow that breaks down into many flows, but this multitude nevertheless has a kind of unity that permits and requires us to speak of one flow. We find many flows because many series of primal sensations begin and end. But we find a connecting form because the law of the transformation to the now into the no-longer – and, in the other direction, of the not-yet into the now – applies to each of them, but not merely to each of them taken separately. (81a, boldface and underline mine)

Thus this holds for our perception of the melody. Normally we unify things that are similar. What every now moment has in common is its flowingness. [This is a bit like Hume saying that every time-sequence is associated because they are all sequences.]

there exist something like a common form of the now, a universal and perfect likeness in the mode of flowing. Several, many primal sensations occur “at once.” And when any one of them elapses, the multitude elapses “conjointly” and in absolutely the some mode with absolutely the same gradations and in absolutely the some tempo: except that, in general, one ceases while another still has its not-yet before it – that is to say, it new primal sensations that further prolong the duration of what is intended in it. (81b, emphasis mine)

Because all the time phases overlap continuously, all of our time-consciousness unifies into a single stream. Each tone is made of moments that unify because they are overlapping in the stream. But the stream itself comes to overlap, because there are always enduring impresses continuously linked, which makes the flow itself. So in a sense, the temporal objects and the temporal flow co-constitute each other.

The unity of a tone-duration, for example, becomes constituted in the flow, but the flow itself becomes constituted in turn as the unity of the consciousness of the tone-duration. [...] There is one, unique flow of consciousness in which both each unity of the tone in immanent time and the unity of the flow of consciousness itself becomes constituted at once. As shocking (when not initially even absurd) as it may seem to say that the flow of consciousness constitutes its own unity, it is nonetheless the case that it does. And this can be made intelligible on the basis of the flow’s essential constitution. Our regard can be directed, in the one case, through the phases that “coincide” in the continuous progression of the flow and that function as intentionalities of the tone. But our regard can also be aimed at the flow, at a section of the flow, at the passage of the flowing consciousness from the beginning of the tone to its end. Every adumbration of consciousness of the species “retention" possesses a double intentionality: one serves for the constitution of the immanent object, of the tone; it is this intentionality that we call “primary memory” of the (just sensed) tone, or more precisely, just retention of the tone. The other intentionality is constitutive of the unity of this primary memory in the flow; namely, retention, because it is a still-being consciousness, a consciousness that holds back – because it is, precisely, retention – is also retention of the elapsed tone-retention. (84c, 84-85, boldface and underline mine)

We see this co-constituting happen for all physical things. There is an underlying physical reality that remains identical throughout or perceptions of it.

Immanent time becomes objectivated into a time of the objects constituted in the immanent appearances thanks to the fact that an identical physical reality, which in all of its phases constantly presents itself in multiplicities of adumbrations. (97c) [...] The series of physical-thing apprehensions coincides not only because it co-constitutes a continuous succession but also because it constitutes the same physical thing. The former is a coincidence of essential likeness that makes connecting possible; the latter is a coincidence of identity, since we are consciousness of something enduringly identical in the continuous identification that belongs to the succession. (98d)

And because they overlap, there is no temporal discontinuity.

if we have in succession unlike objects with like prominent moments, then “lines of likeness,” as it were, run from one to the other, and in the case of similarity, lines of similarity. We have here an interrelatedness that is not constituted in an act of contemplation that relates what it contemplates; we have an interrelatedness that lies before all “comparison” and all thinking” as the presupposition of the intuitions of likeness and difference. Only the similar is truly “comparable”; and “difference” presupposes “coincidence” – that is, that real union of like things interconnected in the transition [from one to another] (or in their coexistence). (46d, underline and boldface mine)

Whenever there are qualitative changes, there will still be a broader quality that does not change and that serves as the underlying substantial form for the change. For example, if our eyes run along the color spectrum of a rainbow, there will be continuous qualitative changing from one color to the next. But still, they will all be colors, even though they are different ones.

The continuum of a “continuous” change. The time-continuum is filled by a continuum of “continuously” self-differentiating moments in which the ultimate differences of a species are individuated. The continuous change of a color: The differences in color vary steadily, and the differentiation of the color-moments “coincides” with the differentiation of time. (251-252, last sentence bridges pages, boldface mine)

A “qualitative” continuum can become the object of a genuine consciousness of continuity only in a temporal extension. Then, in this temporal extension, something identical is grasped or capable of being grasped – something that “changes,” and changes “continuously,” without a “break.” The break, the discontinuity, ruptures the unity; but the unity can also be produced and maintained by means of a different, coinciding moment – for example, the spatial continuity coinciding with a color-continuity. If the color-continuity undergoes a break, then the extension is divided but nevertheless remains a unity. (252a, boldface and underline mine)

For this reason, there cannot be discontinuity from each instant to the next.

It is a fiction that the tone endures as absolutely unchanged. A greater or lesser fluctuation will always occur in some moments, and thus the continuous unity at one moment will be connected with the differentiation belonging to another moment, providing the unity with an indirect partition. The break in qualitative identity, the leap from one quality to another within the same genus of quality at a temporal position, yields a new experience, the experience of variation; and here it is evident that a discontinuity is not possible in every time-point belonging to an extent of time. Discontinuity presupposes continuity, whether in the form of unchanging duration or of continuous change. As for the latter, the continuous change, the phases of the consciousness of change also blend into one another without a break – therefore in the manner of the consciousness of unity and the consciousness of identity – just as they to in the case of unchanging duration. But the unity does not show itself to be an undifferentiated unity. As the continuous synthesis progresses, what first blends without differentiation exhibits divergence, which becomes greater and greater; and thus equality and difference mingle, and a continuity in which there is an increase in differentiation is given with the growing extension. While it is individually preserved, the original now-intention appears in ever new simultaneous consciousness posited together with intentions that, the further they stand in time from the original now-intention, cause an ever-increasing differentiation, a disparity, to emerge. What at first coincides and then almost coincides grows further and further apart; the old and the new no longer appear as in essence entirely the same but as increasingly different and alien, despite their having a genus in common. Thus does the consciousness of “what gradually changes,” of increasing disparity in the flow of continuous identification, grow up. (91b-92)

Change. In the case of change, on the other hand, we find (when the color changes) diversity in that which fills time – irrespective of the degree of temporal extension and the temporal order. But we also find identity as the self-sameness of what “changes.” This What remains within the higher genus “color,” which establishes something in common that is determined in different ways. No matter how many divisions occur, each part, considered by itself, has its unity; and all of these unities (substrates) are of the same genus color, as is the total substrate grounded in them, while, on the other hand, the infirma species of the partial unities are different. If we go to the limit, we have punctual divisions and punctual differences that no longer permit division within themselves and no longer permit the distinguishing of different species in the various parts. (255b.c, boldface and underline mine)

What characterizes the experience of duration? A endures; the A belonging to each individual moment of the duration is the identical A, not a separate one. As the time-points are continuously united, so the A is continuously the same. We are conscious of the continuous identity in time. We are conscious of it in such a way that the continuous alteration of A, which attaches itself to the always present A, is not only continuously united with the latter but also finds its fulfillment in it. The past A is continuously the same as the present A. The A is a continuously identical content. (158c, boldface and underlining are mine)

So as phenomena change, they diverge, but in a continuous manner along an extending continuum. However, we might be “disappointed” when things do not unfold as we expected. In disappointment, a break emerges in the “abiding, unitary content of sense,” as a “lived-experience of ‘otherwise’ springs forth” (Analyses Concerning Passive and Active Synthesis 64). The previous appearances that constituted the object as one sense are negated, annulled, and “crossed out,” and they are superimposed (65) or “painted over” (69) with the newly acquired sense (65), which “overpowers” the former one (68). Yet even as covered-over, the objective sense remains identical, but it has merely come into conflict with another identical sense taking precedence (71-72). Despite there being a “break” across which the object sense alters, its alterational movement remains fluid, because the new sense which paints over the retained one comes onto the scene through the continuous movement of succession which fluidly covers over the previously held sense (72). This is the “form and a lawful regularity of immanent genesis” (162 emphasis mine).

Yet there are higher order changes, for the speed of the continuous change can be greater or less.

In the consciousness of change, coinciding also occurs; and, in a certain way, it too runs throughout the whole temporal extension. But as far as what is universal in the coinciding is concerned, there emerges, simultaneously and increasing, a deviation falling on the side of difference. The manner in which the material of the change is distributed in the temporal extent determines the consciousness of swift or slow change, of the speed and acceleration of the change. But in every case – and not only in the case of continuous changethe consciousness of otherness, of differentness, presupposes a unity. Something enduring must be there in the variation and in the change as well, something that makes up the identity of that which changes or that which undergoes a variation. Of course, this points back to essential forms of the consciousness of an individual. If the quality of the tone remains unchanged and its intensity or timber changes, we say that the same tone varies in timber or changes with respect to intensity. If nothing remains unchanged in the entire phenomenon, if it changes “in all its determinations,” there will still be enough there to produce unity: precisely that absence of differentiation with which neighbouring phases blend into one another, thereby producing the consciousness of unity. The type and form of the whole remain generically the same. The similar passes over into the similar when a manifold of similarity; and conversely: the similar is that which can belong to a unity of continuous transition, or is everything that is at a distance – just as what is the same is that which can be the ground for the unity of an unchanging duration (rest), or is that which is not at a distance. So it is whenever we speak of change and variation. A consciousness of unity must underlie them. (Internal Time Consciousness 92a.d)

And because the impressional now phases overlap, “they must be extended in such a way that a punctual phase can never exists by itself,” which is to say, now phases cannot be discretely different. (49a emphasis mine) For, “perception is based on sensation. Sensation, which functions presentatively for the object, forms a seamless continuum.” (49b, emphasis mine) And thus our memory as well is not made of discrete parts, but also is continuous: “memory flows continuously, since the life of consciousness flows continuously and does not merely piece itself together link by link into a chain.” (56bc, emphasis mine) This continuity forms a horizontal extending line.

If we allow the flow to flow on, we then have the flow-continuum running off, which causes the continuity we have just described to be modified retentionally; and in this process, each new continuity of phases existing together in one movement is retention in relation to the total continuity belonging to the being-all-at-once in the preceding phase. Thus there extends throughout the flow a horizontal intentionality that, in the course of the flow, continuously coincides with itself. In the absolute passing-on, in the flowing process, the first primal impression becomes changed into a retention of itself, this retention becomes changed into a retention of this retention, and so on. [85-86] [...] the unity of the flow itself becomes constituted in the flow of consciousness as a one-dimensional quasi-temporal order by virtue of the continuity of retentional modifications and by virtue of the circumstance that these modifications are, continuously, retentions of the retentions that have continuously preceded them. (86c, boldface and underline mine)

He offers a formulation where he first says that tone a sustains through a series of time points, but because the movement is continuous, he changes the sequence of time points into a line.

In the at, the t belongs directly to the a. Now what is peculiar to this situation is that a new t attaches itself, in an appropriate manner, to each moment of consciousness. The at remains (“for a time”) in consciousness, but consciousness is always a new consciousness, a consciousness that continually undergoes temporal change – that is, a consciousness that continuously confers a new now, a new t. But the new t is not conferred in such a way that it would sever the t from the at. Rather at continuously takes on ever new “t”s, and each new t is related to the preceding formation just as the original t is related to a. Accordingly:

at(at)t1 ((at) t1)t2 . . .

But the symbolism is poor, since this is a process of continuous modification. Something on this order might be better, then:

at_____t1 ,

where, however, each ideal step between t and t1 represents a t that is the t of the whole preceding process. (215a.b, emphasis mine)

So we see that time-consciousness is extensional.

If it belongs to the essence of a content given in perception that it is temporally extended, then the indubitability that pertains to perception can signify nothing other an indubitability with respect to temporally extended being. [89d] [...]

If the tone c (specifically, not merely the quality c but the tone-content as a whole which is supposed to remain absolute unchanged) is continuously perceived and given as enduring, the c is extended over a section of the immediate temporal field; that is to say, a different tone does not make its appearance in each now but always and continuously the same tone. That the same tone constantly appears – this continuity of identity – is an internal characteristic of consciousness. The temporal positions are not separated from one another by means of self-differentiating acts; the unity of the perception here is an unbroken unity without any internal differences interrupting it. On the other hand, there do exist differences inasmuch as each time-point is individually distinct from every other one – but precisely distinct and not separated. The perfect likeness of temporal material in which no differentiations can be made, together with the continuity of modification of the time-positing consciousness, essentially found the blending into unity of the uninterrupted extension of c; and in this way a concrete unity grows up for the first time. Tone c is a concrete individual only as extended in time. (91c.d)

So although there are instants during which we perceive the tone, our experience of the “now” moment of a tone does not involve us noticing any one instant of the tone’s sounding. Rather, whatever we are hearing now is something that extends a bit. Otherwise it would have no duration, and thus we would not perceive it.

the now is as little a fictitious mathematical time-point as the “previous tone,” as the first or second tone before the now or after it. Each now rather has its perceptible extension which is something that can be confirmed. (172c, boldface and underline are mine)

What is “given” to perception is necessarily something temporally extended, not something with the character of a mere point in time. (173bc, bold and underline are mine)

Hence we perceive a melody during an extent of time.

I perceive a measure, a melody. I perceive it step by sep, tone by tone. Assuming that no direct interruptions occur, I hear and perceive continuously. Accordingly, there exists an enduring, temporally extended act of perceiving. (171d)

The perceiving of a melody is in fact a temporally extended, gradually and continuously unfolding act, which is constantly an act of perceiving. This act posses an ever new “now”-point. (172b, emphasis mine)

So we have our impression of an object. It flows away from the now into the past. Its

ever-growing distance forms in relation to the actually present now, which is always being freshly constituted. This growing distance comes about by virtue of the continuous series of changes leading away from the actual now. (65-66, emphasis mine)


every perceived time is perceived as a past that terminates in the present. And the present is a limit. Every apprehension, however transcendent it may be, is bound by this law. [...] It is precisely in this way that something objective itself – the flight of birds – appears as primally given in the now-point but as fully given in a continuum of the past that terminates in the now and continually terminates in an ever new now, while what has continuously preceded recedes ever further into the continuum of the past. [...] On the other hand, in the living source-point of being, in the now, ever new primal being simultaneously wells up, in relation to which the distance of the event’s time-points from the actually present now continuously expands. (71b.c.d, emphasis mine)

This primary memory of retention retains in our intentional awareness the series of passing time points. But primary memory alone will not give us an overarching sense of time itself. That requires a secondary reproductive memory.

With the perseveration of the individuality of the time-points as they sink back into the past, however, we still do not have the consciousness of a unitary, homogeneous, objective time. In the bringing about of this consciousness, reproductive memory (intuitive memory as well as memory in the form of empty intentions) plays an important role. By virtue of a reproductive memory, every point that has been pushed back in time can be made – and made repeatedly – the zero-point of a temporal intuition. The earlier temporal field, in which what is presently pushed back was a now, is reproduced; and the reproduced now is identified with the time-point still living in fresh memory: the individual intention is the same. The reproduced temporal field extends further than the actually present field. (72a.b, emphasis mine, cf. Deleuze Difference & Repetition, p.80b)

When we recall something, our recollection is happening now. So to recall something that just happened would be to compress that extent of time down into the current instant of its recollection. But, every recollection is of a phase and not merely a point. And each phase is connected to a previous one. So we would not just compress one phase down to the present instant, but in fact an increasing enlarging one. But, that does not mean we can contract the whole past down to the present instant. We cannot reduce that whole extensity to an instantaneous intensity (as we might think happens in Bergson’s contraction). For, doing so would mean that we have the whole past in the present. The whole past then would be squeezed into the present instant, and then nothing would preceding the now. And we would have the paradox of the past coinciding with the present. But this is impossible for Husserl, because every now moment lies at the end of an already extending phase of time. [The following passage might also mean something else, that each time point in our memory is preceded by another, which means our memory goes on backward forever. I chose the previous interpretation, because it complies more with Bergson’s contraction.]

If we take a point of the past in this field, the reproduction, in partially coinciding with the temporal field in which this point was the now, yields a further regress into the past, and so on. This process must evidently be conceived as capable of being continued without limit, although in practice the actual memory will soon fail. It is evident that each time-point has its before and after, and that the points and extended sections that are before cannot be compressed in the fashion of an approach to a mathematical limit, such as the limit of intensity. If there were a limit, a now would correspond to it which nothing had preceded, at that is evidently impossible. A now is always and essentially a border-point of an extent of time. And it is evident that this whole extent must sink backwards and that, as it does so, its whole magnitude and complete individuality are persevered. (72b.d, emphasis mine)

Husserl, Edmund. Analyses Concerning Passive and Active Synthesis. Ed. Rudolf

Bernet. Transl. Anthony J. Steinbock. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic

Publishers, 2001.

Husserl, Edmund. Philosophy of Arithmetic : Psychological and Logical Lnvestigations with Supplementary Texts from 1887-190. Transl. Dallas Willlard. Dordrecht: Kluwer, 2003.

Husserl, Edmund. On the Phenomenology of the Consciousness of Internal Time

(1893-1917). Vol 4 of Edmund Husserl: Collected Works. Ed. Rudolf Bernet. Trans. John Barnett Brough. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1991.

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