15 Nov 2009

The Timelessness of Flow. Merleau-Ponty. Phenomenology of Perception. Part 3. Ch. 2. Temporality. §b

by Corry Shores
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The Timelessness of Flow

It’s the Same River Every Time You Step In It

Maurice Merleau-Ponty

Phénoménologie de la perception
Phenomenology of Perception

Part III. Being-for-Itself and Being-in-the-World
Troisième Partie: L'être-pour-soi et l'être-au-monde

Ch. 2. La temporalité
Ch. 2. Temporality


We experience time. It seems to “pass us by” or “flow by us.” Imagine we stand beside a river. Days ago, mountain snow melted. It now runs past us. Tomorrow, that same water will discharge into the sea. “The present is the consequence of the past, and the future of the present” / “Le présent est la conséquence du passé et l’avenir la conséquence du présent” (477bc/472b).

Hence water for us serves as a metaphor for time. Yet Merleau-Ponty says that this metaphor will confuse us if we want a more accurate sense of the way time really is.

We are finite beings that observe finite parts of the world. I see the river-water before me. And I will say that it was at the mountaintop yesterday, and tomorrow it will enter the sea. When I do so, I am really positing another finite observer who saw it roll down the mountain, and as well I posit another observer who watches it disperse into the sea. I am not seeing the world as a whole. Let’s consider instead if we could in fact see the whole world objectively at once. Normally we would say that the river before us has water in it that in the past was on the mountain. But really that water is not past, it is right there present before us. And the water that will flow by us tomorrow is not somehow now in the future. Rather, that water exists right now in the present, at the top of the mountain. And so the water that will enter the sea tomorrow also is not somehow absent from the world in yet-to-exist future. No, it in fact is the water right now present before us (478b.c). It is only when we compare the relations between finite divisions of the world, that we might think of parts of the world as being temporally absent from each other. Objectively speaking, things in the world do not appear and disappear. They just go to another place. But from the perspective of one person in one location, the things come-and-go, appear-and-disappear. So when we say that today’s water came yesterday from the mountain, we are “tacitly assuming the existence of a witness tied to a certain spot in the world,” and we are “comparing his successive news: he was there when the snows melted and followed the water down, or else, from the edge of the river and having waited two days, he sees the pieces of wood that he threw into the water at its source” (477c). Either way we are just considering parts of the world whose finite limitations enables there to be a coming-and-going of time: “the ‘events’ are shapes cut out by a finite observer from the spatio-temporal totality of the objective world” (477d).

However, we could instead consider the world as it is all in itself. There would then only be “one indivisible and changeless being in it” (477d). We can only suppose change when we compare parts of the world seen by a finite observer, who is unable to notice that everything right at that moment is entirely present, whether he sees it or not: “change presupposes a certain position which I take up and from which I see things in procession before me: there are no events without someone to whom they happen and whose finite perspective is the basis of their individuality” (477d). There can only be time if there is someone there viewing a limited part of the whole: “time presupposes a view of time” (477d). Now, if time were just a river, we would see that the river extends from its beginning to its end. It’s all there. [If we think of the water cycle, the water that will be there years from now is still there in the world now in some form]. For this reason, time is not like a flowing river. Let’s consider how we use the Heraclitean metaphor incorrectly. We assume on the one hand that the river (the flux of reality) is all there is. But then we add that the river discharges itself into the sea. Does the river disappear after it discharges? When we do so, we are supposing that some part of the river observes part of itself flow somewhere else. But that again is assuming the existence of a finite observer. Really, the Heraclitean river never changes, when we consider it as a whole. All the water that flows is presently in one place or another, and it only seems to change if we think that there are observers who only see one part at the exclusion of all the rest (477-478).

Now let’s consider what happens when we introduce the finite observer. She could either be floating on the flowing water or watching it from the riverside. The person watching the river from the bank will be viewing water that passes somewhere else. But the water does not move into the future. Because it leaves her, it actually passes into the past, from her perspective. And the future water is not absent from the whole picture; it is just absent from her view: “the future is not prepared behind the observer, it is a brooding presence moving to meet him, like a storm on the horizon” (478). Or consider if instead the viewer rides the river in a boat. We might say that she is being carried downstream towards her future. Eventually she will arrive at the mouth of the river. But the mouth is already there, waiting for her, presently, but only it is out of her view: “Time is, therefore, not a real process, not an actual succession that I am content to record. It arises from my relation to things. Within things themselves, the future and the past are in a kind of eternal state of pre-existence and survival; the water which will flow by tomorrow is at this moment at its source, the water which has just passed is now a little further downstream in the valley. What is past or future for me is present in the world” (478b.c).

Some have argued against the existence of time in another way. They say that the past no longer exists, and the future does not yet exist. All that is left is the present. But without extending into the past or future, the present would just be an infinitely small instant. Time, then, as an extending flow, would not exist.

Leibniz saw the objective world this way. There are only instants. Physical things never extend into the past or future. They do not retain the past for example. They are not like memories. What comes-in, immediately goes-out. Physical bodies, then, are ‘momentary minds’ or mens momentanea. Saint Augustine said that the past and future must now exist (and thus be present) in order for time to pass- and extend-through the present (478d).

Merleau-Ponty does not want us to draw the wrong conclusion from this. The objective world is timeless. But this is not because it is an infinitely small instant that we might secondarily add a past and future to, which both right now do not exist. Rather, the past and future do exist now in the present. The only way we can have temporal succession in the world is if we add to it something that does not exist, or at least that exists somewhere else: yesterday and tomorrow. But there is nothing missing from the world. What will be tomorrow’s water is here today in some form and located at some place. The world does not have empty space in it. There is no vacuum, in a sense. Hence “the objective world is too much of a plenum for there to be time” (478d). [See this entry from Hume’s treatise for more on the difference between plenum and vacuum].

We only have time subjectively speaking. From a person’s finite perspective, there is much of the present world that is outside the scope of her view. So in this way, “past and future withdraw of their own accord from being and move over into subjectivity in search, not of some real support, but, on the contrary, of a possibility of not-being which accords with their nature” (478-479).

But let’s instead exclude the perspectives of individual subjects. We will only consider the objective world in itself. Without finite perspectives seeing only parts of the world, we find that there are only “many instances of ‘now’” (479a). Yet, we are not thinking about subjects right now, rather just the objective world as a whole. So these ‘now’ moments are not present to anyone in particular. Because they are not viewed by finite beings, they really have no temporal character at all. And also because there are not different finite perspectives seeing different parts of the ‘now’ moments, we have no grounds to say that they fall in a succession.

The common-sense understanding of time is that it is a ‘succession of instances of now’ (Merleau-Ponty cites Heidegger as a philosopher who defines time this way). But if we speak of succession, we are not speaking of things that are now’s. Yet if we speak of such a thing that is a now, then it is not happening some other time, and hence it could not fall in a temporal succession (479ab).

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception. Transl. Colin Smith. London/New York: Routledge, 1958.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phénoménologie de la perception. Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1945.

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