27 Sep 2011

We are Time's Thrust toward an Other, §j of Merleau-Ponty, Prt.3, Ch.2, Phenomenology of Perception

by Corry Shores

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We are Time's Thrust toward an Other

Maurice Merleau-Ponty

Phénoménologie de la perception
Phenomenology of Perception

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


Ch. 2. La temporalité
Ch. 2. Temporality


What does your temporal self-escape got to do with you?

There is time throughout our lives, filled with distinct moments that stand-out from one another. Are we the same person we were at a younger age? We no longer conduct some of those behaviors. The time of our life passes. And who we are passes. They are the same thing; we are our own continuous passing-away (from ourselves).


Brief Summary

The dynamics and the contents of the temporal flow of conscious acts are jointly one thing: our subjectivity. The thrust of the flow is continuous, but it produces internal self-differentiations. It is responsible both for the continuous alteration of our awareness, but also of the dynamic continuity that links them together and to our current consciousness. Consciousness in the flow and consciousness of the flow are not distinct. This is because the transition from one present consciousness to the succeeding one is a matter of something implicit in the prior becoming explicit in the successor. So in other words, this temporal flow is a matter of our consciousness always being in the act of becoming aware of something already inherent to it, although implicitly so. Temporal thrust = subjective continuity = self-consciousness. The motion of the thrust, although being self-awareness, is still motion to an other act of awareness, so it is the self's openness and motion toward an other to it. But because it involves itself changing one part of its awareness from explicit to implicit, and another part from implicit to explicit, it is a self-modifying self-affection.

Points relative to Deleuze

Although consciousness involves a flux-synthesis, we ask, is there something more phenomenologically primordial? Rather than thinking that the present is a blur blending into the past and present, in our Deleuzean phenomenology, we will regard the present in its absolute immediacy, as an instant of phenomenal experience. Consider when we strike a match. There is a moment right before the flame bursts, that we can already feel the flame being there, even before it becomes something we explicitly see. But at that instant right before it bursts, as a phenomenon, we fully anticipate it, we already see it in a way, but just not explicitly with our eyes. Phenomenologically speaking, the flame appears to us as completely real even before it is completely apparent. Let's stress something: our most phenomenal experiences are these moments of intense variation when a differential future or past appears immediately in the present. If we witness a horrific traffic accident, something appears to us presently that is completely incompatible with what we just saw, which is now in the past. And the differential shock between these moments is phenomenal. It stands out and appears outside the flow of time. There was barely a moment between the immediate past and immediate present. And yet it feels like so much has transpired. Here we feel time as a phenomenon. It gives us change in immediacy. When we abruptly notice signs of age when looking in the mirror or discovering our bodies cannot do what they used to do, we are given years within that realization. Here the phenomenon of the self is given to us with the phenomenon of time, all without time ever passing, without its motion yet being taken into account or synthesized. In a Deleuzean phenomenology, an act of phenomenal awareness is not opening up and thrusting toward an other. It is already an other. The motion of time is not what allows our acts of consciousness to go from one to the other, rather, it is only because our acts of consciousness are already both one and other that they have the expulsive force to move away from one another. But how did they both come to coincide? We need to change our foundational phenomenal temporal principle from succession to simultaneity. We think of time as a flow of change, and thus as a matter of pure succession. But we are analyzing phenomenality. When is an act of consciousness most phenomenal? In an instant of incompatible simultaneities. When do we ourselves stand out most pronounced and undeniably to ourselves? When the self we sense is different then the self we assumed we were; when our variations are simultaneous. When does a passage of time stand out most prominently to us? Is it when we are bored waiting for the bus? Perhaps. Or is it when we are the opposite of bored, and we were so engrossed in our work that we look at the clock and notice hours have passed that seemed like minutes. The formula for time, self, and phenomena in Deleuze is "I am also another".



The intertwinement and continuous thrust of time might lead us to characterize phenomenal time as standing somehow outside the flow of consciousness and being eternal in that way. But this cannot be so, because the thrust is in an actual changing present and the parts of time integrate only by means of the relations created by the real current durational present. Our being is our phenomenal immersion in the world right now in the present. And our conscious awareness is this phenomenal relation as well. Thus in the present, being and consciousness coincide.

Summary §j

Previously Merleau-Ponty noted a few related concepts. We find ourselves being in a situation. We are actively interrelating with the world around us. This interaction is what gives shape to the way the world is given to us, and is thus phenomenal. It is also actively occurring in the dynamic present. And from this temporal perspective, we can have the past and future in mind not as actively happening but as having happened and will be happening. If we were aware of moments of our experience in the past and future as them being actively happening now, then we would not be aware of them as past or future but rather as present. This is not so; we in fact are aware of them in their temporal absence, despite being given now in the form of retentions and protensions. So thus “consciousness takes root in being and time by taking up a situation.” (1945: 487bc / 1958: 493bc) Merleau-Ponty now asks, having taken all this into account, how do we describe consciousness?

We first take into consideration three features of consciousness that will enter into our description. One is that it is a ‘comprehensive project’; our awareness over time is something whose parts are thoroughly interrelated and integrated with one another. Another consideration is that consciousness is something that appears to itself (‘be apparent to itself / s’apparaître’). We are not merely aware of things. We are aware that we are aware of things. Previously Merleau-Ponty described an incorrect way to conceive this. It cannot be that we have a series of successive moments of consciousness, with us now at the present one, and then an additional act of consciousness synthesizing them altogether into one continuous stream of one subject. This is a problem, because that additional act of conscious now itself stands beyond the other synthesized moments, and it requires yet an additional act of consciousness for the present conscious act to be included synthetically with the rest. Thus from this view, it would be impossible for an act of present consciousness to be aware of itself as being continuous with the stream. Simultaneous with acts of consciousness would need also be acts of self consciousness. The final thing we note is that right now we are explicitly aware of certain things, but we are implicitly aware of others. [Consider for example if when driving a car or riding a bus, and we hear a loud screeching of tires that rapidly gets louder. Our bodies might brace for a collision. We do not know what will happen, but the way we interact with and are conscious of the world right now involves implicit awareness of what we think might later enter our explicit awareness. Thus,] consciousness is also a process of continual modifications from implicit to explicit, and also from explicit to implicit (as when present phenomena become implicitly retended after they pass). Consciousness thus involves an internal multiplicity of states and contents. If consciousness did not have this internal variation, it would be aware of everything explicitly all at once, and of course it is not.


Consciousness on the one hand is unified. The present moment of awareness is continuous with all the other moments; they make up the stream of one person’s awareness. But on the other hand, consciousness is multiple. Each moment is phenomenally unique, in that when it happened, it had explicit contents that the others did not have when they were in action. Consciousness is both a) the indivisible power that synthesizes the moments, and b) inherent within each moment as well. These two things are not distinct entities. Our consciousness itself both flows from itself while never leaving itself, and this is temporalization. It is a self-anticipatory movement [because it knows in advance that it will encounter itself still again as something both continuous with itself yet temporally differential to itself. We are always awaiting ourselves. Who are we becoming? How will we be feeling next? What will enter our mind? We know that we will be slightly different. Our consciousness both has itself under its awareness, but also its transitional transformations as well, which are given in the present not as explicit phenomena but rather as implicit anticipations.]

We must avoid conceiving as real and distinct entities either the indivisible power, or its distinct manifestations; consciousness is neither, it is both; it is the very action of temporalization—of ‘flux’, as Husserl has it—a self-anticipatory movement, a flow which never leaves itself. (487c / 493c)
To more fully illustrate, Merleau-Ponty will examine a literary example. Let’s first consider the consciousness of any character in a novel. More complex characters might have phases in their development. Merleau-Ponty has us consider in Proust's Swann's Way the character, Swann, who falls in love with Odette. He experiences both love for her and also jealousy as well. At first perhaps Odette has love for Swann too. But she takes other lovers and eventually turns away from Swann, whose unrelenting love causes him to remain attached to her long after her passion for him dies away. Thus his love becomes jealousy.
Proust shows how Swann’s love for Odette causes the jealousy which, in turn, modifies his love, since Swann, always anxious to win her from any possible rival, has no time | really to look at Odette. (487d / 493-494)
We said there were two unified dimensions of consciousness’ temporalization: its unified continuous motion and the continuously conjoined variety of different contents under perpetual passage and alteration. This view that sees the love as causing the jealousy only takes into account temporal consciousness as a multiplicity of causally related moments. It does not however give us the synthesizing dynamic which is responsible for all moments to be interrelated so thoroughly that each moment indirectly implies the others. It is not so simple that we may say Swann is first in love and secondly jealous. His initial love was already a jealous love. That coming jealousy tinged his original love, it was on the horizon, implied from the beginning.
Proust tells us when speaking of another love: it is the feeling of being shut out of the life of the beloved, and of wanting to force one’s way in and take complete possession of it. Swann’s love does not cause him to feel jealousy. It is jealousy already, and has been from the start. Jealousy does not produce a change in the quality of love: Swann’s feeling of pleasure in looking at Odette bore its degeneration within itself, since it was the pleasure of being the only one to do so. (488a / 494b)
Swann’s jealous love is also a part of his behavior in general; in other words, even before he fell in love with Odette, his behavior, his manner of integrating with the world, already implied his tendency for this kind of love. It was always on the horizon. Thus any one part or moment of our consciousness gives us to ourselves as a ‘comprehensive project’. [Hence our consciousness is aware of itself always from a perspective within itself.] We cannot think that the self is somehow outside the flow of time while also being aware of itself as being in the flow of time. So we cannot regard the self like Kant’s transcendental ego. This is for two reasons. Doing so would mean there is a self-same self who is juxtaposed to a stream of self-varying selves given empirically to our senses. By making this division, we cannot say that the transcendental ego is both the unity of the self lying outside the stream while also always being immanently inside. As well, we cannot say that each empirical appearance of ourselves belongs to the others and that the self is immanently between each to glue them together. Thus the subject must be in the flow of time. So consider instead if we regard the self as the thrusting of time which makes one act of consciousness pass to another. Such a self would explain both the unity of the different acts, as being their glue, and also explain their continuous variation, as being the thrust away from itself.

Before we go on, let’s recall some essential concepts in Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology. To be consciously aware means to be integrated in a partialized way with the phenomenal world. By this we mean that not everything is phenomenally given explicitly all at once.
To see the lamp’s front side is also to implicitly be aware of how its backside must look from the perspective of the hearth behind it. Some implicit aspects for one reason or another will call upon us to investigate them, perhaps because something does not add up with what we see. For example, when happening upon the beached boat and mistaking its masts for trees at first, we might have 'subconsciously' noticed that the masts were not swaying in the wind like the trees were. So we were implicitly aware of the wood-objects being parts of the ship, but not explicitly aware. That ambiguity in our awareness motivated us to turn our awareness more closely to parts of the forest that before were in the margins of our consciousness. Because there is always something implicit within our explicit awareness, we are continually driven to alter our acts of consciousness. There is always a thrust away from our current act of awareness. The newer acts that we thrust-toward were previously anticipated acts that we were just protentionally aware of. Our act of awareness of seeing the masts as trees already had a pull toward the act seeing them as masts. The thrust of time is inherent to every act of consciousness, because all phenomenal awareness involves the integrations that fill our awareness with protendable implications. Consider when we try to hold only one thing in our awareness indefinitely. We eventually feel a tension, a pull away from the focalized act of consciousness toward an act awaiting us in the margins of our awareness.

This continuous thrusting is responsible both for the subjective unity of the stream of conscious acts but also for their self-differential variety. Each act already from its inception is striving away from itself. It is distancing itself, extending away from itself. These self-distantiations are responsible for the extending stream of successive various contents, each having a unique set of temporal relations to the rest, because none occurred simultaneously. So the thrust is responsible for the variation of time. Yet, because the thrust is continuous, being always there from the beginning of each conscious act, it is what is common to all and is immediate to their transitioning. If our past conscious acts were not transitionally continuous with our present one, we would not be able to identify them as belonging altogether and to our current self. The transitional thrust of time then is the unifying factor that makes all our conscious acts ours. It is our subjectivity in its active immediacy, because it is the glue of all our temporally distinguishable parts. This thrust, we noted, is a self-modification of acts of consciousness, and thus temporal subjectivity is a matter of self-affection.

We shall never manage to understand how a thinking or constituting subject is able to posit or become aware of itself in time. If the I is indeed the transcendental Ego of Kant, we shall never understand how it can in any instance merge with its wake in the inner sense, or how the empirical self still remains a self. If, however, the subject is identified with temporality, then self-positing ceases to be a contradiction, because it exactly expresses the essence of living time. Time is ‘the affecting of self by self ’; what exerts the effect is time as a thrust and a passing towards a future: what is affected is time as an unfolded series of presents: the affecting agent and affected recipient are one, because | the thrust of time is nothing but the transition from one present to another. This ek-stase, this projection of an indivisible power into an outcome which is already present to it, is subjectivity. (488c.d / 494-495)
How is it that the temporal subjective flow is self aware? In immediate presence, our act of consciousness has part in its explicit focus, and part in its implicit focus. When our consciousness moves away from one explicit phenomenon to explicate another that is implicit, it is becoming aware of something that was inherently a part of itself, although implicitly, in the prior act. So this transition is an act of self awareness. And it is the motion of time.

This thrust is our personal subjectivity
, because it is what makes all our other acts belong together and belong to our current act of immediate awareness.

The thrust is temporal
, because its movement displaces acts of awareness out of present consciousness into implicitly retended awareness, and it brings out from marginal awareness implicit acts that were protentionally anticipated.

The thrust is self-aware
, because it is the ongoing motion of one part of consciousness, the explicit part, bringing into its awareness another part of consciousness, the implicit part.

The thrust is immediately experiential
, because the implicit and explicit phenomena result from our given interrelation with the world at whatever given moment.
The primary flow, says Husserl, does not confine itself to being; it must necessarily provide itself with a ‘manifestation of itself’ (Selbsterscheinung), without our needing to place behind it a second flow which is conscious of it. It ‘constitutes itself as a phenomenon within itself ’. It is of the essence of time to be not only actual time, or time which flows, but also time which is aware of itself, for the explosion or dehiscence of the present towards a future is the archetype of the relationship of self to self, and it traces out an inferiority or ipseity. Here a light bursts forth, for here we are no longer concerned with a being which reposes within itself, but with a being the whole essence of which, like that of light, is to make visible. It is through temporality that there can be, without contradiction, ipseity, significance and reason. That is seen even in the commonly held notion of time. We mark out the phases or stages of our life: for example, we consider everything that bears a significant relationship to our concerns at the moment as part of our present, thus recognizing implicitly that time and significance are but one thing. (488-489 / 495a.b)
We might think of our subjectivity as being a matter of self-constant self-identity. But as a transitional-synthetic thrust, it is neither self-constant nor self-identical. It is a continuous opening up toward an otherness to its present self.

Merleau-Ponty notes one of Husserl's observations. When we reflect on something in our current awareness, it seems already to be something in the past. And yet, this reflection on the immediate passing of conscious acts is itself a passing conscious act. This means that our acts of consciousness are immediately given to themselves, and because they are responsible for the thrust away from themselves, they also self-affectively modify themselves.

The fact that even our purest reflection appears to us as retrospective in time, and that our reflection on the flux is actually inserted into the flux, shows that the most precise consciousness of which we are capable is always, as it were, affected by itself or | given to itself, and that the word consciousness has no meaning independently of this duality. (489d / 495-496)


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


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




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