The Nature of Time

Thomas J. McFarlane
Spring 1998
Revised and edited for the web March 2004


Why Time?

This paper is an invitation to explore the nature and meaning of time, drawing from the Western philosophical and scientific traditions, as well as from Buddhist traditions. After examining some of the common-sense notions of time that we typically take for granted, we will look into the deeper mysteries of time. My intention is to understand these deeper aspects of time, and appreciate their intimate and meaningful connection with life—and death. We will approach time, therefore, as something that has immediate personal importance, for we come face-to-face with the meaning of life through the inevitability of death brought by time.

In addition to having profound significance for our personal lives, time is also fundamental to the nature of all existence. Thus, a substantial part of our inquiry will also deal with what are often called impersonal or metaphysical aspects of time. By the end of the paper, it will become clear, I hope, that the personal and impersonal aspects of time both open up into the same mystery.

What Time is it?

When we normally talk about time, we can mean different things.  There is, of course, the conventional time measured by physical clocks. When we ask someone “what time is it?” it is this physical time we typically mean.  But there is also a more psychological kind of time, as when we say “time flew by” or “that seemed like forever”. Such expressions show us that the subjective passage of time is sometimes faster or slower than the objective passage of time that clocks measure. It seems, then, that these two types of time are distinct, at least as far as the rate of passage of time is concerned. Our inquiry into time does not presuppose that objective time is more real than subjective time, or vice versa. Rather, our approach is to acknowledge both these aspects of time, and then to see what inquiry reveals about them.

Despite their differences, both subjective and objective time conventionally have the structure of past, present, and future. We remember our past, experience the present, and speculate about the future. While the future is full of possibility, the past is set in stone. And juxtaposed between the two is the directly experienced present that seems to move from the known past into the unknown future. We experience time as having a directional movement, an arrow. In other words, we experience an asymmetry of past and future.  Whereas the past is known and determined, the future is unknown and undetermined. As we move into the future, it is as if the unknown is becoming known, the indeterminate is becoming determinate. In our youth, we experience our lives as full of future possibility. As we grow older, our lives are experienced more and more in relation to our memories of the past.

This difference between past and future is found in natural processes as well. Like a fading memory, a puff of smoke dissipates in the wind as time goes by.  Similarly, the heat in our hot cup of coffee always dissipates into the rest of the room. The flow of time from past to future always involves dissipation of energy and decrease in order. Even in the case of self-organizing systems (such as life), their internal order increases only because they dissipate an even larger amount of disorder into their environment.  The total disorder, therefore, still increases. Nature seems to have a built-in arrow of time.

The directionality of time suggests that time moves from past to future as one might travel in space from one town to another. But does time return cyclically upon itself, like a world traveler who continuously heads east and eventually returns home? Or is time strictly linear, extending in opposite directions into a past and a future that never meet? Is there an origin of time, a moment that has no “before,” or an end of time, which has no “after”? Our mortal lives seem to originate in our birth and end in our death. Is this a finite line segment contained within an infinite line, or is our death a circular return to a singular moment just prior to our birth? Similarly, perhaps the death of the cosmos will return it to its origin just before the big bang. Or perhaps cosmic time extends infinitely far into the past and into the future. Whether time itself is ultimately linear or circular, there are nevertheless many temporal cycles in experience that are similar, though not exact, replicas. Cycles of day and night, waking and sleeping, sunrise and sunset. Monthly cycles of the moon, annual cycles of the seasons. These natural cycles provided the original basis for the measurement of time. Although every day, month, and year is different from every other, yet a similar pattern repeats itself. Time has a cyclic component to it that confuses the distinction between past and future. Thus, we can wake up in the morning and not know what day it is.  We can celebrate a birthday, but forget our age.  Could this temporal disorientation indicate that time may not be, in essence, linear?

We might also question the asymmetry of past and future. In spite of nature’s arrow of time, the fundamental dynamical laws of physics are time symmetric, suggesting that the arrow of time is perhaps not essential to time. Somehow, the distinction between past and future seems to emerge as a secondary property of the natural world. In addition, our psychological experiences of past and future are sometimes confused as well. For example, the experience of déjà vu is neither a memory of the past, nor an expectation of the future. Rather, it is more like a “memory of the future,” as if past and future were exchanged or confused somehow. In the déjà vu, the recall of the memory is triggered by the present experience of the remembered event. If the recall happens before the experience, it becomes a premonition, a memory of the future. Thus, the act of remembrance can refer to the past or to the future. Similarly, our forgetfulness can also refer to both the past and future. Insofar as we have forgotten the past, it is, like the future, unknown and indefinite. With no knowledge of our history, our past is as open to possibilities as our future. Perhaps the only real distinction between past and future is the degree of our capacity for remembrance with respect to each. We might even view the past-future as a single non-present domain that interacts with the present through memory and experience. What enters through experience we conventionally view as coming from the future, while what enters through memory we conventionally view as coming from the past. What our discussion suggests, however, is that these associations are not as solid as we might imagine.

Our introduction to time thus brings us to the present moment, and its distinction from the non-present past and future. On the one hand, the phenomena of the present moment are always flowing, changing, and transforming. On the other hand, the present moment itself always seems to be the same present moment, in the sense that there is a continuity of awareness throughout the transformations of phenomena. The present seems to involve both constancy and change. But is it the present that is moving though a constant space of phenomena?  Is the present like a moving “point” in a temporal continuum? Or is the present more like a spatial continuum with phenomena moving through it, like clouds in the sky? Although remembrances and experiences seem to enter into the present as if from a non-present past-future, perhaps, like clouds, these phenomena were present in a subtle and invisible form before condensing as visible objects. There would then be no such thing as the truly non-present, and both the past and future would be nothing but mistaken views of the ever-present reality.  In other words, perhaps time does not exist at all. . .

A Brief History of Time

Having loosened up our imagination, let us now begin the more detailed inquiry into time. We will begin in this section by considering different influential views of time in Greek philosophy, classical physics, and modern physics. After this background, we will explore views of time in modern phenomenology and in Buddhist philosophy.

Time in Greek Philosophy

The Greek philosophers initiated a long history in the West of trying to understand the relationship between Being and Becoming. On the one hand, Heraclitus emphasized Becoming, and taught that everything flows. For Heraclitus, this flux of all things is a perpetual becoming of birth and death, a dynamic unity of all opposites characterized by the transformation between pairs of contrary principles. In contrast, Parmenides embraced Being as the only true reality. Parmenides argued that change cannot actually take place.  In particular, it was a logical contradiction for a One Being to become a Many. For if the unity and being of the One are taken seriously, he reasoned, the One cannot in reality become other than what it already is—no manifold world can actually proceed out of the One.  Therefore plurality, becoming, change, motion, flux, and so on, are not real, despite what our senses may lead us to believe. As Parmenides writes,
Being is ungenerated and indestructible, whole, of one kind and unwavering, and complete.  Nor was it, nor will it be, since now it is, all together, one, continuous...That it came from what is not I shall not allow you to say or think—for it is not sayable or thinkable that it is not...How might what is then perish?  How might it come into being?  For if it came into being it is not, nor is it if it is ever going to be. Thus generation is quenched and perishing unheard of. (Early Greek Philosophy, p. 134)
Even though Parmenides and Heraclitus take opposite approaches, they both teach us that there are not fixed, static entities in the world of appearances. Yet, the apparent existence of distinct entities that change into one another continued to trouble philosophers. What is the relationship between the changes that seem to take place in the world of appearances and the eternal reality of Being? Plato attempted to resolve this tension between Being and Becoming, eternity and time, thought and experience. For Plato, Becoming and time originates from Being as follows:
[The creator] sought to make the universe eternal, so far as might be. Now the nature of the ideal being was everlasting, but to bestow this attribute in its fullness upon a creature was impossible. Wherefore he resolved to have a moving image of eternity, and when he set in order the heaven, he made this image eternal but moving according to number, while eternity itself rests in unity, and this image we call time. (Timaeus, 37d)
That is, the world of Becoming is an instantiation or manifestation of the more primary world of Being. Time, in other words, is an essential part of the process of manifestation. Plato relies here on the notion of “image” that is central to his theory of forms. All sensible phenomena are imperfect images or copies of eternal forms, particular instances of universal ideas, like shadows projected on the wall of a cave (Republic, 514a). The images participate in, and are patterned by their governing forms. It should be emphasized, though, that Plato himself deconstructs this naive theory of forms that is so often attributed to him (Parmenides, 130b-135a), showing that the eternal forms and their temporal images are neither separate nor the same. He then goes on to show, through a subtle dialectical exercise, that, in the end, the reconciliation of being and becoming (and hence the understanding of time) is a deep mystery that cannot be rationally comprehended. Reason can only hint at the mystery of time.

Aristotle was the first of the Greek philosophers to provide a clear definition of time and discuss it at length (Physics, 217b-224a). He defines time as the counting of movement with respect to the before and after. Time, in other words, is the numerical measure of change in the continuum of before and after. But since time is the counting of change, it arises only with counting. This raises the question of whether or not time exists objectively, or arises in the subjective activity of counting. Our moments of psychological confusion about time arise exactly because we have lost count—we know it is morning, but we don’t know how many days or years have passed. Aristotle did not answer many of the questions he raised about time, but his notion of time as the counting of change had profound and lasting influence. Although he provided a useful working definition, time and its relation to eternity remained a mystery.

Plotinus, the most influential philosopher of neo-Platonism, followed Plato’s basic conception of Time as a moving image of Eternity. In his Enneads, III. 7, Plotinus criticized Aristotle’s conception of time as being mere numerical measurement of change, and presented his own views on Time and Eternity. According to Plotinus, Eternity is “that which neither has been nor will be, but simply possesses being; that which enjoys stable existence as neither in process of change nor having ever changed” (Enneads, III. 7, 3). Eternity, he says, “is a life limitless in the full sense of being all the life there is and a life which, knowing nothing of past or future to shatter its completeness, possesses itself intact forever” (Enneads, III. 7, 5). After his discussion of Eternity, he then explains how Time emerged from Eternity:

Time at first—in reality before that ‘first’ was produced by desire of succession—Time lay, though not yet as Time, in the Authentic Existent together with the Cosmos itself; the Cosmos also was merged in the Authentic and motionless within it. But there was an active principle there, one set on governing itself and realizing itself ( = the All-Soul), and it chose to aim at something more than its present: it stirred from its rest, and the Cosmos stirred with it. ‘And we (the active principle and the Cosmos), stirring to a ceaseless succession, to a next, to the discrimination of identity and the establishment of ever new difference, traversed a portion of the outgoing path and produced an image of Eternity, produced Time.’ (Enneads, III. 7, 11.)

The origin of Time, clearly, is to be traced to the first stir of the Soul’s tendency towards the production of the sensible Universe with the consecutive act ensuing. This is how ‘Time’—as we read—‘came into Being simultaneously with’ this All: the Soul begot at once the Universe and Time; in that activity of the Soul this Universe sprang into being; the activity is Time, the Universe is the content of Time. (Enneads, III. 7, 12.)

Like Plato, Plotinus gives what is ultimately a paradoxical and metaphorical account of the origin of Time. Although Eternity and Being are in reality complete and perfect, there nonetheless seems to be a mysterious principle in the heart of Eternity that gives rise to activity and time. There is a willful audacity of the Soul to govern itself and become something more than what it truly is, thereby giving rise to activity, process, time, and the entire world of existence. Plotinus, in effect, shifts the mystery of Time to another equally mysterious and paradoxical principle of activity within the heart of inactivity.

St. Augustine has written perhaps the most eloquent prose about the mystery of time. In his humble and brilliant perplexity, he asks,

For what is time? Who can easily and briefly explain it? Who can even comprehend it in thought or put the answer into words? Yet is it not true that in conversation we refer to nothing more familiarly or knowingly than time? And surely we understand it when we speak of it; we understand it also when we hear another speak of it. What, then, is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks me, I do not know. (Confessions, 11, XIV, 17)

Augustine’s inquiry into the nature of time arises from his attempt to understand how God, who is in Eternity, could create the world, which is in time. Like Plato, Augustine wants to understand the relation of Being and Becoming. Because God creates time itself along with heaven and earth, Augustine argues that it does not make sense to ask what God was doing “before” creating. In other words, we cannot understand the creation of Becoming from Being in terms of a temporal becoming, for that either presupposes that time was already created, or that becoming is already part of Being. The creation of time and becoming must somehow be a timeless act. Augustine also presents what is perhaps the first phenomenological description of time, observing that the past and future are never directly experienced as such, but are only known as certain types of experiences in the present:

Thus it is not properly said that there are three times, past, present, and future. Perhaps it might be said rightly that there are three times: a time present of things past; a time present of things present; and a time present of things future. ...The time present of things past is memory; the time present of things present is direct experience; the time present of things future is expectation. (Confessions, 11, XX)

...see that all time past is forced to move on by the incoming future; that all the future follows from the past; and that all, past and future, is created and issues out of that which is forever present. Who will hold the heart of man that it may stand still and see how the eternity which always stands still is itself neither future nor past but expresses itself in the times that are future and past? (Confessions, 11, XI)

Augustine thus sees all time as an unfolding within the eternal present. What, though, is the origin of the future and past within the present? Augustine considers this question in a discussion of the measurement of time intervals, such as a musical note:

Suppose now that a bodily voice begins to sound, and continues to sound—on and on—and then ceases. Now there is silence. The voice is past, and there is no longer a sound. It was future before it sounded, and could not be measured because it was not yet; and now it cannot be measured because it is no longer. (Confessions, 11, XXVII)

Yet, we do measure time intervals and durations. What is it, then, that we measure? Augustine concludes that what we are actually measuring are changes in mental impressions:

It is in you, O mind of mine, that I measure the periods of time. ...I measure as time present the impression that things make on you as they pass by and what remains after they have passed by—I do not measure the things themselves which have passed by and left their impression on you. This is what I measure when I measure periods of time. (Confessions, 11, XXVII)

Here Augustine has displayed some original insight into the psychological aspects of Aristotle’s conception of time as the measurement of change. Time is derived from the comparisons of mental impressions that have left their trace in memory. Yet, this cannot be a mere psychological act, since Augustine maintains that God is the creator of time, not humans. What Augustine appears to be explaining is how humans manage to measure time intervals, not how time itself is created. The manner in which time emerges from eternity is thus left as an unexplained mystery.

Time in Physics

In the 17th century, Isaac Newton developed his classical physics, and based it on a metaphysical conception of time as an absolute linear continuum that exists independently of motion and measurement, and even existed before the creation of the world. According to Newton, time itself is an eternal and unchanging divine substance that provides an infinite container for all changing events. Time is not itself an empirical or physical phenomenon, but the fixed, absolute background or container of all phenomena. In Newton’s view, time and space are the sensory organs of God. Because space itself is everywhere, and time itself is everlasting, God is omnipresent in perpetual divine contact with creation. Newton’s view of time as the eternal backdrop of all phenomenal change is reflected in the equations of classical physics: time is not a solution to the equations, but a parameter in them. It is the time variable t that gives physical quantities their meaning by placing them in temporal relation to other quantities.

Today, quantum field theory and Einstein’s general theory of relativity have superseded classical physics and overturned many of Newton’s ideas of time and space. In particular, modern physics has rejected Newton’s notion that space and time are distinct, uniform and absolute. Instead, space and time are now conceived as forming an integrated four-dimensional spacetime continuum in which both space intervals and time intervals depend upon the relative movement between observer and observed. There is not one “universal clock” as Newton thought, but many “local clocks” whose relative rates depend on their relative motion. Moreover, whereas Newton’s space and time containers are immutable, the spacetime container of modern physics is capable of warping, and the apparent “force” of gravity is merely the residue of viewing this warped spacetime as if it were actually flat. Despite the radical non-intuitive consequences of this revisioning of the categories of space and time, in some ways it is just a sophisticated variant of Newton’s ideas. Instead of separate, immutable space and time containers, there is a single, mutable spacetime container. To put it in Newton’s metaphysical terms, the big bang and subsequent expansion of the universe is the growth of God’s integrated spacetime sensorum, and still provides a kind of background for all creation. The mutability of spacetime in general relativity, creates a problem reconciling it with quantum theory, which is based on the distinction between the background variables and the dynamical variables. With both space and time variables changed into dynamical variables, there is no longer a fixed background against which to formulate the theory. Moreover, because space and time are dynamical variables, the uncertainty principle of quantum theory implies that they lose their meaning below extremely small limiting values. Overcoming this problem is the most fundamental challenge of 21st century physics. Currently physics cannot meaningfully talk about extremely small time lengths in the present, or about what “happened” in the universe at times extremely close to the big bang. It appears that time itself becomes meaningless in these circumstances, and it is not clear how to describe the nature of physical reality prior to the emergence of time, or how such an emergence might take place. For physics, time is still a deep mystery.

Time In Phenomenology

By now, it should be clear that time is a profound mystery that has by no means been understood in any ultimate sense by physics or philosophy. Although it may seem like we know what time is, when we actually examine it our conceptions of it seem to dissolve. So, with our preconceptions of the nature of time loosened up, let us take a fresh and open-minded look at the nature of time through the eyes of phenomenology.

Introduction to Phenomenology

Phenomenology is a form of modern philosophy initiated by Edmund Husserl (1859-1938). The phenomenological approach to doing philosophy begins by acknowledging that much of philosophic activity is tainted by hidden, unquestioned presuppositions that slip unnoticed into our thought. Moreover, even our experience itself is conditioned by interpretive presuppositions and their related habits of attention. This natural attitude toward the world presents us with what amounts to a naive semblance of reality, together with its associated set of unquestioned concepts and categories. Because much of philosophy is based on this natural attitude, it has become sterile and superficial. It neither recognizes deeper levels of reality, nor dares to look for them.

The phenomenological turn or phenomenological reduction is a courageous turning back “to the things themselves” involving a radical suspension of all our natural attitudes about them, including their objective existence. Through this bracketing of our preconceptions and attitudes (called the epoche), we shift from the natural attitude to the more reflective phenomenological attitude. Husserl’s epoche is a bracket of the natural attitude we have about the world, a suspension of judgement with regard to the existence of objects of consciousness. Whereas the natural attitude accepts the world as a horizon or matrix or context for various experiences, the phenomenological attitude makes an inquiry into that horizon itself, and opens our inquiry into the mysteries of the ground beneath our normal experience of the world. Although Descartes doubted the world, Husserl is more radical than Descartes because he brackets even the belief in a psychological ego that is a thinking thing or essence. For Husserl, however, the transcendental subjectivity cannot be bracketed, since it is not an object or phenomenon or thing. Husserl thus distinguishes between the psychological ego as part of the world, and the transcendental ego as that which has a world and transcends the world to some extent.

The phenomenological attitude liberates the philosopher’s vision from the pregivenness of the world, and allows us to clearly see and describe objects of consciousness as phenomena in themselves. In addition, we can also clearly see and describe acts of consciousness, as well as their relationship to their objects.  As Husserl says, “Given in and through this liberation is the discovery of the universal, absolutely self-enclosed and absolutely self-sufficient correlation between the world itself and world-consciousness” (Crisis, p. 151). Husserl uses the term noesis to refer to an act of consciousness, and the term noema to refer to its intended object. The phenomenological description of the object is a noematic analysis and that of the subjective intentions is a noetic analysis. The phenomenological analysis reveals the essence of an act, its object, and their correlation to each other. The essences are not revealed by a generalization from instances but through a process of free variation or imaginative variation, in which various features are removed in analysis to discover those that are essential and those that are not. This process leads to eidetic intuition of the essence, an insight that certain features necessarily belong to the eidos, the essence, of the thing in question. This inquiry is directed at both objects (noema) and to the forms of intentionality (noesis), e.g., so as to determine the essence of perception, memory, judging, or subjective time consciousness. The goal or purpose of this phenomenological analysis, however, is not to discover final axioms or principles upon which to build a systematic philosophy. Rather, it is to peel away still more layers of preconception, to progressively deepen our insight into the nature of things.

To wrap up this introduction, it is important to note that Husserl viewed the phenomenological reduction not as a mere tool for improving academic philosophy, but as a technique of profound and far-reaching significance for humanity:

Perhaps it will even become manifest that the total phenomenological attitude and the epoche belonging to it are destined in essence to effect, at first, a complete personal transformation, comparable in the beginning to a religious conversion, which then, however, over and above this, bears within itself the significance of the greatest existential transformation which is assigned as a task to mankind as such (Crisis, p. 137).

Husserl’s Phenomenology of Time

Using his phenomenological methods, Husserl analyzed time in his Lectures on the Phenomenology of Internal Time Consciousness (1928). Husserl distinguishes between objective time in the world, inner time of experience, and a deeper consciousness of inner time. As we will see, this deep time consciousness permits experience to have a temporal character, and provides the ultimate context for the identity of the ego as a temporally extended being. The deep living present is the foundation for the ego.

Husserl’s analysis of inner time consciousness takes music as an example of a temporal experience. A piece of music being played is a kind of temporal object, and object of experience that has temporal extension. The natural attitude toward the experience of a musical piece is that it consists of a sequence of notes. First we hear one note, then the next, and so on until the piece of music is completed. At any given now we seem to have immediate awareness of only one note. If these notes are separated in time as disconnected moments, though, how can we be aware of the musical piece as a whole? One answer might be that, through memory, our minds somehow collect all the notes together into a unity at one moment. But Husserl observes that this is not our experience of music at all. We do not recall all the notes together all at once in a single temporally comprehensive act. If we were aware of all the notes at once, it would be a cacophony and not music. Another answer might be that the successive notes are integrated in a temporally extended apprehension. That is, the temporally extended sequence of notes is not apprehended in a moment by recall, but rather by a temporally extended consciousness. But this answer merely shifts the question from understanding a temporally extended object, to understanding a temporally extended apprehension by a subject. Perhaps with a phenomenological analysis of time consciousness, however, some progress can be made in deepening our understanding.

Husserl begins his phenomenological analysis by proposing that we “exclude all transcendent apprehension and positing and take the sound purely as a hyletic datum” (PITC, p. 44). This epoche opens up the capacity to “see” the sound directly. What Husserl discovers is a whole new dimension of temporal experience. In addition to the experience of the immediately present note, and the recall in the present of a memory of a past note, there is also what Husserl calls a retention of past notes—a kind of implicit presence of the just past. Although a sound may have just ended, there is a continuing retention of it in the present that gradually fades. As Husserl says,

[the retention of the note] is continually modified and sinks back into points of a stationary object in space recede when I “go away from the object.” The object retains its place; even so does the sound retain its time. Its temporal point is unmoved, but the sound vanishes into the remoteness of consciousness; the distance from the generative now becomes ever greater. (PITC, p. 45.)
Retention is an implicit presence of the recent “past” in the now. Because it is present in the now, however, it is not really past in the sense of not being in the present. This begins to reveal how Husserl’s phenomenological analysis of time consciousness begins to blur the distinction between present and past, revealing that the present is constituted in part by the past. Thus, the past is present, and not strictly past. Clear and definite retentions are interpreted as belonging to a recent past, while more obscure and indefinite retentions are interpreted as belonging to a more distant past. For example, the while the first words of this sentence you are reading now are in clear retention, the previous sentence is less clearly retained, and the first sentence of this paper is probably not retained at all, even if you can recall it through an act of memory. The flow of time is related to the changing clarity of the impressions present in consciousness: as they decrease in clarity and definiteness, they are given to us as being more in the past, more in the not-present. The “now” and “past” are merely portions of our experiential flow that correspond to more or less clear and definite impressions. The picture of time this suggests is quite different from the conventional notion of time as a succession of “now” points. Rather than reifying each “now” and stringing them together in a horizontal temporal sequence, time is viewed phenomenologically as an arising of clear and definite impressions, which then sink back down into the depths of emptiness. In contrast, the natural attitude imagines that there is a real distinction between the clear and explicit impressions (called the present, or the “now”) and the implicit and obscure impressions (called the non-present, or the “past”). In the natural attitude, the implicit impressions are ignored, while the explicit impressions are reified and then used to construct an imaginary sequence of moments of “real” temporal experience. Phenomenological analysis shows that time consciousness is deeper than that. It is based on a more fundamental flow, where receding parts of that flow are sinking away and decreasing their clarity and intensity are temporally given to us as having just been part of a more clear and intense consciousness.

Husserl, however, deepens the analysis further. For it is still not clear why it is that we speak of the same note despite the fact that it is experienced as changing as it fades into emptiness. This is where Husserl connects objectification with the depths of time consciousness: objective existence requires some constancy despite the ever-present flowing nature of experience, just as objective time requires a sequence of fixed “now” instants despite the perpetual perishing of these nows. In his investigation of this question, Husserl discovers beneath the constituted unities in time a deeper constituting flow of consciousness. The objects that are sustained in time are constituted by this more fundamental flow of consciousness. This deeper level of time, Husserl emphasizes, is very different from the conventional level of objective time:

Time-constituting phenomena...are evidently objectivities fundamentally different from those constituted in time. They are neither individual objects nor individual processes. ...Hence it also can make no sense to say of them...that they exist in the now and did exist previously, that they succeed one another in time or are simultaneous with one another, and so on. This flow is something we speak of in conformity with what is constituted, but it is not “something in objective time.” It is absolute subjectivity and has the absolute properties of something to be designated metaphorically as “flow”; of something that originates in a point of actuality, in a primal source-point, “the now,” and so on. ...For all of this, we lack names. (PITC, p. 213.)
The nature of inner time consciousness thus opens up into an ineffable flow of consciousness that cannot be made objective because it is the very constituting basis for objectification. Out of its indeterminate multivalent nature emerge both the transitory and enduring aspects of temporal experience. One might then ask, however, what is the basis for the unity of this flow? How is this deeper level constituted? Is there an even deeper level? Husserl’s answer is no. This flow is self-constituting:
The flow of the consciousness that constitutes immanent time not only exists but is so remarkably and yet intelligibly fashioned that a self-appearance of the flow necessarily exists in it, and therefore the flow itself must necessarily be apprehensible in the flowing. The self-appearance of the flow does not require a second flow; on the contrary, it constitutes itself as a phenomenon in itself. The constituting and the constituted coincide. (PITC, p. 218)
At this level of consciousness, the flow is just what it is in itself, with reference to itself. There appears at this stage in the phenomenological analysis the first hint of a breakdown of the structure of intentionality: The constituting and the constituted coincide. If this did not happen at some point, then there would be an infinite regress of levels beneath levels, never transcending the dichotomy between apprehended and apprehending. Husserl explains:
If one says that every content comes to consciousness only by means of an act of apprehension directed towards it, then the question immediately arises about the consciousness in which this act of apprehension, which is surely a content itself, becomes conscious, and an infinite regress is unavoidable. But if every “content” is “primally conscious” in itself and necessarily, the question about a further giving consciousness becomes meaningless. (PITC, p. 221)

This deep level of consciousness, in other words, is not characterized by a duality of apprehending consciousness and apprehended content. The two at this level are identical in an ineffable primary consciousness that is conscious of itself, through itself. The mystery of time opens up to the mystery of consciousness itself. A mystery that is at once a kind of self-knowledge and identity of knowing with the known. Out of these depths of consciousness that transcend the conventional categories of time, the past, present, and future emerge together with the objective existence of things in time.

Time in Buddhism

In this final section, we will take a brief look at a Buddhist analysis of time and compare it to Husserl’s phenomenological analysis. Nagarjuna, the founder of the Madhyamika school of Mahayana Buddhism, provided a classic analysis of time in his Mulamadhyamikakarika. In these philosophical aphorisms, Nagarjuna examines time and finds that it cannot be conceived of as an entity existing independently of temporal phenomena. Nagarjuna begins with the conventional division of time into past, present, and future. He then argues than not one of these can be said to inherently exist.

The present and the future either depend on the past or they do not. If they do, then they must in some sense already be present implicitly in the past, in which case their distinction with the past does not make sense. If they do not, then there can be no relation or connection to the past, and it makes no sense to talk of them as linked phases of time. Instead, time must itself be regarded as a set of relations among temporal phenomena, and nothing in itself. This is suggestive of Husserl’s comment,

The now is precisely only an ideal limit, something abstract, which can be nothing by itself. (Husserl, PITC, p. 196).

Nagarjuna could be understood, in Husserl’s terms, to be making a logical critique of the natural attitude about time. The distinctions between past, present, and future are conventional constructs, and not inherently existing categories. Nagarjuna’s critique, however, only shows that past, present, and future are dependently existing categories. He does not go further to investigate and describe the nature of the continuous temporal flow that is the primary basis for our conventional concepts of time. Husserl dares to describe the mysterious and ineffable depths of consciousness that open up beyond the limits of both Nagarjuna’s logical critique as well as Husserl’s own phenomenological structures of intentionality. One might speculate whether Husserl could be providing a phenomenological description of the emergence of Time from Eternity that was given a metaphysical description by Plotinus. Or whether Husserl’s description has relevance to states of boundless awareness described by Buddhist contemplatives. If so, there may be a profound connection between the soteriological power of Buddhist practice and Husserl’s statement quoted earlier:

The total phenomenological attitude and the epoche belonging to it are destined in essence to effect, at first, a complete personal transformation, comparable in the beginning to a religious conversion, which then, however, over and above this, bears within itself the significance of the greatest existential transformation which is assigned as a task to mankind as such (Crisis, p. 137).


Dostal, Robert J. (1993). “Time and phenomenology in Husserl and Heidegger” in The Cambridge Companion to Heidegger, edited and introduction by Charles Guignon (Cambridge : Cambridge University Press).

Husserl (1999). “Phenomenology of Internal Time Consciousness” in The Essential Husserl, ed. Donn Welton (Bloomington : Indiana University Press).

Nagarjuna (1995). Mulamadhyamikakarika. Jay L. Garfield, tr. (New York : Oxford University Press)

Parmenides (1987). Early Greek Philosophy, tr. Barnes, Jonathan (London: Penguin Books).

Plotinus (1991). Enneads, tr. Stephen MacKenna (New York : Penguin).

St.Augustine. Confessions.

(c) 1998 Thomas J McFarlane