On Planning for the Future (part 1)

While watching a fascinating TED talk last night on the difference between the "experiencing self" and the "remembering self", I was struck by the connection I could draw to some recent reading I've been doing on time-consciousness. I'm almost done Evan Thompson's Mind in Life, which is an ambitious work on phenomenology, cognitive science, and the philosophy of biology. Thompson covers everything from cellular biology to Husserlian analyses of empathy, enculturation, visual perception, and, as I will discuss here today, time-consciousness. The line from the TED talk (btw, check out the compendious collection of TED talks, they are great!) that really struck me was along the lines of: "When we think about our future, we think about memories we anticipate having." This means that one's form of thinking about the future shares in (some, if not all of) the essential features of recollection. As someone who has thought time-consciousness and the phenomenal character of recollection before, this really got me thinking. I will proceed with two posts: this one will cover some of the "nuts and bolts" of Husserl's analysis of time-consciousness; the next one will be more speculative and probably conclude with some sentences using the word "ought".

The analysis of time-consciousness occupies one of the most important places in phenomenology. The syntheses that constitute both the objects of experience, and the experiences themselves, are temporal syntheses. Husserl shed a great deal of ink analyzing both types of constitution; the former are constituted in "objective time" while the latter are constituted in "immanent time." Both levels of temporality are constituted by an underlying, bedrock "absolute flow," which is essentially forward moving, unfolding in a three-part structure. "Primal impressions" are the absolute now-point of consciousness--the "knife-edge" of the specious present. Primal impressions make no reference to what-has-just-passed or what-is-about-to-come. But we don't experience the present as a series of "knife-edge" moments. We experience the present as a "duration block" (William James). That is, while time flows along, our experience of it is "chunky." The present chunk of temporal experience is constituted by the primal impression and its relation to what has just passed but remains in consciousness--retentions. When one hears a melody, her experience of the presently sounding note is affected by the note that has just sounded. Similarly, one's experience of the present note is conditioned by her anticipation of what is imminently to follow--protention. Thus, the threefold structure retention-primal impression-protention is a formal invariant structure of our experience of time.

In a chapter titled "Primordial Dynamism" in his Mind in Life, Evan Thompson considers protention's essential difference from retention:
"In thinking about time-consciousness, it is easy to assume that protention is simply the reverse or inverse of retention and thus that the threefold structure of temporality is symmetrical. But this can be the case for several reasons" (360).
The principle difference between retention and protention can be articulated in terms of the determinateness of the content of these respective time-phases. The retentional character of temporal experience takes the form of "what's-having-just-been." If one were to cash out a retention in propositional form, both the context (conditions necessary for determining the meaning of a proposition) and content (immanent meaningful object of experience) would be determinate. That is, what's-having-just-been is not subject to change. It is contingent in the sense that things could have gone otherwise, but it is necessary in that the past is fixed. The protentional aspect of experience, on the other hand, takes the form of "what-has-yet-to-come." If one were to spell out a protention in propositional form, the context would be more or less determinate, but the content remains necessarily unfulfilled. Here, I say the context is more or less determinate in that when we are experiencing the specious present, background conditions such as physical location, surrounding objects, natural laws, etc, are operant such that any change in them would result in massive shock to one's temporal consciousness. The content of the what-has-yet-to-come remains necessarily unfulfilled in that there is an openness to a horizon of possibility underlying the forward flow of time. Thus, while we may have a very good sense of what is about to happen, we can never be sure.

Here's an example to clarify some things:
As I sit here at my desk typing away, the background conditions defining the context of my experience are "sedimented" as they define my experience with great regularity. I do not find myself instantly teleported to another location. The furniture in the room does not start floating. Nothing dissipates into thin air, etc. Were anything like this to happen, it would cause massive shock to my temporal consciousness. I.e. "what the hell!!!" Whereas, let's say all of a sudden I see a spider crawling up the wall next to me. I was not expecting this, but it does not come as a shock, only a mild surprise at best. The difference between the two scenarios (the first being "shocking" and the second being "unexpected") is that the first involves an alteration to the context of the proposition that would be used to articulate the meaning of a protention, whereas the latter involves a uniform context inherited from my retentions while the content is filled in with something I didn't expect (the spider).

In my next post, I will consider whether the necessity of unfulfilled content characterizing protention fully exhausts the phenomenological difference between protention and retention. I will argue (following Thompson) that protention is a necessarily affective experience, thus involving emotion and valence. I will go on to consider the implications of this analysis for the difference between recollection and fantasizing about the future, and if this tells us anything about how we ought to think about our futures.

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