11/04/2011 03:12 pm ET Updated Jan 04, 2012

Is That All There Is? It's About Time

A Prolegomena to Alternative Architectures of Consciousness:

Currently, I still understand consciousness as articulated by the distinction between subject and object. This is problematic because the distinction is no longer sufficient. It is prone to category mistakes [1], for example, reading the type distinction between subject and object as though it were a token distinction between things. This mistake relegates the subject of experience to the status of an object. I am not a thing so I find this way of seeing the world problematic (even though I like nihilists).

The materialist might argue that there is no problem other than my misplaced idealism. If the world can be comprehensively explained in purely physical terms, why complicate things? I think this gain in simplicity results in a different kind of loss. Materialism does not directly address why there is a subjective element of experience. Either conjectures of the transcendental idealist, dualist or materialist are not entirely comprehensive on their own, or, assumptions regarding their mutual exclusivity require further investigation. Although these points of view can be helpful, they mostly contain and/or result in conflict like the hard problem of consciousness.

The point is that there are many interpretations of consciousness, and most of them are problematic, in one way or another. That consciousness does not always lend itself to only one interpretation, however, also hints to something about its nature. I think a solution may result from articulating a phenomenological kind of temporal idealism that allows for understanding things primarily in terms of time. The hypothesis: Meaning is linked to the structure of time. I think that investigating the temporal framework of experience will help discover a different, primordial architecture of consciousness [2].

To overcome the nihilist's position of an alienated subject, or to generally relocate meaning, we can bridge the gap between subject and object by breaking the dominance of space over time. The tyranny and time of space must end. Space has permeated understanding to the point of being obtrusive, and now it is time to try something different. When I think about continuity or extension, it is usually in spatial terms. This seems fine until I find it hard to think in any other way. Even when I think about time, it is as though grafted to the x-axis of my mind, with the ordered finitude of moments interpolated by experience de-confined from birth to death. Something about this is not right. There is something linear and spatial about this conception of time that does not correspond with how it is experienced. Analyzing time in spatial terms is like thinking about consciousness; it can result in not addressing the initial intention.

Phenomenologically, time is not a thing extended: it is not retained or contained in the past, like how it is not projected into the future. The inside/outside distinction is primarily spatial, of things located and bounded, existing partes extra partes. Time is not actually divisible like this; temporal distinctions are of a different kind.

It is challenging to illustrate how time is articulated because mental images or static representations thereof consistently fail to capture or transmit the nature of time -- it outstrips itself, shedding in its wake the trace of what it was and for which it is again mistaken. For example, I was just watching a Zeitgeist video, Derrida [3], which begins with his narration over a train-ride sequence shot from the perspective of a passenger looking out the window:

"In general, I try to distinguish between what one calls the future and "l'avenir." The future is that which -- tomorrow, later, next century -- will be. There is a future which is predictable, programmed, scheduled, foreseeable. But there is a future, l'avenir (to come) which refers to someone who comes whose arrival is totally unexpected. For me, that is the real future. That which is totally unpredictable. The Other who comes without my being able to anticipate their arrival. So if there is a real future beyond this other known future, it's l'avenir in that it's the coming of the Other when I am completely unable to foresee their arrival."

I find this distinction between the future and l'avenir helpful for thinking time phenomenologically. Why does Derrida call l'avenir the real future? I think that the particular, predictable, programmed, scheduled and foreseeable is just that: an image in my mind. The future I can foresee is the product of my imagination, now. Although these thoughts are referring to the future, they are actually occurring in the mode of being present. The category mistake is to think thoughts about the future are transferable with the future itself. This is similar to the realization that memories are not the same as the past. Memories always occur in the present even though they refer to past events. Anything I think about the future or the past, presents itself now only as an interpretation thereof, in the mode of being present. L'avenir is like Nothingness, a positive indeterminate, immanent yet utterly unexpected, an Other that precedes all personal formalities.

Phenomenologically, the time is always now. This now, however, is never alone. Now, in the mode of being present, always and already comes together with l'avenir, the Other. In the same way that l'avenir is substituted for the future, having-been is substituted for the past. Therefore, now spans from having-been to l'avenir, always and already in the mode of being present. More of this phenomenological discourse needs elaboration.

In its pure form, time is beautifully clear, simple and non-problematic. Space, however, complicates things. If I can express time predominantly in its own terms, then the crutch of space is no longer of use. Although time itself is not an abstract concept, it is reified if understood primarily in terms of space. The phenomenological aim is not to entirely suspend the experience of space, just to put it in its proper place because I think time deserves priority. During the following weeks, I will work on unpacking a time-related synthesis of experience while fielding different possible contributions to the discussion. The goal is to provide expositions of the problem from various points of view to engage, enable and obtain some informed, disclosive and productive conversation on the subject of meaning.


[1] Ryle, Gilbert. The Concept of Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.

[2] Dealing with the distinction between the present and ready-to-hand means to recognize that when addressing consciousness; thought, reflection, and observation can sometimes get in the way of obtaining the desired result. Phenomenologically, it is as though observation interferes with the act of (self)consciousness. If I want to catch consciousness in the act, so to speak, my intention to observe consciousness will obvert the act to which it was referring. It is like a finger trying to point to itself, or trying to catch a flowing river in a small paper parcel. The analysis of consciousness occasions its breakdown; it switches from being ready-to-hand to being present-to-hand. Consciousness is always there, only that it is most itself when I am not thinking about it. Thinking can be to consciousness what a short-circuit was to my keyboard.

[3] Dick & Kofman. Derrida. Zeitgeist Films, 2003. DVD.