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PHL201: Existence and Freedom

Adam Smith

Paul MacDonald

Essay 1

Word Count:
2 700

In the Second Cartesian Meditation, Husserl writes, the whole of conscious life is
unified synthetically, and then tells us The fundamental form of this universal
synthesis, the form that makes all other syntheses of conscious life possible, is the all-

embracing consciousness of internal time (CM, 42, 43). It is my task in this paper to
show how Husserls account of internal time-consciousness explains the possibility of
the synthetic unity of conscious life. First I note that Husserls analysis of internal
time-consciousness takes place in the context of the phenomenological reduction.
Next I explain what Husserl means by synthesis, here establishing precisely what it is
that we are attempting to explain with internal time-consciousness. Then I give an
account of Husserls analysis of internal time-consciousness. I begin this account by
looking at temporal objects; then I move to our consciousness of temporal objects;
finally I look at mental processes and the absolute time-constituting flow of
consciousness. In each stage of this account I explain how the topic relates to the
synthetic unity of consciousness, by the end showing that internal time-consciousness
accounts for this unity all the way down. Given the brevity of this paper I assume that
the reader has some familiarity with Husserls doctrine of intentionality.

Husserls analysis of internal time-consciousness takes place in the context of the

phenomenological reduction. In the reduction we parenthesise the existence of the
world and its objects, suspending claims about them from our consideration (Brough
2004, 57). For our topic this means that the time that is measured physically by the
sun and clocks will not concern us (Ideas I, 192). But while the existence of objects in
the world is parenthesised, their appearance in consciousness is not (CM, 42). This
means that when I describe the coffee cup on this table, I am describing it as it
appears in consciousness, not as it exists in the world. The appearance of a temporal
object is distinct from the mental process through which it appears (e.g. perception).

Husserl writes, the whole of conscious life is unified synthetically (CM, 42). For
Husserl, synthesis is a kind of combination, intimately connected with identification,
which is the fundamental form of synthesis (CM, 39, 41). Synthesis occurs on three
levels of conscious life. First, objects appear as unities of multiple determinations
the shape, texture, and weight of this cup are not separate but form a unity. Second,
mental processes give appearing objects in multiform manners of appearing (CM, 39).
I focus my attention on the shape of this cup; now I feel its temperature; now I pick it
up, feeling its weight. No matter what feature I turn to, each appears in a flow of
multiple manners of appearing through different acts of perception, which are
combined in synthesis as a unity this cup here. Third is the ultimate level of
synthesis, the foundation of identification, which is the level Husserl calls the
absolute time-constituting flow of consciousness. For Husserl, any particular mental
process can only occur within a consciousness already presupposed as unitary (CM,
43). This is because the flow of mental processes that combine to form unities of
consciousness the modes of appearing of this cup must occur in one
consciousness; otherwise all experience would be disjointed. This is the level of
identification, because identification depends on something emerging as the same
through different acts, and it is only in a presupposed unitary consciousness that
different acts can be preserved (Brough 2004, 87). So when he writes, the whole of
conscious life is unified synthetically, Husserl means that, all the way down, we
experience unity without any gaps (CM, 42).

We turn now to the first level of Husserls analysis of internal time-consciousness

that of temporal objects. My focus here is on individuation. All temporal objects
endure for a while, and for Husserl, we can analyse this duration into three modes of

temporal appearance: now, past, and future (Brough 2004, 62). The now, past, and
future are not themselves part of the object, but are modes in which the object appears
(ibid, 63). Because each temporal object endures for a while, any phase of its
appearance can be analysed into the three modes of temporal appearance. This means
that the modes of appearance are themselves abstract, and do not occur independently
of each other; rather, Husserl refers to them as a rough now, in which phases of the
objects shade into the mode of past while other phases shade into the mode of now
from the mode of future (ibid). The now, however, holds a privileged position,
because it is in the now mode that new objects and object phases appear. This now
mode is thus the moment of individuation, which is the coming to presentational birth
of a new temporal position, and of a new object or object phase in that position (ibid,
65). When we hear a melody, for example, of tone a, followed by tone b, followed by
tone c, the melody begins when tone a appears in the mode of now. When tone b is
heard, tone a shades off into the mode of past, and a new temporal position is given
birth one possessed by tone b, which stands in a temporal relation to tone a. The
temporal relation between the tones is possible because new temporal positions
appear with new objects and object-phases. When tone c is heard, tone b shades into
the past, and tone a is pushed even further back. Husserl calls the now and the degrees
of the past the running-off modes of the temporal object (ibid, 64). The source-point
of the running-off modes of an object is the now.
Bringing the above insights to bear on the topic of synthetic unity, we notice
several things. Time appears as a continuum of time-points, each given birth in the
now (ibid, 65). Each temporal position along the continuum is occupied by the same
object-phase that first appeared with it. This means that each object and object-phase
is combined synthetically in one time. This holds true for all objects: the cup in front

of me and this piece of paper are not part of two different times they appear
simultaneously in temporal position in the one continuum of time-points. Because
they appear simultaneously, object-phases are also pushed back together as new
temporal positions appear. The temporal location of object-phases is also fixed in
relation to all other object-phases, because they all remain in the same temporal
position in which they first appeared. Thus we can see the synthetic unity of
conscious life on the level of appearing temporal objects: all objects appear in one
time; objects can appear in the same temporal position as other objects in this one
time; and the temporal position of objects is fixed in relation to the temporal position
of all other objects, though this position constantly slips back into the past. These
consequences indicate the synthetic unity of appearing temporal objects in

In the Second Cartesian Meditation, Husserl notes that inquiry into consciousness
concerns two sides that belong inseparably together (CM, 39). We have looked at one
side the appearing objects of consciousness and now we must look at the other,
which is the consciousness that intends them. Husserl is here concerned with
impressional consciousness, which is that consciousness in which an object is
originally constituted; it is given itself as present (Brough 2004, 75). This is distinct
from representational consciousness, in which an object is given again (e.g. in
memory). For Husserl, each impressional phase of consciousness has intentional
reference to an extended section of the temporal object (ibid, 74). Each phase has a
triple intentionality it is conscious of the now, the past, and the future of the section
of the object, and its correlates are the now, past, and future modes of the objects
appearance (ibid). The three forms of impressional consciousness are primal

impression, retention, and protention (ibid, 75). Because each phase of impressional
consciousness is analysable into primal impression, retention, and protention, these
forms are abstract and depend on each other. Primal impression is the source for all
consciousness and being, because it is the moment that presents a new object-phase
and a new time-point as now (ibid). This presentation of a new object-point shades in
from protention and out into retention. Retention is impressional consciousness of the
just past phases of the temporal object. This means that, in acts of perception, we
perceive the past. This might initially sound strange, but it is very important, so we
will look at it further below.
For Husserl, if we do not have direct impressional access to the past, then it is
unclear how we are aware of objects as temporally extended at all (ibid, 69-74). The
problem begins when we assume that impressional consciousness is exhausted in the
now. If the now is an isolated point, then the just past phases of the object seem to
disappear, and we would not be conscious of a temporally extended object that is, an
object that extends into the past. To be conscious of temporally extended objects
would require some kind of act of reaching into oblivion, grasping the run-away justnow phase of the object, and attaching it to the now-phase. But there are several
problems with this position. The first is that it does not adequately explain how we
fetch the just-past phase from wherever it might be. The second is that, even if there
were an explanation, this account of how we are aware of a temporally extended
object does away with the idea of the past altogether. This is because the attaching of
the just-past phase would itself occur in the now-moment, meaning that it is not past
at all, but now (ibid).
Husserls account of impressional consciousness avoids the problems outlined
above. First, since primal impression, retention, and protention are not capable of

isolated existence, the object-phases that we are conscious of do not pass over into
oblivion. Rather, as new object-phases are intended in primal impression, the ones
that were previously presented in the mode of now are pushed back into retention.
Second, in retention we intend the just-past phases of objects as past, which means
that our consciousness of an object as extended into the past is not problematic
(Brough 2004, 78). Finally, for Husserl, protention is impressional consciousness of
the phases of an object that are yet to come. This takes form mainly as an openness to
further object-phases; without this openness we would not be conscious of any
currently appearing object-phase (ibid, 80).
Bringing the discussion back to the synthetic unity of consciousness, we can
see the correlation between impressional consciousness and the appearance of
temporal objects. Each phase of an appearing temporal object is analysable into the
modes of appearance of now, past, and future. Each impressional phase of
consciousness intends an extended phase of a temporal object, and consists of primal
impression, retention, and protention, which are correlated with the now, past, and
future of the object-phase. These two sides, as Husserl notes, are inseparable
consciousness and its object form a unity. We cannot have objects without
consciousness, nor consciousness without objects, and so conscious life, as a whole, is
unified synthetically.

While above we noted that the whole of conscious life forms a synthetic unity, we
have not explained the possibility of this synthetic unity. The primary synthesis that,
for Husserl, makes all other syntheses possible, is what he calls the absolute timeconstituting flow of consciousness (Morrison 1978, 187). Husserl calls acts of
consciousness experiences (Brough 2004, 82). Perception, memory, phantasy,

judgment, and so on these are all acts of consciousness, and so are experiences. For
Husserl, consciousness always has an awareness of its experiences (ibid). Yet this
awareness is different from the awareness that I have of an object through an
experience. When I am aware on an object through an experience I am turned towards
that object and grasp it. The awareness that I have of my experiences is not like this; it
is only an implicit, self-conscious awareness (ibid). These mental processes are, for
Husserl, themselves temporal unities (Ideas I, 194). As temporal unities, they share
features in common with appearing temporal objects. They begin and cease to be;
they are analysable into phases of now, past, and future; and they have temporal
location. Take my perception of this cup it began when it was set down in front of
me by the waiter; it endures for a while; and it has its temporal location, individuated
by the now in which I experience it. Our mental processes our acts of perception,
memory, judgment, and so on themselves form a continual flow through time, in
which they can occur simultaneously and always with temporal relations to other
mental processes; it is this form that Husserl is attempting to explain (Morrison 1978,
Husserl notes that the flow of mental processes is only possible if the form of
this flow is a continuous flow of modes of givenness (Ideas I, 194). That is, we must
be given mental processes in modes of givenness of now, past, and future in order for
them to form a continuous flow. This flow, then, is only a formal flow that consists
of modes of givenness which, themselves, do not flow, but through which all
conscious experience flows (Morrison 1978, 190). Primal impression, retention, and
protention are the modes of givenness of this flow (Brough 2004, 83). To account for
the unity of the flow, Husserl relies on what he calls its double intentionality
(Morrison 1978, 190). What we are attempting to explain here is how we are aware of

an object (this cup) through a mental process (my perceiving this cup) as given now in
the absolute flow. For Husserl, retention does not immediately retain past phases of
mental processes. Rather, it retains the immediately preceding phase of the flow itself,
which was primal impression but has now shaded away (Brough 2004, 84). This
phase intended a phase of a mental act, and this intention is preserved when the phase
itself is intended in retention; this we call vertical intentionality (ibid). Further, since
each phase of retention retained its preceding phase, the flow in this direction consists
in a continuum of retentions of retentions; this we call the flows horizontal
intentionality. The same that we have said above about retention is true of protention
also: it intends future phases of the flow, which themselves intend mental acts, and
which form a continuum of protentions of protentions (ibid). This, then, is the double
intentionality of the absolute flow: it intends future and past phases of itself
horizontally, which intend mental acts vertically.
This double intentionality accounts for the unity of the absolute flow. First, it
is a horizontal continuum through intending past and future phases of itself. Second,
its correlation with mental acts and temporal objects is explained by this horizontal
structure combined with the vertical structure. We were attempting to explain how it
is that we are aware of an object (this cup) through a mental process (my perceiving
this cup) as given in the flow. The mental process is intended through phases of the
flow; through the mental process itself we are presented with the object. These phases
pass away from the now, into the just-past. Because the flow retains these phases in
their vertical intentionality, we are conscious of a temporally extended mental
process, and through this process of an object, which, because we retain previous
phases of the flow, itself appears temporally extended. This flow itself needs no
further ground, because, strictly speaking, it is not itself temporal (Ideas I, 194). The

flow is not temporal because it does not come into being or cease to be; it is infinite,
because each phase intends further phases stretching infinitely in both direction past
and future. It is itself pure form of modes of givenness, which do not themselves flow
or change in any way, but remain passively receptive throughout consciousness. Thus
the flow, as non-temporal, provides the ground for the temporality of consciousness,
which, as we have seen, forms the synthetic unity of conscious life. This, we can now
see, goes all the way down.

In this paper I have argued that Husserls analysis of internal time-consciousness

provides the ground for the synthetic unity of conscious life. Synthetic unity is a kind
of combination relying on identification of objects as the same through different
mental acts. Temporal objects appearing in consciousness appear in modes of now,
past, and future, which individuate the objects in a continuum of temporal positions.
The correlate of this is the consciousness that is aware of the objects, which takes the
form of primal impression, retention, and protention, which are coordinate with the
modes of the appearance of the temporal object. The mental processes that intend
temporal objects occur in a flow. This flow is not itself temporal, and is purely formal,
consisting of the modes of primal impression, retention, and protention. These modes
intend phases of the flow itself, which intend mental processes. Through this double
intentionality we are conscious of our mental processes and the objects they intend as
temporally extended. This unity of the levels of consciousness with each other
stretches all the way down, providing grounds for Husserls claim that the whole of
conscious life is unified synthetically (CM, 42).



Brough, John Barnett. 2003. Husserls Phenomenology of Time-Consciousness. In

Phenomenology: Critical Concepts in Philosophy, Vol. II, ed. Dermot Moran and
Lester E. Embree, 56-89. New York: Routledge.


CM: Husserl, Edmund. 1973. 17. The two-sidedness of inquiry into consciousness as
an investigation of correlatives. Lines of description. Synthesis as the primal form
belonging to consciousness; 18. Identification as the fundamental form of synthesis.
The all-embracing synthesis of transcendental time. In Cartesian Meditations, trans.
Dorion Cairns, 39-43. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.

Ideas I: Husserl, Edmund. 1983. 81. Phenomenological Time and Consciousness of

Time. In Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological
Philosophy, first book, trans. F. Kersten, 196-195. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic

Morrison, Ronald P. 1978. Kant, Husserl, and Heidegger on Time and the Unity of
Consciousness. In Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 39, No. 2,