Posted by: Xhyra Graf | 20 January 2007

Specious Present

The experience and perception of time

Also reread paper on tensed beliefs

  • What is ‘the perception of time’?
  • But what sense or senses do we use when perceiving time?

    The very expression ‘the perception of time’ invites objection. Insofar as time is something different from events, we do not perceive time as such, but changes or events in time. But, arguably, we do not perceive events only, but also their temporal relations.

    When we perceive B as coming after A, we have, surely, ceased to perceive A. In which case, A is merely an item in our memory. Now if we wanted to construe ‘perceive’ narrowly, excluding any element of memory, then we would have to say that we do not, after all, perceive B as following A. But in this article, we shall construe ‘perceive’ more broadly, to include a wide range of experiences of time that essentially involve the senses. In this wide sense, we perceive a variety of temporal aspects of the world. We shall begin by enumerating these, and then consider accounts of how such perception is possible.

  • Kinds of temporal experience
  • There are a number of what Ernst Pöppel (1978) calls ‘elementary time experiences’, or fundamental aspects of our experience of time. Among these we may list the experience of (i) duration; (ii) non-simultaneity; (iii) order; (iv) past and present; (v) change, including the passage of time.

    but it is a contentious question whether the experience of tense—that is, experiencing an event as past or present—is more fundamental than the experience of order, or vice versa, or whether indeed there is such a thing as the experience of tense at all.

  • Duration
  • One of the earliest, and most famous, discussions of the nature and experience of time occurs in the autobiographical Confessions of St Augustine.

    While not following Augustine all the way to his theory of the subjectivity of time, we can concede that the perception of temporal duration is crucially bound up with memory. It is some feature of our memory of the event (and perhaps specifically our memory of the beginning and end of the event) that allows us to form a belief about its duration. This process need not be described, as Augustine describes it, as a matter of measuring something wholly in the mind. Arguably, at least, we are measuring the event or interval itself, a mind-independent item, but doing so by means of some psychological process.

  • The specious present
  • The term ‘specious present’ was first introduced by the psychologist E.R. Clay, but the best known characterisation of it was due to William James, widely regarded as one of the founders of modern psychology. He lived from 1842 to 1910, and was professor of philosophy at Harvard. His definition of the specious present goes as follows: ‘the prototype of all conceived times is the specious present, the short duration of which we are immediately and incessantly sensible’ (James (1890)). How long is this specious present? Elsewhere in the same work, James asserts ‘We are constantly aware of a certain duration—the specious present—varying from a few seconds to probably not more than a minute, and this duration (with its content perceived as having one part earlier and another part later) is the original intuition of time.’

    A quite different definition is this: the interval of time such that events occurring within that interval are experienced as present. This is how the specious present tends to be treated in recent discussions, though it is inconsistent with James’ remark that we can discern earlier and later parts in the specious present. As we remarked at the beginning of this article, if two events are experienced as present, they are surely experienced as simultaneous. [I have sone disagreement with this statement – I think most peopl can say that they experience two items as present but may not concede that they occured simultaneously and actually vice versa.  It has to do with the very idea they introduced in the beginning that ‘perceive’ can be contrued both narrowly and broadly. This again is part and parcel of the qualia problem.  Even if we are somehow able to prove to someone that the events were or were not simultaneous and even replay them in the same way-their subjective experience of ‘the perceiving’ may not match up to ‘reality’ – as in the next quote…]

    Taking the specious present as defined by this third characterisation, the doctrine of the specious present holds that the group of events we experience at any one time as present contains successive events spanning an interval. The experienced present is ‘specious’ in that, unlike the objective present, it is an interval and not a durationless instant. The ‘real’ present, as we might call it, must be durationless for, as Augustine argued, in an interval of any duration, there are earlier and later parts. So if any part of that interval is present, there will be another part that is past or future. This definition needs to be tightened up a little, to distinguish the tendency of


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