Posted by: Xhyra Graf | 12 February 2007

Varela: The Specious Present

The Specious Present: A Neurophenomenology of Time Consciousness

Even under a cursory reduction, already provided by the reflections of Augustin and James, time in experience is quite a different story from a clock in linear time. To start with, it does present itself as a linear sequence but as having a complex texture (whence specious, it is not a “knife-edge” present), and its fullness is so outstanding that it dominates our existence to an important degree. In a first approximation this texture can be described as follows: There is always a center, the now moment with a focused intentional content (say, this room with my computer in front of me on which the letters I am typing are highlighted). This center is bounded by a horizon or fringe that is already past (I still hold the beginning of the sentence I just wrote), and it projects towards an intended next moment (this writing session is still unfinished). These horizons are mobile: this very moment which was present (and hence was not merely described, but lived as such) slips towards an immediately past present. Then it plunges further out of view: I do not hold it just as immediately, and I need an added depth to keep it at hand. This basic texture is the raw basis of what I will be discussing in extenso below. In its basic outline, we shall refer to it as the three-part structure of temporality. It represents one of the most remarkable results of Husserl’s research as a result of phenomenological reduction. Another important complementary aspect of temporality as it appears under reduction, is that consciousness does not contain time as a constituted psychological category. Instead, temporal consciousness itself constitutes an ultimate substrate of consciousness where no further reduction can be accomplished, a”universal medium of access to whatever exists…Constitutive phenomenology can well be characterized as the consistent and radical development of this privilege of consciousness into its last ramifications and consequences” (Gurwitsch, 1966, p xix).

We find a converging conclusion in James concerning the apparent paradox of human temporal experience: on the one hand there is the unity of the present, an aggregate we can describe where we reside in basic consciousness, and on the other hand this moment of consciousness is inseparable from a flow, a stream (Chapter IX of Principles). These two complementary aspects of temporal consciousness are the main axes of my presentation.

This rough preliminary analysis of time consciousness leads, then, to distinguish three levels of temporality which will guide my argument:

(1) A first level proper to temporal objects and events in the world. Thus it is close to the ordinary notions of temporality in human experience which grounds the one currently used in physics or computation .

(2) The phenomenologist starts from this level, but reduction makes apparent the second level, that of acts of consciousness that constitute objects-events . This is the “immanent” or “internal time” of acts of consciousness. Their structure forms the main body of the phenomenological analysis in Husserl’s Lectures. (3) Finally, (and this is the more subtle levels of analysis), these first two levels are constituted from another level where no internal-external distinction is possible, and which Husserl calls the “absolute time constituting flow of consciousness” (PZB 73) .

Time never appears detached but as temporal object-events which are the correlates or the intentional focus of the temporal consciousness: temporal object-events are what these acts are about . In contrast to what might be of interest for the psychologist or the neuroscientist, for the phenomenologist the content of the object is not as important as the manner of its appearance .

At various points in his research Husserl returns to the basic observation that what is proper to temporal objects is their double aspect of duration and unity (PZB 23, 113-4). Duration is correlative to the intentional direction: this house I am walking by, that bird that flew from here to there,…. These are actual durations, and refers to the object having a location in time. Unity is correlative to the individuality of the object-events in question, standing out as a distinct whole against the background of other events. Thus a temporal object-event covers a certain span T, a complete act. However the entire act is a continuous process in the course of which moments of nowness are articulated, not as a finished unity but in a succession. It is this mode of constitution of object-events, whatever their duration T and their content, that interests me here. It must be the case that consciousness of succession derives from structural features of the acts of consciousness. Our problem is the characterization of these structures.

III.2 The neurodynamics of temporal appearance

My overall approach to cognition is based on situated, embodied agents. I have introduced the name enactive to designate this approach more precisely. It is comprised of two complementary aspects.

(1) On the one hand, the ongoing coupling of the cognitive agent, a permanent coping that is fundamentally mediated by sensori-motor activities.

(2) On the other hand, the autonomous activities of the agent whose identity is based on emerging, endogenous configurations (or self-organizing patterns) of neuronal activity.

Enaction implies that sensori-motor coupling modulates, but does not determine, an ongoing endogenous activity that it configures into meaningful world items in an unceasing flow. 

 It is the complex task of relating and integrating these different components that is at the root of temporality from the point of view of the neuroscientist. A central idea pursued here is that these various components require a frame or window of simultaneity which corresponds to the duration of lived present . In this view, the constant stream of sensory activation and motor consequence is incorporated within the framework of an endogenous dynamics, (not informational-computational one), which gives it its depth or incompressibility. This idea is not merely a theoretical abstraction: it is essential for the understanding of a vast array of evidence and experimental predictions . These endogenously constituted integrative frameworks account for perceived time as discretized and not linear, since the nature of this discreteness is a horizon of integration rather a string of temporal “quanta”. At this point it is important to introduce three scales of duration to understand the temporal horizon as just introduced: (1) basic or elementary events, (the ‘1/10’ scale);(2) relaxation time for large-scale integration, (the ‘1’ scale);(3) descriptive-narrative assessments, (the ’10’ scale).This recursive structuring of temporal scales composes a unified whole, and it only makes sense in relation to object-events.

IV. The Just-past is not Memory

Temporal objects appear to us as such only because of the correlative acts of consciousness which have specific modes of appearance that are at the very heart of the issue of immediate temporality. Normally we designate these modes by the terms present now, past and future. Beyond this cursory designation however, reduction clearly points to the mode of ‘now’ as having a unique or privileged status (PZB 35). Two lines of analysis lead to this. First, the texture of now which James calls specious. In effect, now is not just a mere temporal location, it has a lived quality as well: it is a space we dwell in rather than a point where an object passes transitorily. Second, it is in relation to the rich structure of present nowness that all other modes of temporality take form.


To gather all the threads that have been developed here, and to echo the tradition started by Husserl himself, I would like to propose a new figure of time, the fourfold structure of nowness (Fig.5).

This is not so bold or farfetched. By now it seems clear that the point-by-point, linear time depiction at the base of the figures of time is insufficient. One major improvement is to introduce, then, not lines but flows, dynamical trends. A second major improvement is to take into explicit account what surfaced in the later work of Husserl himself, the central role of double intentionality, static and genetic constitution. This final ingredient gives to the homologies between the constitution of space and time the preeminence they deserve. I do this by taking the center/fringe structure as the very core of a new figure of time. Once these three basic aspects have been incorporated a new representation falls into place quite naturally.


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