Husserl elaborates the basic problem of time-consciousness by taking the simple example of a melody. Observing that what we perceive endures – i.e., a melody is experienced as a unity of discrete tones, with each tone and the melody as a whole grasped as unified enduring objects – he sets out to examine how this can occur. Clearly, more than one tone must be retained in consciousness, since if each disappeared entirely after it had sounded then their succession, and therefore the melody as a whole, could never be grasped: “in each moment we would have a tone, or perhaps an empty pause in the interval between the sounding of two tones, but never the representation of a melody.” And each tone must also undergo some form of modification in consciousness, enabling it to appear “as more or less past, as pushed back in time, as it were,” since otherwise “instead of a melody we would have a chord of simultaneous tones, or rather a disharmonious tangle of sound, as if we had struck simultaneously all the notes that had previously sounded“. It is in order to account for our ability to experience such temporally extended objects as temporally extended that Husserl takes an immanent tone as his phenomenological datum.
In the characteristic phenomenological move Husserl proposes, at the outset of his lectures, “the complete exclusion of every assumption, stipulation and conviction with respect to objective time”. This suspension of the “natural attitude” towards time leaves – as the phenomenological residue – the indisputable immanent time (succession and duration) of lived experience (erlebnis). And immanent temporal objects within the immanent time of the flow of consciousness will enable reflection of the phenomenon of temporal experience free of all transcendent presuppositions. Husserl can therefore declare his task as being to “exclude all transcendent apprehension and positing and take the tone purely as a hyletic datum”.
Posing the question of “How, in addition to ‘temporal objects,’ immanent and transcendent, does time itself – the duration and succession of objects – become constituted?” Husserl points out that these are “different lines of description….” For example: “When a tone sounds … [we] can make the tone itself, which endures and fades away, into an object and yet not make the duration of the tone or the tone in its duration into an object”. Focusing on the latter, we can observe that the tone appears in “a continuity of ‘modes’ in a ‘continual flow'” – that is, appears in the mode of (as) ‘now’ or as ‘immediately past’ – even though “‘Throughout’ this whole flow of consciousness, one and the same tone is intended as enduring, as now enduring”. Because the tone itself is the same but the manner in which it appears is continually different, then description of the tone itself must be distinguished from description of “the way in which we are ‘conscious’ of … the ‘appearing’ of the immanent tone”. It is this latter that the phenomenology of time-consciousness will analyze.
Husserl accounts for our experience of the duration of the tone by distinguishing the intended temporal determinations of ‘now,’ ‘just-past,’ and ‘about-to-be’ from the consciousness that intends them: the impressional, retentional and protentional consciousness which constitute present, past, and future, respectively. As he describes it, the “source-point” (Quellpunkt) of the enduring object in the flowing stream of consciousness is the “primal impression” – consciousness of the (constantly changing) “tone-now” (Tonjetzt). And as this ‘tone-now’ is modified into ‘something that has been,’ so the primal impression passes over into retention: “the tone-now changes into a tone-having-been; the impressional consciousness, constantly flowing, passes over into an ever new retentional consciousness”. Retention not only “holds in consciousness what has been produced and stamps on it the character of the ‘just-past'” – ensuring that consciousness is always “consciousness of what has just been and not merely consciousness of the now-point of the object that appears as enduring” – but each retention is also retention of the elapsed tone retention, including in itself “the entire series of elapsed intentions in the form of a chain of mediate intentions”. In this way, retention “extends the now-consciousness” such that the “now-apprehension is, as it were, the head attached to the comet’s tail of retentions”.
This description of the extended moment is completed with the addition of protention as the symmetrical futural counterpart of retention. Protention, the intuition of the immediate future, is “just as original and unique as the intuition of the past,” Husserl writes. “Every process that constitutes its object originally is animated by protentions that emptily constitute what is coming as coming”. Retention and protention together combine to form “the living horizon of the now,” for every primal impression “has its retentional and protentional halo” ensuring that “The now point … [always] has for consciousness a temporal fringe”. The punctual now is therefore only an ideal limit, which cannot be phenomenologically given or encountered. And this description of the now as an ideal abstraction therefore applies equally to the primal impression of which it is the correlate: “In the ideal sense … perception (impression) would be the phase of consciousness that constitutes the pure now…. But the now is precisely only an ideal limit, something abstract, which can be nothing by itself”.
The temporal phases of the immanent object are, then, on a different stratum of analysis than the consciousness of those phases; the impressional, retentional, and protentional consciousness which, in intending the object as ‘now,’ ‘just-past,’ or ‘about-to-be’ “constitute the very differences belonging to time”. Husserl reaches the heart of his phenomenological account of time-consciousness with his description of how these “acts that create time” – primal impression, retention, and protention – “can be understood as time-constituting consciousness, as moments of the flow”. The ‘flow’ is made up of these partial intentions which are not fully fledged acts as such because their correlates are not objects but the temporal phases of objects. Retention, for example, “is an intentionality” but it “is not an ‘act’ (that is, an immanent duration-unity constituted in a series of retentional phases)”. The intentionality of these elements of the primal flux differs from that of apprehending or perceptual acts – they in fact constitute as a unity the apprehending act: “In perception a complex of sensation-contents, which are themselves unities constituted in the original temporal flow, undergo unity of apprehension. And this unitary apprehension is again a constituted unity”.
Husserl can therefore distinguish and outline the three levels of his analysis of time and consciousness as follows: Firstly, “the things of empirical experience in objective time”; secondly, “the constituting multiplicities of appearance … the immanent unities in pre-empirical time”; and lastly, “the absolute time-constituting flow of consciousness” which, as that which “lies before all constitution,” is the ultimate stratum of the constitutive process. This absolute consciousness “is not itself content or object in phenomenological time”. It is a ‘flow’ of “continuous ‘change'” which cannot be described as having constancy or duration, nor even as a ‘process,’ since the concept of process presupposes persistence and a ‘something’ that persists and endures through change. However, the flow does possess, in a sense, something abiding: “What abides, above all, is the formal structure of the flow, the form of the flow”. This unchanging form of the absolute flux is the retentional/impressional/protentional structure by which “a now becomes constituted by means of an impression and … a trail of retentions and a horizon of protentions are attached to the impression”. The question remains, of course, of how we can know this flow which is neither content nor object:
Every temporal appearance, after phenomenological reduction, dissolves into … a flow. But I cannot perceive in turn this consciousness itself into which all of this is dissolved. For this new percept would again be something temporal that points back to a constituting consciousness of a similar sort, and so in infinitum. Hence the question arises: How do I come to know the constituting flow?
To deal with this question Husserl recalls the ‘double intentionality’ of retention. One of these is the “‘primary memory’ of the (just sensed) tone” which “serves for the constitution of the immanent object”. But there is also the other, the second retentional intentionality which “is constitutive of the unity of this primary memory in the flow”. This “retention of retention” ensures that “each past now retentionally shelters within itself all earlier stages” and also therefore that “there extends throughout the flow a horizontal intentionality [Längsintentionalität] that, in the course of the flow, continuously coincides with itself”. By means of this, the unity of the flow becomes itself “constituted in the flow of consciousness as a one-dimensional quasi-temporal order”. The absolute flux is, therefore, self-constituting. It constitutes the unity of immanent objects in a unitary immanent time and thereby, “as shocking (when not initially even absurd) as it may seem,” also its own unity:
two inseparably united intentionalities, requiring one another like two sides of one and the same thing, are interwoven with one another in the one, unique flow of consciousness. By virtue of on limits of language of the intentionalities, immanent time becomes constituted…. In the other intentionality, it is the quasi-temporal arrangement of the phases of the flow that becomes constituted…. This prephenomenal, preimmanent temporality becomes constituted intentionally as the form of the time-constituting consciousness and in itself.
And it is this second retentional intentionality that gives us our oblique self-awareness of the flux, removing the problem of infinite regress whilst simultaneously resolving the difficulty of knowing the flow. “The self-appearance of the flow does not require a second flow: on the contrary, it constitutes itself as a phenomenon in itself”. It requires no second flow because this is a non-objectivating awareness – experienced in the same way as we experience acts, in a perceptual objectivation, without thematizing them. Unlike such acts, however, it cannot itself be made an object of reflection. Because there is no object or substance that endures, and no ‘time’ here as such, our ability to speak of the absolute flux runs up against the limits of language and conceptual thought. “We can say nothing other than the following: This flow is something we speak of in conformity with what is constituted, but it is not ‘something in objective time.’ It is absolute subjectivity and has the absolute properties of something to be designated metaphorically as ‘flow’.” Husserl is blunt about the inescapable inadequacy of his vocabulary here: “For all of this, we lack names”.
In a sense Husserl’s project in the lectures on time-consciousness can be understood as an inquiry into the constitution of constitution; into the way in which intentional acts of consciousness are constituted as temporal unities able to have as their correlate the transcendent temporally extended object. As he observes: “It is certainly evident that the perception of a temporal object itself has temporality, that the perception of duration itself presupposes duration of perception, that the perception of any temporal form itself has temporal form”. Yet Ricoeur writes that “The fact that the perception of duration never ceases to presuppose the duration of perception did not seem to trouble Husserl“, implying that Husserl was blind to the significance of his own observation. This rather offhand remark plays little role in Ricoeur’s argument for the conflict between Kant and Husserl’s respective treatments of time, but given that Husserl was clearly sorely troubled by this ‘fact’ – that it is arguably the very observation that led him beyond Kant’s standpoint to explore the temporality of the constitutive act itself.