Phenomenology of Perception, by Maurice Merleau-Ponty. (Part III, 2, Temporality).

The chapter opens by stating that ‘…Kantian language…’ (Merleau-Ponty 2002 p.476) allows for a subjective understanding of time, in other words it is ‘…the form taken by our inner sense…’ (Merleau-Ponty 2002 p.476). It is important to consider that through this chapter Merleau-Ponty is attempting to highlight the way in which time links the cogito with freedom and as such he delineates freedom in terms of subjective perception.

Merleau-Ponty moves toward his argument by beginning with the acceptance of a subjective and objective understanding of time. He does this by referring to Heraclitus’ metaphor of time as a flowing river. He imagines different perspectives on time by contrasting a view from the riverbank with a view from a boat floating on the river. He suggests that while standing on the riverbank, the melting ice further upstream represents an aspect of the future from which the present derives. However, from within the boat moving with the flow of river water, the melting ice represents something from the past. Merleau-Ponty decides that these subjectivities indicate that time does not have succession that can be objectively defined. In this way his critique of succession shares some resonance with Henri Bergson’s writing in Time and Free Will (Bergson 1990). However, unlike Bergson, Merleau-Ponty seems more comfortable allowing a subjective spatialisation of time because this enables a discussion around the perception of what appears to be succession. The discussion emphasises a subjective handling of succession and begins with the suggestion that in the present we see the ‘…future sliding into the present and on into the past…’ (Merleau-Ponty 2002 p.483). He goes further into the argument against objectively thinking about time;

‘…Time as the immanent object of a consciousness is time brought down to one uniform level, in other words it is no longer time at all… …Constituted time, the series of possible relations in terms of before and after, is not time itself, but the ultimate recording of time, the result of its passage, which objective thinking always presupposes yet never manages to fasten on to.’
(Merleau-Ponty 2002 p. 481-482)

As he begins to outline his notion of subjectively perceived time, Merleau-Ponty refers to Husserl’s explanation that retentions of prior moments are present too, almost as if they are still accessible underneath the present moment. In Husserl’s diagram; a horizontal line represents the series of present moments where the past is on the left and the future is on the right. On this timeline, diagonal lines draw away from successive present moments representing moments seen from an ulterior perspective as shadows of moments. A vertical line represents a present moment within which shadows of other moments are layered. Merleau-Ponty explains that he does not simply ‘…pass through a series of instances of now…’ (Merleau-Ponty 2002 p.484), instead moments of the past change as new moments occur. Past moments are ‘…sinking away below the level of presents…’ (p.484), and they are being continually modified by this stratification. He explains that Husserl described the immediately past moment as if it were literally in his hand, which shows that Husserl used this diagrammatic expression of time to construct a comprehensive cross section of an instant with retentions in it’s past and protensions in it’s future. Merleau-Ponty considers that the layered protensions of a moment yet to come are positioned in the present adjacent to the retentions of a moment that has recently passed. In this way he argues that succession is evident and that Henri Bergson;

‘…was wrong in explaining the unity of time in terms of its continuity, since that amounts to confusing past, present and future on the excuse that we pass from one to the other by imperceptible transitions; in short, it amounts to denying time altogether.’
(Merleau-Ponty 2002 p.488)

Merleau-Ponty prefers to describe succession in the sense that every moment is the anticipation of the next moment in the same way as it supersedes the previous. In this way the subjective present is an aspect of the future and of the past. The past that is yet to come is in the future in the same way that the future of a moment that has just been is now in our past. This outlines what Merleau-Ponty calls an ‘…intuition of time’s permanence…’ that can be undone by objectifying time as he describes in the case of some scientific descriptions of time. He is saying here that an individual’s consciousness of time is subject to continual consciousness rather than a series of states of consciousness. The continual subjective experience of time is a rich and layered form that is characterised by the past and the future in the same way as the past or the future are by the presents, pasts and futures surrounding them.

This diagram described by Merleau-Ponty illustrates that there is a potentially endless depth to each moment, a depth that consists of strata of past and future, or presents gone and yet to come. In doing so the illustration shrugs off some of the earlier problems raised about the objectivity of a linear view of this problem. Merleau-Ponty draws back from the linearity of this diagram to look at the experience of being in the world and how this clashes with the objectivity of the world. There is a contrast between the different subjective views of individuals drawing on different subjectivities. He is saying that in awareness of these differences, individuals may objectify the world in an attempt to understand it and in doing so, prevent themselves comprehending another person’s subjective experiences, including those of time. This is the point at which Merleau-Ponty approaches the notion of freedom and it’s relationship to the subjectivity of being described in the final section of the book.

BERGSON, H. (1990). Time and free will: an essay on the immediate data of consciousness. Trans. Pogson, F. L., Montana, Kessinger Pub. Co.
MERLEAU-PONTY, M. (2002). Phenomenology of perception. London, Routledge.

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