Time in Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty

Your Mind in Time

In this article, I plan to explore how Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty attempted to understand time in their respective magnum opuses, Being and Time and Phenomenology of Perception. Both philosophers discuss time at the end of the above treatises, where it appears as the ultimate ground for the phenomenological/ontological issues they raise in earlier chapters. However, despite this formal similarity, and the significant similarities in their philosophical projects as a whole, I have come to see their interpretations of time as quite divergent. Exactly how they differ, and the relative success of each is what will concern us in what follows.

Phenomenology, Ontology, and Metaphysics

To properly understand Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty in relation to time, we will need to understand, and clarify the distinctions between, three disciplines; phenomenology, ontology, and metaphysics. (Note: not everybody defines these terms the way I do here, but I believe these definitions yield the most clarity)

Phenomenology, as a discipline, was founded by Edmund Husserl and is essentially concerned with the structures of conscious experience. It thus seeks to answer the question: how is it that things appear as objects before a conscious subject? This means that it investigates things like intentionality, memory, judgements, values (which help determine perceptual content), space and time (especially time), attention, etc. Husserl conceived of phenomenology as a science every bit as rigorous and objective as disciplines like mathematics, physics, and psychology, just one that took for its subject conscious experience. In order to understand pure conscious experience, then, it was vital for Husserl that we begin by ‘bracketing’ the natural world (the ‘external’ world of people, places, and things) and the conclusions drawn, or questions raised, concerning that world by other disciplines. Husserl called this ‘bracketing’ the phenomenological reduction, or epoche.[1]

Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty are both phenomenologists in that they adopted Husserl’s discipline as the method by which they would carry out their philosophical projects. However, neither used phenomenology the way Husserl had envisioned. Although both saw value in the emphasis Husserl placed on experience and the penetrating insights he made, neither of them adhered to the phenomenological reduction, an indispensable part of Husserlian phenomenology. Instead of ‘bracketing’ the natural world, both philosophers deliberately held it open, seeking to understand human experience, not from the pristine, uncontaminated purity of a transcendental consciousness, but from within the world. Heidegger called this “everydayness,” and maintained that it was the only way to understand human experience, explicitly rejecting the epoche at the beginning of B&T. In Ph.P, Merleau-Ponty tried to remain true to Husserl by insisting the epoche was necessary (he argued the reduction allowed us to clarify our relation to the world), but it is telling that even for him, the “most important lesson of the reduction is the impossibility of a complete reduction.” (Merleau-Ponty, 1945, p. lxxvii)

At any rate, there are two key aspects to phenomenology as I see it. The first is the focus on lived experience. This might sound quite elementary, but it turns out that many of our intuitions concerning our experiences are actually skewed by our overly scientific, intellectualised presuppositions. The second key feature of phenomenology is its descriptive nature. That is to say, instead of seeking to provide explanations regarding how conscious experience arises (in an apparently physical, non-conscious world, for example), it is content merely to describe those experiences.

Ontology is the study of being, but it often gets conflated with physics and even metaphysics. I think most people think of ontology as being concerned with what is, and since, in the scientific worldview, everything that exists is physical, ontology is just reality as described by physics. For those who think materialism is unable to account for reality, what is tends to take on mystical or mental characteristics. Ontology, then, typically refers to some ineffable, non-physical ‘substrate’ (‘Consciousness,’ ‘Becoming,’ ‘Being,’ ‘God,’ or some other equally vacuous term) somehow ‘beneath’ physical reality; i.e. metaphysical. In both cases, the word ‘ontology’ is redundant. If ontology (the study of being) is going to mean anything interesting, it can’t simply be a synonym for physics (the study of physical reality) or metaphysics (the study of the fundamental structure of reality). So, the question then, is, what is being?

Simply put, ‘being’ is that which allows a thing to be the thing that it is. What makes a book, a book? Our immediate reflex (as conditioned by science) is to think that the book is, like everything else, just a collection of particles that exist independently from everything else. Well, for sure, it is composed of matter, so that is going to be a part of the answer, but particles can’t be the whole story, no pun intended. A book also has features over and above its atomic composition; it must be graspable (of a certain size and shape for a human hand), readable (use words according to established grammatical and syntactical formats), have a certain structure (cover, contents, chapters, etc.), and so on.[2] It must also appear for a subject capable of seeing this collection of particles as a book. This entails physiological, mental, and even historical and social characteristics. A book wouldn’t be a book (in the full, meaningful sense of the word) in a species that lacked the necessary physical appendages to turn pages, for example, or that lacked a written language, or that simply didn’t have an established culture of reading and writing.

As you can see, being, properly considered, is neither physics nor metaphysics. Both fail to satisfactorily account for what makes a thing the thing that it is, but for opposite reasons; the former because it is too granular and reductive, the latter because it is too all-encompassing.

Finally, metaphysics. Metaphysics is, as I mentioned above, the study of the fundamental structure of reality. As I already alluded to, metaphysical thought often devolves into flaky, anti-science, mystical, supernatural, or religious fantasy. This is a constant danger with metaphysics because it literally goes beyond physics; i.e. beyond what we can formulate a testable hypothesis in relation to, but this doesn’t mean that all metaphysical thought must be devoid of rigor and clear-thinking, and/or constitute a descent into pure (and often fanciful) speculation.

But what exactly does it mean to say that metaphysics goes ‘beyond physics’? What we are looking for here is a theory or principle that grounds, or explains, matter, or that situates it in a broader, more complete context. At its heart then, metaphysics can be defined as the study of the whole, as opposed to the study of the parts. Science and phenomenology concern themselves with parts, and even ontology, dealing with how beings become beings in general, looks beyond the parts, at the same time it isn’t an attempt to ‘ground,’ or ‘explain,’ physics. Science breaks up into disciplines that study different aspects of the whole; physics deals with the movement and interactions of matter, chemistry with the structure of elements, psychology with the mind, sociology with the behaviour of groups of individuals, and so on. Phenomenology is concerned with conscious experience, and ontology investigates what exactly a being is, and how beings become beings. None of these disciplines investigate reality considered as a whole. They might claim that the whole is nothing more than the parts; the physicist, for example, might assert that the whole is just the sum of particles and there is nothing more going on, or the philosopher of ontology might claim that the whole just is a Source for beings, but these are metaphysical assertions, not scientific or ontological ones. These two mistakes in particular are fairly commonplace. Materialists reject metaphysics out of hand without realising that their materialism is their metaphysics, and readers of Heidegger invariably start to think of Being as a synonym for Everything, or even worse, God (although thankfully usually without the religious baggage). There is nothing wrong with making these claims, but it is important to realise that once you do, you have crossed into metaphysics; that is, talking about the whole, rather than the parts.

Heidegger and Temporality

Care

Heidegger’s project in Being and Time was broadly twofold; to explicate the being of human beings (whom I will follow him in calling ‘Dasein’; a word he adopted to avoid other terms already overloaded with semantic baggage, such as consciousness and subject) and to ground this in time (which I will follow him in calling ‘temporality’ to distinguish it from the “vulgar” conception of time as a succession of ‘nows’). So, let’s do a crash course in Heidegger. The being of Dasein turns out to be care, which can best be understood to mean ‘taking care’ of beings in the sense of cultivating an active engagement with things and people. Care is articulated across three aspects: existentiality, facticity, and falling prey. Existentiality covers the way we ‘project’ ourselves into our possibilities through our goals; facticity refers to our “always already” having been thrown into a world full of relevance and significance; and falling prey captures that aspect of our being in which we find ourselves entangled in a broader sociological or historical context, ‘taking care’ of objects present at hand.

The being of Dasein thus outlined, Heidegger goes on to pose the question, “what makes possible the wholeness of the articulated structural whole of care in the unity of its unfolded articulation?” (Heidegger, 1927, pp. 309-10) In Heidegger-speak, this is asking about the meaning of care, and the answer to this is articulated across three “ecstasies” that correlate to the three aspects we identified in care: being-toward, having-been, and making present. It won’t come as a surprise to anyone reading this that these three modes constitute temporality. Thus: “Temporality makes possible the unity of existence, facticity, and falling prey and thus constitutes primordially the wholeness of the structure of care.” (Heidegger, 1927, p. 313)

Temporality

Now, you might think that all Heidegger has done here is put some fancy-sounding names on concepts we are all familiar with. It is pretty clear, after all, that Heidegger’s three ‘ecstasies’ line up suspiciously closely to the three dimensions of time; future, past, and present. But, let’s take a closer look at what Heidegger is actually up to here.

Time, as science imagines it, is a fourth dimension over and above the three spatial dimensions. Oddly enough, the best way to imagine time in this sense is as a fourth spatial dimension; that is, as something that exists independently of human beings, and which we ‘move’ through, or are carried along by. The differences are that there are only two ‘directions’ in this ‘spatial’ time (‘forward’ into the future and ‘backward’ into the past), and we are only ever, and constantly, carried along in one direction; i.e. towards the future.

There are two core differences in Heidegger’s conception of time as primordial temporality. First, temporality is not something external to, or independent from, Dasein. Rather, it arises only as a consequence of the unique mode of being that characterises Dasein; i.e. care.[3] Although I don’t think Heidegger ever explicitly said this, it then follows that there is no temporality ‘outside’ of Dasein. There is no temporality in the natural world. This is a fundamentally different way of thinking about time. Most of us imagine time as a ‘river’ that affects everything in the universe, dragging all of its fixtures and fittings, including us, into the future (with certain allowances made for special relativity), but for Heidegger, temporality only arises for Dasein (and Dasein-like beings) because it is the structural framework of care. Another way to say this is that Dasein doesn’t exist in time (which would make time something separate from us), but exists as temporality; i.e. temporality is a fundamental structure of the being of Dasein.

The second difference also arises from the fact that temporality is a structural feature of the being of Dasein, and that is that temporality doesn’t ‘flow.’ Temporality is not a sequence of moments moving from a ‘future’ into a ‘present’ before sliding into a ‘past.’ Indeed, Heidegger explicitly states that the ecstasies of temporality all “co-occur,” and the hint is in the neologisms Heidegger coined. His ecstasies are all verbs. Instead of describing successive phases of a dimension that Dasein happens to inhabit and ‘move’ through, the different ecstasies are all connected to Dasein’s practical engagement with things in the world. Being-toward is not a ‘now’ that hasn’t yet become actual; it is a specific mode of being of Dasein (the only mode of being, in fact) in which possibilities can appear as possibilities, into which Dasein is then able to project itself. Similarly, having-been is not a ‘now’ that has been and gone; it is a mode of the being of Dasein in which events, instead of being abolished the moment they finish, linger and continue to influence Dasein. Finally, making-present is not an evanescent ‘now,’ an infinitely thin sliver in between twin behemoths, past and future, looming to either side; instead, it is that mode of being of Dasein in which Dasein actively engages with the objects and other ‘Daseins’ around it.

These ecstasies all amount to an orientation towards life that, amongst the living beings on Earth, Dasein is (probably) uniquely capable of adopting. A worm (almost certainly) doesn’t deliberately and consciously project itself into its possible ways of being, or feel regret over certain situations it is responsible for, or even actively and thoughtfully engage with objects around it. This amounts to saying that the being of a worm is non-temporal. Of course, events still happen to it, it still acts, but there is no temporal framework structuring those events and actions, bringing coherence to what is otherwise a meaningless sequence of ‘moments,’ each one locked up within itself, unforeseen in its approach, unnoticed in its fleeting presence, and immediately forgotten in its passing. Beings like Dasein, on the contrary, have a kind of ‘internal’ scaffolding that brings to our lives a depth and breadth that makes our lives completely different from that of a worm. This difference is temporality.

(Clearly temporality has more than a little to do with consciousness. However, Heidegger completely eschewed this term in his philosophy, (quite correctly) realising that it had been so badly butchered over the years that it had become almost useless. This is why I have side-stepped around the term myself here, and, in any case, it’s a can of worms (not that worm) that we don’t need to open to come to grips with Heidegger’s temporality.)

Your next question will be how is any of this possible? How does temporality emerge like this in one specific being; Dasein? Heidegger doesn’t give an answer to this question, but this isn’t a problem because the question is a metaphysical one (specifically: What is the whole like such that temporality can arise within it?), and Heidegger was only interested in supplying a phenomenological description of the ontological character of human beings. He is no more obligated to provide a metaphysical grounding for his account of temporality than a physicist is required to explain where time comes from before they use it in their theories.

Merleau-Ponty and Time

Like Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty rejects the notion that time is an independent, container-like ‘dimension’ through which we move. We don’t exist in time. He also agrees, therefore, that there is no time in the natural world because the temporal is intimately connected with subjectivity (although Merleau-Ponty is not as reticent as Heidegger to use words like ‘subject,’ ‘consciousness,’ and even ‘Cogito,’ the way he uses them makes them roughly equivalent, or close enough for our purposes at least, to Heidegger’s Dasein). However, the exact manner in which his time corresponds to subjectivity is quite different.

Subjectivity

As with Heidegger, we need to begin this section with a brief look at Merleau-Ponty’s account of subjectivity. There are two relevant facts that concern us here. First, the human subject, or ‘consciousness’ (these words are essentially interchangeable in Ph.P), is transcendent. Now, this has nothing to do with sitting in lotus position getting in touch with your Higher Self, or some pseudo-religious notion of a universal Consciousness our individual consciousnesses are somehow parts of. When Merleau-Ponty says consciousness is transcendent, what he means is that consciousness is “outside itself;” that it is, literally, in the world, not some private Cartesian theatre. (Although almost no one overtly subscribes to the Cartesian theatre anymore, almost everyone when they think about consciousness still unwittingly thinks in terms of it). Imagine the situation in which I look at a cup. The way we tend to understand this is that I, as a conscious subject, generate a mental representation of the physical cup based on the sensory data my body registers. After all, the cup ‘in my mind’ is clearly different from the cup ‘in the world,’ isn’t it? This means that there are actually two cups, one in the real world, and one in my mind. (If this isn’t the Cartesian theatre, I don’t know what is!) This division between the internal and the external, not only drives a wedge between us and the world that we will never satisfactorily overcome, it also turns consciousness into a mysterious phenomenon somehow superadded to the world that we have no hope of ever satisfactorily explaining. In a literal application of Occam’s razor, Merleau-Ponty overcomes the problems that plague this clumsy ‘two cups’ explanation by substituting it for one in which there is only one cup.

One way to come to grips with this, which will hopefully clarify the situation, while at the same time dispelling any lingering mystical notions of ‘expanding’ your consciousness to ‘merge’ with the cup (“Don’t shoot the arrow, be the arrow” – good advice for archery; terrible metaphysics), is to think of consciousness as a spotlight, just a beam of light, nothing substantial in and of itself. All it does is cause the objects that it shines on to be illuminated. The spotlight, to the extent that we can even talk of it like this, is literally outside itself, in the world, not because it has transcended the local beam of light it was locked in and has hopes of one day ‘dissolving’ into the Universal Spotlight itself, but because rather than being something in and of itself, it is that by which objects come to be illuminated. This is the inevitable conclusion you come to if you manage to purge yourself once and for all of Descartes’ unextended Mind. Subjectivity is out there, in the world, in the objects it perceives and imagines, because there is, quite literally, nowhere else for it to be. Seeing a cup doesn’t involve the creation of a new, non-physical cup; it simply ‘reveals’ one object (the cup) before another (the body that you are).

The second important element for us here occurs when Merleau-Ponty taps into his inner Bergson (all while doing his best to distance himself from his forebear) and describes subjectivity as a comprehensive project that is fundamentally a whole, but a whole that only ever appears before us as a multiplicity of acts, events, or psychical facts. It is vital to understand how these two aspects of subjectivity are related. In the first place, subjectivity is a comprehensive totality. Its meaning can only be uncovered by considering it as a whole. Starting with the parts; tendencies, beliefs, emotions, behaviours, etc., will never get you to the whole, because in a very real sense, the whole precedes, and is greater than, the parts. An analogy I like here is that of Microsoft’s Windows OS. If your only method for understanding a computer consisted of dissecting it, breaking it up into smaller and smaller pieces, analysing how those components interacted with each other, and so on, you would never, ever come to know anything about Windows; the operating system that turns all of those pieces into a functioning computer. To understand Windows requires an intuitive leap, made not by demolishing the computer into unrecognisable parts, but by considering the computer as a functional whole because Windows only manifests in the whole. Without this intuitive leap, you might be able to construct an elaborate and useful theory about the components of the computer, but you’ll never properly understand the computer itself. Subjectivity is exactly the same. We don’t run on software (and the hardware-software / brain-mind analogy is hopelessly inadequate), but consciousness is not a summation of component parts; it is a whole in which all of the elements reciprocally interpenetrate all of the others. My atheism is not separate from my other beliefs, attitudes, or behaviours. It is the atheism of a person with precisely the other beliefs, attitudes, and behaviours I have, and the same atheism in a different person would be completely different.

So, subjectivity is a whole, but we can never explicitly grasp it this way. This is because, as a whole, it always appears at the edge of my vision, like a nebulous horizon enfolding my life; it is, in fact, the very atmosphere my life is lived within. My subjectivity then, as the comprehensive project, as the whole it really is, is not something I can establish myself in relation to, precisely because I am that whole. I can’t know it because I am always living it. Nevertheless, I can try to make an explicit object out of my subjectivity. When I do so, however, I always find myself confronted with the second aspect mentioned above; a multiplicity of actions, events, and psychic states. This is just the nature of reflection. To make something explicit, to bring it before your mind as an object of thought is to analyse it into logically connected parts, and encase it in fixed, static concepts. The best way to think of this is to imagine an experience; a bungee jump, for example. You don’t know a bungee jump. You have to experience it. You can try to translate that experience into words or pictures to know it intellectually, but this will never amount to more than a mere shadow of the experience itself. What makes an experience an experience is precisely that which cannot be encapsulated in static media like concepts or words. The same applies with subjectivity. In order to know it, we have to distort it so much that the idea we end up setting before ourselves is only a pale reflection of what we originally set out to understand. In other words, consciousness or subjectivity as it is known traditionally in philosophy, and these days in neuroscience/psychology, is the attempt to make explicit (by demolishing into parts) what is fundamentally implicit (the whole).

Time

We can approach Merleau-Ponty’s attitude to time through the same themes we articulated above; transcendence, totality, and multiplicity. For Merleau-Ponty, time is fundamentally a whole, and must be understood as such before one breaks it up into ‘instants,’ or past, present, and future. Indeed, starting with the ‘pieces,’ with time demolished in this fashion, will never yield a proper understanding of it. We need to change the way we think about time; we need a method that sees time as it truly is, before the intellect has gone to work on it and distorted it beyond all recognition. Phenomenology is this method for Merleau-Ponty, and what it shows us is that time is a process in which the whole is prior to the assemblage of parts that we subsequently analyse it into. Think about time. Do you actually experience it as a never-ending succession of instants approaching from a dimly conceived future, blazing into life in the present, before receding into a past where it loses all of the vitality it just had? This might be how you think you experience it; i.e. through reflection, but as lived, time is nothing like this. In a human life, the past, present, and future are all thoroughly intertwined. You carry the whole of your past with you, in your body, your mannerisms, your habits, your thoughts; every facet of your being is drenched with your past experiences. Far from fading away into obscurity the second it leaves your presence, the past lingers, sometimes just out of sight, at other times filling your vision so you can’t see anything else, but never further away than a single moment’s recollection. Meanwhile, on the opposite side, you constantly lean into the future. Your present actions are never directed towards the present; on the contrary, not only do they only make sense in light of the future, but they are performed in the shadow of the future. Far from being a dimly perceived, neutral sequence of impending instants, the future is literally the meaning of my present. It is in this sense, that time appears as a whole, each moment gaining relevance and meaning only from the moments it is surrounded by.

But let us go further. Time, conceived as a whole, appears steeped in ambiguity for us. It’s there in everything we do, we talk about it, we feel its passing, we curse it if it passes too slowly or too quickly, we spend it, we save it, we run out of it, it is the perpetually present horizon that frames our lives. In other words, it has for us, in our everyday lives, the character of the implicit. What happens when we bring our gaze around to focus directly on it; when we make it explicit? It fragments into pieces; a never-ending stream of instants or two titanic domains separated by a dividing line with no width. These fragments are time made explicit, and they are the only way we can understand time as an object; that is to say, in a form graspable by the intellect.

If time is a whole that we can only apprehend explicitly as a collection of ‘instants,’ how can we best think about these instants? As we’ve seen, to reduce them to discrete, independent, and entirely self-contained ‘atoms’ of temporality fails to capture their essence as elements in a movement whose original truth is to be a whole. Instead, to the extent that we must think of time as composed of instants, we must think of them as transcendent. Each instant is actually “outside itself” in a whole that is more than the sum of its instants. For sure, instants G and H are never indiscernible, for then there would be no time at all. Instead, they pass into each other, adopting a slightly different ‘manner’ or ‘style’ of being. G becomes H because, as a future instant, G was never anything other than the anticipation of H. In this way, rather than a complete change of identity, instants just tweak their ‘style’ of being as they progress from the future into the past, altering the significance they present to the life within which they figure.

Subjectivity and Time

You may have noticed the deliberate parallels in my above summaries of subjectivity and time. Let’s quickly review them:

  1. Subjectivity, considered from the position of a single consciousness, is transcendent; outside itself, in the world of which it is a part / Time, considered from the position of a single instant, is transcendent; outside itself, in the whole of time of which it is a part.
  2. Subjectivity is fundamentally and originally a whole that is implicit in a lived human life / Time is fundamentally and originally a whole that is implicit in a lived human life.
  3. Subjectivity, grasped by the intellect and made explicit, devolves into a multiplicity of acts, events, and psychic facts / Time, grasped by the intellect and made explicit, devolves into a multiplicity of instants and/or dimensions (past, present, future).

These curious parallels between subjectivity and time suggest one thing for Merleau-Ponty – subjectivity is time. Now, you might balk at this (admittedly, radical) claim, but you would only do so if you had forgotten the new way of thinking about consciousness and time that I articulated above, and gone back to the old notions of consciousness as a Mind that generates mental representations in an internal ‘theatre,’ that is superadded onto a physical world, and so on, and time as an independent series of ‘instants’ racing by from the future to the past.

Analysis – Heidegger

What can we say about Heidegger’s temporality? Phenomenologically, it is, I think, quite sound. It is certainly true that temporality plays a structuring role in a human life, and there is nothing wrong with supposing that the more Dasein-like the life of an organism is, the more temporally articulated that life becomes. The flip side of this is that in the absence of any sufficiently Dasein-like organism, there would be no temporality. But I can see nothing wrong with this, either.

Where Heidegger did run into problems with his account of temporality is in the way he originally planned to extend it, from the being of Dasein to Being itself. You’ll recall that the being of Dasein, the mode of existence that makes Dasein what it is, was care, in the sense of ‘taking care of,’ or ‘using’ objects in the furtherance of Dasein’s projects. You’ll also recall that we defined Being itself as that which allows a thing to be the thing it is. This is obviously a broader concept than the being of Dasein because it will have to encompass Dasein itself; i.e. it will have to explain the role conscious beings play in the way that things are uncovered or revealed as the things they are.

Being and Time is actually comprised of the first two divisions of a project that Heidegger originally anticipated spanning three divisions. The first two divisions are: 1) a preparatory fundamental analysis of Dasein (concluding in ‘care’), and 2) the grounding of care in temporality. The third, and never written, division was to be called Time and Being, and would have been the “explication of time as the transcendental horizon of the question of being.” (Heidegger, 1927, p. 37) In other words, Heidegger wanted to turn from the being of Dasein to Being itself, which he expected to articulate with respect to time in some way.

After discussions with Karl Jaspers on the subject, however, Heidegger abandoned this third and final division. Why might this be? Well, temporality constitutes the meaning of the being of Dasein; it grounds it, we might say. Seemingly, then, there would be no problem in using temporality to also ground Being itself; i.e. that within which Dasein itself arises and ‘takes care of’ things in the world. The problem is that although temporality grounds the being of Dasein, it also arises out of, and within, the life of Dasein. This means that it cannot possibly play a role in establishing the broader context within which the life of Dasein emerges in the first place. And this is precisely what Being itself is.

So, what do we get from Heidegger on time post-B&T? To be fair, I haven’t read everything in the Gesamtausgabe (the collected works of Heidegger), but from what I have read, time comes in for some pretty obscure treatment. Of particular interest is a lecture Heidegger gave towards the end of his life, in 1962, tantalisingly entitled “Time and Being.” Needless to say, it didn’t amount to the missing third division because, as we’ve already established, it was impossible as originally envisioned. What it did do was issue vague statements about time opening up a dimensionality in which the “letting-presence” of Being could be effected, before revealing that both Being and time are actually determined by something else; “the event of Appropriation,” about which all we can apparently say is that “Appropriation appropriates.”

This, in my opinion, is a profoundly unhelpful anti-climax to a lifetime of thinking about Being and time. Why was Heidegger apparently reduced to pseudo-profound metaphor and vague euphemisms, particularly after such a promising start? You might answer that he had always had a fondness for poetry as a means of carrying us beyond the intellect to more ‘directly’ uncover the truth of Being, and this was him moving more in that direction. This seems an unlikely explanation. Heidegger’s works are many things, but no matter how much metaphor he injected into them, poetry they are not.

The reason I think Heidegger found himself unable to properly account for time (and ultimately Being itself) post-B&T was that he was approaching it with the wrong tools; tools that had proven incredibly apt at explicating the meaning of Dasein, but turned out to be inadequate when it came to Being itself and time, the latter of which he never stopped believing played a role beyond the one it has as the ground of care. Specifically, he never stopped doing ontology, when what he really needed to understand ‘time beyond care’ and ‘Being itself’ was metaphysics. In seeking to explain how beings appear as the beings they are, not just within a human life; i.e. as care, but including human lives, ontology is inadequate. This is because in order for beings to appear as beings there are certain prerequisites, such as a perspective, meaning, significance, sense, etc., and these things all require Dasein. In other words, beings can only appear as beings within a human life; or, to state it even more simply, ontology requires Dasein. We are now in a position to see that what Heidegger was calling Being itself (and time as the horizon of this Being) wasn’t actually ontology at all; rather, it was metaphysics. He was, in other words, trying to find an ontological answer to a metaphysical question.

Analysis – Merleau-Ponty

Let’s look at this a little more closely. Unlike Heidegger, who conceives of temporality as a structural feature that issues from the kind of being that has the being of Dasein, Merleau-Ponty is asserting that Dasein (to keep Heidegger’s term) is temporality. In other words, Merleau-Ponty is looking to explain Dasein, not just describe what makes Dasein the kind of being that it is. He is trying to situate Dasein in the whole, more like the way Heidegger sought to do with Being itself than the way he explicated the meaning of Dasein as care. This means that temporality is, in some way, a concrete, metaphysical structure of reality. This is not necessarily a problem (and again, I think there’s actually a deep truth here), but, coming as it does, without any metaphysical groundwork having been laid, it ends up looking quite flimsy. Merleau-Ponty’s description of time, while phenomenologically detailed and sophisticated, is at the same time marked by the complete absence of any metaphysical structure, leaving one wondering on what principles this bold assertion that subjectivity is temporality is meant to rest. Heidegger could get away without a metaphysical grounding of temporality in relation to care because it was a purely phenomenological account that never pretended to be anything else. Merleau-Ponty, on the other hand, made time metaphysical, but didn’t have a theory of metaphysics to back it up.

Merleau-Ponty’s revelation at the end of Ph.P that time is subjectivity struck quite a discordant note for me in relation to the rest of the book. This isn’t because I think it’s wrong; quite the contrary, I think it is an extremely profound insight. Rather, it’s because it is a metaphysical insight, and the entire book up until that point is an investigation into the human life as it is lived, in opposition to how it appears to reflective thought. In other words, it is a study in phenomenology.

As with Heidegger, I haven’t read everything Merleau-Ponty wrote, but from what I have read, time doesn’t feature much in his post-Ph.P philosophy. This strikes me as quite odd given that time is the denouement of his magnum opus. Why did he abandon time in his later philosophy? One possible answer is that, like Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty realised that time as he had conceived of it in Ph.P; i.e. so closely intertwined with (actually ‘identical’ to) subjectivity, just wasn’t able to be developed any further in line with his more metaphysical, although still principally ontological, post-Ph.P ambitions. If time is a fundamental metaphysical feature of reality, and time is subjectivity, then subjectivity is also a fundamental metaphysical feature of reality. It’s very difficult to see how one acknowledges this without ending up endorsing idealism; a philosophical position Merleau-Ponty never adopted.

Conclusion

Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty outlined similar theories of time in their respective magnum opuses. Both linked time to consciousness through piercing and insightful phenomenological analyses that illuminated the deeply intimate relationship a lived human life has with time (time as the meaning of human being in Heidegger, and as subjectivity itself in Merleau-Ponty), in direct contradistinction to the abstract, mathematical conception of time we get from physics. However, the price both paid for this intimate, subjective connection was an inability to expand and build upon their respective temporal theories as their philosophical ambitions moved beyond the purely phenomenological.

The lesson this teaches us about time is that it has both a phenomenological/ontological and a metaphysical aspect. It absolutely must feature in some essential way as part of the lived experience of a conscious being, only arising (that is to say, only having meaning) within the life of such a being. There is no time in the world of inert matter. However, if time can arise for a being that naturally evolves within the whole, we must seek an explanation for this in the whole. Of course, it won’t do to simply drop time into the universe as some kind of fundamental substrate. Rather, the question we must ask ourselves is, “What must the universe be like such that time as a structural phenomenon can arise within it?” If done properly, this will not only tell us something interesting about the metaphysical foundations of reality, but also ground the phenomenological experience of time.


[1] Husserl actually recommended a series of reductions; plural.

[2] Of course, not all books have all of these characteristics, but every book, to be a book, must share a family resemblance with other books that will entail it meet at least some of these criteria.

[3] In fact, there is nothing restricting ‘care’ to human beings alone. It almost certainly doesn’t apply to most of our animal cousins on Earth, although the usual exceptions may make the cut (the great apes, dolphins, etc.), but it could very well apply to other conscious beings in the universe, assuming there are any.

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