Time in Continental Philosophy

Time in Continental Philosophy
Time in Continental Philosophy

The attempt to conceive time, time’s relation to human experience, and the makeup of the universe is perhaps the central problem of twentieth-century Continental philosophy. Time emerged as a central problem in late nineteenth century German philosophy where temporality became increasingly identified with consciousness and mind.

Franz Brentano’s work provided an impetus for Edmund Husserl’s analyses of internal time-consciousness, and Wilhelm Dilthey and Husserl were both influential for Martin Heidegger’s fundamental ontology. In France, before these phenomenological approaches had been worked out, Henri Bergson reconceived time in a way that anticipated them and profoundly influenced later French thought.

In general, Bergson calls on metaphysics (that is, Platonism and its latest version in Kant) to embrace the reality of movement, change, becoming, and time. The originality of this thinking consists in differentiating between abstract representations of time and the immediate givenness of pure duration in consciousness.

Time and Free Will
Time and Free Will

In Time and Free Will (1910), he distinguishes duration from time understood as a homogeneous medium in which moments are represented as juxtaposed to one another like points on a line. His concern is that this representation of time confuses duration with spatial extension, generating metaphysical problems involving motion and free will.

In duration, Bergson says, moments are not mutually external but interpenetrating (multiplicity); states of consciousness are not separate and distinct but combined and continuous (unity); and actions are not the realization of preexisting possibilities but the fruit of the self ’s organic evolution through time. Later in the century, Gilles Deleuze will appropriate the Bergsonian concept of heterogeneous and yet continuous multiplicity in his own considerations of time.

In Matter and Memory (1991), Bergson’s greatest book, he defines duration as the unconscious conservation of memories, which progressively insert themselves into hesitations in the stimulus–response circuits of living bodies.

Creative Evolution
Creative Evolution

Bergson thus conceives the past as surviving independent of perceived or recollected images, that is, independent of presence. The connection of duration to the past and to anticipated actions transforms duration into the vital impetus (élan vital), which Bergson presents in Creative Evolution (1998).

Here he offers an alternative to views of evolution that reduce time to the mechanical realization of preexisting possibilities. Such views treat life as a closed system in which “all is given”. The notion that all possibilities are already given renders time meaningless.

After psychology and evolutionary biology, Bergson brings his conception of time to bear on physics. In Duration and Simultaneity (1999), he aims to show how duration can resolve the paradoxes surrounding Einstein’s special theory of relativity.

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performing the calculations

The concepts of simultaneity and succession presuppose a consciousness in which events are contemporaneous or follow one another. Bergson argues that physicists are incorrect to conclude that a plurality of times exists.

Different times assigned to different systems of reference are indeed measurable, but they have no duration other than that of the physicist performing the calculations and therefore no reality. Not surprisingly, Bergson’s views have been the center of controversy, and they remain indicative of profound differences between philosophical and scientific ways of conceiving time.

Like Bergson, Husserl originally devoted his attention to describing time as it is given to consciousness, investigating how things and events are represented as continuing over time.

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Concerning the Phenomenology of Internal Time Consciousness

How, for instance, is a melody given as a unified object even though its beginning runs off into the past before its end arrives? Husserl’s response to this question can be found in his lectures Concerning the Phenomenology of Internal Time Consciousness (1905).

During the period of these lectures, Husserl was developing his phenomenological method of reduction. The objective time of things or events in the world must be suspended or reduced, that is, made relative to consciousness, which, for Husserl, is defined by intentionality.

Intentionality turns out to be fundamentally time-consciousness. The appearance of temporal objects (i.e., things identical over time) is analyzed into the contents and the acts of consciousness (the subjective correlates of the contents).

acts of presentation
acts of presentation

Husserl adopts Brentano’s idea that an objective unity in time requires acts of presentation that join its preceding phases with its current phase, for example, the notes of a melody that are sinking away into the past with the note that is heard now. Past notes must be not only retained but also modified so that they are connected to those that follow without being jumbled together.

However, Husserl rejects Brentano’s claim that the contents of perception, which represents only what is given in the present, are supplemented by imagination, which reproduces those contents with the stamp of having passed. He contends that the consciousness of a note as having just passed is essentially different from recollection or memory, which would rely on an image.

In other words, Husserl distinguishes between retention, an impressional consciousness that holds on to what was given in perception as it sinks away into the past, and secondary memory, a representational consciousness that makes present again what had already run off into the past.

temporal object
temporal object

He argues that perception of a temporal object, whether enduring unchanged or changing successively, implies different modes of apprehension of the same contents, and retention accounts for the interplay of sameness and difference.

Later, Jacques Derrida will argue that this interplay of sameness and difference blurs Husserl’s essential distinction between retention and representation (see below). For Husserl, however, the interplay of sameness and difference also occurs in relation to the future.

Like retention, protention, the anticipation of what is immediately to come, is a form of impressional (or nonrepresentational) consciousness. Retention and protention constitute the temporal horizon of what is no longer present and what is not yet present for any primal impression.

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These modes of impressional consciousness constitute the temporality of immanent temporal objects. Consciousness of these objects is oriented by a now-point,but Husserl maintains that this point is an ideal limit and that the phases of time-consciousness comprise a living present.

What Husserl calls the living present implies another and more fundamental level of consciousness: the absolute flow of time-constituting consciousness. With regard to a unity constituted in time, we are aware of the threefold temporal intentional dimensions of the object in retention, primal impression, and protention.

There is not only the unity of an object through its appearances across time as one and the same object—vertical intentionality—but also the unity of consciousness across the differences in objects that appear for consciousness—transverse intentionality.

phenomenological analysis

According to Husserl, the ultimate constituting flow, in which these unities are constituted at once in a double-intentionality, is not itself constituted in time. For this reason, it is difficult to speak of the ultimate ground of temporality as either in time or outside of it, and Husserl refers to it as quasi-temporal.

Heidegger’s standard criticism is that Husserl, despite the radicality of his descriptions of time-consciousness, never posed the question of the being of consciousness. Therefore, in Being and Time (1962), Heidegger reopens “the question about the meaning of being”, which has been forgotten since the time of Plato and Aristotle, and approaches time as “the horizon for the understanding of being”.

To gain access to this horizon, following Husserl, Heidegger engages in a phenomenological analysis of the modes of temporality underlying existence (Dasein, a term that indicates not only human existence but also being itself).

past and the future
past and the future

He shows in the first division of Being and Time that Dasein consists in a structure of care, which intertwines being ahead of itself, being already in the world, and being alongside things. Although anticipated by others, Heidegger’s innovation is to show how the past and the future, not the present, define time.

Heidegger begins the second division of Being and Time with an analysis of death and finitude and attempts to show how temporality is the ontological meaning of care. Because death is my death, it makes me break free of inauthentic (group) existence where I do not take responsibility for my possibilities of existence.

In contrast, authentic being-toward-death is a mode of existence called anticipatory resoluteness in which I freely take up my possibilities, opening the horizon of authentic temporality. By repeating the existential analysis, Heidegger grounds Dasein’s ontological structure in temporality. He shows how the originary unity of the structure of care is grounded in the temporal ecstases of the future, having-been, and the present.


He then distinguishes between the authentic and inauthentic modes of these ecstases, contrasting the everyday phenomena of awaiting, making-present, and forgetfulness, with the authentic modes of anticipation, the moment (Augenblick), and repetition.

He also gives a temporal interpretation of structures introduced in the first division—understanding, affectedness (Befindlichkeit), falling, and discourse—explicating the temporal conditions for the disclosedness of Dasein as being-in-the-world. The temporal interpretation opens the way for a consideration of Dasein’s historical character.

By means of determining the existential foundation of historical research and historical truth—appropriating Dilthey’s idea of hermeneutics—Heidegger shows that our reckoning of historical or natural events that occur in time is derived from primordial temporality.

measuring time
measuring time

This derivative character of something being in time leads him to account for phenomena of intratemporality through the temporal structures of Dasein’s concern with the world, always directed toward a for-the-sake-of-which, that makes measuring time possible. The ordinary understanding of time as an infinite, irreversible sequence of nows originates, Heidegger says, from the ecstatic-horizonal unity of temporality.

Heidegger continues the project of Being and Time in subsequent lecture courses, including The Basic Problems of Phenomenology, which includes a deconstruction of Aristotle’s theory of time and an account of how time as it is ordinarily understood presupposes originary temporality.

While in Being and Time he focuses on the ecstatic character of temporality, the basis of Dasein’s existence as a thrown projection, in Basic Problems, he turns his attention to its horizonal schema, or the enclosure of the ecstatic opening.

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Heidegger focuses especially on the present and its horizon, which he calls praesens, to show that Kant understands being on the basis of presence. (A deconstruction of Kant’s ontology appears in Heidegger’s second book, Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics [1929].)

For Heidegger, since the ancient Greeks, being has been defined as ousia, which he interprets as constant presence. Consequently, the relation between being and time has traditionally been understood on the basis of one ecstasis: the present. For Heidegger, a temporal ontology is the necessary corrective for this privilege of the present.

In the early 1930s, Heidegger appeals to a notion of the event (Ereignis) as a new way to conceive how being comes into presence without recourse to the self-projection of Dasein. In this period, Heidegger begins thinking of time in terms of the play of space–time (Zeitraum).

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On Time and Being

Much later, he reformulates his approach to temporality in the lecture On Time and Being (2002) in which he considers time as the unity of three dimensions of givenness, whose interplay constitutes yet a fourth dimension, which he calls nearness.

Although Heidegger’s thought turns away from Dasein, from the human being, toward Ereignis, the event of appropriation, the inner co-belonging of being and time, remains a fundamental question for him. Indeed, the event of appropriation, for Heidegger, is the event of thinking, which is a kind of memory.

Both Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty carry Heidegger’s project of a phenomenological ontology forward, making temporality integral to their major works. Sartre’s Being and Nothingness (1993) revolves around the fundamental ontological difference between being-for-itself (Sartre speaks of both consciousness and Dasein) and being-in-itself (brute objects).

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accounts of subjectivity

For Sartre, all other accounts of subjectivity (for instance, that of Bergson) have confused the for-itself with the in-itself. Human beings have no determining essence; they are nothing and therefore they are radically free.

Temporality comes into play in this dialectic of being and nothingness because freedom is future oriented. Beginning with the concrete phenomena of my particular past, present, and future, Sartre works toward an account of their general form and their unity.

He argues that temporality is a structure of being-for-itself that implies separation and synthesis, multiplicity and unity, of the different temporal phases. He dubs this “profound cohesion and dispersion” of temporality a diasporatic mode of being-for-itself.


Nevertheless, for Merleau-Ponty, Sartre’s idea of a radical voluntarism requires the emphasis of dispersion and separation over cohesion and synthesis. So, in the Phenomenology of Perception (1962), Merleau-Ponty develops a phenomenological ontology of time without recourse to Sartre’s categories of being-for-itself and being-in-itself.

Merleau-Ponty rejects both the early Bergsonian characterization of time as immediately given to consciousness and the Husserlian view that consciousness constitutes time. In order to show how time originates in a synthesis without ever being completely deployed, he directs attention to the “field of presence as the primary experience in which time and its dimensions make their appearance”.

In the primordial field of presence, he says, time is a single thrust, a “bursting forth or dehiscence,” and, in Heidegger’s words, an ekstase. For Merleau-Ponty, time has a sense, which gives it an abiding character (without sense ever being eternal like a Platonic idea).

Adventures of the Dialectic
Adventures of the Dialectic

Merleau-Ponty’s concept of sense negotiates the transition from passivity to spontaneity. In opposition to Sartre, therefore, Merleau-Ponty maintains that temporality does not confirm absolute freedom (pure spontaneity) but only the possibilities of commitment and refusal afforded by the historical and corporeal situation.

Later, in a sometime bitter debate with Sartre, Merleau-Ponty argues in Adventures of the Dialectic (1973) that politics and temporal ontology are interwoven in a way that Sartre misses.

He worries that Sartre’s early ontology implies that a choice takes place in the instant by fiat, or else it has always already taken place. For Merleau-Ponty, choices, and especially political choices, must repeat a sense given in the past and open a sense continuing into the future.


Despite the dominance of Sartre and Merleau-Ponty’s existentialism, Emmanuel Levinas’s thought eventually comes to be recognized as providing an important approach to time. Against Bergson’s duration, Levinas stresses the instant, an event that comes from the future and is always other than what I have experienced.

In Time and the Other (1987), he describes this alterity with regard to death, also challenging Heidegger’s existential analysis. For Levinas, death is defined not by nothingness but by mystery since it cannot be grasped.

Whereas Heidegger allows for a mastery of death and the future in anticipation, Levinas thinks that they are absolutely other. Unlike Heidegger’s Augenblick, the instant disrupts the solitude and virility of the subject for Levinas, so that time is a relationship with the radically other.

Totality and Infinity
Totality and Infinity

In this way, Levinas’s discourse of the other moves from ontology to ethics, and in later works, especially Totality and Infinity (1969), he continues to consider the ethical significance of time. Like Levinas, Derrida is inspired by the phenomenological approach to time.

In Speech and Phenomena (1973), Derrida deconstructs Husserl’s phenomenology of language in the Logical Investigations (1901) by means of Husserl’s own descriptions of internal time-consciousness. What is at issue is the momentary (and therefore temporal) self-understanding of meaning in an internal dialogue.

According to Derrida, with the distinction between expression and indication, Husserl maintains that in an internal dialogue, I understand the meaning of my own expression in the very moment when I speak; there is no mediation of the linguistic phoneme, and no difference between me as speaker and me as hearer, only immediate presence to myself.


Yet, in his early lectures on time-consciousness, Husserl speaks of retention being a nonperception. If it is nonperception (without which there could be no living present), retention could not be a pure presence and would have to involve some sort of absence, difference, and mediation. Retention is thus, as Derrida says, a trace.

This is not a return Brentano’s view that imagination lends the experience of time to perception. Rather, Derrida means that the genetic source of the difference between imagination and perception lies in the difference between retentional trace (repetition in the most general sense) and primal impression.

The trace implies a kind of spatial distance within my internal dialogue, as if I were speaking not to the one who is closest to me (myself) but to someone else, someone past, someone distant, someone other.

value of presence
value of presence

Derrida elaborates on the relationship between time and language in “Ousia and Gramme” (1982), challenging Heidegger’s distinction between primordial and derivative temporality and showing how Heidegger’s own thought remains oriented by the value of presence.

Finally, Deleuze offers a variety of approaches to time, also influenced by Husserl and Heidegger but especially by Bergson. In Bergsonism (1991), he focuses especially on Bergson’s concept of duration, defining it as a qualitative multiplicity in which there is continuity and heterogeneity. For Deleuze, continuity does not eliminate difference but, rather, makes it be internal (in contrast to Levinas’s and Derrida’s emphasis on exteriority).

Deleuze pushes Bergson’s thought further in Difference and Repetition (1994), where he discusses three syntheses of time: habit,memory, and the empty form of time.Here he provides his account of the living present, the past in general, and the future as absolutely new (with regard to Friedrich Nietzsche’s eternal return).

The Logic of Sense
The Logic of Sense

In The Logic of Sense (1990), Deleuze opposes thinking of time in terms of the present through the distinction between Chronos and Aion. While Chronos signifies the time of a present that comprehends or mixes together the past and the future, Aion divides the present into the past and the future.

As an instant without thickness, dividing time in two directions at once, Aion signifies a continuous and heterogeneous multiplicity. Deleuze identifies Aion with the pure, empty form of time that has “unwound its own circle, stretching itself out in a straight line”.

Later, Deleuze offers commentaries on Bergsonian duration in Cinema 1: The Movement-Image (1983) and Cinema 2: The Time-Image (1985), and he describes how modern directors achieve a direct presentation of time.

privilege of presence
privilege of presence

In twentieth century Continental philosophy, there have been several major shifts. Bergson challenges thinking of time in terms of space, Husserl describes the quasi-temporal origin of time, and Heidegger calls into question the privilege of presence.

Subsequently, Sartre and Merleau-Ponty recognize the need to come to terms with the relation between temporality and sense. The nonpresence of the instant and the trace orient Levinas’s and Derrida’s thinking, and Deleuze also displaces the time of the present.

On the horizon of these philosophies of difference emerging in the 1960s, we find in Michel Foucault and others a renewed concern with place that rivals an alleged temporocentrism of mainstream Continental philosophy, and it remains to be seen whether time will continue to be a central problem.

Michel Foucault
Michel Foucault

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