Now Upstream of Time (Part 2)
26 June 2021
Femme à l'Éventail, Jean Metzinger, 1912; Image Credit : Wikimedia Commons
Doesn't making the entire history of the world, or even of time itself, the correlate of the transcendental ego amount to making the latter a kind of extra-temporal thing after having made it an extra-worldly thing? If this were so, phenomenology would unwillingly lead to the most disheveled of speculative theses: the thesis of an extra-natural and extra-temporal being. It is therefore necessary to dig deeper than consciousness, deeper than the ego; it is necessary to reiterate the levelling of the epoché, to pierce the ground of transcendental reduction towards ever and ever lower strata. It can only be accomplished upstream of time, that is to say, now; now in which all determination is in gestation, including that of our humanity, including that of our embodiment, including that of our situation in history, including the identification of our presentiments as memories or as reactivations of traces, and including our understanding of the past as past.
What has just been stated is, however, understandable only on one condition. A condition that goes almost without saying, a condition that has been suggested several times by terms such as "experience" or "awareness", but a condition that is best made explicit if we do not want to perpetuate misunderstandings. What has just been stated about "now" is only apparently akin to metaphysical discourse; it is in fact the verbal shadow of a pre-verbal effort towards the eternal recommencement that phenomenology strives for. There is nothing speculative about what has just been said about "now", but rather a stubborn attempt to get back in touch with the non-speculative source of metaphysical discourse. The thought that thinks about thinkable things is metaphysics, the thought that resonates with the thinking is phenomenology.
Rather than asserting that now, the authentic now, is not, I could therefore have simply pointed out that the meaning of the word "now" is not part of what can be experienced but is the experience itself in its fulfilment. Or I could have stated that what the word "now" signifies is not any object of experience but experience itself as a precondition for the objects that are its intentional correlates. It is confirmed that only the lack of an object meant by words like "now" or "present" can, paradoxically, manifest their meaning. And if this is so, it is because this lack excludes any escape to a designated elsewhere, it is because this lack redeposits us willy-nilly in the experience being lived. This lack redeposits us in what shows itself without being able to be shown.
You recognize these expressions, which are those of all transcendental philosophy. Their metaphorical illustration is Wittgenstein’s eye, that is invisible in its own field of vision. The problem is that the preceding expressions lack precision and discriminating power. "Experience", "eye", "now"; all that is missing is 'I' and "consciousness" to keep the perplexity going. What is the right name for the transcendental field among all these? To get an idea, it is wise to follow Husserl's research step by step. For Husserl made it one of his tasks to name the transcendental field correctly, as he avoided one after the other the psychologistic pitfalls of his reflexive reversal.
Husserl began by using the words mind and subjectivity, stripping them of their ultimate naturalizing connotations. "Pure consciousness", that is, not the particular consciousness of someone, but consciousness as that in relation to which the someone(s) and the something(s) are posited and ground their claim to exist. Transcendental "I" or transcendental "ego", i.e. not the particular ego of an empirical human being, but the center of perspective from which all beings, including human beings and personal self, are viewed.
Not to understand this passage to the limit, this radical, though perpetually unfinished, setting aside of the transcendental field with respect to all empirical residue, is to expose oneself to many misunderstandings of the phenomenological approach. And it is to run the risk of holding it to be incoherent, whereas it is rooted below logic, in the soil of a lived life where nothing is missing, not even the possibility of constituting a logic and its norms of coherence. Whenever there is a risk of confusion between the transcendental and its empirical verbal equivalent, one should not conclude that phenomenology as such is confused. It should simply be noted that the steps taken by the phenomenologist towards the living source of his discipline are unfinished; that his epochè has stopped too early, and that it has left a layer of phenomenological reduction still superficial.
Let us consider in this spirit a situation that Husserl imagined in his book The Earth Does Not Move in order to test his thesis of pure constitutive consciousness. What happens to constituted nature if a future catastrophe puts an end to all conscious life on Earth, and what about constituted nature when conscious life had not yet appeared on Earth? Should we, on the pretext that consciousnesses were not in operation at these future or past times, deny nature the existence that is their constitutive correlate? From a consequent phenomenological point of view, to affirm this is clearly to confuse the transcendental field of pure consciousness with the empirical consciousnesses of human persons. The absence or abolition of the empirical consciousnesses of living beings is still a fact of the nature constituted by the constitutive pure consciousness; it is an intentional correlate for the transcendental ego. Nature thus remains, including in its pre-human past and post-human future, not certainly for the empirical subjects who are absent from it, but as a correlate of an intentional act of the transcendental subject.
the idea of ancestrality, the thought of a primordial or aged universe devoid of empirical human subjects, fails to reduce correlationism to the absurd. For phenomenological correlation does not bind, in time, real objects to empirical human subjects contemporary with them; it binds, upstream of time, the present act of constitution to an always-now constituted spatio-temporal natural domain.
To be satisfied with this purely conceptual corrective, this simple imputation of categorical confusion between the empirical and the transcendental, however leaves us with a feeling of incompleteness. What is this pure consciousness or transcendental ego? What relationship do they have with the empirical world and its history? Doesn't evoking a non-worldly consciousness tacitly adhere to a form of substance dualism? Doesn't making the entire history of the world, or even of time itself, the correlate of the transcendental ego amount to making the latter a kind of extra-temporal thing after having made it an extra-worldly thing?
If this were so, phenomenology would unwillingly lead to the most disheveled of speculative theses: the thesis of an extra-natural and extra-temporal being. If this were so, phenomenology would lead to the affirmation of a form of transcendence under the guise of an approach to the transcendental. However, this cannot be the case, otherwise the neutral and critical posture of phenomenology would be self-negating. When a consequential phenomenology departs from empirically manifested nature, it cannot be in the upward direction of a metempirical entity or a super-natural principle, not even the God sketched and then withdrawn by Husserl in paragraph 51 of Ideen I. It must be, in contrast, in the downward direction of the increasingly elementary preconditions of the constitution of a nature; it must be through what one is inclined to call the sub-natural backing of any work of naturalization.
It is therefore necessary to dig deeper than consciousness, deeper than the ego; it is necessary to reiterate the levelling of the epoché, to pierce the ground of transcendental reduction towards ever and ever lower strata. Jan Patočka has rightly recommended this gesture, thereby moving from a still subjective phenomenology to an a-subjective phenomenology. But Husserl had marked out this path before him. Starting from the transcendental ego, from the constitutive subjectivity, his downward spiral from suspension of judgement to suspension of judgement finally (1) led him to the living present. A non-punctual present, non-assimilable to the natural moment, in which not only a nature is constituted, but also the ego as presentification of a past that it identifies as its own; and not only this particular ego, but every ego as empathic presentification of the perspective of another, in other words as an alter-ego.
The transcendental solipsism of the early chapters of the Cartesian Meditations is thus undermined at its base by a pre-subjective field of presence. And the driving force behind the search for this increasingly subterranean basis is the desire not to lose one's way on the path towards the evidence of an experienced absolute. In the 1913 Guiding Ideas for a Phenomenology, Husserl had characterized "the totality of absolute being" (2) as pure consciousness, since the unsurpassable evidence of conscious being is opposed to the simple claim to being of its intentional objects. But as the excavation of experience by epochè deepens, as its reductive strata are uncovered, the absolute is given other names, less and less psychologizing. (3) The absolute itself, Husserl later writes, "is that original universal present; in it resides all time and all the world". (4) And, further on, "Time and the world are temporalized in the absolute, which is a flowing now" (5) It is now that holds the posture of the absolute; a now that is fluid but pre-temporal, because it is the ground of all constitution of the times that are ordered in it. Thus, with regard to now, "the past is precisely what is past and is only as past of the present", (6)
The pre-temporal now is also pre-subjective, and it is therefore the ground of any constitution of the subject that is self-revealing in it: "I am as a flowing present, but my being-for-me is itself constituted in this flowing present". (7) "I", the ultimate origin of all seeing and conceiving, is originally anonymous, non-personal; "I" is then nothing other than the very opening of the flowing present. Then, in this present that I am, the being-for-me that I know to be is constituted; in this present that I am, the historically and spatially limited person that I identify as myself crystallizes.
But what do we mean when we say that the original present is "flowing", or that the original present "temporalizes"? Certainly not that it is likely to disappear with the passage of time, nor that a flux takes it away and makes it past; that would be to repeat the aporias of the instant in which metaphysics has been struggling since Aristotle. A present that disappears, a present that flips into the past, is not the original present, but a worldly present; a present that can pass is only a brief interval of the time of the constituted nature, measured by natural or artificial clocks. In contrast to a worldly present, the originary present neither appears nor disappears; it is in it that appearance and disappearance take place; it is in it that protention towards what will appear and retention of what has disappeared are articulated. The original present is felt as flowing because it is followed by a wake that is recognized as the barely disappeared, and also because in it a dizzying lack is created that demands to be filled by a yet unseen appearance. The impossibility for the word "now" to designate a moment in time, the void that this impossibility creates, is decidedly far from marking a deficiency in the signifying power of this word. On the contrary, this impossibility is the best guarantee that the word "now" brings us into intimate and experienced contact with what the speakers who use it mean. The felt lack that the word "now" elicits is in fact the faithful echo of the existential lack that the temporalization of the original present feeds on.
This being the case, we can return to the question posed by Husserl in La Terre ne se meut pas. And at the same time confront Quentin Meillassoux's argument of ancestrality. What will happen to the constitution of a nature when the human empirical support of the constituent consciousnesses has been wiped off the face of the Earth by some nuclear, ecological, geological or cosmic catastrophe? What was nature before the human empirical support of constituent consciousnesses appeared? The quick way to answer, as we have seen, is to consider that nature, in its pre-human past and post-human future, remains relative to transcendental consciousness, not relative to such empirical consciousnesses as are attributed to empirical human beings. What has evolved in this answer is that at the end of our phenomenological journey, we are no longer unclear about the status of transcendental consciousness or ego. On examination, the term "transcendental ego" does not refer to some extra-natural and extra-temporal entity, but to the proto-natural and proto-temporal field in which both nature and the time that marks its epochs are constituted, both the other and myself, both the history of the world and the history of the self. This proto-natural and proto-temporal field is none other than now, with its traces fading away, with its opening that is anticipating because it is desiring, and with its power to link both (traces and opening) into a stable objectified constellation. Unlike human beings, the now has never appeared in any past epoch of natural history, and it has no vocation to disappear in any future epoch of natural history.
This is precisely what Husserl writes about the transcendental "I", before identifying it with the living present: "The transcendental life and the transcendental I cannot be born, only a human being in the world can be born". (8) But if the transcendental I cannot be born, unlike an empirical human being within the world, it is not because it is outside the world and the time of births. It is because it constitutively precedes the world and time; it is because it is the non-being on which the constitution of the world and time that are is based. It is, in short, because it is now, always-now again. “I am now," writes Husserl, "and to this now belongs a horizon of the past that can be unrolled infinitely. (9) To this now belongs a horizon of the past without any temporal limit; a horizon that includes in particular the fraction of the past in which the empirical existence of the human being was not proven. In this now there is also a future horizon without any temporal limit; a horizon that includes in particular the fraction of the future in which the empirical existence of the human being is no longer assured. Constituted nature may be relative to a constituent consciousness, but it has no reason to emerge from nothingness at the time of the empirical appearance of conscious human beings, nor to sink into nothingness at the time of their empirical disappearance; for this constituent consciousness is now, and I dare say eternally now. I dare to say this with Husserl himself, who continues, "And, precisely, this means: I was eternally". "I", as the transcendental I, is, was and will be eternally, unlike the empirical I which has a beginning and an end. But this eternity of the transcendental I has nothing of a sempiternity, nothing of a temporal persistence; it is the exact opposite. The transcendental I is indeed eternal only because it is now co-extensive with all the instants of the nature that is constituted in it. The infinite and all-encompassing God is here replaced by an infinitesimal but all-underpinning I. The arch of divine eternity is replaced by the flash of present eternity. An unlimited transcendental sphere is replaced by an elusive transcendental center.
As David Mermin, one of the main advocates of QBism, admits, "the problem of now will not be solved by rejecting the now as an 'illusion', or as a 'chauvinism of the present moment'. It is immediately resolved if we identify the error that has led us to conclude, against all our lived experience, that there is no place for now in our physical description of the world.”
If confirmation were needed, it could come from another culture; a culture that has been able to maintain its ability to make us take a step aside, in the sense of François Jullien, (10) while having assimilated the entire past of Western philosophy. This is Japanese culture, whose effort to integrate itself into the world history of thought is formidably represented by the founder of the Kyoto School, Nishida Kitaro. According to Nishida, "(The self) is the singular center of an absolute present that includes in itself the eternal past and future. That is why I call the self an instantaneous self-determination of the absolute present. (11)
As a result, the idea of ancestrality, the thought of a primordial or aged universe devoid of empirical human subjects, fails to reduce correlationism to the absurd. For phenomenological correlation does not bind, in time, real objects to empirical human subjects contemporary with them; it binds, upstream of time, the present act of constitution to an always-now constituted spatio-temporal natural domain. Husserl stated something of this order, albeit in an as yet undecided manner: "A world without subjects to actually experience it (...) is only thinkable as the past of a world with such subjects"; for only present subjects are able of "regressively constituting" (12) a past prior to them. What bothers me about this formulation, however, is that it seems to entrust the constitution of a world to the semi-empirical subjects who happen to live in our time, contingently, on this planet. In order to go all the way to the end of the act of freeing the constitution from empirical or semi-empirical subjects, it would have been necessary to go back even further, to a still anonymous gesture of constitution of the subjects themselves and of their imputation of inclusion in the world. But this ultimate constitution cannot be accomplished at any moment of time, even the one in which we, human subjects, are conscious of living. It can only be accomplished upstream of time, that is to say, now; now in which all determination is in gestation, including that of our humanity, including that of our embodiment, including that of our situation in history, including the identification of our presentiments as memories or as reactivations of traces, and including our understanding of the past as past.
However, Meillassoux's objection to correlationism is not limited to the ancestrality argument. It is more general than that. It consists in reproaching correlationism for its alleged tendency to devalue modern natural science. Meillassoux considers that the scientific researcher must be allowed to make statements that are literally true. He asks to avoid denigrating from the outset the claim to absolute truth of scientific statements, and therefore to avoid declaring that these statements are valid only in relation to an experimental operation, a conceptual system, a cognitive schema, or a theoretical paradigm. The fact of attributing to them, with Popper, a merely hypothetical status, does not depart from this prescription, since a hypothesis is a thesis before the thesis, a thesis that is exposed to refutation, but also, potentially, to corroboration.
However, Meillassoux's demand that the exoteric propositions of scientific researchers, those they pronounce at the end of their research or for the general public, be taken literally, does not do justice to the creative, critical and reflexive resources of the development of science. The developing sciences have much more to teach us than all their dogmatic proposals about what they think the 'external universe' is. Beyond their cosmogonic narratives, they have an exceptional power of self-revelation of their own limitations, as first manifested in the 'incompleteness' theorems of mathematical theories, formulated by Gödel. The evolution of the sciences can in fact lead them to question their own foundations and their own epistemological status, as has happened (at least) three or four times in history, during the passage from the Aristotelian to the Galileo-Newtonian vision of scientific knowledge, at the advent of the empiricist paradigms of thermodynamics and electromagnetism in the nineteenth century, and finally during the relativistic and quantum revolutions of the twentieth century.
And that is not all. It could be that the sciences have the ability to challenge even their most elementary presupposition, the one they have inherited from ordinary language, from the natural attitude, and from Platonic philosophy: that knowing consists in stabilizing phenomena into poles that can be named by language, into structures that can be coded by mathematics, and into effects that can be reproduced by experimentation; that knowing consists, in short, in extracting from the ceaseless spiral of becoming something that can be symbolized.
At first sight, the sciences cannot be anything else than this: the enterprise of building a theoretical bridge over the river of appearances, the overcoming by intelligence of the sensible transition, the replacement of "now" and "here" by an immutable and ubiquitous spatio-temporal tetrahedron, the rejection of the chronicle of facts in favor of the statement of recurrences. Didn't Henri Poincaré lend the physicist this famous phrase that radically differentiates his discipline from history: "John, King of England, has passed through here: I don't care, since he won't pass through again?" (13) If this is the case, the break between the world of science and the world of experienced and sensitive life is extreme and irremediable. And a merciless debate can then break out to find out which of the two is the more profound truth.
Nietzsche, provocateur of all, arbitrated against Hegel in favor of sensible immediacy against rational mediation. "The senses do not lie insofar as they show becoming, disappearance, change (...) But in his assertion that being is a fiction, Heraclitus will be eternally right. The 'world of appearances' is the only real one: the 'true-world' is only added by a lie…." (14) Faced with the real truth of the flowing sensible, the immobilization imposed by "rationalist activity" (15) is held by Nietzsche to be a pure and simple lie. A lie whose perpetuation is only justified because it has a practical utility; because it allows the teaching and advancement of the reproducible procedures of technology.
But, like its reciprocal, the opposition between the truth of the flowing phenomenon and the lie of the fixed concept is somewhat caricatural. For, like mathematics with Gödel's theorem, the physical sciences are capable of producing their own antidote. The concept is burnt by the incandescence of the sciences. The lie of pure forms has the capacity to reveal the truth of the becoming that carries them.
The impossibility for the word "now" to designate a moment in time, the void that this impossibility creates, is decidedly far from marking a deficiency in the signifying power of this word. On the contrary, this impossibility is the best guarantee that the word "now" brings us into intimate and experienced contact with what the speakers who use it mean.
In the physical sciences, the antidote to predictability is to acknowledge randomness, the antidote to superimposed immobility is to admit an underlying mobility, the antidote to the fixed volume of space-time is to experience the brilliance of the creative present of research. Although I cannot go into detail here, all this has happened, or is happening, in the evolution of interpretations of quantum theory. Thus, according to Quantum Bayesianism, known by its acronym QBism, (16) subatomic physics deals with a process of incoercible creation of phenomena co-produced by the experimental operations of the physicists who seek to study them. These phenomena are natively random, all the more irremediably random in that the researchers who strive to predict them participate, by their actions, in the predicted occurrences. Sequences of microscopic phenomena that are constantly renewed, never identical to the previous ones, are the most perfect example that can be given of a Heraclitean flow, of a becoming without rest. Under these conditions, the only invariant that QBism produces in the long term is the generic structure of the probabilistic predictions made by the agents-predictors-physicists. And this predictive structure derives from a simple condition of internal consistency of bets on the occurrence of phenomena, light years away from the requirement of correspondence of the descriptive structures of theories to the structures of an external-independent reality.
Basically, the only thing that does not vary in the quantum realm is the structure of our expectations, while what is expected varies without control. The sciences have thus acquired the ultimate power to turn in on themselves, and to free themselves from an opaque metaphysical legacy that has been both their driving force and their obstacle. In reflecting on themselves, the sciences realize that they have never brought to light some immutable core of being that was supposed to have always waited beneath the surface of the mutable appearance. In truth, they have only forged a stable attitude in order to look good, and navigate well, in an eminently unstable participatory process. They have adopted and are adopting this stable attitude in order to float elegantly in the ocean of becoming manifested at this moment as experience.
What is remarkable is that the sciences have been able to recognize their inscription in a Heraclitan flux on the basis of one of the most elaborate theories they have ever produced under a Platonic presupposition. The extreme of their quest for absolute invariance has led to the extreme of the recognition of the variation of the relative; the extreme of their dream of the timeless has turned into the extreme of an awakening to the present. As David Mermin, one of the main advocates of QBism, admits, "the problem of now will not be solved by rejecting the now as an 'illusion', or as a 'chauvinism of the present moment'. It is immediately resolved if we identify the error that has led us to conclude, against all our lived experience, that there is no place for now in our physical description of the world.” (17) More than two thousand years after the exclusion of lived experience and the life world by a science inherited from Platonism, the repressed returns in its most unbridled form: that of a living present recognizing itself as the blind spot of physical science, under the pressure of the most profound advances of this science.
The developing sciences have much more to teach us than all their dogmatic proposals about what they think the 'external universe' is.
It is true that, as an interpretative framework, QBism is not unique, nor is it univocally imposed by the structure of quantum theory. But it has emerged after long historical meanderings, as the only simple and viable answer to the paradoxes and errors of the so-called "realist" or "representationalist" interpretations, that is, still fixist and metaphysical approaches, of quantum physics. Suspending scientific realism, as science itself cryptically but insistently suggests, opens our eyes to the real reality that is present at the moment. And the sciences are being reborn today from these open eyes.
1. This chronology of Husserl's approach is hasty. The primacy of the living present appears very early in Husserl's work, in his 1905 lectures, Leçons pour une phénoménologie de la conscience intime du temps, Presses Universitaires de France, 1964. However, it is evaded in the main work of 1913, Idées directrices pour une phénoménologie, before being taken up again in later texts.
2. E. Husserl, Idées directrices pour une phénoménologie, Gallimard, 1950, §50.
3. This transition from the idealist absolute of consciousness to the neutral absolute of the present remains hesitant in Husserl. See N. Depraz, "Temporalisation de l'absolu selon Husserl", Epokhè, n°2, Jérôme Millon, 1991, p. 401.
4. Hua XV, n°38, p.668, quoted and brilliantly commented by N. Depraz, "Temporalisation de l'absolu selon Husserl ", Epokhè, n°2, Jérôme Millon, 1991, p. 399.
5. Ibid., p. 670.
6. E. Husserl, "Temporalisation de l'absolu selon Husserl ", op. cit., p. 379.
8. E. Husserl, in: E. Housset, Personne et sujet selon Husserl, Presses Universitaires de France, 1997. (See chapter II.)
10. F. Jullien, Un sage est sans idée, Éditions du Seuil, 2013. “Stepping aside” here means : seeing one’s own culture from the vantage point of another one.
11. Quoted in: R. Raud, "'Place' and 'being-time': spatiotemporal concepts in the thought of Nishida Kitaro and Dogen Kigen", Philosophy East and West, 54, 29-51, 2004
12. E. Husserl, Transzendentaler Idealismus. Texte aus dem Nachlass (1908-1921), Husserliana, vol. XXXVI, ed. by R. D. Rollinger in collaboration with R. Sowa, Dordrecht, Boston, London, Kluwer, 2003, pp. 141-144. Quoted and commented by L. Tengelyi, "Philosophy as an opening to the world", Les Études Philosophiques 1, 2016, 123-138.
13. H. Poincaré, La science et l’hypothèse, IX.
14. F. Nietzsche, Le crépuscule des idoles, La raison dans la philosophie, 2. In: F. Nietzsche, Œuvres complètes XII, Mercure de France, 1908, p. 127
15. G. Bachelard, L'activité rationaliste de la physique contemporaine, Presses Universitaires de France, 1965.
16. C. Fuchs & R. Schack, "QBism and the Greeks: why a quantum state does not represent an element of physical reality", Physica Scripta, 90, 015104, 2015; H.C. Von Baeyer, QBism, the Future of Quantum Physics, Harvard University Press, 2016; M. Bitbol, Quantum philosophy: the world is not external, in preparation.
17. N.D. Mermin, "QBism as CBism: solving the problem of the Now", https://arxiv.org/abs/1312.7825v1; N.D. Mermin, "What I think about now", Physics Today, 67, 3, 8, 2014.