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Making Sense of Phenomenal Unity: An Intentionalist Account of Temporal Experience

  • Julian Kiverstein (a1)


Our perceptual experiences stretch across time to present us with movement, persistence and change. How is this possible given that perceptual experiences take place in the present that has no duration? In this paper I argue that this problem is one and the same as the problem of accounting for how our experiences occurring at different times can be phenomenally unified over time so that events occurring at different times can be experienced together. Any adequate account of temporal experience must also account for phenomenal unity. I look to Edmund Husserl's writings on time consciousness for such an account.



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1 Reid, T., Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man, edited by Walker, J. (Boston, MA: Derby, 1855), 211.

2 Ibid., 237.

4 Barry Dainton has offered a reply to Reid that is part phenomenological and part empirical (‘Sensing Change’, Philosophical Issues 181 (2008), 362–84.) The phenomenological reply takes as its starting point the seeming truism that we often see things moving or changing. This however is what Reid means to deny, so although I don't dispute the phenomenological datum, I can't see why it should dissuade us from agreeing with Reid. The second, empirical response appeals to findings from neuroscience that cells in visual area V5 are dedicated to coding visual information about motion. Lesions to this area can result in a subject no longer seeing smooth, continuous movement. (See Zihl, J., von Cameron, D. and Mai, N., ‘Selective Disturbance of Movement Vision after Bilateral Brain Damage’, Brain 106 (1983), 313–40). These findings, while striking, cannot be decisive since it is possible (indeed highly likely) that V5 functions as part of a wider network, and this network may well include areas dedicated to memory of the kind that Reid appeals to. We wouldn't want to say that V5 cut out of a larger brain and placed in a petri dish could realise a visual experience as of motion. Once we allow that motion is coded for by V5 as part of a larger distributed network of activation it seems to me that Reid's theory remains a live option.

5 Prichard, H. A., ‘The Apprehension of Time’ in Knowledge and Perception: Essays and Lectures (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1950), 4751.

6 Ian Phillips makes this point in a brief discussion of Prichard's argument. See I. Phillips, ‘The Temporal Structure of Experience’ in D. Lloyd and V. Arstila (eds), Subjective Time: the Philosophy, Psychology, and Neuroscience of Temporality (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, forthcoming).

7 Le Poidevin, R., The Images of Time: an Essay on Temporal Representation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), ch.5.

8 Ibid., 91.

9 I'm going to assume without argument that experiences have representational content, though I recognise this is controversial in some circles. The issue I want to focus on is whether temporal properties could enter into the representational contents of experience, or whether we should agree with Reid when he claims that we can only experience temporal properties through the contribution of some kind of memory.

10 I owe the terminology of ‘impure representational properties’ to Chalmers, D., ‘The Representational Character of Experience’ in Leiter, B. (ed.), The Future for Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004). Chalmers contrasts ‘impure’ representational properties with ‘pure’ representational properties, properties of having an intentional content. Crane, T., ‘Intentionalism’ in McLaughlin, B., Beckermann, A. and Walter, S. (eds), The Oxford Handbook to the Philosophy of Mind (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009) also defends this distinction.

11 Siegel, S., ‘How Can We Discover the Contents of Experience?’, Southern Journal of Philosophy 45 (2006), 127–42. Manuscript downloaded from:

12 Ibid., ms, 10.

13 Ibid., ms, 13.

14 The desiderata I'm describing here are based on objections Dainton in his Stream of Consciousness: Unity and Continuity in Conscious Experience, 2nd edition (London: Routledge, 2006), §5.4 has made to accounts of temporal experience like Reid's that make appeal to memory. I'm also indebted to the discussion in I. Phillips, ‘The Temporal Structure of Experience’, op. cit., §§ 5 and 6.

15 For one promising recent attempt see I. Phillips, ‘Perceiving Temporal Properties’, European Journal of Philosophy (forthcoming), §6.

16 James, W., The Principles of Psychology, Vol. 2 (London: MacMillan, 1890/1950), 629. Zahavi, D. (‘Perception of Duration Presupposes Duration of Perception – or Does it? Husserl and Dainton on Time’, International Journal of Philosophical Studies 15:3 (2007), 464) attributes a similar distinction to Alexius Meinong. It can of course be traced back further to Kant's discussion of the experience of change and persistence in the Second Analogy.

17 Locke, J., An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, edited by Nidditch, P. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975), Book 2, ch.14, §10, quoted by Kelly, S., ‘The Puzzle of Temporal Experience’ in Brook, A. and Akins, K. (eds), Cognition and the Brain: the Philosophy and Neuroscience Movement (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 216.

18 Pöppel, E., Mindworks: Time and Conscious Experience (Boston: Harcourt Brace Jovonavich, 1988), ch.2.

19 Someone might question whether SLOW really can be said to have a succession of distinct experiences given that events lasting less than a second are fused by his perceptual system. If we individuate experiences by their objects, surely we have to say that SLOW can undergo at most a single experience per second. I agree, but the way I set up the example SLOW has a perceptual system that can detect non-consciously the different positions of the second hand at intervals of less than a second. However the processing that results in his experience is less discriminating. SLOW undergoes a succession of distinct perceptions but because of his enlarged window of simultaneity he doesn't get to experience succession.

20 I am assuming here a view of motion, which Bertrand Russell dubbed the ‘at-at’ theory in his Principles of Mathematics (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1903). According to the at-at theory an object moves when it exists at a unique position at different times.

21 I. Phillips, ‘Perceiving Temporal Properties’, op. cit., argues for a memory account that denies experience is confined to a durationless point in time.

22 Miller, I., Husserl, Perception and Temporal Awareness (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1984).

23 Ibid., 107. Phillips mentions in passing (‘The Temporal Structure of Experience’, op. cit., ms, 6) a distinction between a weak and a strong reading of PPC. By the strong reading he seems to have in mind a view that claims the interval of time an experience takes up is the very same interval of time as the event we are experiencing. A weak reading of PPC denies this. Phillips frames PPC in terms of experiences and their objects whereas Miller speaks of acts and contents. Is this just a terminological difference? I'm not sure. It certainly makes sense to think of an experience occupying an interval of time different from that of its object. This kind of mismatch is commonplace due to processing delays. However once we've abandoned the principle of simultaneous awareness, it is not so clear to me how experiences could occupy intervals of time different from their contents.

24 Sprigge, T. L. S., The Vindication of Absolute Idealism (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1983), 1214.

25 Ibid., 12.

26 Ibid., 14.

27 For a more detailed assessment of Sprigge's view see B. Dainton, Stream of Consciousness: Unity and Continuity in Conscious Experience, op. cit., §5.5.

28 Ibid., 129.

29 Ibid., ch.7; Foster, J., ‘In self-defence’ in MacDonald, G. F. (ed.), Perception and Identity (London: MacMillan, 1979); Foster, J., The Case for Idealism (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982).

30 Dainton, B., ‘The Experience of Time and Change’, Philosophical Compass 3:4 (2008), 634.

31 Bayne, T. and Chalmers, D., ‘What is the Unity of Consciousness?’ in Cleeremans, A. (ed.), The Unity of Consciousness: Binding, Integration, Dissociation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

32 B. Dainton, Streams of Consciousness, op. cit., 84.

33 Tye, M., Consciousness and Persons: Unity and Identity (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003).

34 The objection is similar to S. Hurley's ‘just-more-content’ objection to what she labels ‘subjective’ accounts of the unity of consciousness. See Hurley, S., Consciousness in Action (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1998), ch.2.

35 M. Tye, Consciousness and Persons, op. cit., 22.

36 Ibid., 23–24.

37 Carnap, R., The Logical Structure of the World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967).

38 M. Tye, Consciousness and Persons, op. cit., 28

39 Ibid., 36.

40 Ibid., 97.

41 Ibid., 100.

43 Ibid., 101.

44 Ibid., 102.

45 D. Chalmers, ‘The Representational Character of Experience’, op. cit., 155.

47 Stout, G. F., ‘Perception of Change and Duration’ in his Studies in Philosophy and Psychology (London: MacMillan, 1930). Phillips offers a useful discussion of this example (see his ‘Perceiving Temporal Properties’, op. cit.). There are however important differences between the weak intentionalist account I favour and the version of the memory account Phillips defends. We'll see later that I reject PPC, while Phillips endorses it. Ultimately I think the differences between our views of temporal experience will turn on Phillips' commitment to naïve realism, and in future work I plan to tackle this issue further.

48 Husserl took this account of time consciousness to apply to consciousness in general including conscious thoughts, and other kinds of mental acts. My concern in this essay is with temporal experience, hence my concentrating on the experience case.

49 See I. Phillips, ‘Perceiving Temporal Properties’, op. cit., for an important exception.

50 W. James, The Principles of Psychology, op. cit., 646. In a more recent discussion of memory, M. G. F. Martin has argued that what different kinds of memory (e.g. semantic and episodic memory) have in common is that they preserve cognitive contact with the past (‘Out of the Past: Episodic Recall as Retained Acquaintance’ in Hoerl, C. and McCormack, T. (eds), Time and Memory: Issues in Philosophy and Psychology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001)) Martin's account of memory suggests a way in which retention might be understood as a variety of memory. Retention preserves experiential contact with the recent past, and if we think of experiential contact as a kind of cognitive contact, retention ends up counting as a kind of memory. This doesn't however suffice to make the Husserlian view into a memory account of temporal experience. For the memory account recall is motivated by the claim that the contents of experience are punctuate, whereas we have just seen that the Husserlian view claims that a sensory impression never occurs in isolation from retention and protention.

51 Gallagher, S., ‘Sync-Ing in the Stream of Experience’, Psyche (2003), 4. (Available at

52 Robinson, H., Perception (London: Routledge, 1994).

53 This leaves intentionalists needing to provide some account of the relation between an intentional content and the object this content is directed upon. For some promising suggestions in response to this problem see Tim Crane, ‘Intentionalism’, op. cit.

54 Here I am following a suggestive comment made by Gallagher, Shaun. He writes: ‘retention takes the just-past as a semantic referent’ (The Inordinance of Time (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1998), 48). He seems clearly to be thinking of retention as functioning in the same way as modes of presentation in thoughts determining reference and making it the case that co-referring thoughts have different cognitive values. I say a little more about this above.

55 B. Dainton in his ‘Sensing Change’, op. cit., wonders whether our perceptual discrimination is sufficiently fine-grained to allow us to ‘discern different degrees of presence (or pastness) over periods of a second or so’ (374). This is a reasonable question to ask if we take different sensory modes of presentation to involve sense-data that are present with different degrees of force and vivacity. However I've argued that we shouldn't think of temporally extended events as present in experience in the way that sense-data are present in experience. Rather we should think of temporally extended events as intentionally present. Understood in this way it isn't so clear to me that Dainton's objection bites, but obviously there is more to be said here.

56 Akiko Flischut pointed out to me that this may not be true of Ian Phillips' memory account. It could be argued that the relation of ‘constitutive dependence’ that Phillips takes to hold between different phases of experience may account for phenomenal unity. This is an intriguing suggestion I intend to return to in future work where I engage more fully with Phillips' account.

57 I am extremely grateful to Barry Dainton, Tim Crane, Eduard Marbach, Andy Clark, Mike Wheeler, Fred Adams, Ken Aizawa, Howard Robinson, Peter Simons, Pierfrancesco Basile, Leemon McHenry, and David Cockburn for discussion of an earlier version of this paper. I've also received immensely helpful feedback from Christoph Hoerl, Ian Phillips, Simon Prosser, Akiko Frischut and Jiri Benovsky at the EIDOS conference on the Experience of Time hosted by the University of Geneva. Thanks also to my colleagues from the Subjective Time group for discussion of ancestors of the ideas in this paper.

Julian Kiverstein is a Teaching Fellow in Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. The author of a number of papers on consciousness, temporality and the self, he is also editing Heidegger and Cognitive Science (2010, with Michael Wheeler) and Decomposing the Will (2010, with Tillmann Vierkant and Andy Clark).


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