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Time in Consciousness, Consciousness in Time

  • David Cockburn (a1)

The paper is a criticism of the idea that a notion of ‘phenomenal consciousness’ has a significant role to play in the attempt to understand how the experience of change is possible. Discussion of such experience must give a significant place to its public and private manifestations. How should we picture the relationship between the experience of change and its manifestations? While we cannot identify these, we need not conclude that ‘the seeing or hearing itself’ is something distinct from – something that has a nature that may be investigated quite independently of – any of its public or private manifestations. With that, we cannot grasp how time can be present in consciousness without reference to the fact that consciousness is located in time.

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1 James, William, The Principles of Psychology, Vol. 1 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981), 605. Following quotations: 631, 642.

2 McDowell, John, ‘On “The Reality of the Past”’ in Hookway, C. and Pettit, P. (eds), Action and Interpretation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978), 140.

3 Mellor, Hugh, Real Time (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 28.

4 Perhaps we should add: in the sense that is relevant to this discussion. There is a sense of ‘hear’ such that we can say of someone that she has heard an extended sequence, say Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, simply in virtue of the fact that she was present while it was being played and there was nothing wrong with her hearing.

5 My formulation draws on the work of a number of philosophers. See, in particular, Dainton, Barry, Stream of Consciousness: Unity and Continuity in Conscious Experience (London: Routledge, 2000), 114–15; also Zahavi, Dan, Husserl's Phenomenology (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), 82.

6 William James, The Principles of Psychology, op. cit., note 1, 574.

7 ‘[A] single momentary state of consciousness is not a composite of its elements; these are simply conceptually abstracted aspects of its unitary being, not distinct units in their own right. Such single momentary centres of experience, as I shall call them, should not be thought of as instantaneous. So far as they can be clocked in public time they have a certain dateable duration, but they are single units whose earlier and later phases are not genuine particular realities in the way that they are. They do have, within them, their own special kind of temporal spread, aspects which are later and earlier. Only thus can one explain the fact that temporal sequences can be given’. (Sprigge, T. L. S., The Vindication of Absolute Idealism (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1983), 12).

8 ‘We must … abandon the doctrine that an awareness of change (or succession) consists of a temporal spread of content being presented to a single momentary awareness. Instead, we say that an awareness of change or succession is itself temporally extended.…. [I]t is natural to suppose that acts have precisely the same duration as their contents’. (Dainton, B., Time and Space (Chesham: Acumen, 2001), 103).

9 See Foster, J., ‘In self-defence’ in Macdonald, G. F. (ed.), Perception and Identity (London: Macmillan, 1979), 176.

10 J. D. Mabbott remarks of such tests: ‘The aim was to discover the unit of temporal experience. So far as the experiments discovered anything, they found what was the maximum duration of a set of sounds which could be recognized without error’ (Mabbott, J. D., ‘Our Direct Experience of Time’, Mind LX (1951), 162–4). His doubts are close in form to those that I will raise.

11 B. Dainton, Stream of Consciousness, op. cit., 20.

12 Dainton, B., ‘Coming Together: the Unity of Consciousness’ in Schneider, Susan and Vellmans, Max (eds), The Blackwell Companion to Consciousness (Oxford: Blackwell, 2007), 212.

13 Tye, M., Consciousness and Persons: Unity and Identity (MIT Press, 2003), 122.

14 If we suppose that the individual has direct, and infallible, access to the character of his own phenomenal consciousness it will only be my attributions to others that are at issue here.

15 Such an identity claim could come in various forms. In particular, it could come in either a ‘type’ or a ‘token’ form. My brief remarks on the identity view will not, however, turn on such possible differences.

16 And to the extent that Zeno is not interested in that, we can, perhaps, accept his conclusion ‘There is no such thing as motion’ – whatever that means – with equanimity.

17 This is not a necessary condition. We have ways, greatly refined by the mathematicians, of specifying a speed at which something is travelling at an instant when that instant is not contained within a period during which it is moving at uniform speed. While I suspect that this fact contributes to philosophical illusions that arise here, this is not a point that I can dwell on now.

18 It is, I suspect, a significant fact that such locutions are strained.

19 This is only so in the case of present tense self-ascription. When speaking in the past tense – of how I experienced something – I may appeal to its manifestations in much (though not exactly) the same way as others do when speaking of me.

20 None of this is to deny that there are important differences between central forms of linguistic manifestation and many other forms of manifestation. There is, for example, much more ready room for a ‘discovery’ that I am tapping my foot than there is for a ‘discovery’ that I am saying ‘I can hear the melody’. Such differences may, for certain purposes, justify a resistance to grouping these together under the umbrella term ‘manifestations’. They do not, I think, cast doubt on what I have suggested we may learn from placing them together.

21 In Husserl's terminology, the phenomenological investigation involves a ‘bracketing’ of our folk and scientific beliefs.

22 I have benefited greatly from comments on earlier drafts of this paper by a number of people. Barry Dainton and Julian Kiverstein helped me to see that in an earlier version I did not have the target of my criticisms in proper focus. I hope that the present version does better in that respect. I am also very grateful for invaluable input from Lars Hertzberg, Maureen Meehan, Soren Overgaard, Robin Le Poidevin and Angus Ross.

David Cockburn is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Wales, Lampeter. His publications include Other Human Beings (1990), Other Times: Philosophical Perspectives on Past, Present and Future (1997), and An Introduction to the Philosophy of Mind (2001). He edited the Royal Institute of Philosophy volume on Human Beings (1991), and has published a wide range of papers on themes in philosophy of mind, ethics, Wittgenstein, philosophy of religion, and philosophy of time.

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Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplements
  • ISSN: 1358-2461
  • EISSN: 1755-3555
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