Heidegger : Springs of Time Within


Part 2

The tradition of phenomenology, which may even appear in some textbooks as a coherent ‘pheomenological family’ with each member neatly listed after the other, is particularly fascinating for the simultaneous depth of their common agreements, and the wide extent of their differences. If phenomenology in general insists on self-reflexivity or a sort of exercise of ‘meditation’ as the basis for the philosophical enquiry, we could also suggest that the very evolution of the phenomenological tradition as a group of individuals and a series of texts, marks a certain direction of self-reflexivity. When Heidegger enters the scene, progressively through the late 1910s but more authoritatively in 1927 with Being and Time, he is not really defining an absolutely new and revolutionary manner to conduct philosophical research; rather he presents a series of ‘revisions’ or perhaps ‘recalibrations’ onto the project already initiated by Edmund Husserl. Therefore, understanding Heidegger on any philosophical discussion requires to know the main contention he expressed, and developed, vis-à-vis his teacher Husserl.

I already touched upon this point by mentioning the remainders of a scientific scope within Husserl’s project. One should not forget that, in spite of his commendable turn towards the experience of the conscious subject as opposed to a supposed neutral observation of the outer world, Husserl’s final attempt was still truly to discover the actual essence of objects around us. For instance, the essence of a chair could then be established as per his method, through a meditative and phenomenological enquiry: I can observe the state of my consciousness when I perceive a chair, and I can create an imagined experiment, still mental, where I attempt to see the chair from all its angles. Just like in cubism – which was contemporaneous with phenomenology – the perspective keeps changing but something remains constant throughout: this unchanging character is the essence of the chair. There is, therefore, still a desire to find the absolute nature of things, or their essence, in Husserl.

But Husserl’s phenomenology was laid on contentious grounds for yet other reasons. Epoche, or the method of bracketing, is for instance a particularly ambitious project: Husserl recommended to ‘forget everything one knows’ about the object perceived, in order to experience its conscious state ‘as it is’. While the intention is praiseworthy, later commentators would object that the cognising subject always bases its conscious state on certain assumptions. In a way, this was the feeling of Heidegger, who thought that Husserl’s method was still too far removed from the singularity of the cognising subject as a human being. And the question of time was particularly central in this concern.

Macann 1 argues that their respective projects differ precisely from a fundamental disagreement in their understanding of time: Husserl focused on the subject’s relation to her past while Heidegger described the subject as oriented towards her future. Another way to describe the shift between Husserl and Heidegger in relation to the question of time, would be to remark how much Husserl had set a theory of time that is still centered on the present: retentions and protentions are experienced as conscious states in the present. 2 If Heidegger asked one question, it is the query of the ‘is’, ‘that which is’, or, in other words, being. For Heidegger, western philosophy, from the Greeks onwards, went too fast in its treatment of the question of being, and came to take it for granted as a given to the experience of life, upon which the philosopher attempts an explanatory discourse. Heidegger certainly found this lacking also in Husserl’s focus on the present time: after all, ‘is’ is also the tense that qualifies the present in contrast with the past and the future tenses. In History of the Concept of Time (1925), Heidegger openly addresses the shortcomings of Husserl’s account of time. Two years later, the student would set in stone the foundations of his own version of phenomenology, turned towards existential concerns, opening a Pandora’s box of positing the human subject as Dasein, the ‘being-there’.

For Heidegger, time surrounds the condition of existence of Dasein. In his vocabulary, the human being is ‘thrown-in-the-world’; her life occurs at a moment in history, with particular historical contexts as well as the certainty of her evolution through time, through the future. But the connection between Dasein and time is much more profound. According to Kelly “time resembles Dasein insofar as time projects itself or stands outside itself in its future and past without losing itself.” 3 Indeed, it is common to both time and Dasein to be characterised by projection of itself (in the present) but also into the two other directions (the past and the future). Time and Dasein would thus have the same “ontological structure,” 4. This may be a major point to account for the organic connection of the two elements in the very title of Heidegger’s magnum opus, Being and Time. Understanding time and understanding being would thus be one and the same intellectual project; understanding a particular being entails understanding its temporality.

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Understanding time and understanding being would thus be one and the same intellectual project; understanding a particular being entails understanding its temporality.

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Not unlike Husserl, Heidegger suggested a typology of ‘levels’ of time, and their hierarchical relations.

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World-time is the level of time through which I interact with elements of the world in the practical relation that I entertain with them. For the painter, elements like the canvas or the brush are not just random objects with a value equivalent to that of as any other thing. Similarly for time: the child awaiting gifts is not indifferent to Christmas day, or, for different reasons, neither to September 1st, as the beginning of a new year of school. But one’s experience of this world-time shifts to the level of the ordinary-time when the ‘flow’ with time to which I am used is interrupted. In ordinary-time, I perceive time in its succession of now-moments, with the measuring scale of seconds, minutes, hours, etc. There, one experiences a consciousness of time analogous to that which science attempts to set: a neutral, unaffected reception of time, progressing at a unified pace.

For Heidegger, the two modes of being that constitute the world-time and the ordinary-time are only possible because the human experiencer, Dasein, ‘contains’ a deeper structure based on temporality. This appears at first similar to Husserl’s understanding of time, but it is precisely here that Heidegger locates his own revision of the three commonsensical ‘phases’ of time (past, present, future), but here these phases are not progressive and linear as in the case of ordinary-time. To avoid this erroneous interpretation, we could present them as three distinct experiences or ‘modes of being’ of the subject as Dasein, as human being:

  1. Dasein has a futural moment. It is that which the world is coming to.
  2. Dasein has a present moment. It is the recognition of that which “stands before it.” 5 This moment is not manifested objectively but it affects Dasein: it is the object of what Heidegger calls the care of Dasein.
  3. Dasein has a past moment. It is that which the world is coming from, and it is experienced by Dasein as the fact of being, and therefore, of having been there, which is a prerequisite in order to experience all other moments.

Kelly abridges the concrete implications of this typology:

“Outside of itself in the future, Dasein projects itself and reckons with that about which it cares; outside of itself in the present, Dasein makes manifest or present the appearance of that to which it goes out in its interest and according to its projects; outside of itself in the past, Dasein drags along that which has been its life, which, in turn, colors its present experiences and future projects.” 6

Thus appears a subject whose relation to time is profoundly determined by her own stakes in time. Dasein cannot talk of time in the impersonal manner of the scientists, because its own survival is one that will actually depend on time. Heidegger called for the ‘authentic’ life, a life in which the subject recognises her active role in the making of her own life as a project. Ultimate in this projection in the future is, naturally, Dasein’s own death, which Heidegger also encourages to acknowledge fully in order to live life authentically. This confirms our initial intuition: while Husserl looked specifically at the past, Heidegger is definitely turned towards the future. Dasein lives truly in the originary-time, in a time that is so fundamental to Dasein, so central to its being as Dasein, that it does not even precede it. Heidegger, indeed, contends that we, as human beings, do not arise in a world whose temporality preceded us: time starts with Dasein. This is so, because for each subject, the very fact of existence, the very possibility of the world starts only when this subject, this Dasein, comes to be.

As we can see, there is more in Heidegger’s understanding of time, than a classic, neutral description of what time would be. When Heidegger mentions the concept of the ‘authentic’ life in relation to one’s consciousness of time, he enters the realm of a subject’s agency towards its existence in time. This requires some clarification. Anticipation of the future, as we mentioned, is the primary focus of Heidegger’s understanding of the consciousness of time. Dasein projects herself onto the future. But, as Simon Critchley comments, “in anticipation, I project towards the future, but what comes out of the future is my past, my personal and cultural baggage, what Heidegger calls my “having­been­ness” (Gewesenheit).” 7 Indeed, as the future unfolds, its content soon moves to dig back onto my past and, in turn, affects my present. Heidegger is existential, and he defends the possibility of a human agency, because he insists that this baggage from the past does not imply any determinism of the subject. Dasein can resist its past by what the philosopher calls “resoluteness.” This resoluteness is the moment of clear-sightedness that makes my existence ‘authentic’. It is an Augenblick or a ‘moment of vision’, an idea whose origin Critchley traces back to Luther and Kierkegaard, as a possible translation for the Greek Kairos, meaning “the right or opportune moment.” 8 The term was used to describe the coming of the Christ as a redemptive moment. Naturally, Heidegger attempted to set this capacity for ‘authenticity’ in an absolute independence from the Christian heritage.

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Critchley notes one intricate passage: Heidegger argues that the moment of vision, Augenblick, is the true present, understood as Entrückung or ‘rapture’ that ‘carries away’ Dasein. If the term rapture stands for a moment of intense joy – an overwhelming feeling that the present seems to leave on Dasein, in Heidegger’s understanding – the term also indicates an action of violent seizing … Critchley suggests that Heidegger’s hypothesis is only possible inasmuch one’s turn towards the future also implies a violent denial of one’s own baggage from the past.

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In another piece, 9 Critchley addresses more directly the assumptions of Heidegger on time and suggests a switch of the focus from the future to the past. As we saw, Heidegger posits the future as primary meaning of temporality, 10 which means that it is because of Dasein’s orientation towards the future (towards its death), that is can also experience the ‘having-been-ness’ of the past and the ‘waiting-towards’ of the present. But Critchley notes one intricate passage: Heidegger argues that the moment of vision, Augenblick, is the true present, understood as Entrückung or ‘rapture’ that ‘carries away’ Dasein. If the term rapture stands for a moment of intense joy – an overwhelming feeling that the present seems to leave on Dasein, in Heidegger’s understanding – the term also indicates an action of violent seizing (rapere in Latin, giving, for instance, rape in English). Indeed: what is the cost of this intense pleasure of the present? Critchley suggests that Heidegger’s hypothesis is only possible inasmuch one’s turn towards the future also implies a violent denial of one’s own baggage from the past. The authentic life, if it means a state of ecstasy in the present, would be made possible only on this condition. Critchley’s reading, while remaining implicit, is clearly pointed towards the historical turn that Heidegger’s analysis took to justify the political and ideological project of the National Socialist Party:

“In my view, it is this personal and cultural thrownness that pulls me back from any rapture of the present into a lag that I can never make up and which I can only assemble into a fate on the basis of a delusional and pernicious notion of historicity, and into a destiny on the basis of a congregational interpretation of that delusion.” 11

Equally implicit in Critchley’s commentary is the view that the very objective of Heidegger’s philosophy of the agent, its ‘authenticity’ is also impossible, or perhaps, only possible at the cost of one’s denial of her own past. And this is impossible, because Dasein’s life is also one marked with earlier tragedies, regrets and guilt, which makes of the past something that the agent cannot so easily let go – or perhaps, a past that she should not let go. This also implies a new understanding of time, somehow owing to Heidegger’s, but certainly distinct from it: “Now is not the now when I say “now”. My relation to the present is one where I am always trying—and failing—to catch up with myself.” 12 In an ingenious rhetorical turn, for Critchley, the present thus becomes a process of waiting, awaiting, one that can lead to fatigue and even sleepiness. But it is precisely in sleep that “the river of time begins to flow backwards,” 13 where I move backwards towards my past without ever reaching it, and thus dramatising it through my dreams. Critchley concludes by bringing Freud face to face with Heidegger, if not to undermine the philosophy of Dasein in its entirety, at least, perhaps, to insist on how the past cannot be so quickly put to the background.


Image courtesy: Oregon Live



  1. Christopher Macann, Presence and Coincidence (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1991), see also Kelly, “Phenomenology and Time-Consciousness.”
  2. Kelly, “Phenomenology and Time-Consciousness;” see also Daniel O. Dalhstrom, “Heidegger’s Critique of Husserl,” in Reading Heidegger from the Start: Essays in His Earliest Thought, ed. T. Kisiel & J. van Buren (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994).
  3. Kelly, “Phenomenology and Time-Consciousness.” Kelly here refers to William J. Richardson. Heidegger: Through Phenomenology to Thought (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1967).
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Simon Critchley, “Heidegger’s Being and Time, part 8: Temporality,” The Guardian, July 27, 2009, accessed November 25, 2013, www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2009/jul/27/heidegger-being-time-philosophy.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Simon Critchley and Reiner Schürmann. On Heidegger’s Being and Time. (London, New York: Routledge, 2008).
  10. Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. J. Macquarrie and E. Robinson (New York: Harper and Row, Publishers Inc, 1963), 327.
  11. Critchley and Schürmann, On Heidegger’s Being and Time, 147.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid., 148.