Husserl : Remembrance of Things Past


Part 1

“These are extremely important matters, perhaps the most important in the whole of phenomenology.” Thus ended one of the many lectures that Edmund Husserl dedicated to time in the course of his teaching career. Compiled in On the Phenomenology of the Consciousness of Internal Time (1893-1917), 1 these texts reveal the centrality of time, or, in Husserl’s vocabulary, time-consciousness for the larger project of the philosopher. If human consciousness is necessarily intentional, that is, oriented – the major thesis of Husserl – this consciousness is also one occurring within a larger consciousness of internal time, on the part of the conscious and cognising subject. Husserl’s exploration of time through the lens of the lived, phenomenological analysis, is also his own attempt at an old challenge running through the history of science.

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Husserl’s contribution on time magnifies the revolutionary spirit of his larger project: the lived, cognitive experience of time-consciousness becomes a prerequisite for any enquiry of the type of Newton’s, trying to look at time as it is in itself. The lens of the cognising subject becomes the starting point par excellence.

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As we will see, Husserl’s hypotheses on time are still very much formulated, on the form and on the content, in a manner familiar to natural sciences. One can recall that the roots of phenomenology, with Brentano and Husserl, are to be located in relation to the important evolutions of the scientific discipline of psychology, and, more generally, cognitive sciences, around the late 19th century. In fact, Husserl could have posited his intellectual project vis-à-vis a number of prevailing views on time, but one seemed particularly prevalent throughout the scientific fields: Newton’s time. For Newton, time was to be understood as an empty box, made of discrete ‘now’ moments, within which all the phenomena of nature could take place. Naturally, this did not suffice to describe or explain the experience of time, that is, for Husserl, time-consciousness. With Husserl, through the focus on consciousness, the intellectual project steps away from the general, external and supposedly objective enquiry on the phenomena of the world, to focus more precisely on the way these phenomena are experienced by the living conscious being. Moreover, Newton’s account of time was sufficient to explain the fact that we experience a separation of the ‘now’ moments from each other, but it could not offer a model to account for our impression of a certain coherence or linkage between these moments. 2 Husserl’s contribution on time magnifies the revolutionary spirit of his larger project: the lived, cognitive experience of time-consciousness becomes a prerequisite for any enquiry of the type of Newton’s, trying to look at time as it is in itself. The lens of the cognising subject becomes the starting point par excellence.

The influence of Kant on Husserl is quite visible. Immanuel Kant had postulated time and space as the two a priori dimensions within the human’s epistemological apparatus, but time was the ‘internal dimension’ while space was the ‘external dimension’. As Husserl switches the focus to set the internal, cognising processes to the forefront, it is therefore the dimension of time that occupies the central role. Husserl argues that we need time to experience all things of the world, while space is not always necessary. One can present various cases as follows: 3

Is time required?

Is space required?

Successive spatial object:
a child running before me



Stationary spatial object:
a tree



the spoken sentence ‘this song is nice’



Abstract objects:
numbers, or the Pythagoras’ theorem



Indeed, to experience the sentence ‘this song is nice,’ assuming a sense of ‘inner-space’ is not directly necessary. It is even more evident for abstract entities, which, by definition, lack any spatial extension. Still, time is required for me to be conscious of such objects: the pronouncement of the word “two” has a temporal extension (it takes a second or so) and, at a larger scale, it may take me a few minutes to develop a clear consciousness of the theorem of Pythagoras.

In his exploration of the question of time, Husserl will follow one assumption: time can appear to us, externally, as having particular aspects, only inasmuch our apparatus of consciousness is already ‘calibrated’ to establish mental states in temporal succession. In other words, “our awareness of objective time … depends upon our awareness of subjective time.” 4 Husserl developed his understanding of time across three levels, going from the deepest level of consciousness to the furthest level of ‘external’ reality:

  1. The consciousness of internal time
  2. Personalistic or subjective time
  3. Worldly or objective time. 5

An example may help to illustrate each of these levels. Samar and Preethi are attending a concert. It lasts, from the first note to the last, 1 hour 15 minutes and 30 seconds. This is time at the level of the worldly, external reality. Samar thinks about his next cricket game during the concert, which bores him. The concert seems too him like it is actually much slower. Preethi, on the other hand, is a fan of the musician and she regrets that the concert passes too fast. These two accounts exemplify the ‘personalistic’ time as discussed by Husserl: they are proper to each cognising subject’s experience of an event. But to be able to agree on the worldly time, and to allow for subjective modifications through the second level of time, Husserl argues that we must all have an internal consciousness of time. This is the third level, and the ‘structure’ that permits all of us to be able to make sense of the very temporality of the world around us. Time would thus be ‘imprinted’ deeply in the very ‘blueprint’ of the human cognising capacity.

The three-fold levels of time manage to clarify the complexity of the topic, but it could certainly be argued that they apply not just to time, but to other instances of consciousness as well. One particular feature must be discussed: time ‘passes’ or ‘flows’. In the ‘natural attitude’ or the ‘scientific assumptions’ that Husserl tried to critique and complexify through phenomenology, it was simply believed that time is a continuation of ‘now’ moments. The past would be the set of completed ‘now’ moments, and the future would be the ‘now’ moments that have not yet happened. One fundamental element is missing here: I may remember my lunch from yesterday in the moment of my present cognition, and this lunch was experienced, yesterday, at the ‘now’ moment of the lunch, but there is a fundamental difference of my present consciousness of the meal I am taking in the present, and my present consciousness of the meal I took in a ‘now’ of the past. Husserl would develop a complex system to account for this further distinction. The ‘now’ can never be experienced in isolation or independence from the experience of the past and of the future. 6

Why would past, present and future be necessarily connected? Everyday experiences confirm this hypothesis. As I hear the sentence ‘this song is nice’, I can make sense of it, that is, I can derive a meaning from it, only inasmuch, when as I hear the end of the sentence (‘nice’), I can connect this present experience with the experience, in the recent past, of its beginning (‘this… song… is’). Without a profound connection between the three times, human language would not be possible. It is not simply memory that allows me to connect ‘… nice’ with the remembered ‘this song is…’. There is, arguably, no conscious process of memory or remembrance in the rapid experience of a heard sentence. As Husserl contends in ““Content-moments” and “apprehension-moments” and the Evidence of Fresh Memory,” 7 it is not the remembrance of a succession of consciousness, that is, memory, which must be explored, but rather the consciousness of succession. For Husserl, time is more than a succession of now-moments: our deep experience of time is one fully aware of the very successive nature of temporal moments. Succession thus becomes one more object of consciousness that will interest Husserl.

Being conscious of succession, of the evolution of an object, is very different from the primordial consciousness of this object. How can we model this consciousness? Husserl suggested three connected moments: primal impression (in the present), retention (of past moments) and protention (of future moments). Retention is not memory: the latter is the consciousness of a past ‘now’ moment while the former is the relation of two phases of consciousness, 8 or “consciousness of the past of the experience.” 9 Thus, Husserl attempts to develop a concept amenable to account for our consciousness of the past, which would be different from memory. It can also be further clarified in what is perhaps the most sophisticated of Husserl’s hypotheses on time. In “The Continua of the Running-Off Phenomena. The Diagram of Time,” Husserl suggests a graphic representation of his understanding of time: 10

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This representation is based on a further distinction suggested by Husserl. The horizontal line is the Langsintentionalität or ‘horizontal intentionality’, representing the flow of the instants of living presents. Querintentionalität or ‘transversal intentionality’ represents the ‘movement’ of consciousness, at a particular moment of the present, towards specific objects of consciousness. Here: consciousness of past events.

We can illustrate this model with a concrete example. At a moment ‘A’, I leave my house. At the moment ‘P’, I get on the bus. At the moment ‘E’, I reach my office. What is the nature of my consciousness of A when I am in the moment E? The model presented by Husserl suggests that each moment of our lived experience ‘sinks down’ to its corresponding element of retention, ‘ A’ .’ My consciousness can ‘access’ this past moment of present experience by ‘reaching’ this retention. And this model also permits to account for the consciousness of elements extended in a duration of time, that is for the aforementioned consciousness of the succession of moments as a proper object of consciousness. For instance, I can access the consciousness, as I reach the department, of the progression or succession of moments that happened from my house (A) to the bus (P), through their equivalent retentions, A’P’. As noted by Mensch, 11 the fact that the lines AA’ and PP’ are parallel means that the ‘sinking down’ of the moments A and P must occur at the same rate. Otherwise, in our example, my entering the bus may seem to have occurred before my leaving the house.

In spite of the apparent coherence of Husserls’ schematisation of time, his demonstration is marked throughout by a number of ambiguous and obscure propositions. This is perhaps to be connected with the openly tentative nature of Husserl’s enquiry, as stated in his Bernau Manuscripts: “As in this treatise so generally, we bore and we blast mineshafts in all possible directions. We consider all the logical possibilities to catch sight of which of these present essential possibilities and which yield essential impossibilities, and thus we ultimately sort out a consistent system of essential necessities.” 12

Moreover, as seen in the last part of Husserl’s discussion on time, past is a central focus for the phenomenologist. This is certainly due to the scientific scope of Husserl’s study, still intended for psychology and the cognitive sciences, and located their respective realms. These fields are more interested in finding models to explain for an individual’s psyche vis-à-vis her past, than towards her future. The latter cannot be accounted for ‘objectively’, so the subjective account for it appears as irrelevant for this scientific approach. As we will see, this is not the case for Heidegger’s understanding of time. Then, the human subject is as much affected by her past as she is by her future. While Husserl developed a theory stretching the limits and the scope of natural sciences, the real schism from the scientific approach would occur properly with Heidegger.


Image courtesy: The Poor Print



  1. Edmund Husserl, On the Phenomenology of the Consciousness of Internal Time (1983-1917), trans. J. Brough (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1991).
  2. Michael R. Kelly, “Phenomenology and Time-Consciousness,” in Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, 2008, accessed November 25, 2013,
  3. The following instances are loosely inspired from Kelly, “Phenomenology and Time-Consciousness.”
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Husserl, On the Phenomenology…, 66-71.
  7. Ibid., 323-329.
  8. See Husserl, On the Phenomenology… 33-34 & 337-346.
  9. Ibid., 323-329.
  10. Ibid., 29.
  11. James Mensch, “A Brief Account of Husserl’s Conception of Our Consciousness of Time,” n.d., accessed November 25, 2013,
  12. Edmund Husserl, Die ‘Bernaur Manuskripte’ über das Zeitbewußtseins 1917/18, ed. R. Bernet and D. Lohmar (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2001), 189, quoted in Mensch, “A Brief Account…,” 1.