Intentionality and Time: A Puzzle







Intentionality and Time



The way we talk about intentionality in relation to time has some puzzling features. On the one hand, we say that we can have intentional relations to entities that exist at other times than the act of intentionality: we can remember things and events from the past and we can predict future things and events. On the other hand, we speak as if the intentional act and its object are simultaneous: thus we say that the object is “present to the mind” or “before the mind” or “in the mind”.  [1] For example, I remember going swimming yesterday: the event is in the past relative to my act of remembering, and I stand in an intentional relation to it. But it is also true that the past swimming is now “present” to me, “before” my mind, “in” my mind—and these locutions appear to imply simultaneous existence. If we use these words in application to physical things, they clearly imply simultaneity: if xis present to y or before (in front of) y or in y, then x and y must exist at the same time. If a chair is present to a table or before a table or in a table, then the chair must exist at the same time as the table—it can’t have gone out of existence and still stand in these relations to a table. And isn’t it as if the past event is simultaneous with my remembering it—as if I am reliving it? It really does seem right there in my consciousness, concretely hovering (though in the past!). Note that even in perception the objects we perceive are strictly speaking in the past relative to our perceiving them, since light has a finite velocity and nerve signals are even more finite; distant stars can be seen, even though they may have gone out of existence long ago. Yet the perceptual act presents the object as existing at the same time as the act itself. The object lies in the past but it seems to exist in the present, alongside the perceptual act. Thus we speak as if the two are co-present.

            The puzzle is that no two things can be both co-present and not co-present: x cannot be present to y and yet be in the past (or future) relative to y. Nothing can be in my mind at t and yet not exist at t, if “in” has its usual meaning. The way we talk about intentionality thus appears contradictory, or at least confusing. How can the apparent contradiction be resolved? One response would be to deny that we have intentional relations to past and future things: we only ever think about what is contemporaneous. We don’t apprehend past events in memory, not “directly” anyway: what comes before the mind are present episodes of remembering not past episodes of swimming. There are really two intentional objects here, one that is present to the mind and another that is absent from it—a present mental object and a past non-mental object. It is not the same thing that is both present and past. The sense datum is before my mind when I perceive an external object, but the object itself may exist only in the past. The trouble with this view is that it denies that I can have intentional relations to past and future objects, and it postulates peculiar inner objects of intentionality.

            A second response would be that nothing is ever present to my mind: we talk as if we have intentional objects present to us, but that is an error. Nothing is ever “before” the mind or “in” the mind. For that would imply that they co-exist with the act of thinking about them, and they simply do not. Ordinary language contains an error—and so does ordinary phenomenology. We should therefore stop saying that past and future objects are present to the mind or before the mind or in the mind. That is as bad as saying that a chair that used to be adjacent to a table is still “present to” the table even though it was destroyed years ago. We should abandon all talk of “presence” and its ilk, since it falsely implies simultaneity. The trouble with this view is that it is overstated: are we really guilty of such a grotesque error? Why isn’t it more obvious to us? No one supposes that past chairs can co-exist with present tables, so why do we suppose that past events can co-exist with present mental acts? Why would we say such a silly thing?

            The obvious reply is that there is no error here—there is just metaphor. When we say that a past event is present to the mind we don’t mean that it is literally occurring simultaneously with the act of remembering it; nor do we mean that an object is literally contained in the mind when it is “in” the mind, as a knife is contained in a drawer. These are just colorful ways of stating that we have memories or expectations. When I say that my swimming yesterday is now before my mind all I mean is that I am remembering it—the word “before” cannot be taken in its ordinary sense. It is poetic license, loose talk. Thus we have no real contradiction in the way we speak: literally I remember my past swimming, but it is only in a metaphorical sense that this swimming is present to my mind—and these two propositions don’t contradict each other. It is like saying that Juliet is the Sun while also denying that she is a huge fiery ball. The trouble with this view is that the metaphor theory is implausible: it is not that we are indulging in fanciful poetic language—we take the talk of presence a lot more seriously than that. It really is true that my past swimming is currently before my mind, in my mind, present to my mind. I am not willing to give up these locutions, sticking merely to the proposition that swimming is something I remember—I want to insist that the past event is now at the forefront of my consciousness. It is staring back at me across an expanse of time. If you could look into my present consciousness, you would see it ensconced there. The past is with me still.

            So we feel inclined to insist. Let us take this insistence seriously and see where it leads. Then we get the theory that the past event still exists and is literally contemporaneous with the act of remembering. The time of its original occurrence is past, but the event itself outlives that time—it does not exist only in the past. So it is quite true that my past swimming co-exists with my remembering it, even though the time of that swimming is not the same as the time of the remembering. In a sense, the swimming continues to exist “outside of time”: it exists at all later times, available to be thought about. Thus the metaphysics of time allows past events to be concurrent with events of remembering them. According to this picture, I am in an intentional relation to an event that occurred at a past time, but I am also in an intentional relation to an event that exists at the present time—and these are the same event. The sense in which my intentional object is past is that its original occurrence lies in the past; the sense in which it is in the present is that it still exists at the present time, which is why it is now present to my mind. A past event can also exist in the present, so long as we adopt the right metaphysics. The trouble with this view is that it requires us to accept a highly revisionary metaphysics of time, and all because of the way we talk about intentionality. We have to suppose that everything that has occurred still exists. Some thinkers have adopted this kind of view of time and existence, usually because of considerations from physics, but no one has ever adopted it as a way to make sense of the way we talk about (and experience) intentionality. It is timeless existence that allows objects from other times to be apprehended in the way we apprehend them. Presence to the mind really does mean presence.

            I won’t express an opinion about which option I prefer. I am merely presenting a puzzle. The metaphorical view is the most conservative position, requiring nothing radical; but the metaphysical view is the most exciting, upending our usual conception of time. Philosophers of different persuasions will find one view more to their liking than the other.


  [1] We also speak of having things “on my mind” or “going through my mind” or being “oppressed by the past” or “weighed down by the past”. But these locutions, if used in application to the physical world, all connote simultaneity: it is only possible for a physical object to be weighed down or oppressed by something if that thing exists at the time, and nothing can be on something or going through it without existing at the time.

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