At the Straniak Symposium on Time: Beginning and End (Weingarten, 2002) I argued that the ksana-thinking of scholastic Buddhism tended to fixate on an abstract idea of temporal atoms and that Madhyamaka dissolves this fixation by showing the provisional and ultimately inconsistent nature of all temporal categories. Instead of seeing momentariness as the supreme criterion of reality, Madhyamaka takes any temporal discourse, including that of momentariness, as another occasion of breaking through to emptiness. I had some trouble working out this argument for Nagarjuna himself, but Alexander von Rospatt’s paper confirmed that the wider Madhyamaka movement, as reflected on the Maha-prajnaparamita-sastra, sees ksana-thinking as merely a first course in Buddhist learning, ùthe first door to emptinessù [T. 1509.228b]. In the sameness (samata) of non-dual insight, conceptions of permanence and impermanence alike are left behind as vain chatter. I should like here to reflect on these topics in a more relaxed way, focusing not on ancient arguments but on the frustration commonly encountered by anyone who tries to think about the nature of time. That frustration itself, I shall suggest, is not a sign of philosophical incompetence but is rather symptomatic of an inherent deficiency or indefinability in the very idea of time. Time, it seems, is designed to trip up anyone who thinks the world yields itself directly to human perception and understanding. Our failure of grasp when dealing with the phenomenon of time is itself the phenomenon to be studied. Our incapacity to conceptualize it indicates the nature and limits of conceptuality itself.
THE CONVENTIONALITY AND PLURALISM OF CONCEPTS OF TIME
As a general rule, Buddhism tarries with temporal concepts only so long as they have some efficacy for liberation. Curious speculation about the nature of time is discouraged. ‘There is a tendency... to downgrade these concepts as “not conducive to calm, to higher knowledge, enlightenment – nirvana”, or to treat them cursorily, in a very indirect way, which leaves the reader in suspense or puzzlement’ (Inada, 171). This condition of suspense or puzzlement need not, however, be a weak floundering, due to a lack of philosophical intrepidity. It may issue from a seasoned wisdom, and reflect an insight into the nature of time – the insight that there is no such thing as the nature of time! Rather than force clarity and system on the murky realities of temporality, Buddhism pragmatically adjusts to the flimsy and incoherent nature of the suppositions and habits of mind whereby we deal with temporal experience. These constitute a species of delusive thinking that offers a target for demystifying and liberating analysis. To try to give them clarity or consistency plays false to the intrinsically unclear and troubled role they play in the texture of our experience. Time should induce suspense and puzzlement. To master it in lucid insight would be to abolish its authentic phenomenality. Buddhist thought respects this confusing situation, and seeks only to analyse and heal the different kinds of delusion or attachment to which it gives rise. Can this healing analysis reach down to the initial murkiness of temporality itself, and reveal time as itself a product of delusion and attachment? Perhaps at some ultimate nirvanic level Buddhism can finally clear away the trouble of time. But such lofty prospects need not concern us unduly. Of more immediate importance is to learn to control the various kinds of sickness, the defences and fixations, the clutchings and resentments, to which the incertitudes of temporality expose us.
If even the most brilliant and cogent philosophical theories of time always seem arbitrary and insecurely founded, it might be thought that the solution to this is to bring the basic phenomenon of time clearly into view and to ground one’s cogitations vigilantly in attention to this phenomenon. Husserl indeed tried to clarify the phenomenon of time-consciousness, but in doing so he may unwittingly have revealed that the slipperiness of temporal categories is due not to alienation from the phenomenon of time but to the very nature of that phenomenon – or one might even say to the absence of that phenomenon, for it appears that we have temporal experiences but no experience of a single phenomenon called time. We orient ourselves to past, present and future events, but it seems that these three dimensions in themselves, abstracting from their ‘content’, offer nothing to be perceived and nothing to be conceptualized. All phenomena are temporal, yet time as such is not a phenomenon, nor is it a common formal structure that can be identified in all phenomena, except in the most abstract terms. Neither the intuitivity of Husserlian time nor the invisibility of Kantian time offers more than the most elementary general structure of time as a condition of our consciousness. We can talk of certain structural aspects of experience – that events follow one another, that some lie in the past, some happen in the present, others are expected in the future, and so on – but once we try to develop a rich discourse of time, whether in a phenomenological or a dialectical style, we find that what we are saying becomes obscure or uncertain or both. Or we find that we have illegitimately imported into that discourse the riches of temporal experience.
Nothing is more omnipresent than time, or more unyielding and invariant in the basic characteristics it presents. Yet the phenomenology of time is peculiarly barren and philosophical theories of time seem peculiarly arbitrary and unconvincing. This is probably because once one steps beyond the most elementary observations one enters the realm of interpretation and even of speculation – where the vagaries of individual and cultural viewpoints come into play. Even at the most elementary level one must proceed with caution. A remark such as ‘time passes’, for example, could provide the linguistic philosopher with endless riddles for clarification. And this clarification itself would quickly shift into the realm of culture-bound interpretation and speculation. Philosophers of all stripes continue to argue strenuously for the objectivity and universality of their analyses of time, claiming that temporal relations are as secure as those of logic or mathematics. They may dismiss as lazy and defeatist the view that theories of time are irremediably culture-bound, and that the pluralism of styles of thinking about time relativizes their claim to objective correspondence to reality. Physics may support this confidence in the capacity of philosophy to think about time (though one sometimes hears that the methodology of physics excludes consideration of temporality). The long duration of the Aristotelian way of posing the questions suggests that they secured a firm grip on the topic and that the that the challenge for conceptual conquest posed by time is being addressed in a great labour of clarification producing significant breakthroughs over the centuries and in recent decades. But even if one conceded that there must be some core of objective insight in the long discussions of time, the frontier between objective insight and the realm of interpretation and speculation seems impossible to define. The effort to trace it turns out to be itself a constant labour of interpretation and assessment. Meanwhile the vast bulk of what is said and thought about time is a cultural construction, in which imagination plays a major role. From a Madhyamaka Buddhist point of view the various efforts to revise and clarify discourse on time may claim the status of valid clarifications of conventional reality. But their failure to establish foolproof definitions of time, either at the level of physics or at the level of human temporality, is indicative of the non-ultimacy of any reality we can conceive or articulate.
When Husserl attempted to isolate the pure structure of time-consciousness, he kept smuggling back in concrete content that undermined the claims of his analysis to purity and universality. Indeed, to speak about the pure experience of time was already to introduce layers of significance that went far beyond the mute self-presence of consciousness (see Granel). Heidegger’s phenomenology of temporality is far more exposed to the charge of representing only one possible experience and one possible reading of temporality. An immense, irreducible plurality of ways of experiencing time seems to be the basic phenomenological datum. The varieties of temporal experience and of temporal philosophies are inseparable from the cultural and linguistic contexts in which they are constructed. Every philosophical effort to abstract the phenomenon of temporality as such turns out to be but one more way of imagining time. Thus most philosophical discussions of time, including those of our symposium, set out with ideals of the highest conceptual rigour and end up as a voyage amid the varieties of what Georges Poulet calls ‘human time’.
Human time is the time we discuss in everyday life, when we remark in consternation on how fast the years have flown, or note with surprise how the distant past is still vividly present in the space of memory. This everyday amateur philosophy of time comes to a stop when it stumbles on the question, But what, then, is time? For up to now it had been dealing with familiar phenomena of one sort or another, but now it finds itself checked by the realization that no distinct phenomenon comes into view and no clear concepts can be formed. Thus coming up suddenly against a total blank, one senses that one has made a wrong move, that this door of thought is firmly locked, or is perhaps not a door at all but only a deceptive painted image of one. Philosophy bravely attempts to push through this locked or non-existent door, but the resultant discourses are not really a breakthrough. Rather the amateur philosophy of time is tricked out with clever logical strategies and an imposing claim to objective and universal status. Ingenious new ways of thinking about time are put forward, but they have little hold on the mind and hardly affect the way we continue to flounder among our everyday temporal notions. Philosophy seeks to master and clarify the variety of ordinary philosophizing about time that is abroad in the culture, but is itself reabsorbed back into this variety. Where time is concerned it seems peculiarly difficult to transcend the milieu of ordinary language.
The effort to seize the phenomenality or the structure of time ends up exchanging the austere purity of phenomenological method for the wide-ranging empathy of literary criticism. As in so many other domains, philosophical essentialism comes to grief on the pluralistic texture of human existence, which is always embedded in particular styles of imagining, interpreting, and narrating. Philosophy itself is in danger of being shown up as a fragile enterprise, incapable of lighting upon the essence of things, and condemned instead to study only itself, to light up only its own history and its own language.
From a Madhyamaka point of view, if philosophy does not discover the essence of things, the reason is that things have no essence, but are empty of essence. Thus the dissolution of philosophy in an empty play of pluraristic perspectives does after all reflect the way things are. Emptiness itself cannot be erected into the founding principle of a first philosophy, or a new name for Being. It is the perpetual lack of a foundation, the perpetual falling short of all efforts to establish one, and it emerges in an endless variety of styles corresponding to the various paths of strenuous philosophical thinking that are explored. The philosophical articulation of emptiness would be nothing more than a seasoned scepticism, based on the experience that the goal of the philosophical quest is perpetually deferred and the insight that this deferral is not an unlucky accident but is intrinsic to the pluralistic texture of conceptuality and language. If this discovery of emptiness is a pointer to ultimate reality, the ultimacy in question emerges only in the self-defeat of language and conceptuality and is appropriated not in a philosophical thesis but in a spiritual or contemplative mode of existence.
It is in this sense that philosophy, for all its conceptual daring and rigour, or rather precisely because of these qualities, serves finally as a ‘skilful means’ of induction into empty wisdom. In particular, the effort to deal with temporal categories, and with the constant presence of time as a kind of surd that impinges on all the other topics of thought, leads again and again to a moment of stupefaction, a suspension of thought, as if one had tried to touch on the intimate essence of the fabric of reality and had fallen on an abyss. The best analogy of this experience is the frustration of the dreamer who tries to pin down the logic of his dream, a frustration that may sometimes cause the dreamer to awake.
TIME AS AN APPRENTICESHIP OF EMPTINESS
‘The Buddha taught that the three times only possess one mark, the mark of lacking any distinguishing characteristic’ (T. 1509.225a see Lancaster). The variety of temporal experience leads us rather to see time as having not one but an infinity of characters. In the Buddha’s samadhi ‘one sees that the three times are all equal and the same’ (306c), in virtue of their emptiness. Everyday reflection on temporal experience hardly reaches such heights and can only see such talk as forced and artificial. While we remain within the dream of philosophy, pluralism is the order of the day, not this ultimate simplicity. To be sure, there is a dream within the dream, the nostalgia for the simplicity of that which ever is, to aei on, or for that which lies beyond being, epekeina tes ousias. But philosophical thought schools one in renouncing such ultimate simplicity as a delusion, apparently taking one ever farther away from any samadhic vision of the Same.
Nonetheless, temporal experience, including the temporal condition of philosophical thought, exhibits amid its irrepressible pluralism two pervasive traits that provide a bridge to the Buddhist vision. First, time is experienced as hollowing out our thought and our existence, as a force of emptiness. Again, this is a phenomenon that eludes essentialist definition and is best captured in the pluralistic expression of the poets. Second, time is ungraspable we can never come to satisfactory terms with it. Just as time slips through our fingers in daily life, so the idea of time slips through our fingers whenever we try to think of time, be it at a homely or a philosophical level. Thus time is offering us a constant apprenticeship in impermanence and emptiness, so that when we first encounter the language of Buddhism it seems very familiar, building on what we have always already known.
Can Buddhist emptiness itself be brought into view as a distinct phenomenon and can it be clearly conceptualized? It seems not. The logic of the Madhyamaka emptiness philosophy is purely dialectical. It reveals the fallacy in any claim to substantial existence, but it cannot assert the truth of emptiness as a defined view. This is one of the aspects of the notion that emptiness itself is empty. Zen Buddhism eventually recognizes that the wisdom of emptiness is best captured in a poetic rather than a theoretical language. Time is an obscure and disquieting force with which we wrestle all our lives. Emptiness is equally obscure, yet is conceived as a gracious space of spiritual liberation. Buddhism claims to overcome samsaric anxieties by showing how temporal existence can be lived as a nirvanic path. By a readjustment of focus, we cease to be trapped in time and can live every moment as an occasion for embracing emptiness.
If human time is pluralistic, the same is likely to be true of the path of emptiness. Pluralism has a central place in Buddhist thought in the doctrine of skilful means (upaya). The dharma is taught in a variety of ways in accord with the varying capacities of its hearers. But this is not an irreducible pluralism, for ultimately the dharma is one and there is a single ultimate vision, that of a fully enlightened Buddha. It might be possible to inflect Buddhist discourse so as to integrate the idea of an irreducible and fundamental pluralism knit into the very texture of thought and of existence the poetic language of Zen already moves in this direction. But Buddhism does not encourage us to indulge awareness of pluralism for its own sake, especially if this leads to a relativism that is spiritually paralyzing. In a Buddhist perspective, philosophical reflection and analysis are guided by a concrete goal: the overcoming of suffering. Meditation on pluralism is wholesome insofar as it releases us from the constricting delusions of essentialism, unwholesome if undercuts faith and practice.
Thus if time causes us to suffer, then an analysis of time can be a wholesome exercise if it relieves that suffering. But philosophical speculation on time is likely rather to compound the suffering. What is needed is a practically oriented dismantling of unwholesome temporal representations. Suffering is an erroneous mode of temporal experience (Wang, 165), in that the three poisons (greed, aversion, delusion) cause us to cling to projections of past and future, counting up imaginary future gain or brooding on past injuries, in both cases imprisoned by what does not exist. The standard medicine for this condition is mindfulness (sati), whereby one lives in the present, attending to one’s actions and putting forth energy here and now.
This stress on the present reflects a practical, constructive approach to time that is traditional in India, but it also corrects it: ‘For ancient Brahmanism and for Buddhism no inert things or data exist, but only functions and activities of synthesis... From its remotest origins, India has held that the ordering of acts comes first and that duration is only a consequence of this. A philosophy of time thus necessarily derives from a philosophy of the act there is no time, but only constructions of time... What is immediately given is discontinuous, and the only continuum is what is constructed. There is no duration as such, but successive discontinuous acts whose succession is more or less well regulated... In Buddhism constructed time and the instant are the object of a radical distinction, since the first derives from an activity of elaboration and the second is independent of such activity’ (Silburn, 1).
Whereas for Brahmanism ‘immortality is found in the prolongation of a well-constructed duration’ (ib., 3), Buddhism aims to put an end to duration in putting an end to the action that gives rise to it. Buddhist ‘becoming’ is of a strictly spiritual order, and has nothing to do with the vital duration that leads to rebirth, old age, death (ib., 214).
What is immediately given is discontinuous in a more far-reaching sense than the scholastic ksana-thinkers recognized. They try to give a clean picture of temporal discontinuity as a succession of atomistic moments. But in fact we cannot map temporal discontinuity so neatly. It is not just that one moment differs from another. Rather, the temporal data themselves are so shifty and slippery that they allow nothing so neatly defined as ‘the moment’ to establish itself. Our notions of the tread of time, the accumulation of memory, are fictive continuities, and the same is true of any notion we form of the present moment.
BEYOND THE CULT OF THE MOMENT
While living in the present is the recommended cure for fantasies that enslave us, a cult of the present moment can become a new fantasy and a new enslavement. To say ‘I live for the moment’ could be a declaration of greedy attachment or of nihilistic resignation. The cult of the moment in ksana-thinking is at first a liberative dismantling of illusions of permanence, but then becomes an anxious scholasticism. ‘Let go of the past, let go of the future, let go of what is between, pilgrim of becoming (Dhammapada, 348). The verse does not encourage deep analysis of what is between but rather tells us to let it go, too, if we would be free of clinging and aversion and the heresies they give rise to – eternalism (sasvatavada) and annihilationism (ucchedavada). As soon as we begin to reflect on the here and now as a concept, we fall into ideology. It may be a hedonist ideology or enjoying the present to the full, or a despairing stoicism that accepts the grim fate of living on a knife-edge between the abysses of nothingness on both sides.
Rita Gross, in a striking essay, urges that ‘from the Buddhist point of view, whole religions are built mainly on the denial of impermanence’; ‘nirvana or the cessation of suffering is a matter of riding the razor’s edge of impermanence’ (in Jackson/Makransky, 251). Luis Gomez asks in response: ‘Is there something more to be said to the terminally ill patient or the mother of the schizophrenic adolescent than simply “all compounded things are impermanent”?’ (ib., 382). The joy of riding on the razor’s edge of impermanence is only stoical bravado if it is not conducive to nirvanic liberation. To subordinate the present to a future telos is something Mahayana Buddhism would discourage. Rather, nirvana is to be found at the heart of the impermanent present or not at all. But to assert that the moment is all there is sounds like a denial of any nirvanic dimension. Once one sees the present as opening onto nirvana one is beyond any ordinary notions of impermanence, though to call nirvana permanence would be incorrect as well. The good news of Buddhism is that we can live each moment in such a way as to be putting ourselves in contact with ultimacy at every moment.
For the loftier philosophical mind the cult of the moment may be a Parmenidean ideology of the unfailing present, an eternal now. The fascination of western Buddhists with the impermanent present moment may owe less to Buddhist tradition than to our age-old western quest for permanence. Our cultural programming leads us to invest in the moment, erected into a pure self-sufficient reality, a bare particular of totally pristine sensation, perhaps of enlightened ecstasy, all the longings for certitude and stability that have been left frustrated by the collapse of Platonism. The moment is the last avatar of the purity of the Plotinian one. It is logical that Nietzsche’s stark diagnosis of the death of God, should issue in a cult of the moment and even its impossible eternalization in the notion of an eternal return. This ambiguous combination of celebration and resignation, or of eternalism and nihilism, is found in a French thinker who draws on Stoicism and Spinoza to encourage a cult of the moment as something that is blessedly permanent in its form, however fleeting its contents:
The present is nothing, said St. Augustine, since it is only in ceasing to be. That is not my experience: the-present has never been wanting to me, I have never seen it cease, never seen it disappear, but only last, last always, with different contents to be sure, but without ceasing nonetheless to continue and to be present. Have you ever experienced anything else? For my part, in any case, I am quite certain that I have never left the present, even for an instant, or rather that the present has never left me, never abandoned me, never been lacking. (Comte-Sponville, 39)
This view of time as a matter of being installed permanently in the living present, whence past and future are perspectives that one projects only when the need arises, promises to do away with the murkiness of time. Looked at pragmatically and therapeutically, from the Buddhist point of view, is this rejoicing in the present an attainment of wisdom? Or is it a form of eternalism, based on deluded attachment, a security won by calling a halt to reflection, by an euthanasia of thought?
Similar questions might be raised about some forms of Buddhist discourse itself. The risk of eternalism is incurred in Zen-inspired doctrines to the effect that if we throw ourselves into the impermanent moment, we transcend time by time itself, transforming the nunc fluens into a nunc stans. ‘We may say that there is only the present... a present that incorporates the past and the future, because it always stays the same the eternal present of time... Most people think of time as passing and do not realize that there is an aspect that is not passing’, which allows there to be ‘something completely timeless’ about all my daily activities; ‘what transcends time (as usually understood) turns out to be time itself’ (Loy, 222-4). If we ‘go with the flow’, we are no longer in time: ‘If everything is carried forward in the current, then phenomenologically there is no current at all’ (218). Such language raises the suspicion that Dogen’s notion of being-time tends to an eternalist glorification of the present moment. The Critical Buddhists accuse Dogen of abolishing the reality of time, necessary for Buddhist practice as a path of salvation (see Matsumoto). Such criticisms in turn need to be taken with a grain of salt, given the simplistic hermeneutics of Critical Buddhism (see O’Leary). We should, I think, take Zen statements as contextual or situational ones, designed to free the recipient from fixation or delusion, and resist the temptation to brew up from them a comprehensive philosophy of time.
‘Living in the moment’ can pass as a slogan of Zen or even of Buddhism in general. But push it too hard, make a thesis of it, and its flimsiness comes to light. It has value only as a situational pointer, not as an ultimate metaphysical statement. Taken literally, it runs up against the psychological impossibility of living entirely in the present. ‘The present would be too disquieting if it was only immediate and first: it can be approached only by the detour of re-presentation, thus according to an iterative structure which assimilates it to a past or a future in virtue of a slight gap which erodes its insupportable force and permits its assimilation only under the appearances of a double which is more digested than the original in its initial rawness. Hence the necessity of a certain coefficient of “inattention to life”, in the very midst of attentive and useful perception’ (Rosset, 63). ‘Past and future will always be there to erase the intolerable glare of the present’ (68). Past and future are useful fantasies, a playful relaxation from the stress of the present. Buddhist mindfulness is not totally blind to past and future: ‘Bare Attention, keeping faithfully to its post of observation, watches calmly and without attachment the unceasing march of time: it waits quietly for the things of the future to appear before its eyes’ (Nyanaponika, 40). Like past and future, the notion of the present is itself a useful fantasy, a skilful means (upaya). Madhyamaka logic encourages us to treat all temporal dimensions as mere conventions. That allows us also to disengage from the tyranny of the present in order to embrace the freedom of emptiness.
To speak of the present as the sole, ultimate reality, is to miss the fact that this ‘present’ is never securely given. To say ‘now, at this moment’ is to make a rather nebulous, rather desperate, verbal gesture, and to discover that ‘now’ and ‘present’ are not securely given phenomena but only categories in terms of which we think, belonging to the register of vikalpa (conceptuality) or of prapanca (fabrication). Ultimate reality is found only when insight into the emptiness of every dependently arising entity leads to the quiescence of the fabrications of temporal thinking. What does it mean to say that past, present, and future are merely vikalpa? Does it mean that they are merely the product of our acts of attending? Merleau-Ponty remarks: ‘A present and a future spring up when I extend myself toward them’ (quoted, Comte-Sponville, 28). Hannah Arendt writes, summarizing Plotinus: ‘Time is generated by the mind’s restlessness, its stretching out to the future, its projects, and its negation of “the present state”’ (quoted, Loy, 219). We see the world in temporal terms because of our needs. If past and future are mirages, the present, too, is a product of our attention. Fichte saw time as produced by a pretemporal project: ‘When I say, “ego sum, ego existo”, I will to grasp myself, and my consciousness is only that act whereby I will to grasp myself... If I can exist “now” it is because I will it and consequently I will to grasp myself in the future... The future, opened by the first and originary project of the self, is the essential dimension of time’ (Philonenko,
Between time as an illusion produced by need and desire on the one hand and time as posited by a free, self-developing subject on the other, we are perhaps not obliged to choose. Both are perhaps no more than cultural styles of imagining temporality, alternative poetics of time. Dealing with them pragmatically in view of liberation, a Buddhist could say that it is helpful first to demystify time by seeing it as a project of lack, and then one should go on to master time by seeing it as a conventional set of representations to be deployed in spiritual freedom. The Fichtean notion of freedom would have to be emptied of the delusions of self-identity for its Buddhist promise to be realized. My struggle with time becomes less hopeless when I reconceive it as a struggle with my deluded notions of time. I do not overcome time by establishing myself in some lordly position as pure freedom beyond time, but rather by a sober correction of various forms of temporal delusion including the delusion of timelessness. Dealing with the upsets of time, that is, with the ups and downs of our temporal imaginings, becomes a practical matter comparable to one’s accommodations to changes in the weather.
THE PRAGMATIC STATUS OF PHILOSOPHICAL DISCOURSES ON TIME
If time is an inherently cloudy matter that is to be dealt with pragmatically, then the discourses of western philosophy may be reconstrued as pragmatic proposals and their grandiose claim to master the inner reality of time can be dismantled. I shall glance here at two western approaches to the moment. Plato’s notion of the exaiphnes, the sudden, has been taken up by Claude Romano to celebrate the temporality of the ‘event’ in a style that might remotely recall Zen Buddhism. In contrast, Hegel’s dialectic of the moment, recently studied by Christophe Bouton, reveals the unreality of the moment, and might remotely recall ksana theory. Hegel goes on to discover an identity between the negativity of time and the negativity of thought itself, so that its emptiness takes on a creative cast that might remotely recall how in Buddhism painful impermanence becomes liberating emptiness.
These beautiful philosophical constructions seem to be idealizations that are tangential to the actuality of human time or at most they constitute logical clarifications of ways in which humans imagine time, which they are unable to grasp directly in perception or definition. There is a core of quasi-Buddhist wisdom in these philosophical approaches, but their theoretical exploitation, as it develops, becomes a defence against the unease of time rather than a practical path for dealing with it. Much as both styles of reflection seek to integrate temporality into thinking itself, the detemporalizing work of concepts and language continues to undermine the effort. Thinking can come to terms with its own historicity, indeed, but it cannot situate itself securely in regard to the actual movement of time as lived. Hegelian sensitivity to the movement of historical time in fact buries the trouble caused by actual time. When one thinks within the stress of a moment of convulsive historical change, one’s thought may indeed take on the pulsating rhythm of the situation as it unfolds. But as soon as one begins to talk of time as such, the detemporalizing dynamic of idealization takes over. It is as if one offered a general theory of the weather that dispensed one from all the worry about umbrellas and air-conditioning.
There are indeed some formal laws about the way we speak of time that can be formulated with clarity. Romano clarifies the differences between the notion of an event and the notion of change: ‘The event of a sunset does not consist in the changes in the shades of light, but in the fact that this change happens (advient) – and this “happening” is not itself a change of state of something, but much rather the appearing of change of state’(Romano, 271). An event dawns on us as a novum that changes our world: ‘The event is not a modification of a state of the world but the apparition, in the world, of something new’ (273). Since analytical philosophers refuse to distinguish between change and the supervening of change as an event, they fail to see ‘what makes the very essence of an event and of the impossibility of describing the temporality proper to it’ (272). Events cannot be tidily mapped on a time-line in which they are first future, then present, then past: ‘To arrive’, for an event, cannot signify to pass from one status to another, ‘to become’ present (276). ‘If [Bergsonian] duration is a “change”, it can only be in the sense of a change without a thing that changes, that is, a perpetual supervening of events’ (277). The event is neither inner-worldly nor intratemporal but ‘forms the very opening of the instant, its drama, what Plato calls exaiphnes and defines as the starting point of all intratemporal change (Parmenides 156D), the original “change” which is not in time but where time itself has its source’ (279). It is difficult to seize this, but it does sound rather like a Zen present that cannot be subordinated to an abstract temporal order. Against Jean-Luc Marion, Romano also refuses to situate the event within a general order of givenness (donation) (17).
Romano’s analyses betray the purism characteristic of recent French phenomenology (which is greatly incapacitated by its scorn for the human sciences). He constructs the pure event, but in reality this construction is one way of imagining the event. The construction may fit a selection of human experiences like a glove, but countless others, perhaps equally significant, will not fit his model. If he generalized the notion of event to signify the supervenience within all changes, the supervenience of every moment, then it would become a tenuous abstraction. His thinking of the event is a clearing within a particular phenomenological debate, lodged within a particular cultural context. It is bound to be solicited and stretched by exposure to ways of thinking about events in other cultures. To think eventhood pluralistically is to dethrone the essentialist event to some extent and to reinstate a universal intertextuality of mutually referring events, whose eventhood is relative. Romano himself allows that ‘not only are there not two similar experiences of an analogous event, but there are never two similar events for two distinct individuals, or even for the same individual at two moments of his history. The event, envisaged in terms of its meaning, is an ultimate haecceity’ (287). If so, the very structure of eventhood would seem to be an idealizing construction with only a tangential relation to the actual texture of the given. Or perhaps it could be seen as a rule of language for speaking of matters that language cannot survey or master. No theory of the event will render superfluous the happening of poetry as the language of the event – where ‘poetry’ in turn is as pluralistic and undefined a phenomenon, or family of phenomena, as ‘event’.
Temporal terminology, at least as far as human time is concerned. seems to share the same condition as the discourse of the ‘event’. ‘Present’, ‘past’, ‘future’ have a homely usage as serving to classify happenings. But when we talk of ‘the past’, ‘the present’ and ‘the future’ we are in danger of substantializing three dimensions, of creating a metaphysical mythology. That danger is courted even more by a discourse of ‘the event’. All such designations should be used with the consciousness that, however useful or evocative, they suffer a certain suspicion of illegitimacy. They are valuable only as flexible, plastic words to point to something concretely experienced, rather like the words of a poem. The discourses of Zen koans and of lyric poetry outflank those of philosophy in that they do not allow any attachment to generalizing terms such as ‘event’ or ‘duration’, but seek at each moment to bring speech back to the phenomenon it would point to but has always already occulted.
The event is indissociable from its interpretation, and the interpretation is dependent on the entire historical context. The event is a happening of meaning, and ‘the temporality of meaning differs radically from the temporality of things or of processes in that it is not subjected to the same conditions of presence. Meaning does not have to be present somewhere to be capable of being grasped, and nevertheless, paradoxically, it possesses a temporal conditioning which prohibits thinking it as a mere supratemporal ideality, indifferent to the historical horizons in which it deploys its finite interpretation’ (289).
The more Romano speaks of the event and its meaning the more his phenomenology loses its purity and becomes reabsorbed in a rather Hegelian hermeneutics of historical horizons of meaning. Pure temporal categories slide surreptitiously into a different mode and we find ourselves unexpectedly in the midst of a discourse on the historical constitution of meaning – a discourse clearly belonging to our own phase in history, our own culturally conditioned method of mapping the movement of history. Indeed, present, past and future are never neutral quantities. How they are envisaged varies hugely according to context. Consider how these three dimensions figure in the fraught eschatological climate of early Christianity, on the one hand, and in the world of early Buddhism on the other. The differences, which carry the entire weight of a long historical tradition in both cases, are so great that the endeavour to isolate the common structure or content of the three temporal dimensions can yield only the most elementary formal properties – that in both cases the past is remembered, the future anticipated, the present lived – and again with a vast difference between what the two cultures respectively understand by remembering, anticipating, and living.
A certain Hellenic or Spinozan or Goethean desire to bathe in the sunlight of the present sets the tone of Hegel’s thought, though this desire is shadowed from the start by a sense of the negativity and tornness of emporal existence derived from Christian eschatology. The present is first grasped as the here and now, the mere moment, but this turns out on closer examination to be a nest of dialectical contradictions, the site where the negativity of time is most on display. In the 1804 Jena philosophy of nature, time is the emergence of negation at the heart of the cosmos: ‘Time, in its opposition to space, is the negative, not one form of the negative among others, but the negative itself, deployed in nature, and source of an inexhaustible act of negating’ (Bouton, 130). Hegel faces the power of the negative in its perpetual dif-ference (Differenz) as he struggles with the aporiai of the moment. The now is ‘precisely that which, in being, already is not’, ‘the pure and simple negation of itself’. ‘The essence of the now is never to be now’ (246). Language betrays the impossibility of residing in the particularity of the present: ‘When we utter the now, we make of it a universal now, detached from all particularity’ (247). The particularity of the now is sublated in the universal, which takes its fullest form as the comprehensive notion (Begriff) which is the element of the free exercise of reason. In temporal terms this is a triumph of the concrete present, as the touchstone of reality and truth:
The universal truly is, because, contrary to the vanishing singular ‘this here’, it remains present. The relation of consciousness to the now lights up then as follows: through language, the mind gives to the negativity of the now the permanence of universality, the constancy of a present. (248)
This is a presence which integrates the negativity of the moment, a present no longer confined to the point of the moment, but able to live time in the rich interplay of its three dimensions as the very medium in which the Concept moves and breathes, or rather as identical with the life of thought.
Hegel thus begins from insight into the nothingness or the moment to end with a living present of sovereign reason which enacts temporal negativity as the self-deployment of its freedom. Thus he fulfils T. S. Eliot’s dictum: ‘Only through time, time is conquered’. But Hegel’s adventure with time, luminous as it is, remains a path forged through a certain historical accumulation of conceptions. It is less a clarification of the intrinsic essence of temporality than a clearing of a free space of reason in a given context. It is a matter of ideology as much as of logic, and it is the ideology that directs the logic. A curious fusion occurs between the abstract philosophy of time as such and the concrete philosophy of history. Hegel’s philosophy is its time grasped in concepts just as much as it is time as such grasped in concepts, and the latter aspect cannot be cleanly differentiated from the former. An abstract logic underlies the concrete dialectic of the Phenomenology or the Geistesphilosophie, but the style of that logic is itself matched to the concrete historical context that produced it, as is the treatment of time in the Naturphilosophie. The striving for conceptual purity is driven by a thirst for intellectual freedom and mastery in a historical conjuncture. A discourse on time not so driven, a faultless geometry of the temporal, is a task for the physicist not the philosopher, and it appears that physics in any case works only with spatialized or mathematicized representations of time.
If any philosophy of time may claim pure objectivity, it is Aristotle’s. Hegel’s redrafting of Aristotle shifts the latter’s thought from substance to spirit, giving a positive role to the negativity of time (Bouton, 172). By the same token Hegel reveals that Aristotle’s thought is the product of a concrete historical horizon now surpassed. Once again the implication we can draw from Hegel’s accomplishment is that the discourse of essences is always doomed to be revealed as a historically constituted construction with inbuilt obsolescence. The achievement of ‘exploding the framework of current representations of time’ (138) brings an exhilarating sense of progress in insight. But this means only that a new way of conceiving or imagining time has been invented. Time looks so different in these successive portraits of it that we begin to suspect that it has no inherent nature of its own. Yet philosophical theories of time’s unreality are equally unsatisfactory they are again a rearrangement of our thoughts about time, and remain tangential to our temporal existence. Unless reread as a series of pragmatic nudges toward disengagement from faith in vikalpa and prapanca, all conceptualization of time confines us to the world of the speculative imagination.
The rebels against the Empire of Hegelian reason, from Kierkegaard and Nietzsche to Heidegger and Derrida, a coalition of the unwilling, return again and again to the moment, the Augenblick, to find there something that slips from under the control of the System and eludes its surveillance. Hegel’s dialectical construction of the concrete present is seen to miss the existential thrust of the moment, lived as the open project of the future rather than as the rich presencing of the past. Derrida in 1968 like Hegel in 1806 thinks out of the excitement of a moment of apparent revolutionary change. Derrida does not appeal to the existential moment as the site of free decision, but to the initial now as time’s self-negation. His différance reconceives Hegel’s Differenz as an endless process of temporal deferring and spacing that always already exceeds any system invoked to map and control it.
A Buddhist might argue that Hegel’s system is a marvellous clarification of conventional truth, but that the ultimate real eludes it, and that the language that would skilfully point to that real must be one that subverts the terminology of the system by a Zen-like use of paradox and poetry. If the moment is invoked to signal the limits of Reason, the temptation is great to make the moment itself the bulwark of anti-metaphysics that is easily absorbed by the metaphysics it opposes. Paradoxically, it is the realization that the notion of the moment is a flimsy and incoherent one, a mere provisional designation, that makes recourse to it an effective counter-pole to metaphysical imperialism. Recourse to the empty moment is the first gate of access to emptiness as such. The moment lacks inherent existence, and this lack is not remedied by the system that absorbs the particularity of the moment into the universality of the living present of Reason. The universal discourse that masters the moment by articulating its dialectical contradictions runs up against dialectical contradictions of its own again and again until it is developed to the final position of absolute knowing. But is this free, sovereign reason now free from contradictions, or does it continue to discover its own provisional and conventional status, as if the original emptiness of the moment had laddered and affected every subsequent position and now continues to affect even the highest position attainable? Madhyamaka Buddhism and Zen would undoubtedly consider that the admission of emptiness at the point of departure of the Hegelian system percolates through its entire fabric and never allows it to rest in secure self-existence (svabhava). Buddhism is thus the most powerful ally of the rebels against the Hegelian Empire. In temporal terms, the living present of Reason is as much a flimsy construct as the punctual presence of the moment. Buddhist reason, for its part, postulates no totality, but takes each datum of temporal experience as an occasion for analysis opening on emptiness and liberation.
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