Thursday, April 28, 2005

From temporality to intersubjectivity

The problem of temporality represents perhaps both the most refractory and most essential topic in the field of existential phenomenology. Under the care of eminent phenomenologists, temporality always seems to open onto discussions of the structures of Existence, of being within its world, its relations to others, of the reflexivity of consciousness, scissiparities, dehiscences, infinitions and all manner of idiolectical fractiousness; yet seldom are the reasons for going off the metaphysical deep end made clear. As luck would have it, I recently discovered a book by Grace A. de Laguna entitled On Existence and the Human World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966), which presents the core issues in a strikingly lucid and sensible way.

De Laguna's project consists in a marriage of existential phenomenology with American pragmatism and cultural anthropology that might have been considered pioneering had she waited another couple of decades before collecting her essays into a book. Her discussion of temporality in the chapter "Existenz and Existence" (esp. pp.93ff.) covers much the same ground as her European contemporaries, but with a low jargon quotient and a clarity of exposition characteristic of her style throughout the entire book.

To begin with, de Laguna rejects the idea that the being or essence of what exists can be contained within a present, for that would render the idea of temporal succession meaningless (or let its meaning depend upon the introduction of some outside agency to perpetually recreate the world of the present, in which case not only the durability but the being of what exists would be jeopardized, effectively placing it beyond inquiry while leaving the problem of temporality intact).

Temporality must lie at the heart of the being of what exists. Since the distinction between past, present, and future is essential to temporality, this distinction must be grounded in the being of every existent individual. To find such a ground we must abandon the conception of existence as an external addition to the essence of what exists. The being of what exists cannot be wholly actual, completely determinate, as just what it is at any present moment. As existence in a "present" has no meaning without reference to a possible "future," so the being of what exists in a present must include the potentiality of realizing its possible future.


We've performed the Sartrean flip in three easy steps, but we had to break a few eggs to do it. "If the being of what exists is temporal, then that being must include both actuality and potentiality" (p.94). These inclusions are not to be considered as inert:

The oncoming flow of time from the future to the present, and from the present to the past, must take place through the activity of the individual being in actualizing the potentialities of its being. While these potentialities (the "ways of being possible to it") are constitutive of its being, they do not actualize themselves. The future does not passively become present, nor does the present simply lapse into the past. To exist is to be active; it is to "make present" the future by actualizing the potentialities inherent in the being of every individual existent.


Action, of course, understood as an attribute or capability of existence, implies certain contingencies. (Is there an ontologically pure form of action? I couldn't say.) An existence that exhausted all of its potentialities or enacted all of its possibilities would cease to be. And so we are confronted with the first limit to the being of what exists, its finitude, which is established by the temporal structure inherent to existence.

To endure, an individual must so act as to maintain itself as potential--as capable of acting in the ways of acting constitutive of its being. This means that no individual can endure unles it is organized with reference to the end of its own existence. To endure--and there can be no temporal existence without endurance--an individual must be so structured as to be able to act in ways directed to the maintenance of its own being as a dynamic whole. The ontological self-relatedness that Heidegger found to be a distinctive characteristic of Dasein we thus find to be an essential condition for all temporal existence.


Having reduced Sein und Zeit to managable proportions, de Laguna prepares her tour de force:

No individual exists solitary, and in a void. As Dasein has his being "in a world," and every organism in an environment, so every individual existent has its being in an environing universe of other existents with which its own being is conjoined in reciprocal interdependence. The acts of each individual are its own individual acts, and it is through its own inherent activity that it actualizes the potentialities constitutive of its own being. Yet, as ways of acting possible to it they are subject to conditions, although they are not to be conceived as caused by external agency. No individual, not even Dasein, is its own possibility in the sense that its possibility is unlimited and absolute. Every individual must co-exist with others whose ways of acting are complementary to its own. The actualization of the potentialites of one individual must be conceived as conditioned by, and as a condition for, the actualization of reciprocal potentialities on the part of other individuals.

As each individual has its own possibilities which it realizes by its own individual acts, so it has its own individual future. But as it must act in conjunction with other individuals, it must, insofar, act in a common present, and therefore share a common time. Since an individual acts in accordance with a "way" of acting possible to it, its action is subject to conditions. But since each act is an individual act, an unrepeatable "this," the acts of an individual remain unconditioned. There can be no sufficient conditions for individual acts. The problem of the temporality of Being and the being of individuals are one and the same problem; it can be solved only in the context of a philosophy of nature yet to be achieved. But while this goal is distant, we may hope to discern its outlines and trace in advance the route that lies before us.


I leave it to you, dear readers, to follow the route de Laguna has mapped out for us, to diverge and rush and linger here and there as you will.

posted by Fido the Yak at 3:00 AM.


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