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Heidegger's Temporal Idealism

William Blattner, Heidegger’s Temporal Idealism (Cambridge: Campbridge UP, 2005).

Temporal Reckoning for the Political Being
Every political methodology must presuppose some relation to the past, present, and future. Even if it is a mode of forgetting or sequestering, a disavowed relation is still a relation. The imperative thing that must be recognized is how different ways of being temporal will produce drastically different political approaches. Second, in the domain of the political (not in Heidegger’s fundamental ontology), a certain privilege must be placed on the present. The present is where activity or inactivity takes place, and it is a dangerous gesture to allow a past to determine the present, or to let the future determine the present.    The first sections of this essay will be a commentary on William Blattner’s recent book Heidegger’s Temporal Idealism. This book explicates Heidegger’s original contributions to the philosophy of time. From these initial insights, I will show the critical role temporality plays in constituting political methodologies. Ultimately, I will advocate a concentration on the present using Foucault and a critique of Heidegger and Hegel.

William Blattner’s book, Heidegger’s Temporal Idealism focuses on the development and failure of Heidegger’s philosophy of temporality. The text emphasizes the work done in Being and Time, and the published lecture courses shortly following that period of Heidegger’s thinking. Blattner’s book begins with a basic overview of the fundamental ontology developed in Being and Time, giving a solid account of essential Heideggarian concepts. The following chapters illustrate the various temporal distinctions that Heidegger makes. Blattner explicates Heidegarrian temporality as a derivation sequence of different modes of time. The discussion begins with an investigation into “Originary Temporality” and its relation to the basic structures of Dasein such as “care” and “Being”. Blattner explains originary temporality as the non-sequential condition for the possibility of Heidegger calls “world time”. World time is the time that Dasein reckons with in order to be engaged with the world. There are four structures of world time that Heidegger distinguishes that gives world time the characteristics of having a significance as ‘a time to do X’. So in world time, which is the condition for the possibility of “clock time” or scientific “objective time”, time is always engaged in the world as the way that Dasein calculates his or her comportment with other Dasein and other non-Dasein entities. Before time is “twelve o’clock” (clock time) it is “lunch time” (world time). Time also has what Heidegger calls a “datability”. With datability, time is measured or dated, but not in the sense that clock time measures time. Time is originally marked by grounded worldly events. So instead of the American Revolution happening in 1776, 1776 is made possible by the American Revolution and other datable occurrences of “that time”. Before we can have an abstract and quasi-arbitrary notion of the year 1776, a worldly event must happen. Dasein must be engaged in a world, and reckon with time in such a way that time allows Dasein to live this or that event before we can abstract from the quality of time and quantify it in clock time or calendar dates. Heidegger also rejects the ordinary conception of time that thinks of time as isolated moments. For Heidegger time is more originally “spanned”. That is there is never “one point in time” that is now, or that was then, or that will be then. Time always occupies a duration in world time. “Now while I eat lunch” is never one isolated moment in time, nor is “then when I went to class”. It is only after Dasein lives these spanned and dated times that Dasein can abstract to a conception of isolated points in time. The final structure of world time is its “publicness”. World time is always already time with other Dasein. Dasein can date this or that time on an individual basis, but like Wittgenstein’s view that there cannot be a personal language, there can also not be a purely personal time. Individual times are made possible within the context of public time.

Following Blattner’s discussion of world time, he gives an account of ordinary time, which is made possible by world time. Ordinary time is clock time, time measured in seconds, minutes, hours, days, years, etc. Ordinary time is a subordinate modification of world time which removes time from its context in-the-world an in Dasein’s projects. Ordinary time makes time extant – that is, time becomes something in itself. It becomes its own objective entity.    The structures of significance, datability, spannedness, and publicness are entirely covered up by ordinary time. For Heidegger, time in the more primordial senses of originary temporality and world time, cannot be separated from the four structures of world time, nor can it be an objective entity. This is explained in Blattner’s following chapter entitled “Heidegger’s Temporal Idealism.”

This chapter is an exceptionally rich exegesis of the transcendental idealism present in Heidegger’s early work on time. Blattner gives a solid historical and genealogical account of the Heidegger’s work by grounding it in Husserl’s phenomenology and Kant’s metaphysics. Blattner draws a definitional correlation between Kant and Heidegger by returning to the Kantian terms “transcendental idealism” and “empirical realism”. For Kant, time, as the a priori pure intuition, is empirically real, but transcendentally ideal. What this means is that in the realm of human experience, time is objectively real. It is a pure intuition, which is common and unchanging to all rational subjects. It is empirically real. However, when we abstract from human experience, and speak of things in themselves, time has no reality. Outside the domain of human experience, time is nothing. Thus, it is transcendentally ideal.   Likewise, for Heidegger, originary temporality is the condition for the possibility of Dasein’s understanding. Originary temporality is the necessary condition common to all Dasein that allows for anything to make sense, or for any worldly comportment to be possible. However, if we abstract to something like nature time, or the scientific notion of empty time, then time is nothing. Blattner gives several textual citations to support this thesis such as this one from Basic Problems; “There is no nature-time, since all time belongs essentially to the Dasein.”[1]

Another primary thesis in Blattner’s book is that the Heideggarian project of temporality fails. It is obvious that Heidegger’s attempt to develop a temporality of Being (Temporalitat) in addition to a temporality of beings (Zeitlichkeit or originary temporality) was an incomplete project. Blattner gives a rich historical account of Heidegger’s plans to publish a Division three to Being and Time, until a “friendly encounter” with Karl Jaspers on the temporality of Being. Heidegger then aborted the project and was never able to rectify the outstanding problems with Temporalitat. However, Blattner locates yet another failure in the Heideggarrian project of temporality. Blattner thinks that there is a problem in the derivative argument of world time from originary temporality.

Blattner believes that Heidegger claims that world time depends explanatorily on originary temporality. He thinks that for Heidegger’s argument to hold, originary temporality must be able to explain world time. He roots the cornerstone of this argument in sequentiality. In Blattner’s interpretation of Heidegger, world time is essentially sequential – that is, it has the character of one-after-the-otherness. Time occurs in a passing sequence. So, Blattner feels that originary temporality must explain how it is that we have time in the sense of a sequential passing of one moment after another. Blattner isolates the “originary future” to prove the failure of this argument. Blattner thinks that Heideggarrian time in the original sense is time as a for-sake-of-which, or time as an in-order-to do something. Thus a sequential series of events is made possible by the originary future, that posits a future goal or completed project in which the present accordingly becomes structured. So the sequence of events of now until then are for the purpose of reaching the future telos, and thus the originary future explains the sequentiality of the present. Blattner’s critique of this explanation of sequentiality is that not all events are the result of a projection towards a future possibility of Dasein. Although going to a university and doing one’s assigned reading and writing assignments may be a result of a future goal to become a professor, events like shopping at the grocery store or going to the beach are not so easily explained by an aspired future goal. Thus, Blattner thinks that Heidegger’s temporal project fails.

I have several problems with these interpretations. First of all, Heidegger does not emphasize sequentiality the way Blattner thinks that he does. Blattner goes so far as to say that sequentiality should have been one of the structures of world time. More importantly, Blattner bases his claims on the fact that originary temporality cannot explain world time. However, Heidegger does not make an explanatory argument for the relation between world time and originary temporality. Rather, he makes a transcendental argument. Originary temporality need not deductively explain world time, all that Heidegger claims is that originary temporality is the condition for the possibility understanding, and subsequently is the transcendental condition for the possibility of world time. World time is Dasein understandingly reckoning with temporality. Thus the transcendental condition for understanding is the transcendental condition for world time. It does not matter whether or not originary temporality explains world time; it simply is the condition for the possibility of world time. Furthermore, one cannot partition the temporal ecstases (past, present, future) in originary temporality, as Blattner does in his explication of the “originary future’s” structuring of sequentiality. Originary temporality is a unity that cannot differentiated into separate times. Heidegger says, “we shall have to ask how what confronts us in the unity of expecting [future], retaining [past], and enpresenting [present] can be validly asserted to be original time.”[2] This unity is what first opens the possibility for different times. It is not the addition of the different parts of the whole of the ecstatic horizon (past, present, future) that constitute originary temporality, but rather originary temporality is always already an inseparable unified whole. A final note, granting Blattner’s interpretation, is that even if originary temporality cannot explain world time, the philosophical worth of the temporal project in Being and Time does not completely deteriorate. Heidegger’s move to ground time in worldly events and projects of Dasein has imperative philosophical and political consequences.

Originary temporality is the condition for the possibility of understanding for Heidegger. What this implies is that nothing can be made intelligible without first having a temporal horizon to project upon. It is not as if all events were in time, as if time were some universal container for worldly happenings, rather all events are reckoned with or calculated temporally. Therefore, any political theory or event must have a temporal dimension to it. And as I will show, the different ways that one is with time, or the different ways one is temporal, will produce different political methodologies.

The four structures of world time, and the critique of the primacy of ordinary time (clock time) that comes with world time, grounds the world in time and makes time a necessarily worldly phenomenon. In world time, time is not an abstract objective entity. World time is rooted in the significance, datability, spannednesss, and publicness of concrete events. The philosophical and political contribution that both originary temporality and world time make is the absolute inseparability of time and event. In thinking of a political event, or in acting in the world, one must always reckon with time. So how do different temporal relations produce different political approaches?

The remainder of this essay will be a schematic sample of temporal-political theories. The length limitations hardly allow me to do such a rich topic justice, but I will do my best to illustrate the ways that specific relations between time and events can produce conservative and progressive political epistemologies. To illustrate these points I will use Heidegger’s notion of repetition and Derrida’s theory of the future anterior as exemplified through Hegel to give politically conservative temporal-political philosophies, and I will use Foucault notion of genealogy to demonstrate a progressive/radical temporal-political theory.

In Of Grammatology, Derrida introduces a baleful form of temporal-political agency which he calls the future anterior. The future anterior reifies a vision of the future in a way that creates a passive present. Derrida says, “the future can only be anticipated in the form of an absolute danger. It is that which breaks from constituted normality and can only be proclaimed, presented as a sort of monstrosity.”[3] The future anterior shapes the present in such a way that it destroys the present. It is exactly the notion that Hegel presents in his quasi-deterministic and utopian view of the future. Utopias that portray the future as a necessary paradise-to-come relieve the present form any call to action. Deterministic utopias posit a static future that will come whether or not an individual or social group decide to act. Apathy is ultimately as good as activity with a future anterior, so there is no reason to take the difficult path of struggle.

An example of the future anterior is present in Hegel’s early thought. In The Philosophy of Right, Hegel says, “since spirit in and for itself is reason, and since the being-for-itself of reason in spirit is knowledge, world history is the necessary development, from the concept of freedom of Spirit alone.”[4] Hegel’s world history establishes the progression of spirit in time. From the beginning of history, spirit has within it the ultimate goal of absolute freedom. The way that freedom is actualized is through a series of dialectical conflicts and resolutions in which two opposing forces will struggle and ultimately transition into a “higher stage” of human history. The final stage is when absolute freedom is realized. Furthermore Hegel’s view of world history is quasi-deterministic insofar as it is a necessary progression. His theory is in accordance with Derrida’s future anterior. The deterministic and optimistic view Hegel’s theory creates leaves the present in an idle state of political apathy. A utopian view of the future will only diffuse the revolutionary spirit of those fighting for social and political and social injustices. Hegel’s world history and the future anterior hold a relation to time such that they create a politically conservative methodology.   The future shapes the events of the present.

World history and the future anterior exemplify a dangerous relation to time in which the future acts on the present such that the present does not act. Another baleful relation to time is one in which the past acts on the present in such a way that the present idealizes an antiquated social and political state. This methodology is exemplified in Heidegger’s notion of repetition. In section 69 of Being and Time, Heidegger explicates authentic and inauthentic modes of temporal understanding. The authentic past is what Heidegger calls repetition. Repetition is a remembering of the past. In an authentic relationship with the past, an agent or social group reasserts their individualized identity by recalling what authentic possibilities they lived in the past, and subsequently reaffirming that past authentic identity. It is a staying authentic to what was authentic in the past.   In repetition, the present is determined by the past insofar as the present shapes itself as a revival or return to the past conditions. Through the course of history, material and epistemological conditions change such that one cannot expect to reach a past state by grafting past measures upon the present. Distant history is not the place to search for solutions, but it is the place to search for problems to motivate new solutions.

Foucault offers a much better alternative to Heidegger’s notion of repetition. Genealogy rather than creating a model of the past upon which to fashion the present, provides the present with a tool to make itself. Repetition establishes a past in which the present must reassert to be authentic. Genealogy does not prescribe what path to follow. It only offers the past as a “history of problems” to be used as a didactic tool for the present. A history of problems reveals the social injustices of the past for the purposes of stimulating political action in the present. If the origin of present social condition in the past looks increasingly more monstrous, it will only make the present more unsatisfied with where it currently is. And the more intense the dissatisfaction becomes, the stronger the will to struggle will become. This is why Foucault calls his political stance, a “hyper and pessimistic activism.”[5] The pessimism refers to the highly problematic origins of the present (the past) that genealogy reveals. The activism refers to the present will to break from this past. So the difference between genealogy and repetition is that repetition remembers the past for the sake of reliving it, and genealogy remembers the past for the specific purpose of breaking free from it. This relation to temporality produces a non-conservative political methodology. Furthermore, insofar as genealogy offers no prescriptions in its structural analysis, it keeps possibilities entirely open for the future. However, this reveals the limits of genealogy. It has no prescriptive abilities to project into the future. It is a tool for the present and nothing more. But this was exactly Foucault’s objective. Foucault neglected to make prescriptions about the future to avoid the possibility of a future anterior.

Every political approach is temporal. This must be understood because it can only enrich our insights into what it is to be a social and political being. Subaltern to this philosophical point, I have advocated a political methodology that places the present in a privileged position. Politically, we comport ourselves from the ‘now’ with the past and future in consideration. Therefore, the present is where action or inaction will occur. A danger arises once we start to allow the past to determine the present (repetition), or once we allow the future to determine the present (future anterior). The danger is a result of inflexibility. Any political theory must avow the unpredictability of the future, and must therefore leave a space open to change and adapt to the unexpected material and epistemological shifts that occur between the present and future goal. The future should be kept indeterminate to the point where a future anterior is not possible, but not the point where we establish an irresponsible projection into the future. The past cannot be forgotten, but it should not be a model upon which to structure the prescriptions of the present. One cannot find the solution to a current problem in the solution to a past problem. The material and epistemological differences are such that no solution can be simply taken from the past and grafted onto the present. The past should be treated as a tool for the present. It should be a method of revealing and highlighting the problematic structures of the present’s past. Conservation, inactivity and apathy will move a society nowhere.

Timothy Wong, Department of Philosophy, University of California at Santa Cruz


[1] Martin Heidegger, The Basic Problems of Phenomenology (Indiana University Press 1982), 262.

[2] ibid.

[3] Jaques Derrida, Of Grammatology (Johns Hopkins University Press 1997), 5.

[4] G.W.F. Hegel, The Philosophy of Right, 372.

[5] Michel Foucault, Ethics, Subjectivity and Truth (The New Press 1994).

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