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Being “in-tact” and well: metaphysical and phenomenological annotations on temporal well-being

Abstract

Well-being depends not only on what happens but also on when it happens. There are temporal aspects of well-being, and to a large extent those aspects are about relative timing—about being “in-tact.” On the one hand, there is a perspectival aspect about being in-tact with one’s past, present, and future or, in a less involved sense, with one’s life as a whole. On the other hand, there is a synchronization aspect of being in-tact; and this aspect occurs on different levels: It might be about the alignment between different temporal domains—such as time as individually perceived and physical or intersubjective time. Or it might be about a single domain, especially the inner dynamics of individual time. The danger of not experiencing and acknowledging the relational character of these different timings likely leads to a substantial loss in the variety of human experience. Important aspects of subjective and intersubjective experience might fade away. The present paper discusses these aspects of well-being along the lines of distinctions and concepts prominently used in the metaphysics and the phenomenology of time. Thus, the paper also aims to complement the existing literature by bringing together important strands of current philosophical research.

Introduction: well-being and timing

Well-being relates not only to what happens but also to when it happens. By “well-being” I here refer to the rather restricted commonsense notion of a positive situational subjective feeling, the opposite of a concrete state pain or suffering.Footnote 1 Take an everyday example: an ice cream might contribute to my subjectively felt well-being, but it will not contribute to the same extent at all times. It serves me more during a hot summer’s day than during a cold winter’s day, and I would be annoyed both in summer and winter if someone wakes me up in the middle of the night to give me some ice cream. To be a bit more precise then, what is important here is the timing of an event or state relative to other events or states. These might be external physical ones such as the sun shining or it being cold, or they might be intersubjective or internal subjective ones such as common rest periods and individual sleeping habits.Footnote 2 Notably, relative timing is also important in cases where—instead of being given ice cream—I want to buy some ice cream myself. If the relative timing is off between my intention to buy ice-cream at a kiosk and the kiosk being open, then I will not succeed in buying ice cream. If the timing between events or states is bad in this sense, actions fail and expectations are disappointed.Footnote 3

Thus, the most straightforward assumption about the specific temporal aspect of well-being is that it has something to do with the relative timing or “tuning” of events or states, and that, metaphorically speaking, I am better off if my own states (my own actions and experiences) are somehow “in-sync” or “in-tact” with other states or events. The aim of this paper is to have a closer look at these, as it were, timing aspects of well-being—and at their limits.Footnote 4

Notably, relative timing does not cover only cases of different events or states occurring at a given time. Relative timing refers also to events and states at different times. (If I already had an ice cream today, I might not want another one.) A peculiar and important relative timing for human well-being is also the distribution of pleasant and unpleasant events over one’s whole lifetime. Thus, being “in-tact” might refer (i) to temporal aspects in the relation between me and the world around me (including other people), (ii) to the relation between my past, present, and future states, or (iii) to the general distribution of certain states of mine over my whole lifespan.

Addressing the relation between time and well-being is by no means something new (see, for instance, Velleman 1991, Moore 2003, and Steinfath 2020). However, the present paper aims to complement the existing literature by adapting prominent concepts and distinctions from the philosophy of time to questions of well-being. That is, instead of starting from concerns about well-being, I will start from standard concerns about time and relative timing to then address well-being. More specifically, I will address different notions of being in-tact in the light of, first, the analytic metaphysical distinction between tensed and tenseless orderings (of/in time) and, second, the phenomenologically inspired distinction between an individually perceived time or lifetime, on the one hand, and external or world time, on the other.

The paper proceeds as follows: Sect. 2 introduces the distinction between tensed and tenseless orderings and then relates them to a perspectival aspect of relative timing and well-being. More precisely, there will be a distinction between a rather involved and immediate view versus a more distanced and mediated view on one’s own well-being. Toward the end of the section, the limits and complementarity of both views are considered. In contrast, Sect. 3 introduces what might be called a synchronization aspect of relative timing; namely that of being “in-sync” with oneself and with the surrounding world. However, as the discussion will show, perfect and perpetual synchronicity is not desirable, and it is desynchronizations that are, at least from time to time, to be sought. Closely related to these findings, Sect. 4 explicates the importance of both recurrence and change and explains why naïve identifications and reductionism are dangerous for human well-being. The paper ends with a brief summary that brings together the previous discussions and highlights important communalities.

Living “in-tense” and considering life as a whole: A- and B-well-being

Typically, analytic metaphysics of time is not concerned with questions about the conduct of life and, more specifically, with well-being (see Mellor 1998 as a standard example). Instead, a main concern in the debates within this area of research is the ontological priority of tensed versus tenseless orderings of events (or states, facts).Footnote 5 However, taking a look at this distinction may help us learn something interesting about the issue of priority with regard to well-being.

Just as a brief reminder: In a tensed ordering, events take place in the present, past, or future. Thus, the present is the absolute (and moving) point of reference in respect to which everything is ordered. Following McTaggart (1908), this ordering provides a so-called A-series of events. In contrast, in a tenseless ordering—McTaggart’s so-called B-series—there is no “present” as such, no unique point of reference. Events take place relative to each other: earlier, simultaneously, or later. Thus A-statements such as “I am hungry now” or “The concert took place three days ago” contrast with B-statements such as “I am hungry on Monday at 3pm” or “The concert takes place on the 15th of August.”Footnote 6

The prominent metaphysical controversy is between A- and B-theorists; that is, between people who think that either the A- or the B-series is ontologically fundamental. (A typical B-theorist, for instance, would claim that the truth makers for all statements, including A-statements, are tenseless; see, again, Mellor 1998.) However, questions about ontological priority and truth are not the focus of this paper. Instead, I use the distinction between a tensed and a tenseless ordering as a heuristic for investigating well-being. So, the question to be answered is this: In what sense and to what extent does subjective well-being depend on events being past, present, or future—or, alternatively, on events happening earlier, simultaneously, or later in relation to each other?

Living “in-tense”: A-well-being

A little thought experiment (following the lines of Parfit 1984) might illustrate why, in terms of well-being, it is relevant whether events are past, present, or future. Suppose yours is a “perfect day” and you have a choice about where you put it in time. Would you prefer to live your perfect day tomorrow or yesterday? Or, to provide an opposite example, assume it were unavoidable to undergo a painful treatment at the dentist, but one had the choice of whether this treatment is placed in the past (yesterday) or in the future (tomorrow): Which time should one choose?

In the case of the perfect day, one might be inclined to choose the future option.Footnote 7 Experiencing my perfect day tomorrow means that I can still enjoy today’s anticipation, tomorrow’s actual experience, and then afterwards the beautiful memory. If, in contrast, I experienced my perfect day yesterday, it is only one of these three components (namely the beautiful memory) which I can still enjoy. Accordingly, in the case of the dentist I might go for the past option because then it is only the memory of the painful drilling that is still with me. There is no more fear of a future pain and, especially, no actual hurt I still must undergo.

It is not important whether the reader agrees with the details of this example as long as she or he agrees that in general it can make a difference for one’s well-being whether something is happening right now, whether it happened in the past, or whether it is still to come.

Let me modify the thought experiment a little: Suppose your perfect day lies in the future, but you can influence its exact timing therein. Would you prefer to have your perfect day tomorrow or in six weeks’ time? Here it is the first option which is often chosen.Footnote 8 The reason for this might be a combination of desire and concern. I do want the joyful experiences to become present soon, and I feel unsure about the long-term course of events and all the things and changes that may happen within six weeks (maybe I no longer consider enjoyable what looks like a perfect day for me now).Footnote 9

Of course, details are subtle here. There might be further events and plans which make a six-week postponement look attractive—and after all, as we say in German, “Vorfreude ist die schönste Freude!” However, it is again not the details that are important here. It is just that differences can and do occur which make the degree of futurity of an event matter.

Taken together, there are important aspects in which tensed or A-relations matter for well-being. Or, to use a more bloomy expression: It is about living “in-tensely.” The experiential immediacy of the present, memorial reference to past events, and anticipations of future events all contribute in peculiar ways to one’s momentary well-being. Accordingly, this type of well-being might also be classified as an “A-well-being.”Footnote 10

One might wonder about the extension of such an A-well-being. As already indicated, often the narrow present is of most immediate concern, and when going into the farther future caring weakens. However, details are complicated and caring usually does not die away completely even for the far future; also, my memories do not completely fall away even for the far past of my childhood.Footnote 11 Thus, there surely is a sense in which tensed concerns cover my life as a whole. But the standard cases in which one would talk about an A-well-being are, I suggest, rather on the scale of hours and days or maybe weeks and months. In contrast, when considering life as a whole, one usually changes one’s (temporal) perspective on the relevant events. Let me turn to this phenomenon next.

Considering life as a whole: towards B-well-being

When considering life as a whole, one usually looks at events from, as it were, a less involved (less “in-tense”) distance. The focus is not on the tensed relations of rather short-scale A-well-being, but on gaining a more detached and broader (temporal) overview. This long-scale perspective might still be tensed, still be a variant of A-well-being. However, often it is not. When describing one’s life in a less immediate and more abstract fashion, it is quite common to change toward tenseless descriptions and to shift from a first- to a third-person perspective (Pronin and Ross 2006, Trope and Liberman 2003). Again, details are complicated, but it seems that, when describing events which are relevant to my life but which lie in the distant past or future, these events somehow seem to be less about me, about the person I am right now.Footnote 12

To illustrate why such a less involved perspective is not only possible but indeed reveals a further and important aspect of well-being, let me come back to the thought experiment above and tighten it up a little.

If one prefers to live through a perfect day tomorrow (instead of yesterday), what about one perfect day in the future versus two perfect days in the past? Or, as for the negative case: If one is better off by having had a dental treatment yesterday than by undergoing one tomorrow, what about two or seven or a hundred past dental treatments instead of a single future one? After all, past dental treatments do not hurt me anymore, so I do not care about any past number of such treatments as long as I will never experience a single one again. The past, as it were, does not matter if only the future is bright.

Of course, this is just a thought experiment. But it shows a kind of rational tilt that can occur if a focus on one’s A-well-being turns into a blunt search for momentary benefit. There is a sense in which it does not seem reasonable to accept an arbitrarily pain- and distressful past just to secure a pleasant present and future, no matter how small this pleasantness and how short this future may be. Such a focus on momentary benefit will hardly lead to a balanced life, and the thought experiment strongly suggests that there is another aspect of well-being which takes stock of all dental treatments, perfect days, etc. of one’s whole life. There is, as it were, some kind of lifetime well-being; and, due to its tenseless nature, it might be called “B-well-being.”

This type of well-being is always the same, no matter whether one looks at it today or next week or whether it is now Tuesday or now Saturday.Footnote 13 However, it is a genuinely B-well-being (and not simply a “life sum well-being”) because it is still based on temporal relations, though only on the tenseless relations of being earlier, simultaneous, or later. For instance, there is arguably a considerable difference in B-well-being between a life “going uphill” and one “going downhill,” even though the accumulated joys and sufferings of these two lives might be the same (Dorsey 2015). This is because it makes a difference which (joyful and painful) states are gone through earlier or later.Footnote 14 Again, details are subtle and controversial, but it is only the general point that is important: The temporal aspects of well-being are not sufficiently covered by A-well-being in the above sense. A more distant (tenseless) view is important, too, suggesting the notion of a B-well-being (Sieroka 2018: 89–92).

Against foundationalism: between momentary benefit and perfect rationality

The previous two subsections have used the distinction between tensed and tenseless orderings as a heuristic starting point for introducing two temporal aspects of well-being. Next, one may wonder whether the dispute about a possible metaphysical priority of one series (A- or B-) over the other finds an analogue in the context of temporal well-being.

Indeed, giving a full-grown priority to A-well-being is already marked as irrational. This was shown in subsection 2.2 by the thought experiment about focusing on a (tensed) momentary benefit. However, then, what about always giving priority to B-well-being? Indeed, several philosophers—among them rationalists such as Spinoza and, more recently, thinkers such as Sidgwick and Rawls—strongly advocate doing so.Footnote 15 Or at least they view a focus on A-well-being as a case of falling prey to immediate, short-term inclinations. Instead of letting themselves go, people should make use of their unique capability, their rationality, to overcome such tensed irritations.

However, even the most trivial everyday examples show how difficult it is to do this. From tearing off a plaster (Parfit’s example) to the ice-cream example from above, it is very hard to live exclusively by rational convictions. My previous (tenseless) considerations indicate that ripping off a plaster quickly and that eating not too much ice cream are the rationally preferred options. The first clearly reduces the overall harm of the ripping and the second is advantageous for my health. But, alas, when the pertinent situations are present (with all their power of experiential immediacy) I might neither rip the plaster quickly nor refuse to eat the ice cream.

Even though these examples are trivial, they nicely illustrate the general tension between short- and long-term aspects of well-being. Indeed, as will become clearer in the next section, this tension is not merely about some kind of human weakness in everyday life. Rather, this tension is based on the constitutional character of tense for human perception and experience in general. And this tension cannot be dissolved by metaphysical disputes about a possible ontological fundamentality of either the A- or the B-series. Instead, it is important to realize that both aspects are important for the self-perception of human beings.Footnote 16 A-well-being is fundamental or irreducible in the sense that well-being is related to perceptual experience and that this experience is always and necessarily tensed. If I see something, I see it now; if something hurts me, it hurts me now. It is constitutive of perceptions that they are immediate and present. Similarly, it is constitutive of memories to refer to the past and of hopes and fears to refer to the future. And this is true regardless of whether one is a rationalist or not. Thus, the crucial point about rational revisionism is not about the character of those experiences themselves but about one’s attitude towards them. That is, the central question about the relation between A- and B-well-being is rather an ethical one. It is a question about putting momentary benefits into a broader perspective and being willing to view oneself from a (tenseless) distance. However, this does not imply a rationalistic revision of A-well-being itself. However, the (occasional) view from a distance surely contributes to one’s overall well-being.

Being in and out of sync: well-being and synchronicity

Section 2 focused on well-being in a rather straightforward individualist fashion. The question there was about the relative timings of events with respect to one’s experienced present and one’s life as a whole. This also meant that a perspectival aspect of temporal well-being stood in the foreground (“in-tense” versus detached life as a whole). However, there is also an aspect which allows for a transition to a less individualist encounter; an aspect which, by the same token, covers what might be called a synchronization aspect of temporal well-being.

If well-being is about relative timings and about being in-sync or in-tact, then one may wonder about its quality. Is it something like attaining perfect synchronicity—and if so, synchronicity between what? Obviously, time is not just something which one experiences individually. Time is also a dimension of the natural events around me (flowers bloom, the tides go up and down, etc.) and of my social interactions (train schedules, appointments at the dentist’s, election days, etc.). Thus, the fulfillments of my intentions depend on the timing or occurrence of those events in relation to my actions. To come back to the example from the beginning: If I go to the kiosk outside its opening hours, I will not get ice-cream; and if I do not know the weather forecast, I might even get rain-drenched during my unsuccessful walk to the kiosk.

Thus, this synchronization aspect of temporal well-being is about the relative timing between different “lines of events,” between events belonging to different temporal dimensions. On the one hand, there is the temporal dimension in which those “outer” events, whether natural or social, happen in the world around me. This dimension is usually measured and organized by means of clocks, and, following Blumenberg (1986), one may call it “world time.” On the other hand, there is the temporal dimension of my individual perceptions and actions as I experience them. This dimension is not measured by outside means but by felt durations, and one may call it “individual time.”Footnote 17

To address this synchronization aspect, I will start ex negativo (in subsection 3.1) by investigating desynchronization, when individual time and world time are out of joint, sometimes leading to impaired well-being. Once the general underlying dynamics are understood, the question arises whether such desynchronizations and impairments could occur also on a purely individual level (a lack of synchronicity within individual time, so to speak). This question will be discussed in subsection 3.2; and then the section closes with some critical considerations about synchronicity and desynchronizations in general.

Desynchronizations between individual time and world time

Consider again the unsuccessful enterprise to get an ice cream. Of course, I would have gotten my ice cream if only I had been in time with respect to the kiosk’s opening hours, and knowing the weather forecast I may have stayed dry by running a little faster or by waiting a little at the kiosk. Thus, the failures in my action are due to a bad timing relative to what is going on around me (opening hours, weather). That is, the failures are due to what can be described as a desynchronization between individual time (the temporal ordering of my perceptions, intentions, and actions) and world time (the temporal ordering of natural and social events). Accordingly, such desynchronizations usually decrease one’s well-being; for example, by getting wet instead of getting ice cream.Footnote 18

Such desynchronizations can also describe the all-too-common states of rushing and waiting. Rushing (or so-called time pressure) is the phenomenon of the world time “being ahead” of one’s individual time combined with efforts to make up for it. Realizing the opening hours of the shop, I rush to the kiosk which, in turn, makes me feel uncomfortable because it is exhausting and maybe makes me bump into my neighbor, who then gets angry at me etc. In contrast, waiting is the phenomenon of one’s individual time “being ahead” of the world time, which again is uncomfortable because it thwarts me in my actions. Having to wait for the kiosk to open delays my shopping which in turn delays my jogging etc.

Of course, bumping into neighbours and delayed jogging are rather simple and contingent consequences. There can be more severe consequences though; and also the origins for rushing and waiting vary from simple external causes such as broken shoelaces to rather intrinsic reasons based on one’s unrealistic handling of (the temporal extension of) actions. Indeed, within psychopathology, a phenomenological description in terms of desynchronization has been used to classify bipolar disorder (Fuchs 2013). Here the states of mania and depression, respectively, represent the much weightier and long-enduring pathological extremes of one’s individual time running either ahead or after world time. That is, Fuchs takes mania to be the pathological extreme of waiting (with impatience and agitation as intermediate states) and depression is taken to be the pathological extreme of rushing (with grief and guilt as its intermediate states).Footnote 19

For the non-pathological cases, one may wonder about remedies. If desynchronization decreases well-being, what helps a person to become in-tact again? One remedy, especially in the case of one’s individual time running ahead, is, of course, patience. Patience is the outstanding temporal virtue, allowing individual time to re-synchronize with world time—to regain, as it were, natural or social con-tact. Another (in some cases related) remedy can be found in certain forms of meditation, where the aim is to focus on the present experience and widen or expand it. Typical catchwords here are “time-forgetting devotion” or “eternal present moment” (“the moment becoming eternity”). This experience is often associated with religious enlightenment and also with the notion of “flow”.Footnote 20

What happens while in flow or in time-forgotten devotion involves a widening of one’s perceptual present and hence of one’s individual time.Footnote 21 This widening, together with the fact that references to the world time have an inferior standing in states of flow and meditation anyway, leaves little room for desynchronizations. The meditator’s (stretched) individual time and the (at best vaguely noticed) world time will, as it were, hardly reach critical shear stress. Having said that, it is obvious why such states of flow and meditation are exceptional rather than standard. To secure basic human needs from ingestion to social interaction, coordination with events in world time is necessary.

As will be shown in subsection 3.3, there are indeed circumstances where a perpetual and perfect synchronicity between world time and individual time may be dangerous rather than desirable. But before turning there, let us have a closer look at the constitution of individual time from a phenomenological perspective. This will illustrate the claim just made about the widening of one’s perceptual present, and it will show a further way in which temporal desynchronization can occur and influence individual well-being.

Desynchronizations within individual time

Let me consolidate some of the above results and distinctions: Individual time refers to time as individually perceived or experienced (which is not to claim that perceiving and acting occurs to a person devoid of social interrelations).Footnote 22 Accordingly, individual time is tensed in character. What I see or hear, I see or hear as happening now; when I remember something (rightly or wrongly), I remember it now and I remember it as having happened in the past, etc.Footnote 23

The phenomenological details of individual time consciousness have been investigated famously and carefully by Husserl (2008; see also Sieroka 2015). His analysis reveals the perceptual present to be extended in the sense that it is not only made up of a (momentary) impression but also of what Husserl calls retention and protention; that is, of (presently existing) intentional references to what is just past and to what is just about to come. And it is the inner dynamics of these intentional references which is most important for the constitution of time consciousness. These dynamics encompass two aspects: first, the integration of the (immediate) past and future into the present as experienced and, second, some kind of “continuous subliminal handover” of experiential content from being (less and less) future to being present to being (more and more) past. Without such dynamics we would perceive a staccato of sensual snapshots but never continuous processes, and we would need to make constant use of explicit memory to simply follow the line of a melody or the content of a sentence—and both are very unconvincing explanations of what is going on in perception.Footnote 24

Given that these inner dynamics are about integration and continuity relations, they can be understood as another variant of relative timing. Accordingly, one may wonder whether one’s well-being decreases if those dynamics are not in-tact.Footnote 25

This question about well-being leads back to some of the aspects already dealt with in Sect. 2. As indicated, one’s A-well-being depends not only on the immediate present but also on past- and future-oriented aspects. With Husserl’s analysis at hand, one can be a bit more precise: The past- and future-oriented aspects of A-well-being occur on two levels; namely on the “subliminal” or presentational level of retention and protention as well as on the higher (representational or propositional) level of explicit memories, hopes, and fears.

Let me start with the second. A-well-being depends on present (good and bad) explicit memories, on present (high and low) hopes, and on the dynamic interrelation between them. A coherent integration of past and future events is relevant on the level of explicit references (recollections, expectations, etc.), as easily seen from debates about the relation between well-being and a narrative self. Even though narrative accounts of the self might have their limits, it seems obvious that important aspects of well-being are about responding to challenges and changes, as set against the background of a life story that covers past, present, and future.Footnote 26 Indeed, a similar line of argument seems to hold on the intersubjective level. Not only individuals but also whole societies react to challenges and changes against the background of their “life story” (history, present, hopes, and fears).Footnote 27

On the lower (“subliminal”) level, A-well-being depends on the dynamics of retention and protention. If those dynamics are disturbed, the normal temporal integration of mental content fails. Footnote 28 This failure has severe consequences: memories get lost, hopes may refer to the wrong type of content (for instance, past instead of future events), and, as already mentioned, even the ability to hear a melody or understand spoken language might be severely disturbed. Again, details are subtle and there are, of course, cases where, for instance, forgetting certain past events is advantageous for individual well-being. However, I take it that in general the in-tact dynamics is preferrable because it allows an integration of past and future into a coherent present. Notably, this interpretation is fully in line with Husserl, who took the internal dynamics of retention and protention to be constitutive of any (conscious) experience. Turning back to the findings of Sect. 2, this also explains why concerns about one’s A-well-being are pervasive and difficult to keep at bay, whereas a focus on B-well-being usually asks for an active commitment to revisionism. The pervasiveness of A-well-being then is just a consequence of the fact that the inner dynamics which are constitutive of any experience are themselves genuinely tensed.

Blue notes needed: synchronicity with some desynchronization

In the previous two subsections, I discussed the dangers of failures in synchronicity. Subsection 3.1 was about the negative implications (and even pathologies) of an individual not being in-tact with world time. Here it is synchronicity that leads to successful actions, to fulfilled expectations, and the like. Since this is obviously desirable for one’s well-being, one might wonder whether a perpetual and perfect relative timing between individual and world time would lead to perfect or ultimate well-being.

Well, in fact it does not. Continuous synchronicity between world time and individual time can lead to suffering and delusion (see Blumenberg 1986), because it bears the dangers of reductionism and misidentification. First, note that “world time” is just a handy label for the temporal dimension of physical events as well as for all sorts of intersubjective encounters. Thus, relevant world time scales range from days and nights to election periods and church years, from sport championships to annual conferences. Reducing these different scales to only a few is delusional because it reduces the diversity and colorfulness of individual and collective experience. Subordinating all family activities to football television broadcasting times or becoming a religious dogmatist cuts off, or at least diminishes, dimensions of individual and collective human existence—dimensions which otherwise range from nature to politics to religion to science to arts to what have you.

Moreover, if reduction leads to only one remaining relevant time scale—when everything appears to be in-sync, so to speak—there is a danger of misidentifying this remaining scale with one’s individual time. Intrusiveness is the consequence, and the extreme case (the “resonance catastrophe” so to speak) of such a misidentification (due to permanent “self-energizing” synchronicity) is the hubris of taking oneself to be the “master of time.” Everything gets reduced to my individual time. Everyone is assumed to dance to my tune, and I no longer take other time scales of the world around me as seriously as I should—where “the world around me” may refer to my partner or family, to people working in my company, or (if I am an absolutist sovereign) to a whole dominion. Think of sleep deprivation as an example, which occurs on various levels of intrusiveness and malignity: from a child crying in the middle of the night forcing his or her parents to get up, to a noisy neighbor notoriously giving parties, to the systematic use of sleep deprivation as a method of torture. Regarding the latter, former concentration camp prisoners often report that it is exactly this phenomenon of their jailers being “the masters of time” which was so horrible and beyond all bearing. Moreover, also certain cases of murder-suicide and especially familicide can be understood as such a misidentification of individual time and world time (“if I am no longer there, there is no future for them either”).Footnote 29

The obvious remedy against such reductionism and hubris is desynchronization. If, at least occasionally, my individual time gets out-of-sync with other times, this helps me acknowledge their difference and appreciate the colorfulness or experiential variety of human existence.Footnote 30 If a child disturbs her or his parents during work, this can also be a remedy when it makes the parents realize that “work is not everything.” The breakdown of my car, which pushes me out-of-sync with several appointments, might make me realize the beauty of the nature around me which I would have otherwise missed. It is, to use an analogue from jazz, like a blue note: something which occurs only occasionally, something which drops out of the common scheme but is still fitting, and something which makes the listener startle in a positive way, raising his curiosity to what will happen next.Footnote 31

The upshot of this section is that well-being requires both parts of a conceptual dichotomy. Similar to Sect. 2, where the importance of both A- and B-well-being was acknowledged, it is the importance of both, synchronicity and desynchronization, that has come to the fore. In the remainder of this paper, I take a closer look at this communality and what it might tell us about a possible general relation between well-being and relative timing. To do so, I take a step back and re-approach the topic of time from a rather mundane perspective. Two very general and common associations will help in my little systematization, and they will also bring out more carefully the importance of the “experiential blue notes” just mentioned.

The common theme: in need of recurrence and change

In everyday life, there are two—indeed opposing—characteristics typically associated with time: change and recurrence. Time is about things changing (flowers blooming, fog dissipating, people getting older …) as well as about regularities and constancies (sunrise every morning, streetlights every night, spring every year …). Both these characteristics relate to well-being.

Recurrences provide stable structures and hence orientation. This is true in everyday life and daily interactions, from train schedules to opening hours of shops to the structuring of political systems (election periods, …). It is true for religious and spiritual contexts (rituals as recurring events spread over, for instance, the church year) and indeed in the simplest sense for physical health (day-night-rhythm).Footnote 32

However, change is important, too. Celebrating recurring events (religious and mundane) might indeed be very important, but it would hardly be bearable if the single events or days were exact copies of one another. The film Groundhog Day explores what it would mean to be trapped in such repetition. Well-being, and indeed a good life in general, must include novelty. Living and rational beings seek novel experiences because pure repletion unavoidably leads to fatigue (Whitehead 1929). To put it in terms of a physical (thermodynamical) analogue: Living rational beings are not perpetual motion machines; some energetic (or rather entropic) input is always needed for the system to continue running.Footnote 33

This leads back to desynchronization and the occasional blue note. In order to avoid misidentifications of temporal dimensions, it is important that occasionally something unexpected happens—that is, something which offers a new experiential contrast, but one which does not appear to be completely random. A new experiential contrast offers something unexpected but still recognizable and capable of integration into the larger whole of, for instance, a musical theme or a life story.

Thus, the interplay of recurrence and change is deeply embedded in our everyday experience of time. This interplay also lies at the heart of temporal well-being, as discussed in Sect. 3 in terms of synchronicity and occasional desynchronization. Whereas synchronicity is about orientation and stability (due to recurrence), change is important to the improvement of life.Footnote 34 The danger lurking behind completely change-free recurrence (that is, fatigue) is just a variation of the danger lurking behind fully in-tact synchronicity (that is, misidentification). This is because both fatigue and misidentification originate from missing contrasts, and the danger in both is that dimensions of experience (political, scientific, religious, artistic …) fade away or get lost.

Impressions, protentions, retentions, memories, and anticipations are constitutive of time consciousness. They are also essential for well-being. Their inner dynamics can, again, be understood in terms of relative tuning. And, again, there is a need for change or occasional desynchronization. Within individual time, such desynchronizations often occur in occasions of being surprised or startled. Such occasions make one aware of one’s bodily presence and of the present as something different from the past.Footnote 35

Finally, the pervasiveness of recurrence and change is also apparent in the context of tensed versus tenseless relations, as discussed in Sect. 2. The relation between A- and B-well-being turned out to be a question about putting momentary benefits into a broader perspective and being ready to view oneself from a certain (tenseless) distance. And this readiness strongly depends on the appreciation of recurrent and new (changing) events.

Summary

Well-being depends not only on what happens but also on when it happens. There are temporal aspects of well-being, and to a large extent those aspects are about relative timing (about being in-tact) in either a perspectival or a synchronization-related sense. There are (perspectival) questions about being in-tact with one’s immediate past and present or one’s life as a whole (see Sect. 2 on A- and B-well-being); and there are synchronization-related questions about being in-tact (see Sect. 3 on synchronicity and occasional desynchronization). These synchronization-related questions then occur on different levels: They might be about the perfection of alignment between different temporal domains (such as individual time and world time, where world time can be understood as primarily referring to physical time or to intersubjective time) or within one domain (especially the inner dynamics of individual time).

A failure to experience and acknowledge the relational character of all these timings leads to a substantial loss in the variety of human experience. Important aspects of subjective and intersubjective experience fade, giving way to hubris and naïve reductionism. This is obviously the case in the context of synchronicity and desynchronization (as explicitly discussed in Sect. 3). However, it is also the case in the perspectival context (see Sect. 2): A-well-being in fact cannot be neglected because of its constitutional character, and B-well-being should not be neglected because it is a matter of rational commitment. Thus, the variety of human experience is best realized by acknowledging and aspiring both A- and B-well-being in a balanced fashion.Footnote 36

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Notes

  1. This restricted reference ignores wider non-situational aspects of well-being in terms of stance and attitude. Moreover, it ignores problems of self-delusion and, more generally, external criteria for a good life. However, this restriction seems suitable because the following considerations focus on the relative timing and the tensed and tenseless orderings of events as individually perceived.

  2. I am fully aware that there are important social aspects to well-being and that, in this respect, the ice cream example (and also the perfect day example in Sect. 2) are a bit simplistic. However, given that time rather than social context is the topic of this paper, this simplification seems allowed.

  3. Of course, there are also cases where bad timing is advantageous; for example, if the ice cream at the kiosk contains salmonella, so that the fact the kiosk is closed protects me from food poisoning. However, not knowing about the salmonella, I would still feel disappointed when I did not get any ice cream.

  4. The fact that temporal aspects of well-being are about relative timing between (different kinds of) events, and not about time as a substance, immediately reveals the misguidedness of the material-economical talk in everyday life about “time pressure,” “saving time,” “waste of time,” etc. See Sieroka (2017).

  5. For present purposes, it does not matter whether the ontology under consideration is one of facts or events or states or tropes or whatever. For the sake of convenience, I will stay with the notion of events.

  6. In B-statements verbs occur in the present tense but are to be read in a tenseless fashion. They do not make specific claims about the present but, similar to mathematical statements (“two plus two equals four”) and proverbs (“An apple a day keeps the doctor away”), claim eternal validity.

  7. Parfit (1984) here speaks about a “bias towards the future.”

  8. Parfit (1984) calls this a “bias towards the near.” See also Sullivan (2018).

  9. Again, one may also consider the opposite (negative) case: What if an unavoidable and unpleasant visit at the dentist’s lies in the future, but one can influence its exact amount of futurity? Should it take place tomorrow or in six weeks? Indeed, answers to this question go along with various intuitions and prejudices. One person may want to tough it out quickly and therefore chooses the tomorrow option; another person may want to avoid the acute worry and anxiety at all costs and therefore chooses the six-week postponement. It is remarkable, however, that both options follow an “out-of-sight-out-of-mind” strategy: the first option by getting the unpleasant event out of the way directly, the second option by pushing the event into the distant future and thereby making it disappear from one’s momentary sight.

  10. What seems desirable in the context of an A-well-being is a balance between past, present, and future aspects of happiness and pain; that is, a balanced way of life that neither wallows completely in memories (and thereby closes itself off to all present and future challenges and changes) nor one that carelessly seizes every new opportunity, even if it cannot be integrated coherently into one’s own life story. See, for instance, Zimbardo and Boyd (2008).

  11. See also Vellemann (1991) on diachronic and momentaneous well-being.

  12. See also the related discussion about narration and a narrative self towards the end of this paper. Compare also the distinction between tensed theories of subjectivity versus tenseless theories of nature in Rohs (1996).

  13. Though, of course, the knowledge about this life as a whole will vary over time.

  14. Note that both A- and B-theorists may very well acknowledge the importance (though not an ontological fundamentality) of both A- and B-well-being. For instance, so-called new B-theorists (such as Mellor 1998) allow for the existence of tensed beliefs, and tensed beliefs suffice to ground A-well-being in the above sense.

  15. See Spinoza (2005; Ethics 4p62): “insofar as the mind conceives things from the dictate of reason, it is affected equally, whether the idea is of a future or past thing, or of a present one.” Montaigne’s famous aphorism according to which “to philosophize is to learn to die” (ultimately going back to Plato’s Phaidon 67e4-6) can be read as a plea for an orientation towards a B-time well-being that always encompasses life as a whole—including its end point. As regards Sidgwick and Rawls see Scheffler (2021).

  16. See also Galen Strawson’s (2008; 2019) distinction between diachronic and episodic forms of self-experience here; and note the ethical and normative ramifications that then follow.

  17. Blumenberg uses “lifetime” instead of “individual time” as a counterpart to “world time.” However, the term “lifetime” resonates strongly with the limitedness of one’s life and with specific fears resulting thereof. Thus, in Blumenberg the foremost tension between “lifetime” and “world time” is the anxiety that my lifespan does not cover the temporal totality of the world (and which makes humans seek shelter from their limitedness by assuming, for instance, a life after death). In contrast, the tension I am focusing on is a rather mundane one: the inner temporal dimension of my personal (momentary) experience in relation to the outer temporal dimension of my natural and social surroundings.

  18. Coming back to Blumenberg’s tension between the world time and an individual lifespan, one might describe the fear of death as being in view of a final, irrevocable desynchronization. Or to put it the other way round: the concern about desynchronization only exists due to our limitedness. For an eternal (earthly) life there would be no concern about being out-of-sync because there would, as it were, always be enough time left to cope with things.

  19. See also Frankfurt’s (1999) account of caring (understood as a genuinely time-related act) and how “indifference” may lead to boredom (waiting) and “ambiguity” to diremption and paralysis. Pathological disturbances in the temporal structure of experience are also the topic of Ratcliffe (2017).

  20. Regarding the notion of flow see Csikszentmihalyi (1990).

  21. This can be seen from current popular literature on meditation as well as from, for instance, the medieval mystical tradition. See, for instance, Hudson (2020) on The Eternal Moment of Now, Hood (2006) on A Moment With Eternity or Patkar (2016) on A Mindful Eternity in Meditation. In medieval mysticism, the “standing now” (nunc stans) marks an experiential union with God which covers everything ever. Thus, there is a perfect synchronicity between the individual time of the meditator and the world time—that is, the time of God’s creation as given to Him in full in any moment. As Jacob Böhme (1575–1624) put it: “He to whom time is like eternity, and eternity like time, is free of all adversity” (Böhme 1961, 20). This interpretation is also in line with Husserl’s claim that a perfect being (perfect consciousness) is one with an unlimited horizon of retention, impression, and protention (see subsection 3.2).

  22. It is indeed a strong desideratum of phenomenology to provide a detailed account of time consciousness as it occurs (maybe in a constitutional fashion) on an intersubjective level. Thus, individual time might even turn out to be an abstraction based on some kind of “shared intentional horizons”.

  23. Whereas individual time is clearly tensed, the corresponding status of world time is rather ambiguous. If world time refers primarily to the ordering of physical happenings, then it is arguably tenseless. If, however, world time is primarily understood as an intersubjective domain, one might rather think of a tensed ordering referring to (tensed) commitments about the future etc. Arguably then, a better understanding of the relation between world time and individual time will shed new light also on possible interrelations between A- and B-time.

  24. Husserl carefully distinguishes between a “presentative” level (to which retentions and protentions belong) and a “re-presentative” one (to which explicit memories and explicit expectations belong). Regarding the future, one might relate that to the distinction in Ratcliffe (2013) between a (propositional) “planning idea of the future” and a (non-propositional) “phenomenological idea of the future.”

  25. Notably, in the phenomenological context (just as in analytic metaphysics), discussions of time have seldom focused on implications regarding well-being (see Steinfath 2020). Neither Husserl nor Heidegger nor later Schmitz have prominently discussed questions of well-being. The exception that proves the rule here is Tatarkiewicz (1966), who investigated what might be called the retentional and protentional (as well as re-presentational) contributions to happiness.

  26. See, for instance, the claim by Schechtman (2011, 414) that life stories are “carving out meaningful life trajectory by appreciating contingencies.” A critical approach towards narrative accounts is given by Tengelyi 2013.

  27. Even though a detailed account of the constitution of intersubjective time is still a strong desideratum in phenomenology, it seems fair to claim that the present self-image of a society, too, contains past and future aspects. A society must deal with its history as well as its expectations, and the success or failure of the corresponding relative timings is indeed important and often discussed—though usually not by using the term “well-being” but by talking about “justice” (but see also Renault 2010 on “social suffering”). “Historical justice,” for instance, is about present obligations that arise from past injustice such as forced displacement. Further, “intergenerational justice” looks to present obligations towards future generations, an important driver of present climate politics. Thus, to put it into time-theoretic terms: the calls for historical and intergenerational justice are (at least in part) responses to failures in the relative tuning of intersubjective times—as intersubjective times not being in-tact.

  28. Such an interpretation can be found, for instance, in Binswanger (1960) who, in his psychiatric studies, used a phenomenological account to classify melancholy and mania as temporal disorders. The former are described as a twist (and indeed swap) of retentions and retentions, whereas mania is described as a lost (a tearing) of retentions and protentions. See also Sieroka (2018, 80–81).

  29. Blumenberg (1986) illustrates this incredible hubris of taking oneself to be “the master of time” also with a quote from Hitler in early 1945: “We can go down. But we will take a world with us.”

  30. The notion of “experience” (and of “experiential variety”) here follows the one from, for instance, Whitehead 1967 (see also Sieroka 2010, Ch.s 1, 12, 14). This notion encompasses, amongst other things, what one lives through in everyday, political, religious and scientific contexts. Next, compare also Whitehead’s claim that “the purpose of … philosophy is to coördinate the current expressions of human experience … elucidating harmony and exposing discrepancies” (Whitehead 1967, 222). Strengthening this assumption, I take time to be the, as it were, “coordinating dimension” par excellence (see Sieroka 2018).

  31. Regarding the general importance of being startled (Erschrecken) in the context of phenomenology and time consciousness, see Schmitz (1992). For him, being startled is the paradigm case of experiencing one’s bodily existence. Notably, already Husserl (2008) took the possibility of being surprised or startled to be the (indirect) evidence for the existence of protentions and, hence, for (the dynamics of) time consciousness in general.

  32. See also Scheffler (2010).

  33. Arguably, this is even more than an analogue or metaphor. For a thermodynamic understanding of life in general, see Schrödinger (1944) and the vast amount of literature that followed up on this, including discussions about which thermodynamic variable is the most relevant on (entropy, free energy, …).

  34. Also compare politics here (see, for instance, Marquardt 2015a, b): Conservative politics focuses on recurrence, progressive politics on change. And whereas fatigue is the grimace of conservatism, mania (blind activism) is that of progressiveness.

  35. See, again, Schmitz (1992); and compare footnote 26.

  36. This result obviously leads to further, especially normative, questions and ramifications. However, those ramifications must be left for future (or, for that matter, later) investigations.

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Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Holmer Steinfath, Eva Weber-Guskar, Richard Allen, and two anonymous reviewers for their very helpful comments on earlier versions of this paper.

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Sieroka, N. Being “in-tact” and well: metaphysical and phenomenological annotations on temporal well-being. Ethic Theory Moral Prac (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10677-022-10307-7

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Keywords

  • A- vs. B-time
  • Momentary and life-time well-being
  • Synchronicity of events
  • Desynchronization
  • Recurrence
  • Change