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The View from everywhere: temporal self-experience and the Good Life


It is a common thought that our experience of self in time plays a crucial role in living a good human life. This idea is seen both in views that say we must think of our lives as temporally extended wholes to live well and those that say living well requires living in the moment. These opposing views share the assumption that a person’s interests must be identified with either a temporally extended or temporally local perspective. David Velleman has argued that both perspectives are necessary parts of human experience, and each has its own independent interests. I agree with Velleman that our experience is inherently multi-perspectival but argue that there are more than two relevant perspectives and reject the claim that these perspectives have independent interests. Expanding his metaphor of narrative, I describe the way in which these perspectives continuously influence and affect one another, and suggest that living well can be understood in terms of skillful management of the perspectives that make up this complex form of temporal self-experience.

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  1. There have been several important challenges to Velleman’s claims about the temporal structure of our experience and its implications for wellbeing. To give a few examples, Bramble (2018) argues that there is only lifetime well-being. He not only denies the existence of momentary well-being, as I will also in the next section, but more generally the existence of a coherent notion of well-being for any period of time shorter than a life. Kauppinen (2020) argues that we need to think of the self as temporally extended in a way that complicates the idea of momentary well-being and argues in the direction of a more nuanced version of the second kind of whole-life approach described above. Dorsey argues directly that Velleman’s observations about the importance of the shape of a life can be made compatible with the claim that diachronic welfare can be determined by summing synchronic welfare if we simply recognize that “the contribution to synchronic welfare of temporally discrete events or other goods in a life can be affected by the relations these temporally discrete goods and bads bear to other events, and so forth.”(Dorsey, 2015, p. 326) Although the view I will offer overlaps in some ways with each of these accounts, it is markedly distinct from all of them, coming at the questions from a different direction. Unfortunately, space does not permit a discussion of points of overlap and difference.

  2. For a survey of the many forms this claim has taken see (Schechtman, 2011).

  3. Although, as I mention in footnote 1, there are by now several more complex views on offer.

  4. I actually think these claims require more investigation, but grant them for the sake of argument.

  5. I am extremely grateful to an anonymous referee for pointing out the need not to overstate the dependence of every temporally local experience on the perspective of the whole life, and for helping me see the need to clarify the claim I am making here. What I want to say is influencing our temporally local experience, at least of most of the time, is not everything that has transpired in our lives or is expected to, but rather a more general awareness of living a life, which provides context for present experience. It may clarify to briefly discuss two examples the referee offers as cases in which positive experiences are not connected to this larger perspective. The examples are drug experiences and “idle pursuits such as playing games when one knows one should be working.” I see the former as potentially a genuine example of the broader perspective being absent. The latter, however, is not. Knowing that one should be working is a connection to the broader perspective and, ultimately, to the background awareness that there is only so much time in life and it is being spent now playing games instead of doing something else. Playing games may be absolutely the right choice to make in terms of pursuing a good life, and background awareness of the broader perspective need not interfere with enjoyment of such pursuits. Indeed, part of the pleasure of playing games is often that one is doing it instead of working; it is a respite. Similarly, part of the pleasure of a vacation is that it is a hiatus from routine. This is all perfectly consistent with seeing it as part of one’s ongoing life; in fact it can only have this character if it does include that perspective.

  6. The spirit of my proposal here, and the picture of the good life it generates, is very much in the spirit of the picture of the good life proposed in Valarie Tiberius’ wonderful work on related questions of perspective, e.g.,(2005) I do not have space to give this work its due, nor to discuss the points of overlap and divergence of our positions. For here I just note that Tiberius discusses practical perspectives rather than temporal ones, and while she might allow that perspectives influence one another this is not a main focus of her work.

  7. The extent to which we do this and its importance in our cognitive functioning is a topic that has received a great deal of attention in cognitive neuroscience lately. See, for instance, (De Brigard, 2018)

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I am deeply grateful to the participants in the conference? Time and the Good Life. Philosophical Perspectives, May 2021 for helpful discussion of the ideas in this paper. I wish especially to thank Eva Weber-Guskar and Holmer Steinfath for organizing the conference and for their valuable and insightful feedback at multiple stages of writing. I am also indebted to two anonymous reviewers for their thoughtful and immensely helpful suggestions.

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Correspondence to Marya Schechtman.

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Schechtman, M. The View from everywhere: temporal self-experience and the Good Life. Ethic Theory Moral Prac (2022).

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  • Personal identity
  • Narrative
  • Good life
  • Velleman
  • Temporality
  • Perspective