Notes on the Absolute Time-Constituting Flow of Consciousness
Husserl’s phenomenology of time-consciousness is an effort to understand conscious life in its identity with temporal awareness. Central to this understanding is what Husserl called the “absolute time-constituting flow of consciousness.” This essay intends to serve as a partial primer for the flow and to discuss some of the difficult and perplexing questions that surround it. It begins by collecting evidence that Husserl distinguished three levels involved in time-consciousness: first, an ultimate or primal level, the absolute flow; second, the level of immanent temporal unities or experiences, such as acts, which the flow constitutes; and third, the level of transcendent objects in world time constituted by the acts. The essay then examines the connections among the levels, as well as the structure of the absolute flow that enables it to constitute both itself and immanent temporal experiences. This is followed by consideration of a series of issues concerning the flow, many of which arise from Husserl’s sometimes paradoxical statements about it. Among these: whether and in what sense the flow can be said to have a temporal character; the difficulties in finding a vocabulary suitable for describing the flow; whether the consciousness belonging to the flow is intentional in character and how it differs from the objectivating consciousness of acts such as perception; the sense in which the flow and what it constitutes are distinct but inseparable, and whether Husserl introduces needless complexity into consciousness by distinguishing between the absolute flow and the stream of experiences it constitutes in immanent time. The essay concludes with some reflections on the absolute flow as the living present or nunc stans, formulations that capture the constant and centering role of the flow in our conscious lives.