Temporal Experience and Time Perception

In the next three posts I will follow-up on my upcoming paper on presence in time (see the last post). In this first post, I want to make a general point: that we should carefully distinguish between, on the one hand, time-perception and, on the other hand, time-consciousness and temporal experience. I want to raise it here in order to clarify in the next post what I mean by models of time perception. I think presence matters significantly to time perception; but it is not so obviously significant to the more general temporal experience.

1 Time Perception, Time Consciousness and Temporal Experience

In the literature, it’s common to talk variously about time perception, time consciousness, temporal experience, and so on. Are these all synonyms? Is every instance of (a) time perception an instance of (b) time consciousness And of (c) temporal experience? Or can ‘a’, ‘b’ and ‘c’ come apart from each other, such that ‘a’ can occur without ‘b’ or ‘c’, and ‘b’ without ‘a’ or ‘c’, and ‘c’ without ‘a’ or ‘b’?

I think that ‘a’ can come apart from ‘b’ and ‘c’ (and vice versa). I am not sure if ‘b’ and ‘c’ can come apart from each other and I tend to treat them as synonymous phrases.

Here is why I think ‘a’ can be separate from ‘b’ or ‘c': one might hold that (i) not all cases of experience are perceptual and (ii) not all cases of perception are experiential. As such, qualifying one of these with ‘time’ or ‘temporal’ does not give you the ‘time’ or ‘temporal’ version of the other.

Instances of experience are not always instances of perception. If there are instances of experience in remembering or imagining; neither remembering and imagining are perceiving. If one also held that there is cognitive phenomenology, and then held that phenomenology is identical to experience, then there are cases of cognition which are experiences; cognition (in this sense at least) is not perception.

Instances of perception are not always instances of experience. If there is unconscious perception, and one holds that consciousness is necessary for experience.  There are lots of theorists who think that unconscious, non-experiential, non-phenomenological perception is possible.

As such, when one talks about time perception, time consciousness and temporal experience, one must be careful to acknowledge that they might not be the same thing.

Not doing so can lead to assumptions and confusions about what’s being explained and how to explain it. One may provide answers which are inadequate and raise objections which are irrelevant.

2 ‘Time Perception’ is only different to other Temporal Experiences in terms of Quantity

The assumption that temporal experience and time perception refer to what I’m calling ‘temporal experience’ here: temporal experience includes durations beyond any we might see (or hear etc.) now–the experience in memory and anticipation, for example, or your experience of durations beyond your life–in imagining how long ago the big bang might be, or the death of the sun (the phenomenology of the time you are imagining).

Someone thinking about models of experiences of such durations, such as to the Big Bang,  is justified I think in holding that time (and temporal properties, relations, etc.) have to be something a human can only intend, imagine or in some way think about: such time is on an ontological and constitutional par with conceivable unicorns and the surfaces of inhabited alien planets. We can imagine, depict and think about time as we can think about unreal but possible things like unicorns. And, even if time is real, like inhabited alien planets, we must only think about it. To hold that we–humanscan really perceptually experience such durations is a mistake. It is not a perceptual experience like hearing rain, seeing your hand or a distant star. And so, we should conceive of ‘experiences’ of such durations as being more like the ‘experiences’ of imagined things.

Thinking this way about time and experience generally, without making an exception for time perception, we get the following. We apply this thinking to what some may call time perception, e.g., the time of what is perceived.  But such ‘time perception’ is misleading or misnomic. Even as applied to temporal properties and relations of things (and not Newtonian ‘independent’ time), there isn’t really a perception of such properties and relations. We don’t perceive the duration or temporal properties between now and the Big Bang. What applies to experience and the time related to the Big Bang also applies to all other experience and times. The only difference is quantitative, i.e., a matter of how long is the particular duration that we experience.

To identify general temporal experience with time perception is denied by many contemporary theorists. Read any discussion and comments on the specious present by, e.g., Broad, Dainton, Mundle, Grush, Le Poidevin, Kelly (and (of course) myself): there is a sense in which we may want to say that time is perceptually experienced–even perceived unconsciously, e.g., the perceived present of an apparently punctal event such as a lightning flash has duration, just not duration we’re aware of.

If we follow their positions, then we have reason to think that the difference between time perception and temporal experience generally is not just a matter of quantity but quality. There is a qualitatively different phenomenology, or even a categorical difference in the two experiences.

– One is like imagination, or is memory, or is anticipation–all of which I think are easily conceived as merely intentional and thought-like.

– The other is perceptual–the perceived change and the specious present. The latter is not as obviously thoughtlike, or like imagination, or memory.(It might be of course–there’s lots of literature out there on the idea of perception-as-cognition, cognitive penetration, etc. I don’t know how such theorists deal with the phenomenological difference between perception and thought, or even if they notice or are concerned with such a difference).

If this is right, time perception does not seem to be a mere matter of perceiving one thing and remembering another–which might explain longer durations–or of imagining a duration–which might explains ‘experiences’ of times like the Big Bang or durations such as that between now and the Roman Empire. It seems to be a perceiving of temporal properties such as order and temporal extent in the perceiving of one thing changing into another (change we hear, see, etc.).

3 ‘Temporal Experience’ is just a form of Time Perception

Similarly, If you thought that, whenever someone refers to temporal experience, they mean time perception, you could be confused in the other direction. Here is one way to get confused–by means of holding one or two further things. You hold that (a) perception always refers to present things and (b) present things are punctal.

Holding these, you might be puzzled by how there could be temporal experience other than the experience of whatever temporal properties are compatible with the present. So, for example, we cannot hold experience the past or the future–because neither is compatible with the present.

Yet, again, that we do have such experiences–however we characterise them–is right if the following is right: we have experiences of remembered events. Remembered events are past (of course, representations of remembered events need not be and neither need experiences of them, but that’s a separate issue).

4 Summary

1. Time perception refers to things like perceived change, time in the experience present, the specious present, etc.

2. Temporal experience refers to a more general experience. It may cover time perception but also concerns all other kinds of experiences involving time–whatever it is we call the ‘experience’ of durations over eons, etc.–i.e., imagined time–whatever we obviously remember and anticipate.

What I am concerned here with is models of ‘1’–models of time perception. I am not interested here in more general phenomenon of time consciousness or temporal experience. Because its perceptual character invites resistance to merely intentional or thought-like models of perception, I think it is ontologically interesting. I suspect how one models such time perception depends in part on one’s views of reality in time and the compatibility of presence with other temporal properties. I’ll cover that in the next post.

Models of Time Perception: Some Diagrams

My next academic publication is ‘Relative and Absolute Presence’, a chapter in a forthcoming book by Springer entitled ‘Philosophy and Psychology of Time’ (eds.: Molder, B., Arstila, V. & Øhrstrøm, P.). In revising that paper, I cut a lot out. In particular, I cut out two subjects which, although relevant and interesting, would have stretched the paper to unreasonable length:

(a) Thinking about different models of time-perception and time-consciousness in light of different concepts of time (A-theory, B-theory) and presence (relative presence, absolute presence).

(b) A discussion on the relationship between the experience of presence, relative presence and absolute presence.

In the next work-related post, I’m going to cover ‘a’–and maybe ‘b’. Today —before that–I just want to throw up some of the diagrams I’ll be using. These are diagrams of, under different series of time, retentionalism and extensionalism. I also give a rough definition of the positions–but they are very brief and subject to revision. The diagrams should do the exposition here.

[A note on use: These diagrams are of my own making. I am very happy for anyone to use these if they wish to do so. However, although I’m sure the following is obvious, I just want to be clear: if you do use them, please let me know (a link would be great, too) and acknowledge their source (i.e., here) in your usage. And, of course, thank you for using them.]


1 Retentionalism

Very rough definition: The view that time-consciousness, experience of a duration or things happening over a duration, can be explained by a tripartite structure to consciousness–of

(i) primary impression (for the immediate or immanent present),

(ii) retention (for the just-past) and (often left out in discussion)

(iii) protention (for the near-future).


1.1. Basic

Retention--Basic. An attempt to leave out A-series and B-series reference in the model.

Retention–Basic. An attempt to leave out A-series and B-series reference in the model. (Not sure it is successful).

1.2 In the A-series and B-series

Retentionalism given the A-series. So, given real time if A-theory is true (but not if B-theory is true).

Retentionalism in the A-series. In real time if A-theory is true (but not if B-theory is true).

Retentionalism--B-series. So, in real time if B-theory is true (but not if A-theory is true).

Retentionalism–B-series. In real time if B-theory is true (but not if A-theory is true).

2 Extensionalism

Very rough definition: the view that time-consciousness, experience of a duration or things happening over a duration, can be explained by consciousness extending over that duration (of things happening).


2.1 Basic

Extension--Basic. An attempt to leave out A-series and B-series reference in the model.

Extension–Basic. An attempt to leave out A-series and B-series reference in the model. (Successful?)


2.2 in the A-series and B-series

Extensionalism--A-series. So, in real time if A-theory is true (but not if B-theory is true).

Extensionalism–A-series. In real time if A-theory is true (but not if B-theory is true).

Extensionalism--B-series. So, in real time if B-theory is true (but not if A-theory is true).

Extensionalism–B-series. In real time if B-theory is true (but not if A-theory is true).