Ricoeur on Augustine on Time

In his Confessions, Augustine strongly identifies the divine with Eternity. His approach to time is through the medium of human interiority.

Long before, the notion of time as a simple succession of “nows” had been made the subject of logical paradoxes by Zeno the Eleatic, as a way of arguing for the unreality of time. Augustine’s meditation on time proceeds through a subtler and more extensive development of similar paradoxes.

Ricoeur notes that at each step of the development, Augustine uses the literary form of aporia or “impasse”, originally developed in Plato’s “Socratic” dialogues, many of which end with an honest recognition of puzzlement. In Augustine’s day, aporia was best known as a favorite device of the ancient Skeptics. Ricoeur emphasizes that for Augustine, each new insight into time that resolves one aporia leads to a new aporia.

Plotinus — the reading of whom Augustine records as a spiritual event in his life second only to his conversion to Christianity — had already made Soul responsible for time, and had begun to cultivate a sense of meditative interiority, but Augustine is the classic early exponent of interiority in the Western tradition. His aporias related to time are expressed in terms of a novel meditation on the details of interior experience.

Augustine’s introduction of the discussion is quoted by Ricoeur: “What, then, is time? I know well enough what it is, provided that nobody asks me; but if I am asked what it is and try to explain, I am baffled” (Time and Narrative vol. 1, p. xi). Neither the past nor the future seems to exist, and if we reduce the present to a point, even the present hardly seems to exist.

To condense a lot, Augustine ends up suggesting that instead of trying to analyze time in this abstract way, we should think of it in terms of a threefold present in the soul that includes memory of the past, current attention, and anticipation of the future. In terms of human experience, this an important and very original observation. The “thickness” or non-punctual character of subjective experience in the present is very plausibly explained in terms of an interweaving of current attention with a remembered past and an anticipated future.

Ricoeur emphasizes that Augustine speaks of an intentio (“intention” or attention) and distentio (“distention” or distortion) of the soul in this connection. A distention can only be the distention of a prior intention, conceived as an act of the soul. Distension is related to the fleetingness of the temporal present, negatively contrasted with the unwavering permanent presence associated with Eternity. For Augustine, the imperfect and aporia-generating experience of presence associated with the act of the soul has to do with the “fallen” state of the soul.

Ricoeur points out that Augustine’s emphasis on intentional acts of the soul will provide the basis for later developments like the phenomenology of Husserl. (I did not actually know that the intentio used in the Latin translation of Avicenna already had an Augustinian provenance, even before the extensive adoption of Avicenna by medieval Augustinians; see also Intentionality.)

Ricoeur ultimately suggests that Augustine’s aporias will mean that contrary to what Husserl wanted, there cannot be a pure phenomenology of time. Through his own very original combination of this meditation of Augustine’s with notions generalized from Aristotle’s Poetics and some ideas from Kant, Ricoeur will eventually develop his own hermeneutic account.