Publication Details

Gallagher, S. and Zahavi, D. (2014). Primal impression and enactive perception. In V. Arstila and D. Lloyd (Eds.), Subjective Time: The Philosophy, Psychology, and Neuroscience of Temporality (pp. 83-99). Cambridge: MIT Press.

Additional Publication Information

ISBN: 9780262322744


Philosophers and cognitive scientists have recently argued that perception is enactive (e.g., Varela, Thompson, & Rosch 1991; Noe, 2004; Di Paolo, 2009). 1 To put it simply, perception is action-oriented. When I perceive something, I perceive it as actionable. That is, I perceive it as something I can reach, or not; something I can pick up, or not; something I can hammer with, or not, and so forth. Such affordances (Gibson, 1977, 1979) for potential actions (even if I am not planning to take action) shape the way that I actually perceive the world. One can find the roots of this kind of approach in the pragmatists (e.g., Dewey, 1896), but also in phenomenologists like Edmund Husser!, Martin Heidegger, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Merleau-Ponty (1962) is most often cited in this regard, but Merleau-Ponty himself points back to Husserl's analysis of the "I can" in Jdeen II (Husser! 1952), and to his analysis of the correlation between kinesthesia and perception (1973b; see Zahavi, 1994 and Gallagher & Zahavi, 2008 for further discussion).

With this enactive view in mind, we revisit Husserl's account of time-consciousness. In his analysis, the very basic temporal structure, protention-primal impression-retention, is said to characterize perception, as the most basic form of cognition as well as consciousness in general. As such, the temporal structure of perceptual consciousness should in some significant way reflect or enable its enactive character. Our question is this: if perception is enactive, then at a minimum, shouldn't its temporal structure be such that it allows for that enactive character?

In the first part of this essay, we provide a brief account of Husserl's classical analysis. We then proceed to focus on the concept of primal impression by considering various objections that have been raised by Jacques Derrida and Michel Henry, who basically argue in opposite directions. Derrida emphasizes the relationality of time-consciousness and downplays the importance of the primal impression, whereas Henry emphasizes the irrelationality of time-consciousness and downplays the importance of protention and retention. In a further step, we consider some of Husserl's later manuscripts on time, where he revises his original privileging of the primal impression. In the final section, we turn to the question of an enactive temporal structure.