Symposium on Christoph Hoerl’s “Experience and Time: Transparency and Presence”

It’s my pleasure to introduce our next Ergo symposium, featuring Christoph Hoerl’sExperience and Time: Transparency and Presence” with commentaries by Elliot Carter (University of Toronto) Geoffrey Lee (University of California, Berkeley), Louise Richardson (University of York). I’d like to thank each of the participants for their great work!

The objects of perceptual experience seem ‘present’ to subjects in two ways: they seem actually to exist directly before the subject’s mind (‘experiential presence’) and they seem to exist now (‘temporal presence’). Hoerl takes these features of perceptual experience to be ‘intimately connected’, and his paper makes a start at explaining what that connection is. His approach is to examine two debates in which the relationship between experiential and temporal presence plays a central role: a debate in the philosophy of mind about the ‘transparency’ of temporal properties of experience; and a debate in the metaphysics of time about whether the present moment is objectively special. In each case, Hoerl argues that theorists have courted incoherence, because they have failed to fully grasp how perceptual experiences lack temporal viewpoint. Thus, grasp of the relation between experiential and temporal presence requires grasp of the temporal nonviewpointedness of perceptual experience.

The first context in which the relation between experiential and temporal presence arises is in discussions of the sense in which the temporal properties of perceptual experience are ‘transparent’ to introspection (§1). According to a standard version of the ‘transparency’ thesis, when one attempts to introspect the properties of one’s perceptual experience, one can attend only to properties of experienced objects and events. Applied to temporal properties of experience, the standard version implies that one can introspectively attend to the temporal properties of an experienced event, but not to the temporal properties of one’s experience of the event. However, partly in an effort to accommodate the intimate connection between experiential presence and temporal presence, some philosophers who are otherwise sympathetic to the general transparency intuition argue that we must formulate the transparency thesis differently for temporal properties than we do for other properties of experience. For example, Phillips and Soteriou maintain that, although the temporal properties of one’s experience cannot be distinguished introspectively from the apparent temporal properties of the perceptually experienced event, nonetheless in attending to the apparent temporal properties of the latter, one can also attend directly to the former. Given that, on their view, the temporal properties of the experience can be directly introspected, this means we must modify the transparency thesis in their case to reflect this fact.

According to Hoerl, however, Phillips’ and Soteriou’s attempts to formulate transparency differently for temporal properties of experience than for other experiential properties turn out not to be fully coherent, in that they both affirm and deny temporal transparency at once (pp 133-5). As Hoerl notes in §2, this is similar to a problem that is widely thought to plague ‘A-theories’ of time, which—similar to the authors we’ve just discussed—are also motivated to accommodate the special way in which temporally present events figure phenomenologically in perceptual experience. The basic problem that confronts A-theorists is that they claim both that present events are objectively unique (in being temporally present) and also that they are not unique (since, as time passes, other events acquire the same property) (p. 136). Thus, two positions, each aimed at accommodating the intimate connection between experiential and temporal presence, seem both to end in self-contradiction.

According to Hoerl, the source of paradox in each of these discussions is the same: failure to fully grasp the temporal nonviewpointedness of perceptual experience. As Hoerl argues in §3, Phillips and Soteriou mistake a purely negative feature of perceptual experience—i.e., its lack of temporal viewpoint—for a structural feature of perceptual experience analogous to one’s visuospatial perspective on an object. This leads them to characterize experience’s temporal properties as peculiarly perspectival (insofar as the analogy with visuspatial perspective is emphasized) and non-perspectival (insofar as there is no phenomenological distinction within perceptual experience between the time of an event and the time ‘from which’ one experiences the event). Temporal nonviewpointedness also explains the intuitive attraction of the A-theory, and its paradoxical character. For, A-theorists correctly emphasize that which events one perceptually experiences as occurring is not experienced as depending on one’s temporal perspective on the event, such as the time of the experience. The felt lack of temporal perspective in one’s experience of events leads the A-theorist to seek a non-perspectival explanation of this aspect of perceptual phenomenology in terms of which events are objectively present, and it’s at this point that the familiar challenges to their position get a grip.

You can find the target article, commentaries, and Hoerl’s response below.

Target article:

Christoph Hoerl “Experience and Time: Presence and Transparency”


Elliot Carter:  Comments on Hoerl’s “Experience and Time: Transparency and Presence”

Geoffrey Lee:  Commentary on Hoerl: Transparency and Presence

Louise Richardson: Commentary on ‘Experience and Time: Transparency and Presence’

Author’s response:

Christoph Hoerl: Transparency, Time, and Perspective: Reply to Richardson, Carter and Lee


  1. Aaron Henry

    Hi Christoph,

    I have a question about your appeal to a lack of structural features relating to temporality to explain A-theoretic intuitions, and how this might link up with your dispute with Soteriou, Phillips, and Richardson about temporal transparency.

    The idea behind structural features, I take it, is that the phenomenal character of an ordinary perceptual experience is the combined upshot of two factors or sources of phenomenal variation: the entity that one perceives, on the one hand, and the enabling conditions for one’s perception of it (i.e., structural features), on the other. And, in your response to Geoff (p. 12), you indicate that you are here intending to follow Strawson, Evans, and others, who appeal to this two-factor account of perceptual phenomenology to explain the phenomenology of mind-independence. If we’re taking that set of ideas on board, though, then I think we would predict that where the phenomenal character of a conscious experience lacks structural features, it will also lack the phenomenology of mind-independence. Possibly bodily sensations provide evidence for that prediction. There is something counter-intuitive about the idea that a pain, say, could exist unperceived or unfelt if somehow the subject failed to be situated appropriately in relation to it. And one explanation for why this is counter-intuitive is that pain experiences, unlike perceptual experiences of ordinary objects, lack the requisite ‘two-factor’ complexity. That is, there is plausibly no scope within a pain experience for a distinction between the event one is experiencing and one’s experience-enabling perspective on it, and as a result pains do not manifest as mind-independent.

    By contrast, on your proposal, in the case of temporal experience it is the *absence* of a structural feature relating to temporal enabling conditions that explains why we experience the property of temporal presence as mind-independent. This can seem surprising if we’re assuming the Strawson/Evans-inspired view of the phenomenal contribution of enabling conditions/structural features. With this in mind, I wonder if Soteriou, Phillips, and Richardson could be understanding the notion of ‘structural feature’ partly in terms of its role in constituting the phenomenology of mind-independence, in which case the claim that temporal viewpoint is involved in our experience of events is suggested by the fact that we do, as a matter of fact, experience temporal presence as a mind-independent property of perceived events. With that as their starting point, they may then be led to characterize this alleged structural feature in ways that, from your end, look like the mere absence of such a feature (e.g., all of the acknowledged differences from visuospatial perspective that contribute to making the latter more readily discernible introspectively).

  2. Christoph Hoerl

    Hi Aaron,

    Thanks. That’s a tough question, which I hadn’t thought about before. I think in general figuring out the analogies and disanalogies between the temporal case, the spatial case and the first person case is a fascinating task.

    Here are a couple of thoughts. First, note that there is actually an analogue to the A-theorist’s position (or at least one of them) in the first-person case. In the first-person case, the analogue to presentism is solipsism. It may be true that the idea of pains that are unperceived or unfelt seems implausible. But then that still leaves the question as to why these particular pains I feel are felt by me. And to this the solipsist answers that these are simply the only pains there are, just like the presentist says that the things that are currently perceived by me (and other things that are simultaneous with them) are the only things there are.

    Admittedly, it is true that there are fewer philosophers that are solipsists than philosophers that are presentists. But the fact that the position has been seen as one that is at least worth engaging with shows, I think, that, here too, there is something about experience that exerts a certain pull towards one particular metaphysical picture of the nature of the subject of experience.

    You suggest a general principle that where the phenomenal character of a conscious experience lacks structural features, it will also lack the phenomenology of mind-independence, and illustrate it using the example of pain. But note that here the question concerns whether pains, qua the types of occurrences they are, are mind-independent. The question in my paper is why we have a tendency to think of being present as a mind-independent property of events, as you put it. These strike me as two structurally somewhat different questions. But I’ll have to think some more about how exactly they might be related to each other.

  3. Aaron Henry

    Thanks, Christoph. That’s really interesting, and I hadn’t considered those distinctions when writing my comment, and I agree they seem relevant.

    For what it’s worth, my main aim was to raise the possibility that where we end up on the question of temporal transparency (playing out here, for example, between you and Louise) might depend on what we take a structural feature to be, and, in particular, what role these features play in an account perceptual experience. The background that you mentioned in response to Geoff (distinguishing structural features from other kinds of enabling condition) made me wonder if we might be able to use that background to help determine when we have a structural feature on our hands or not. Otherwise, the disagreement — which seems to me, in the end, to be to between ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ transparency about temporal features — seems difficult to adjudicate. (And I think the fact that it turns out to be so difficult to adjudicate should at least reduce our credence in arguments for extensionalism about temporal experience that rest their case on the weak transparency intuition).

    • Christoph Hoerl

      Thanks for this, Aaron. I think one thing that makes the issue complex here is that, while the spatial viewpointedness of visuospatial experience, as a structural property, constitutes an exception to (strong) transparency, it is only a structural property. It is not a spatial property that experience itself has. I don’t think anyone would think that we can infer from it something about the metaphysical nature of experience, i.e. its spatial location. But if you think that there is a sense in which experience is also temporally viewpointed, and that this gives you reason to endorse a particular metaphysical nature of experience, that is precisely the move you are making. So there would still be a sense in which time and space would be handled quite differently, and we would need to have some specific justification for doing so.

      Also, this isn’t directly on your point, but I wonder whether it might be useful to distinguish between two types of structural properties of experience. In my reply to Geoff, I was mainly concerned with structural properties that reflect the enabling conditions of perception (or the absence of such structural properties, e.g. in the temporal case). Crudely speaking, they make manifest the relation in which you need to stand to the perceived items in order to perceive them. In the second half of my reply to Louise, what’s at issue are structural properties of experience (if we want to call them such) that correspond to the limits of acuity. They are to do with you being aware, as part of your perceiving, that your experience doesn’t provide you with all the information there is to be had about the things you perceive. I think these are two different things.

  4. Aaron Henry

    Again, that’s very interesting and helpful.

    On your first point, I should confess that I’ve never fully understood what relationalists exactly mean to imply when speaking of the ‘shape’ of the visual field. I’ve wondered: if, when introspecting the shape of the visual field I am attending to a property of my perceptual relation to objects (as opposed to any object of which I’m seemingly aware), does this imply that my visual experiences are literally shaped? Supposing that would be a misunderstanding, then I take your point. (I wonder, though, if this might touch on Louise’s question about whether you might be more skeptical of experiences as introspectable events or processes in a subject’s mental life than your opponents are?)

    And your distinction between two types of structural feature is useful too. For my part, I’m less confident that limits on acuity are made manifest solely in virtue of the phenomenology. (When I think about the temporal field, at least, I’m more inclined to say that these perceptual limitations are not made manifest to me solely in virtue of the phenomenology.)

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