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Neither future nor past exists.

Augustine, Confessions 11.20.26

Two different senses of time preoccupied Thoreau. The first was past time, history. Seeking ancient origins, chronicling young America's past, both native and colonial, keenly aware of recent local events and inhabitants, Thoreau wrestled with the eclipse of time, the passing of civilizations, countries, and people. History, in a conventional sense, he appreciated as the substratum

of his own life, and Thoreau went to considerable effort both in his formal education and in his later reading as well as in his literary efforts to deal with this aspect of time. These themes dominate A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1980a). There we witness the conventional progress of time. Proceeding through the days of the week, he presents linearized time in an orthodox fashion. Thoreau goes downriver in time and then paddles back to the present. The future is similarly constructed; that is, there is a future, and it will be ours. Furthermore, as we read his book some time in the future, we might reflect with Thoreau on the river of time, the river of history, and situate ourselves in present memory, a redemptive task: “There is something even in the lapse of time by which time recovers itself” (A Week, 1980a, p. 351).

The second aspect of time is more abstract and elusive. This is the notion of time alluded to in Thoreau's letter to Blake, quoted above. Specifically, Thoreau recognizes, as Augustine fourteen centuries before him, that there is indeed no such division of time as the past, present, and future. In a phenomenological sense, indeed existentially, we are only in the present, because, strictly speaking, only the present exists. We live in the present moment, and while the past is recalled or witnessed as artifact, that witness is experienced only in the present. The future, like the past, exists only as a mental construct only in the present moment. And then the imbroglio: the present is never held on to; it is always slipping by into the past, flowing from a future never quite here.

This vision of time is hardly unique to Thoreau, and indeed has a celebrated history, perhaps most famously in book 11 of Augustine's Confessions. There we find an apt description of time's passing, the nature of the past, present, and future, the illusion of temporality, and the essential character of time, unfathomable and fundamentally elusive.[2] For our purposes, it is the character of Augustine's deft development of the idea of the present that is so pertinent to Thoreau's own project—and sheds light upon it. Augustine observes that the present cannot be assigned any duration; it is so fleeting that he calls it a series of “fugitive moments. Whatever part of it has flown away is past. What remains to it is future” (11.15.20). But, though the present has no duration, we nonetheless perceive time only in the present, in our awareness. Augustine comes to the critical point: the character of time—past, present, and future—remains confined only to the present, as elusive as that might be. The past and the future only exist in our cognition of the present, and more to the point, the past and the future only exist as the present, in the soul:


In the soul there are three aspects of time, and I do not see them anywhere else. The present considering the past is the memory, the present considering the present is immediate awareness, the present considering the future is expectation…. This customary way of speaking is incorrect, but it is common usage. Let us accept the usage. I do not object … as long as what is said is being understood, namely that neither the future nor the past is now present. There are few usages of everyday speech which are exact, and most of our language is inexact. Yet what we mean is communicated. (11.20.26)

Augustine confesses that he still does not know “what time is,” although he admits to being “conditioned by time” (11.25.32), and he goes on to discuss how time is a function of mind. “Present consciousness is what I am measuring, not the streams of past events which have caused it” (11.27.36). There are two cardinal points to be emphasized: First, “time” is a human perception, a faculty of thought or cognition found in the “soul,” which in modern parlance will be translated as mind, and sometimes as self-consciousness; and second, neither past, present, nor future can be “captured.” To our contemporary ears, Augustine is an astute philosopher of language, a critical epistemologist, and a profound metaphysician. Thoreau, although not documented as having read Augustine (Sattelmeyer 1988), on this issue stands upon his shoulders—as did William James fifty years later.

James, in The Principles of Psychology ([1890] 1983), clearly saw the elusiveness of the present as the key perplexity in understanding consciousness and the very notion of the self. What we see in Thoreau's musings, albeit in rough outline, are the key insights of this later philosophy, one that attempted to understand consciousness pro-tophenomenologically. Disallowing some kind of “transcendent non-phenomenological sort of Arch-Ego,” or some “representative” feature or fixture to identify the “self,” James observed that “a thing cannot appropriate itself; it is itself; and still less can it disown itself” (p. 323). Thus

the Thought never is an object in its own hands, it never appropriates or disowns itself. It appropriates to itself, it is the actual focus of accretion, the hook from which the chain of past selves dangles, planted firmly in the Present, which alone passes for real, and thus keeping the chain from being a purely ideal thing. Anon the hook itself will drop into the past with all it carries, and then be treated as an object and appropriated by a new Thought in the new present which will serve as a hook in turn. The present moment of consciousness is thus … the darkest in the whole series. It may feel its own immediate existence … but nothing can be known about it till it be dead and gone. (Ibid.)


James sought a middle ground between the Kantian idealist notion of a unifying transcendental self and the empiricist's raw succession of perceptions with no unifying construct by positing that unity is directly experienced— the direct and intimate linkage with successive past moments. The “present” then becomes the “hook” by which the past is held in relation to the immediate experience, and the entire construct—past and present—becomes what we understand as the unity of personal identity, or the self.[3]

Russell Goodman astutely observed that “James's almost constant preoccupation in the Principles is to place within experience what other writers see as outside it” (1990, p. 61). James was to develop this Romantic theme in new ways, and I cite him now only to display the deep resonance of Thoreau's own endeavors with what became a central theme in later American philosophy. By these lights, Thoreau offers a treasure trove of “data,” an extensive report of experience, which might be employed to support James's subsequent claims. Indeed, Thoreau's project is recast by James into a more formalistic account of perception and consciousness, and from this perspective Goodman correctly identifies James as an articulate heir of American Romanticism, particularly the strain that seeks to portray an “intimacy” with the world. Thus James builds a nondualistic account, where the self and the world coalesce, the same theme that has served as the nexus of much of Thoreauvian scholarship—ranging from his epistemology (Cameron 1985; Peck 1990) to the import of his mystical yearnings (e.g., Kopp 1963; Baym 1966; Lyons 1967; Tuerk 1975, pp. 63 ff.). Accordingly, James's investigations of ordinary experience revealed that they are already joined (ibid., p. 84), and in his late Essays in Radical Empiricism, James coined the term “pure experience” to capture the place where experience occurs.

In this construction, James, like Thoreau before him, focused upon the present not only as the nexus for consciousness and our understanding of the self but as the epistemological hinge of knowledge itself. In the present, the distinction of self and other, of subjective and objective, is yet to be made:

As “subjective” we say that the experience represents; as “objective” it is represented. What represents and what is represented is here numerically the same; but we must remember that no dualism of being represented and representing resides in the experience per se. In its pure state, or when isolated, there is no selfsplitting of it into consciousness and what the consciousness is “of.” Its subjectivity and objectivity are functional attributes solely, realized only when the experience is “taken,”i.e., talkedof, twice, considered along with its two differing contexts respectively, by a new retrospective experience, of which that

whole past complication now forms the fresh content. (James [1904] 1987, p. 1151)

According to this formulation, experience in its primary state admits no reflection, and only by “processing” that experience retrospectively can it become known. Perhaps paradoxically, the present only “exists” as a construction drawn from our reflection on time; and, as such, the apprehension of the present, its experience qua present, is the product of our deliberations which divide and distill experience (see James [1890] 1983, pp. 574–75). In a sense, the present is “experienced” only in memory. So in short, self-consciousness organizes experience after the fact, an epistemological precept from which we may confidently regard Thoreau's various projects, ranging from his mystical reveries to the deliberate business of “writing nature.”

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