Recollection Versus Retention

As it relates to memory, Edmund Husserl’s (1970/1954) The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology differentiates between retention and recollection.

Husserl argues that “The world exists as… a spatiotemporal world in which each thing has its bodily extension and duration… its position in universal time and space… Perception is related only to the present.  But this present is always meant as having an endless past behind it and an open future before it… If we consider perception abstractly, by itself, we find its intentional accomplishment to be presentation, making something present… But in this presence, as that of an extended and enduring object, lies a continuity of what I am still conscious of, what has flowed away and is no longer intuited at all, a continuity of retentions, and in the other direction, a continuity of protentions… Yet this is not, like memory in the usual sense of intuitive recollection, a phenomenon which openly, so to speak, plays a part in object and world apperception” (p. 160).

For example, to understand the experience of music, we have to understand retentions and protentions.  Without retention of the just-played-notes and protention of the almost-played-notes, Husserl argues there would be no music, only a sequence of notes unrelated to one another.  Thus the phenomenology of music suggests that the present moment is not a single moment, but a continuum of the moment along with its retentions and protentions, without which perception would be unable to make something present.

In contrast with retention and protention, which make things present, recollection brings the past (i.e., a present which has passed) forward as an original intuition, that is, as an original experience.  In doing so, recollection gives intentional meaning to the past, even though perception itself (i.e., the flowing-static present) lacks such meaning.  Similarly, expectation is an anticipatory recollection, an intentional modification of perception towards the future as a “present-to-come” (p. 169).  In both cases, Husserl sees recollection as a rerecognition.  Recollection is an a-perception, that is, not a perception.  Thus, recollection is not the memory of a perception, but something else.

Importantly, perception gives us “only the temporal mode of the present” (p. 168).  In turn, “the present points to its horizons, the temporal modes of past and future” (p. 168).  While perceptions are the “first prefigurations of temporalization,” these “remain in the background” (pp. 168-169).  It is recollection (and expectation) that “represents the beginnings of new dimensions of temporalization, or of time and its time content” (p. 169).  These temporal dimensions are quite apart from the temporalization which gives to each entity its spatiotemporal presence.

Citation: Husserl, E. 1970. The crisis of European sciences and transcendental phenomenology (D. Carr, Trans.). Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.