Husserl is another Bildungsluecke, or gap in my education, that I am enjoying starting to fill, at first through secondary literature. (When I was young, I preferred to read primary; but now that I’m past fifty, I feel pressed for time, and am glad to get at least what is considered to be the gist of this or that thinker from Wiki and reference works. I feel as though I need something from everyone in the canon, but not all of anyone’s work; so I ramble through the fields of thought like a gleaner, picking up nourishment everywhere.) Husserl is cool for many reasons, including the fact that he worked really hard on figuring out how we experience time. This is one of my obsessions, not only because I am an ueber-nerd and time is a classic nerd preoccupation, but because I live in a family where differing experiences of time (and space!) are a major source of conflict.

One of the cool things Husserl said, as I understand it, is that our minds are always doing two things simultaneously. One is maintaining an awareness of the flow of time, by perceiving the present moment even as we retain a little of the immediate past in short- term memory, and anticipate what’s about to happen next. This is how we can enjoy a melody, which is not just a series of isolated notes, but a connected arc of music. He called this constant, automatic movement of awareness across the three registers of past, present and future “horizontal intentionality,” but I call it the “Husserl shuffle,” as I think his term lacks a certain ring. (Some people have apparently also called it a “shimmer,” and I think “shimmy” wouldn’t be bad either.)

The second thing Husserl thinks we’re always doing is directing our attention to something. The German term he used for this gets translated as “transverse intentionality,” which is just horribly jargony, but I think it just means paying attention; it is what happens when attention moves out from the mind to the object of thought. He thinks we’re able to perceive the steady existence of objects in the world through the attention-paying function only because the Husserl shuffle (or shimmer or shimmy) gives us a continuous sense of ourselves in time.

I love this for the sense it makes in my life. I think different people have different rates and widths of their Husserl shuffles, for neurological and psychological reasons, and that this affects the way they pay attention. There are clear implications for people like me and several members of my family, who have ADHD in different manifestations, and how we relate to people who don’t. (I wish therapists had asked us long ago to fill out a time questionnaire, asking things like: who in your family always winds up waiting for whom? Who is most often late, and who hates to be? And so on.) It also seems there are clear connections—which someone has probably already elaborated—between Husserl’s ideas and those of object relations theory, which describes how children come to perceive the continuous existence of other people and form relationships with them. What he’s describing at a fine-grained, moment-to-moment micro level must add up, over many many moments of life, to habits and personality features in the self.

That’s why I love philosophy: it “goes to the mat,” breaking down the fundamental questions, so that we can try to re-assemble the familiar world in a way that makes more sense.