Pictures of Theories: The Specious Present

Theories_Specious Present

The Specious Present: Psychology/Neuroscience, specifically time perception 

You could file this one under philosophy too, but I mean everything is philosophy, really.

The term “specious time” originated with E. Robert Kelley (aka E. R. Clay) who wrote in The Alternative: A Study in Psychology (1882):

The relation of experience to time has not been profoundly studied. Its objects are given as being of the present, but the part of time referred to by the datum is a very different thing from the conterminous of the past and future which philosophy denotes by the name Present. The present to which the datum refers is really a part of the past — a recent past — delusively given as being a time that intervenes between the past and the future. Let it be named the specious present, and let the past, that is given as being the past, be known as the obvious past. All the notes of a bar of a song seem to the listener to be contained in the present. All the changes of place of a meteor seem to the beholder to be contained in the present. At the instant of the termination of such series, no part of the time measured by them seems to be a past. Time, then, considered relatively to human apprehension, consists of four parts, viz., the obvious past, the specious present, the real present, and the future. Omitting the specious present, it consists of three . . . nonentities — the past, which does not exist, the future, which does not exist, and their conterminous, the present; the faculty from which it proceeds lies to us in the fiction of the specious present.

In short, the practically cognized present is no knife-edge, but a saddle-back, with a certain breadth of its own on which we sit perched, and from which we look in two directions into time. The unit of composition of our perception of time is a duration, with a bow and a stern, as it were — a rearward — and a forward-looking end.

However, William James developed further on the topic and – along with his brother Henry James – is in my opinion one of the best gosh-darned writers to ever grace our planet with his presence. So here is a big ol’ William James block quote, from The Principles of Psychology (1891):

Let one sit with closed eyes and, abstracting entirely from the outer world, attend exclusively to the passage of time, like one who wakes, as the poet says, “to hear time flowing in the middle of the night, and all things moving to a day of doom.” There seems under such circumstances as these no variety in the material content of our thought, and what we notice appears, if anything, to be the pure series of durations budding, as it were, and growing beneath our indrawn gaze. Is this really so or not? The question is important, for, if the experience be what it roughly seems, we have a sort of special sense for pure time — a sense to which empty duration is an adequate stimulus; while if it be an illusion, it must be that our perception of time’s flight, in the experiences quoted, is due to the filling of the time, and to our memory of a content which it had a moment previous, and which we feel to agree or disagree with its content now.

It takes but a small exertion of introspection to show [p. 620] that the latter alternative is the true one, and that we can no more intuit a duration than we can intuit an extension, devoid of all sensible content. Just as with closed eyes we perceive a dark visual field in which a curdling play of obscurest luminosity is always going on; so, be we never so abstracted from distinct outward impressions, we are always inwardly immersed in what Wundt has somewhere called the twilight of our general consciousness. Our heart-beats, our breathing, the pulses of our attention, fragments of words or sentences that pass through our imagination, are what people this dim habitat.


And since we saw a while ago that our maximum distinct intuition of duration hardly covers more than a dozen seconds (while our maximum vague intuition is probably not more than that of a minute or so), we must suppose that this amount of duration is pictured fairly steadily in each passing instant of consciousness by virtue of some fairly constant feature in the brain-process to which the consciousness is tied. This feature of the brain-process, whatever it be, must be the cause of our perceiving the fact of time at all. The duration thus steadily perceived is hardly more than the ‘specious present,’ as it was called a few pages back. Its content is in a constant flux, events dawning into its forward end as fast as they fade out of its rearward one, and each of them changing its time-coefficient from ‘not yet,’ or ‘not quite yet,’ to ‘just gone’ or ‘gone,’ as it passes by. Meanwhile, the specious present, the intuited duration, stands permanent, like the rainbow on the waterfall, with its own quality unchanged by the events that stream through it. Each of these, as it slips out, retains the power of being reproduced; and when reproduced, is reproduced with the duration and neighbors which it originally had. Please observe, however, that the reproduction of an event, after it has once completely dropped out of the rearward end of the specious present, is an entirely different psychic fact from its direct perception in the specious present as a thing immediately past. A creature might be entirely devoid of reproductive memory, and yet have the time-sense; but the [p. 631] latter would be limited, in his case, to the few seconds immediately passing by. Time older than that he would never recall.

William James would look at my drawing and scream in pain, and probably also he would observe that five hours is far too lengthy an interval to be experienced as the specious present. But I swear, it felt like the specious present at the time.

Anyhow, I hate to be trite, but William James just really makes you think, eh? IF YOU HAVE NEVER READ ANY WILLIAM JAMES GO READ ALL OF HIS BOOKS RIGHT NOW. You will not regret it. Read Henry James too while you’re at it. The cool thing about that pairing is that Henry James explores pretty much all the same mind-bendingly enlightening Big Questions as his brother but more nebulously via fiction and literary criticism. Some – make that most – people hate Henry James because he is difficult. THAT IS THE POINT. Language is never sufficient; we can never truly understand each other; we can never directly experience the world around us; etc. Any earnest attempt at comprehension will be frustratingly impossible and will probably make you punch yourself in the face at some point, just like trying to read The Golden Bowl will. I guess now everyone knows who one of my favorite authors is, eh?  To draw this bonkers post to a close, I almost pasted in the last paragraph of The Golden Bowl, but I think that would be unkind to the book. Go read the whole thing, please?


Are you now, or have you ever been, a graduate student or professor? Are you highly learned in specialized knowledge? Do you read dense theoretical texts for fun? Send your favorite theories to, and I will draw them. Esoteric terminology also accepted but will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Oh, and follow me on Instagram while you’re at it – devon_isadevon.

More theories here.


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