Experiment 1. Standing subjects are blindfolded and asked to talk about the future and the past. The subtle shifts in body position are noted. When talking about the future, subjects will tend to shift their body weight forwards. When talking about the past subjects tend to shift their body weight backwards.
Experiment 2. Subjects are asked to represent the flow of time graphically on paper. Nearly all subjects who speak languages written from left-to-right will place the past on the left and the future on the right. Chinese subjects tend to place the past at the top and the future at the bottom of the page.
There can’t be much doubt that some relation exists between spatial relations and our intuitive understanding of time. When we walk or run we move forwards not only into space but also into the future. When we see an object that interests us we move towards it not only in anticipation of apprehension of that object but also anticipate a future in which that object occupies some place in our lives. The future is in front of us, the past is behind. How biology and culture may have brought us to associate space and time in the way that we do certainly poses interesting questions. Heidegger believes that the philosophical tradition has also played a part in perpetuating this “common understanding” of time. More perniciously, he argues, it has also led us away from a deeper understanding.
Though Heidegger accepts that time has become our “criterion for separating the regions of being” he believes that this constitutes a naive understanding to which we have grown accustomed without proper investigation. Here are two important quotes from his own outline of what he calls “temporality” of being. These preliminary statements are already full of exciting possibilities:
“Dasein ‘is’ its past in the manner of its being, which, roughly expressed, on each occasion occurs out of its future.” [B&T2.6]
“It’s own past — and that means only that of its ‘generation’ — does not follow after Dasein but rather always already goes ahead of it.” [B&T2.6]
The idea of Dasein as its past, occurring out of its future, or the past not following after but “always already ahead” of Dasein contradict our intuitive, spatially derived understanding of time. However, when we consider how we “carry” our past with us and “emerge” out of our future, already we are speaking of ideas that may be less counter-intuitive than we initially thought and closer to the true temporality of our being. Consider the idea that Dasein “is” its past. That I am an accumulation of the effects of past events that all continue to affect me now. The events of the past determine the nature and range of possibilities that are open to me in the future, both objectively speaking and in my understanding, acceptance or denial of those possibilities. The past is therefore “always already” ahead of us in that it is through the past that the future becomes present.
This is not only philosophically interesting but also imperative to understand. Heidegger tells us that the philosophical tradition of understanding time has made it impossible for us escape our uncultivated, deficient relationship with our past. Heidegger invites us to reassess the temporality of being in order that we may “appropriate” the past productively. Anyone who renewed their relationship with the past in the context of psychotherapy will have understood this in a very immediate and tangible way. We tend to bury the past with ritualistic utterances such as “it’s all in the past”, “don’t cry over spilt milk” or “let bygones be bygones” — mantras which obscure the clear and present existence of the past right here, right now.