Response: Overlap Theory

Dainton proposes what is called overlap theory. Overlap theory is the position that the contents of one experience, such as stages of a change, overlap the contents of a previous experience. For example, the earlier stages of my current experience of change overlap the later stages of a previous experience of change.

For Dainton, overlap theory satisfies two conditions:

  • • No nesting (or as he sometimes calls it doubling): by overlapping, multiple separate experiences have the numerically identical contents as parts. For example, an early stage in my current experience can overlap a later stage in my previous experience.
  • • Connection: the contents of the experiences are shared, and this sharing connects them.

Furthermore, overlap theory is a phenomenological theory that draws on the physical time of experience. It “is robustly realist: not only do we have a direct experience of temporal relations and temporally extended phenomena, but successive phases of a stream are welded together by nothing other than direct experience” (Dainton 2000, 165).

Objection 3: The Overlap is Not Explained

The content may be shared by overlapping experiences, but how is that captured by the phenomenology? How is it apparent to me that these experiences are shared? This is explained by retentionalism by my being aware of having had the previous experiences (and forthcoming experiences).

1 may argue that the other stage is experienced as being part of the earlier experience. But how do 1 know that the earlier experience is the earlier experience—and my current experience is not a future experience? What seems to explain it here is simply stipulated: there is an ordered relation between the experiences, we are aware of it, and that is all.

In response, why must extensionalists in particular explain this relation? Other theorists do not explain similar relations. For what joins pretentions, retentions, and primary impressions together? Stating that this structure is a fundamental part of the phenomenological experience of time does not explain this structure. We might as well stipulate that overlapping and diachronic co-consciousness are a fundamental part of the structure.

In any case, for phenomenology, an explanation of a feature of experience is not necessary. What is required is a description of experienced time, not an account of how it comes about.

Finally, one may ask what is the point of this alternative to retention theory? The main point is that extensionalism is a theory of time-consciousness that does not involve the complex structure of Husserl’s model. The account is simpler and more phenomenologically accurate. Unlike Husserl’s model, it only involves awareness of the stages shared with previous experiences, not awareness of everything else.

Objection 4: Time-Consciousness Must Have a Tripartite Structure

Retention theory must be true because experience must have a tripartite structure. We must have it because our experience, even of change, cannot be over a time. Experience can only be at a time. As such, our experience at that time must have retentions—for some stages of the change—and have protentions for other stages.

In response, why must experience be at a time? One argument is that this is how it appears. However, if there is perceptual experience of change, it is not how it appears—at least, not with respect to the phenomenology of perceived change.

Here is one response: a tripartite structure is how it must be. It does not matter how it appears. Such a response is a move beyond the appearances. It is not obviously in the spirit of phenomenology. Yet, it is still a means of explaining experience. It just requires a different approach. For example, an approach to time from cognitive science.

Study Questions

  • 1. Is time mind-dependent or mind-independent?
  • 2. Is change mind-dependent or mind-independent?
  • 3. If you answer differently for 1 and 2, what is the best explanation for how one of these (time or change) can be mind-dependent and the other mind-independent?
  • 4. The author (me) confesses scepticism about the experience of temporal passage. Do you agree? What is the best evidence of such an experience?
  • 5. Can presentism be true and yet we experience real change?
  • 6. Evaluate and compare retention theory and extensionalism as phenomenological models. As phenomenological models, check each against your experience of time.


  • 1 See Chapter 2.
  • 2 This does not mean clock time. Clock time may not depend on your mind alone; you cannot decide by yourself the length of a minute. However, the grouping or division of moments into minutes is something minded individuals decide upon together, and only to some degree of shared convenience.
  • 3 See Chapter 1.

Suggested Readings

Augustine 1961 is an excellent accessible writer; his chapter on time (chapter 11) is worth reading in full; the parts in this chapter are in §14. There are many different commentaries on this work; Le Poidevin 2003 is a good start.

Similarly, James 1918 is worth reading for his thinking about the experience of time. Dainton 2001 and Prosser 2016 are recent texts on the subject. For anthologies on the philosophy of time with papers on temporal experience, almost all 21st-century anthologies have some papers. For example, Bardon 2012, Callender 2012, and Dyke and Bardon 2013. For another classic take on the matter, one not discussed in this chapter, see Bergson 1889. For discussion on time-lag and hidden time, see chapters 6-8 in Power 2018.

Husserl 1991 outlines his phenomenological concerns with time, the thinking that leads to his model, and to the model itself. (Husserl’s writing can feel dense, but he revisits the same ideas repeatedly. 1 recommend you read it quickly and a few times, rather than once and slowly.) For discussion of retention theory, see chapter 7 of Gallagher 2012; for a deeper and longer study, see De Warren 2009. For a defence of extensionalism, see Dainton 2001 (also, chapter 9 of Power 2018).

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