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Henri Bergson

Henri Bergson

The philosopher (1859-1941) was born in Paris and studied at the Ecole Normale Superieure. Following graduation he taught at various lycees (secondary schools) in Provence, after which he taught at the College de France. He received his doctoral degree in philosophy in 1889 and was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1928. His background in psychology is most easily recognizable in his early writings. Over his long career, he developed ever more into a metaphysi­cian. Key among his ideas is the distinction between the mechanized clock time of scientific thinking and the way time is actually experienced.

The experiencing of time as a quantity, as a countable element of a time continuum, differs for Bergson at a basic level from the qualitative expe­riencing of a duration. The duration is something pure and is not expressed in quantities. It is equiv­alent to the immediate experience of totality. A melody or a symphony is to be experienced only as a whole. Its wholeness possesses an immediacy that cannot be broken up into its elements without losing its qualitative characteristics. Its temporal extension is pure duration. According to Bergson, the completely pure duration is the form that the succession of our perceptual processes assumes as our “I” yields itself to life, when it refuses to sepa­rate the present and past states. The tones of the melody fuse together, its different parts infusing each other simultaneously. Furthermore, if a mel­ody is deconstructed into its components, then time, the medium in which one counts and differ­entiates, is nothing more than space.

The pure duration is fundamentally different from countable time. To Bergson, it was impossible to construct a synthesis of quantitative and qualitative elements. The experience of a duration is the experi­encing of a quality that is immeasurable. Pure dura­tion is an indistinguishable, qualitative manifold, which is in no way similar to numbers. It is a mistake on the part of the natural sciences not to carefully separate qualitative and quantitative characteristics. The uniformly flowing time of the natural sciences is a physical-astronomical construction. This time is seen as a line whose points represent successive moments. Admittedly, time may be mathematically expressed in such a way, but this is not really time itself. Real time is the immediately experienced time, and this is duration (duree). In the analysis of the experiencing of space, psychologists have stopped studying space in exchange for our perceptions, through which we achieve meaning or understanding of the concept of space. Perceptions have a qualita­tive character because they are not themselves extended, but their synthesis causes extension. Space is created out of mental activity, which, with one stroke, contains the different perceptions and also orders them next to each other. In this respect, space is that which allows us to differentiate multiple iden­tical and simultaneous perceptions from one another. Humans are able to conceive of space without qual­ity. Thus, two different realities exist for humans: the reality of sense qualities, which is heterogeneous, and the reality of space, which is homogeneous. The real­ity of space allows us to implement exact differentia­tions, to count and to abstract.

If the unlimited medium of space, which is com­pletely without quality, is defined as homogeneous, then time, which is also defined as homogeneous, must be space, because there are no differentiating characteristics between different homogeneities. Nonetheless, people agree that time is to be seen as an unlimited medium, which is different from space and yet still homogeneous. The homogeneity thus exhibits a doubled guise according to whether it is seen to be a coexistent or a sequence. We steal time from duration by observing states of consciousness all at once and next to one another, projecting them into space. Time as a homogeneous medium is space. Duration is then to be thought of as the extension of an episode of time, taking the form of a constant line. As soon as duration is seen as homogeneous, one has imperceptibly allowed the concept of space. Bergson does not accept the true duration to be a quantity. It has a qualitative size, which has an intense character. It becomes possible to experience true duration when one becomes entirely entranced by something, for example, when hearing a melody or when one leaves the area of experience of space, for example, in a dream.

Through time measurements, duration is pro­jected into space. Pure duration thus loses its qualitative character and is reduced to a quantita­tive size. Time measurements are not measurements of duration but rather the counting of simultanei­ties. A simultaneous process of the permeation of the occurrences of perception takes place inside of us through our memory, which is what actually creates true duration. Through an act of memory, we can compare equal positions of a periodic movement; in other words, an oscillation. Without memory we would have only one position of the pendulum or the sun, namely the present position, and thus no duration. Without periodic processes, we could not deconstruct duration into space and would have only pure duration.

Even if the measurement of time really is the projection of duration into space, it is not space that is considered here but rather duration, which is expressed with the help of space. Although time can be graphically represented using the fourth dimension of space, time is, as a phenomenon, still very different from space. In the analysis of the relationship between space and duration, Bergson comes to the conclusion that there is real space without duration, in which phenomena appear and disappear simultaneously with our states of consciousness. There is also the reality of duration, whose heterogeneous moments penetrate each other. In the outside world, there is a moment cor­responding to every state; each and every moment and state must appear simultaneously, and each moment can be isolated from the others through this correspondence. A symbolic conception of duration based on space has emerged out of the comparison of both realities. This conception assumes the form of a homogeneous medium. That which connects space and duration is simultaneity, which one could define as the point of intersection between time and space. According to Bergson, the natural sciences have concerned themselves only with the symbolic conception of reality.

There would not be two kinds of recognition— one philosophical, the other scientific—if the expe­rience would not allow us on the one hand to sequence and measure this experience in the form of facts externally ordered next to each other, and yet on the other hand would present itself in the form of mutual permeation, which is pure dura­tion, remaining inaccessible to both law and mea­surement. In both cases, experience means consciousness. But in the first case, the conscious­ness unfolds in the direction of the external by perceiving external things. In the other case, this consciousness retreats by realizing and under­standing itself. Bergson has drawn a line between the external and internal of the consciousness. The external of the consciousness is the immediately given world, which is measurable through physical processes. The internal of the consciousness is the present of the complete collection of experiences; this present completely dedicates its attention to one fact of the world and therewith pure duration, constituting a closed act. The experience is a part of the internal consciousness.

Duration and Motion

When analyzing the concept of motion as the liv­ing symbol of a seemingly homogeneous duration, Bergson ascribes to the consciousness the fusing of quantitative elements with qualitative ones, which seems to be withheld from the consciousness when analyzing duration. The motion that is observed as a transition from one point to the next is a men­tal synthesis, a psychological process and therefore unextended. In space there are only points in space, and regardless at which point the object in motion finds itself, an object has only one position in space. If the consciousness perceives something other than points in space, this is, according to Bergson, due to the consciousness remembering the successive positions and building a synthesis out of these. But how does it actually create such a synthesis? Obviously not through the deploying of the same positions in a homogeneous medium; this would require a new synthesis to bring the positions into connection with each other and so on into eternity. There is a qualitative synthesis at work here, a step-by-step organization of our suc­cessive perceptions among each other, a unit within the analogy of a melodic phrase.

Bergson differentiates between the extensive conception of the traversed space and the intensive perception of motion. This is the differentiation between the successive positions of a movement and its synthesis, the act of traversing. Naturally, a movement deconstructed in terms of its position in space has nothing more in common with the inten­sive perception of movement. A movement is not the sum of the points of its path. This insight led Bergson to the solving of Zeno of Elea’s paradox. Zeno wanted, through his famous thought experi­ment about the race of Achilles with the turtle, to give precedence to the being of things when juxta­posed with changes in the world. The turtle asked Achilles for a head start, as Achilles was the faster runner. The only problem was that after the race had started, Achilles first had to run to the turtle’s starting point; however, the turtle had already moved on by this time. Each time Achilles reached the turtle’s last starting point, he had to race to the next point on which the turtle at that exact moment was located. But the turtle had already moved on. This process would allow itself to be extended into eternity without Achilles ever being able to catch up to and pass the turtle. Achilles’ every step is a simple, indivisible act. Zeno’s mis­take was, however, that he identified this progres­sion of indivisible acts with the homogeneous space underlying them. Achilles passed the turtle because one of Achilles’ steps and one turtle step are each indivisible acts of varying lengths. Zeno does not see that space allows only a random, arbi­trary process of de- and re-composition and in this way mingles space and motion. Science concerns itself, according to Bergson’s point of view, not with motion and time per se but rather solely with their respective projections into space. Science deals with time and motion only after the previous elimination of its basic and qualitative element, namely, duration, in terms of time, and mobility, in terms of motion. For this reason Bergson’s dura­tion may be seen not as the attempt to mediate between scientific and phenomenological views of the world but rather as a separation stemming from the consideration that the experienced reality is more than can be displayed in the natural sci­ences, which means that scientific recognitions rest upon a reduction of reality.

James and Bergson

Comparing the concepts of time used by Bergson and the American psychologist William James is instructive, since the method used by both think­ers is based on psychology, and their concepts thus resemble each other. Bergson broke with the scientific view of the world by radically rejecting the concept of space and time presiding within the natural sciences. James, on the other hand, evaded the totality of our experience when he tried to measure the length of the specious present in order to determine which time spans we are able to understand or measure at one time.

The difference between James and Bergson lies in their differing evaluation of the past and its rela­tionship to the present. Both reject the concept of a dimensionless, punctiform present, which advances like a mathematical point along a geometric line into the future. They came to this conclusion through introspection into the immediately given, the flowing of the thoughts. In addition, Bergson’s distrust of graphical symbols played a role, as he believed they destroy the true nature of time through their static character. Bergson insisted that time cannot be represented in the form of a straight line as the fourth dimension of space. A straight line is a timeless object implying that its parts are simultaneously present. Only after we have radi­cally freed our conceptualizations from our visual customs and geometric symbols are we able to understand the nature of time. Bergson avoided every kind of visual metaphor for the description of the structure of duration. When we have finally left behind us the symbolic representation of time as a straight line, we will no longer represent its parts geometrically as points. The moments of time are not punctiform moments; time is not endlessly divisible. Bergson’s analysis of pure duration has a deeper meaning than a merely psychological one. He wanted to examine the nature of time in gen­eral, not time as only the “stream of thoughts.” In the Principles of Psychology James argued for the conception that the qualitative and heterogeneous “stream of thoughts” covers and hides the underly­ing Newtonian homogeneous time, the original container of all changes, including those taking place in the brain. Due to James’s having limited his analysis of time exclusively to the area of psy­chology and having en bloc accepted classical phys­ics, he had difficulties in recognizing the true character of duration. Bergson stood, despite his anti-intellectual attitude, within the Cartesian tra­dition, whereas James argued out of the tradition of the British empiricists. James limited himself to the empirical, immediately given psychological data. Bergson tried to rationalize the given struc­ture of the immediately given and to see the logical connections between the varying aspects. He found that the most disastrous and troublesome effect in understanding time is caused by the visual and geo­metric symbolizing of the temporal reality. This helped him to reject, in general, the concept of homogeneity and the mathematical concept of continuity.

James and Bergson were both temporalists, but whereas James elevated the character of constant change, Bergson emphasized the lingering just as strongly as the flowing. Bergson saw both aspects as complementary; he elevated the conservation of the past. When we hear a symphony, its theme is present during the entire performance such that we may recognize it over and over again. Within the melody the tones fuse together into the whole. Bergson assigned the past a special status while believing that James could not entirely free himself from visual conceptions. He observed the present as a duration with a certain length. Therewith he imagined time to be tiny pieces of time occurring one after the next. Accordingly, time would be a process constantly separating itself, which is not, as in Bergson’s conception, a reality that is gradu­ally becoming richer and growing together in the progression of duration. That life continues means that it exists in a continual flowing within which nothing is lost, but rather in which everything con­tinues to grow, like a rolling snowball, so that everything to come is, in part, determined and infused from that which has already been. Whereas James’s model has a purely linear character, Bergson’s conception of time is characterized by an increasing complexity, which contains all past states and is gradually growing.

Further Readings

Bergson, H. (2001). Time and free will. Mineola, NY: Dover.

Bergson, H. (1990). Matter and memory. Cambridge, UK: Zone Books.

Capek, M. (1991). The new aspects of time—Its continuity and novelties. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer

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