Time and free will: an essay on the immediate data of consciousness, by Henri Bergson (trans. F. L. Pogson)

Henri Bergson’s thesis (Bergson 1910) was first published in 1889. The English translation by F. L. Pogson was published in 1910. Bergson’s overall argument is that ‘Inner duration is a qualitative multiplicity … In the external world we find not duration but simultaneity’ (Bergson 1990 p.226~227). The argument is presented to contradict determinist philosophers like Kant who evaluated duration spatially rather than as pure duration. Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (Kant 1966) was first published just over one hundred years earlier in 1781. In it Kant argues against the free will of the human being with respect to the empirical character. He argues that human choice is traceable to conditions determined by the empirical character, the sense self rather than the intelligible character, the thinking self. Kant (1966 p.375) states that ‘…if we could investigate all the manifestations of … [human] will to the very bottom, there would be not a single human action which we could not predict with certainty’. Kant’s argument is an example of what Henri Bergson referred to as a determinist’s objection to free will. At the beginning of his essay Bergson indicates his intention to argue against objections raised against free will by determinist philosophy. The essay is arranged as three chapters, the first and second of which deal with intensity and duration respectively. In doing so they introduce the third chapter, which aims to dispel the ‘…confusion of duration with extensity, of succession with simultaneity, of quality with quantity…’ (Bergson 1990 p.xx).

While Bergson’s conclusions are profound and expressed with clarity, my interest in this work has been sparked by his insightful illustrations, particularly those regarding the nature of intensity and duration. His descriptions of pure duration encourage the reader to consider temporalities outside of a necessarily sequential framework. He disassociates duration from spatial definitions and in doing so inspires the reader to consider past and future events without experiencing an internal separation from the present. I find Bergson’s descriptions of consciousness and memory inspirational because they show me how to consider overlapping moments as heterogeneous. I will look at Bergson’s writing before reflecting on temporality in my work with consideration to pure duration.

Bergson begins chapter 1 by distinguishing quantitative differences between intensity and magnitude and asking ‘…why an intensity can be assimilated to a magnitude.’ (Bergson 1990 p.2). He recognises that magnitude is a quantitative measure of the difference between container and contained but he questions why we resolve to use the language of magnitude when talking about intensity when there is no longer a scale of physical containers. In short, Bergson seems to be looking into the question of why we describe psychic intensities or qualitative experiences in terms of quantifiable magnitude. In tackling the question he considers some ways in which sensory perception could be considered in terms of magnitude.

‘…every state of consciousness corresponds to a certain disturbance of the molecules and atoms of the cerebral substance, and that the intensity of a sensation measures the amplitude, the complication or the extent of these molecular movements.’ (Bergson 1990 p.6)

However, he suggests that this mechanical activity is the work our organism and that the magnitude of the work is measurable as if the intensity is located in our consciousness. His further examples of desire, hope, joy and sorrow are more readily understandable as intensities without the requirement to refer to quantities of spatial magnitude. The intensity of hope is an outstanding example as it concerns the potential for joy in the future. Bergson discusses the intensity of hope in this way as a vivid example that is described and associated with temporal intensities before spatial ones. The intensity of sorrow is also discussed in terms of time with reference to the past rather than the future.

Bergson starts to consider the intensity of aesthetic feelings by reflecting on the ‘…pleasure of mastering the flow of time and of holding the future in the present.’ (Bergson 1990 p.12) He doesn’t refer to a specific artistic medium at first but refers to movement in general and the fluidity of motion. He talks about graceful curves and suggests that they are pleasing because the turns comfortably indicate where they are going. He seems to be saying that the audience finds pleasure in being able to anticipate the turns of motion because this allows them to prioritise emotional intensity over reflective consciousness. To Bergson reflective consciousness ‘…delights in clean cut distinctions, which are easily expressed in words, and in things with well-defined outlines, like those which are perceived in space.’ (Bergson 1990 p.9). There is a description of the ‘invisible threads’ (Bergson 1990 p.12) that connect the dancer and the audience. Bergson is saying that the threads seem to be associated with the rhythm of a performance and that when the audience feels able to anticipate motion they partly sense a connection to the movement of the dancer. His use of the word thread implies the connection between puppeteer and puppet, but of course qualitative intensities are transmitted in this case rather than physical movement.

In the sections on muscular effort, emotions and affective sensations Bergson continues to find evidence that physical phenomena and states of consciousness have some magnitude in common. The writing suggests that psychic intensity is equivalent to physical sensation experienced during muscular effort or an emotional experience. He refers to the research of Charles Darwin, Hermann Helmholtz and William James to expand on his examples of physical intensities and their relation to psychic ones. He describes how our sensations of pleasure and pain become associated with past conditions as we remember them and we therefore orientate affect in the future. Bergson offers examples of representative sensations in intensities of sound, heat and weight. His example of pitch intensity is particularly interesting because he relates the experience of listening to sound to the experience of producing sound. He suggests that the ‘…suggestive power of music [can] be explained … by admitting that we repeat to ourselves the sounds heard, so as to carry ourselves back into the psychic state out of which they emerged’ (Bergson 1990 p.44). It would seem that as listeners we interpret the intensity of a musical sensation in relation to the magnitude of force required to produce such a sound. Bergson says that ‘…high notes seem to us to produce some sort of resonance in the head and the deep notes in the thorax…’ (Bergson 1990 p.45). He presents this as a possible reason for the way we think of pitch as if it is arranged vertically, in line with the human body. Bergson also says that when singing a range of pitches, as the effort changes from one part of the body to another, our perception of the difference between pitches becomes fragmented into ‘…successive notes as points in space, to be reached by a series of sudden jumps…’ (Bergson 1990 p.45). Bergson has illustrated the problem that arises from psychophysical analysis of this experience, that intensities are often described as magnitudes. The confusion often caused by spatial interpretations is applied to duration in chapter two of Bergson’s essay when he defines pure duration.

In chapter one Bergson isolates intensities from causes. He clearly describes the confusion of quality and quantity and how this confusion has introduced ‘…space into our perception of duration…’ (Bergson 1990 p.74). In short this happened because quantification entails spatialised explanations, whereas qualities are non-spatial. In chapter two he isolates duration from space to enquire into the multiplicity of perceived experiences as they unfold in pure duration.

‘…Pure duration is the form which the succession of our conscious states assumes when the ego lets itself live, when it refrains from separating its present state from its former states.’
(Bergson 1990 p.100)

Difficulty arises when we attempt to differentiate events within pure duration, are we required to abandon linearity? In chapter two Bergson approaches this area when he discusses the mathematics of infinity when describing the indivisibility of number. He recognises that a number can be said to be the sum of equally sized but distinct units. To imagine number we are required to arrange the units spatially, for example in a row. Bergson suggests that if we focus on a single unit within this row we will blur the surrounding individual units so that they appear to be an indivisible line. If we apply this notion to the recollection of an event in time, we can make a comparison with the human ability to remember details of a specific past event as if in slow motion replay. Bergson makes this comparison when he describes recalling a melody from memory.

‘…if we interrupt the rhythm by dwelling longer than is right on one note of the tune, it is not its exaggerated length, as length, which will warn us of our mistake, but the qualitative change thereby caused in the whole of the musical phrase. We can thus conceive of succession without distinction, and think of it as mutual penetration…’ (Bergson 1990 p.100~101)

Bergson has defined pure duration as a conception of time that is not spatialised by succession or quantity. This illustration reminds me of some thoughts I have had about drones. During some performances more than one note has been held continuously on the harmonium. This drone can be described as melody where the notes have a mutually penetrative character and as such the drone can be perceived as having a pure duration that can be understood as a singularity. The drone is non-linear and cannot be described in a spatial way.

BERGSON, H. (1990). Time and free will: an essay on the immediate data of consciousness. Trans. Pogson, F. L., Montana, Kessinger Pub. Co.
KANT, I. (1966). Critique of pure reason. Trans. Müller, F.M., Garden City, N.Y., Doubleday Anchor.

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