Henri Bergson – Time, Consciousness, and Free Will

Henri Bergson was celebrated during his lifetime with a pop status, awarded Le Grand Croix de la légion d’honneur, the highest order decoration in France, and in 1927 the Nobel Prize for Literature “in recognition of his rich and vitalizing ideas and the brilliant skill with which they have been presented”. He served as diplomatic ambassador to the United States during the First World War and is known for his rejection of and debate with Albert Einstein over his theory of special relativity.

Bergson was first and foremost a scholar of mathematics and physics, placing him exceptionally well for the contemporary philosophy of the early twentieth century, amidst the transformations taking place in the sciences, and with Logical Positivism prevailing in philosophy in Europe. However, a revolution took place; he became dismayed by what he saw to be metaphysical incoherence underlying this new view of physical reality, and so eventually turned his attentions away from mathematics and toward the metaphysical problems he perceived to be underlying the natural sciences.

“It was the analysis of the notion of time, as that enters into mechanics and physics, which overturned all my ideas. I saw, to my great astonishment, that scientific time does not endure. This led me to change my point of view completely”.

Bergson’s reassessment of time distinguishes between a static and spatialized time, like an hour, minute, or second, and the dynamic inner flow of time as we meet it in our experience, which he calls la durée – Duration. Unlike an isolated unit of spatialized time, inner duration is found to be indivisible, it is in possession of quality, rather than being merely quantifiable, and unlike every second of time which is identical to a unit, duration never meets two moments the same in its unfolding succession.

To Bergson, the problematic assumption underlying time in scientific observations is that it is held fixed. That is – that time is immutable, serving as a homogenous constant, as a control intrinsic to nature, so that when we freeze time in the present as we do in mathematics, we hold it still. To Bergson, though, time is necessarily dynamic, and by holding it still, we change this reality. Bergson abhorred the treatment of time and space as unified and sought to un-mix them, breaking from the view of the natural sciences since Newton, and the philosophy of Immanuel Kant.
The first step for Bergson in differentiating his view of duration from spatialized time is to set out his theory of multiplicity. For Bergson, while it is coherent for us to conceive of spatial entities as quantitatively multiple, i.e. countable (his example is that we can call 20 sheep, 20, based on their homogeneity/sameness). Unlike spatial entities, however, he argues that temporal events are in fact paradoxically unified and multiple and that their multiplicity is qualitative.

Unlike sheep, or seconds, which can be quantitatively multiple and distinct, duration is always a qualitative multiplicity and unity, to explain this he offers us three images. Each of the images, he tells us, are in a sense incomplete, since we cannot grasp duration using words, images, or symbols; instead they serve only as an aid to comprehending the qualitative unity and multiplicity of duration.

The first image he gives is of two spools of winding tape, the one side unrolling, as we move toward death, the other rolling up in a collection that Bergson likens to the building of our memories. This image represents duration, since, as time progresses, the past becomes larger, with each moment being added to the previous. Since each new moment has all previous moments preceding it, it cannot be identical, but only different to all other moments.

The next image is a wide colour spectrum showing qualitatively distinct hues of colours. This image is helpful in demonstrating the heterogeneous multiplicity, though it’s drawback is that it fails to demonstrate the unity of duration.

The third and most important image that Bergson offers us to demonstrate the quality of duration is best explained by the man himself.

“let us imagine an infinitely small piece of elastic, contracted, if that were possible, to a mathematical point. Let us draw it out gradually in such a way as to bring out of the point a line which will grow progressively longer. Let us fix our attention not on the line as line, but on the action which traces it. Let us consider that this action, in spite of its duration, is indivisible if one supposes that it goes on without stopping; that, if we intercalate a stop in it, we make two actions of it instead of one and that each of these actions will then be the indivisible of which we speak; that it is not the moving act itself which is never indivisible, but the motionless line it lays down beneath it like a track in space. Let us take our mind off the space subtending the movement and concentrate solely on the movement itself, on the act of tension or extension, in short, on pure mobility. This time we shall have a more exact image of our development in duration.”

It is fascinating that this final characteristic of duration which he calls “pure mobility” is equated – in a way that is symbolic of his philosophy overall – with freedom.

As mentioned, his vision of time is derived from the experience of duration as we meet it in consciousness, and consciousness, imagination and our intuition are given a paramount role in his metaphysics, in particular on the subject of free-will. Unlike the physical environment all around us, which moves only according to mechanical forces, our consciousness gives birth to freedom, and our powers of intuition become our most powerful source for attaining true knowledge.

Since the role of intuition places experience at the forefront of our understanding, consequently, Bergson refers to it as the true empiricism, and just as in the philosophy of Locke, Hume, and also Spinoza, the knowledge of the absolute can be experienced in the intuition of the part i.e. individuals. To experience intuition, and so the inner flow of duration, one must learn to do away with habitual, utilitarian thinking.

To Bergson, all of our thinking and philosophising is purposeful, i.e. It serves our needs, and as such, can never be disinterested knowledge, instead it is always relative to our needs. This type of knowledge he calls analysis and which he defines as a synthesis of perspectives. It is by doing away with perspective, however, that we may enter into a “sympathy” with things as they truly are.

We see in the work and thought of Henri Bergson a peculiar and perplexing vision of reality, however, though it might be framed in a dialogue of it’s era, discussing time and space, the bright spark of Bergson’s vitalism has long been around. We find it in the Romantic movement, the first protest against a view of life as purely mechanical. We find it in all religions that ask you to take a leap of faith, as well as in Schopenhauer’s “will”. Finally, in some way it echoes the spirit of Wittgenstein when he says “what we cannot speak of we must pass over in silence”, a cry that life is meant to be lived, but perhaps never quite known.

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