30 Dec 2008

Under Bergson’s Hypnosis: Intensity in the First Half of Time and Free Will Chapter 1

[The following is taken from my master's thesis, The Rhythm of Sensation on the Surface of Sense: Communication in Deleuze as NonSensed and Intense, pages 25-27]

Under Bergson’s Hypnosis: Intensity in the First Half of Time and Free Will Chapter I

Bergson counters the belief prevailing in science and everyday life that sensations and mental states have greater or lesser quantity of intensity. He defines quantity as the degree to which one magnitude contains the other. Yet, 1) he notes that to make such an assessment, one magnitude must be superposed upon the other for comparison, and 2) intensive magnitudes cannot be superposed. Thus, we cannot speak of an intensive magnitude or quantity, because that would be an inextensive quantity.[1] Despite this incompatibility, we are inclined to regard intensities as quantitative, because one intensity often seems greater than another. We reinforce this misconception by determining extensities that serve to measure intensities; for example, some scientists mistakenly measure intensity by reducing it to the extensity of the mechanical movements of atoms inducing our sensation: they might, for instance, attribute a strong sonic sensation to the vibrating air’s molecular movements. Bergson’s objection is that sensations which are disproportionate to their causes sometimes result from over-sensitivities to certain stimuli.[2]

Bergson distinguishes and exemplifies two forms of intensities, muscular efforts and psychic states, to illustrate their qualitative nature. It may seem at times that, for instance, our psychic experience of joy increases in intensity, when instead there is a large series of successive mental states, each one becoming differently “tinged with an indefinable quality.” We then designate arbitrary “points of division” between successive forms of joy, which gives us the impression that they are increasing intensities of the same emotion. However, this distinction is really one of a gradual series of different psychic states, a “progressive stepping in of new elements,” each one adding a different coloring to the emotion, and not a greater amount of it.[3]

Art provides an excellent example of the qualitative differences making up what seems to be an increase of emotional intensity. Art puts to sleep our active or resistant powers so that we may sympathize with its suggested ideas and emotions, as though entering a state of hypnosis. This is most evident in the rhythm of music and poetry, which suspends “the normal flow of our sensations” by causing our attention to sway to-and-fro between “fixed points.”[4] Yet, the plastic arts as well bear this hypnotic power of rhythm: sculpture perpetuates a sense of movement that is forever about to begin, which absorbs "our thought and our will in their own eternity;” architecture creates rhythm through the symmetries in its form and the repetitions of its motives, which causes “our faculty of perception to oscillate between the same and the same again.”[5] Art seems to hypnotize us in progressive “variations of degree” that are really “differences of state or of nature:” at first we are partly attentive to the art, but also to peripheral matters. Slowly the rhythm draws us in until nearly all our sensations have become aesthetic ones. Hence, it was not the degree of the aesthetic feeling that increased, but merely that the conglomeration of constituent psychic states came to be colored differently by the art-work, as we progressed through a series of different emotional states.[6]

Regarding the other type of intensity – the one involving muscular efforts – Bergson claims they involve a greater number of qualitatively-different muscle contractions, rather than a greater intensity of one fixed set of muscles.[7] To demonstrate, Bergson has us clench our fist with increasing force, which gives us the impression of a sensation of effort located in our hand and increasing in a scale of magnitudes. This feeling of increase, however, is an illusion. What really happens is a qualitative change of the sensation we feel in the hand, accompanied by qualitative changes in peripheral muscles, all of which change continuously and organically. What results is the false impression that a magnitude of intensity is increasing. Not only does the sensation in the hand alter, so too the sensations change qualitatively in the muscles of our arms and shoulders. In fact, as we squeeze our fist as hard as possible, our other arm stiffens, as do our legs, and our respiration becomes restrained, all as our whole body works merely to clench but one fist. Thus, while it may at first seem that the intensity of the sensation has increased, instead, we have become aware to some degree not only of the original primary sensations, but also of the peripheral ones, and as well of the qualitative changes altering the “colorings” of them all.[8] It is not like a note increasing intensity as it is played louder, but more like a symphony in which instruments join-in one after another to contribute new tones and timbres. [9]

Also, unlike Kant’s intensive difference between the moon and sun, we often judge the intensity of light really by the changes of hue in the objects around us.[10] To demonstrate, we may perform an experiment of laying paper in front of four lit candles, then blowing them out in succession; it seems as though the light intensity decreases, when really a layer of shadow comes to pervade the paper, and thus the paper takes on a different shade of white. Black, he explains, has no less reality in our consciousness then does white.[11]

[1] Henri Bergson, Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness, Transl. F. L. Pogson, (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 2001), p.1-3.

[2] Bergson, p.6-7.

[3] Bergson, p.10-11.

[4] Bergson, p.14-15.

[5] Bergson, p.15-16

[6] Bergson, p.16-18.

[7] Bergson, p.24.

[8] Bergson, p.24-26.

[9] Bergson, p.35.

[10] Bergson, p.51-52.

[11] Bergson, p.53-54.


  1. '...it seems as though the light intensity decreases, when really a layer of shadow comes to pervade the paper...' - imagine instead that all four candles burn lower and lower (this will happen if the wicks are too fine for the diameter of the candle - they slowly burn down into the puddle of molten wax and the flame wanes). In this case can we say 'the intensity of shadow increases'? if not then why not? If so then how is this different in kind from saying 'the intensity of light decreases'?

    1. Thanks for your question. I think Bergson would say the answer to your question is No. The reasoning I suppose he would give you is that your thought experiment would not be interpreted differently under his assumptions. Bergson is trying to convince us that there are not quantitative differences of intensity between various experiences. So he would say neither that the light intensity decreases nor that the darkness intensity increases. Rather, there is merely a qualitative difference between the experience of light and the experience of dark. If your question means to suggest that you do not find his claim convincing, then that is another matter, and as a Deleuzean, I would be strongly inclined to agree with you.