31 Jan 2009

Bergson, Time and Free Will, Ch 1, §33 "The Sensations of Pressure and Weight Measured by Extent of Organism Affected"

by Corry Shores
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[The following is summary; my commentary is in brackets.]

Bergson, Time and Free Will

(Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience)

Chapter I, "The Intensity of Psychic States"

Part XII: "Sensation of Weight"

§33 "The Sensations of Pressure and Weight Measured by Extent of Organism Affected"

If someone were to press down on our hand with increasing pressure, it might seem that the feeling of heaviness increased. But really there were only qualitative changes in the sensation: first we felt contact, then light pressure, then pain; the pain undergoes a sequence of qualitative changes, while the sensation slowly spreads to surrounding regions. (47-48)

When we sense various degrees of lightness and heaviness, we are really feeling "many species of these two genera." (48c) But we instantly translate these different qualities into quantities, because we notice the different muscle efforts needed to lift varying degrees of weight.

Bergson illustrates with a compelling example. Suppose someone tells us to lift a basket of scrap iron. But when we go to lift it, we find that really the basket is empty. Our bodies do not expect this. Rather, so many other muscles were ready to participate in lifting the basket, that when we try lifting it, we completely lose our balance, "as though distant muscles had interested themselves before hand in the operation and experienced a sudden disappointment." (49a) Thus we judge something's weight by the number of additional muscles we use to lift it. But we will have the same amount of sensation whether we lift something light or something heavy.

Imagine we lift something light according to a certain motion, then we lift something heavy using the same motion. We will incorrectly assume that both instances were qualitatively the same, except the heavy weight caused more of a sensation of heaviness. We are mistaken because we narrow our attention too much on the common muscles used in both cases. For, when lifting the heavier weight, we used additional muscles. And even the muscles used in both cases produced qualitatively different sensations in both instances. (50b)

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Images from the pages summarized above, in the English Translation [click on the image for an enlargement]:

Images from the pages summarized above, in the original French [click on the image for an enlargement]:

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

Available online at:


French text from:

Bergson, Henri. Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience. Originally published Paris: Les Presses universitaires de France, 1888.


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