22 Jan 2009

Bergson, Time and Free Will, Chapter 1, §15 "The Feeling of Effort."

by Corry Shores
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Bergson, Time and Free Will (Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience)

Chapter I, "The Intensity of Psychic States"

Part V: "Muscular Effort"

§15 "The Feeling of Effort. We are Conscious not of an Expenditure of Force but of the Resulting Muscular Movement"

When we lift our leg, we have a sensation of the effort expended. Consider someone whose leg is paralyzed. When he tries to lift it, he still feels an expenditure of energy. Since his leg does not move in extensive space, it seems there is intensive energy. If so, then we have grounds to quantify the intensity of sensations. For, we can say one movement or action expends more or less effort than another.

Bergson will counter-argue by demonstrating that even when it seems there are no extensive muscle changes, in fact there really are.

1) Vulpian has shown this with people who have a paralyzed hand. When asked to clench the paralyzed hand, they automatically contract muscles in the other hand.

2) Ferrier has us hold our hands out as though we are holding a gun with our finger ready at the trigger. We imagine ourselves pulling it, while keeping our finger still. We have a sensation of expended effort not because there is some intensive energy involved, but rather because some other muscles elsewhere in our body contracted without us noticing.

3) There are muscles that control the motion of our eye-balls. In some people, those muscles fail in one eye only. Keeping their good [left] eye covered, they are asked to try to turn the paralyzed eye to the right. Somehow, they perceive the objects in their field of vision move side-ward, as if their eye actually was moving. Helmholz argues this is because the patient is conscious of the effort of his will. William James, however, notes that we are ignoring the fact that their left eyes move to the right even though their right ones cannot. So really it is the contractions of the left eye-muscles that give the patients the impression that they expending intensive effort. (23c.d)

For these reasons, Bergson concludes that when we have a sensation of effort, it comes not from some intensive force, but rather from extensive changes at the periphery of the main site of sensation.

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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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