22 Jan 2009

Bergson, Time and Free Will, Chapter 1, §17 "Our Consciousness of an Increase of Muscular Effort..."

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 V: "Muscular Effort"

§17 "Our Consciousness of an Increase of Muscular Effort Consists in the Perception of (1) a Greater Number of Peripheral Sensations (2) a Qualitative change in Some of Them"

Previously Bergson claimed that we experience a greater sensation of muscular effort not from increased intensity but rather from there being more peripheral muscles involved. He will now invite us to demonstrate this for ourselves.

We are to clench our fist with increasing force. As the tension increases, so too does the sensation in the hand, "running up a scale of magnitudes." (24d)

Bergson tells us otherwise. There was not exclusively a sensation in our hand. For, as we clench harder, the sensation of effort gradually ascends our arm up to our shoulder. As we clench extremely hard, our other arm stiffens, and our breathing halts: "it is the whole body which is at work." (25a)

But normally we are unaware of these peripheral sensations. Rather, we have the false impression that there is only a single state of consciousness whose magnitude altered.

Try to press your lips together harder-and-harder. We notice that really more and more of our face becomes involved as we increase our effort. In fact, the muscle involvement spreads through the head and to the rest of our bodies when we press with all our might. (25b.c)

So what really happens is a change of extension: more surface of our body becomes involved when muscular efforts increase. But, because we only concentrate our attention on one localized area, we mistakenly perceive an increase in that one place. This causes us to conclude that a greater magnitude of psychic force must have been directed to that part of our body. (25c)

Imagine a weight-lifter holding up a heavy mass. We see that so much of the rest of his muscles are involved in that effort. Then imagine that while holding-up the weight, we add more mass to his bar-bell. Our expectation is that he will experience an increasing sensation in his arm muscles corresponding to the added effort needed to hold the greater weight. Rather what we witness is that more and more of his other muscles become involved in the effort. The arm muscles never change in any sort of more-or-less way. If they do change, it is qualitative: the weight-lifter slowly comes to sense fatigue in his arms, which will change to pain. Nevertheless, the weight-lifter is under the impression that there is a flow of psychic force directed to his arms.

So we are wrong to perceive increases or decreases in muscular efforts. There are two extensive and qualitative factors that we mistakenly interpret as intensive and quantitative:

1) the greater number of peripheral sensations seems like a quantitative increase in the main site of sensation.

2) the sensations in any given location change qualitatively. Overused muscles will progress to a state of pain, which gives the impression that more psychic force is needed to sustain them.

[Next entry in this series.]

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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