25 Jan 2009

Bergson, Time and Free Will, Chapter 1, §23 "Affective Sensations and Organic Disturbance"

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 VIII: "Affective Sensations"

§23 "Affective Sensations and Organic Disturbance"

Previously Bergson presented a problem. Sensations are intensive states. Their causes are extensively quantifiable. We use these extensive quantities to measure our intensive sensations. But how and why do we convert something that is extensive into something that is non-extensive?

Bergson proposes a possible answer. We see light, and have a sensation. When we turn on more lights, we have a greater sensation of light. So we notice that outward factors cause inner changes. Increasing the causes increases our nervous disturbances, so we think. Thus we stubbornly hold to the belief that our affective states are no more than the "conscious expression of an organic disturbance, the inward echo of an outward cause." (32c)

The problem is that when we have a sensation, we are not primarily conscious of our nervous activity. We merely experience a sensation. But upon reflection we want to measure sensations. So we might observe that a sound wave with a greater amplitude causes a greater disturbance in our nervous systems. We want then to say that therefore we had a greater sensation. But there is a problem. We may quantify the movement of air molecules and also the movement of the molecules in our nerves. But our immediate sensation-experience does not occupy space. In this sense it is inextensive. We can superpose a larger wave-amplitude over a smaller one, and see for ourselves that the larger is truly greater. But we cannot superpose something that occupies space, like a wave, overtop something that does not occupy space, namely a sensation-experience. So it is impossible to imagine

1) how something that occupies space can transmit its magnitude to something that does not occupy space, and

2) how two things that do not occupy space can be superposed so that we may compare their magnitudes.

Even though we can measure the movement of the molecules in our nerves, these movements are unconscious to us when we experience a sensation. So we are never aware of the way that the cause's magnitude influences our nervous systems. Thus we cannot use the amount of nervous disturbance as a way to quantify sensations. (32-33)

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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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