25 Jan 2009

Bergson, Time and Free Will, Chapter 1, §24 "Pleasure and Pain as Signs of the Future Reaction rather than Psychic Translations of the Past Stimulus"

by Corry Shores
[Search Blog Here. Index-tags are found on the bottom of the left column.]

[Central Entry Directory]
[Bergson, Entry Directory]
[Bergson Time and Free Will, Entry Directory]

[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"

§24 "Pleasure and Pain as Signs of the Future Reaction rather than Psychic Translations of the Past Stimulus"

We normally think that pleasure and pain express what our bodies experience at that moment or what they had experienced just previously.

Bergson proposes another possibility. Perhaps pleasure and pain point to what is going to take place, "or what is tending to take place" (emphasis mine. 33c). Of course it could be that our species only evolved the capacity to keep notice of what occurs in the past and in the present. However, we should expect nature to endow us with traits that are actually useful. Responding just the past and the present is mostly useless, because they pass away so quickly.

Now consider that we have automatic (reflexive) and free movements. They are not rigorously distinct. Rather, there are varying levels between them.

[Say a bright light hits our eyes. Our reaction is to retract. If for some reason we needed to look that direction, we would have to enact a movement out of our own volition. So we have to counteract the automatic motion.

Perhaps our habit is to lie in bed rather than to awake promptly to the alarm. We have two ways to will ourselves against this automatic return to dormancy. We might either

1) make ourselves feel bad if we give-in to our reflexive return to sleep. Or

2) we could find reward in awaking. "Why it's great to wake up early!" we might have ourselves believe, and thereby feel pleasure for resisting our reactions.

So two ways we may enact volitional movements is by means of pleasure and pain. For, we need some powerful mediating force to counteract our automatic reflexes.]

When we have free movements, we introduce an "affective sensation" between the external action impressing upon us and our volitional reaction that soon follows. It could be that there are organisms which only have automatic reflexes, and never use their consciousness as an "intermediate agent" between stimulus and response. Most likely, argues Bergson, the purpose of pleasure and pain is to help us resist our automatic reactions. (33-34)

In order for pain and pleasure to serve as prevention against reflex movements, they must presuppose their arrival or continuation. In this sense, pleasure and pain are responding to future events that seem certain will occur. [This is conceivable, given that our bodies can be aware of their patterns of response. So when a stimulus is present, continuing, or expectable, we should be able to know also how we would normally respond, in an instinctive way.]

Pleasure and pain are sensations on a bodily level. They are responses to future events. So we may interpret them as signs for our future automatic movements. Thus our affective states correspond to

1) what has happened,

2) what is happening, and

3) what is about to happen.

[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.


No comments:

Post a Comment