25 Jan 2009

Bergson, Time and Free Will, Chapter 1, §26 "Intensity of a Pain Estimated 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 VIII: "Affective Sensations"

§26 "Intensity of a Pain Estimated by Extent of Organism Affected"

Previously Bergson concluded that the intensity of affective sensations is no more than our awareness of our involuntary reactive movements.

Bergson now specifies that we are not so much conscious of a magnitude but of a number. For, it is not the amount change in any one bodily area that constitutes the sensation. Rather, a whole variety of muscles can be involved in any reaction.

[For Bergson, sensation is always zero-sum: at all times, we have the same amount of sensation no matter the circumstances. He argues:

1) a sensation is made up of many constituent smaller sensations,

2) that number of smaller states never changes,

3) none of those constituent states is any greater or less than any other state,

4) however, the constituent states are qualitatively different from one another, and their qualities change over time.

We might imagine a square light-bulb sign filled with many colored light bulbs.

Every bulb remains lit at all times, and they all consistently emit the same amount of light, even though each one may change its color. Hence the whole sign itself never emits more light at one time than it does at another time, even though all the thousands of bulbs in it are continually changing their colors, with none ever turning off.

Imagine that in one corner of the square, a bulb turns some hue of red.

Then the bulbs near it each turn similar hues of red.

And slowly there is a sweep of change across the board of bulbs changing to some hue of red, with each hue a bit different but all very close.

Even though more lights turn red, the whole sign does not emit any more light than before. It only became hued or colored differently. The only change of more-or-less that occurred was that more bulbs changed to a similar color. But that did not result in any change of magnitude. The sign emits no more-or-less light than before. However, it is qualitatively different. It is more intensely red, but it is not more intensely bright. So the intensity results from qualitative alterations and not changes of magnitude.

We might consider all the muscles in our bodies in a similar way. Never does any one region of the body give more-or-less of a sensation. However, the sensations of each part may change. As the red hues swept the sign, the qualitative intensity increased. Likewise, a more intense sensation would also be a greater number of muscles similarly altered qualitatively.]

Bergson offers the metaphor of the single note verses the symphony. Imagine the symphony properly seated, and consider two possible scenarios.

1) Only one musician plays a single note, but gradually plays it louder and louder.

2) Now instead envision all the musicians playing in such a way that no instrument stands out. But then one musician plays at the same volume, but plays in such a different way that it makes us notice her in particular. Then gradually one-by-one more musicians begin to play like her and stand out. The symphony will not then play any louder than before, but there would seem to be an increase in intensity as more musicians follow the first. This is not a quantitative change in magnitude, but a numerical change of qualities.

Likewise when we feel pain. Consciousness notices all the many different peripheral locations that contract in a painful way. When we estimate the intensity of pain, we are really only quantifying the number of muscles that are reacting in a similar painful way, even though none of them reacts any more-or-less than the others.

Bergson cites Richet's findings. When pain is slight, it is more precisely limited to some spot. But if the pain is acute, then the whole body reacts. Richet concludes that the greater the intensity, the more the pain spreads. Bergson turns this around. The more of our body that "sympathizes" with the pain, the greater our perception of its intensity.

Bergson's first illustration is Richet's example of disgust. In a slight case, we might only have a faint sensation in our stomach. As our disgust becomes stronger, the sensation spreads throughout our whole body. For, our faces turn pale, our muscles contract, our skin perspires, our heart halts beating, and so on.

For Richet, together these symptoms are an "expression" of disgust. But Bergson asks, what more is there to disgust than the sum of all these "elementary sensations?" Also he notes that the increasing intensity of disgust is more easily explained as the increasing number of other body parts that become affected.

Bergson further illustrates with Darwin's description of the body's symptoms of agony. When we feel severe pain, every part of our body writhes and grinds in effort to escape the awful sensation. Bergson has us reflect on our own experiences of extreme pain. He notes that it urges our bodes to commit "a thousand different actions in order to escape from it." (37c)

Bergson then considers the possibility that increasing pain is really just one nerve being stimulated more or less. He does not see how our mind can detect changes of magnitude in just one nerve signal. It makes more sense to say that we judge a larger sensation of pain when our reaction extends further throughout our bodies. For,

1) we know that when more of our body is involved in the agony, we feel a greater intensity of pain, and

2) a reaction of one part of the body is far more noticeable to our consciousness than one nerve signal, if even we have the capability of feeling the activity of isolated nerve signals.

So changes in the number of reacting body parts participating in the pain seem to indicate to us when we are experiencing a greater magnitude of pain. Without these other reactions, the pain sensation would be no more than a quality of sensation. (38a)

[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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