30 Jan 2009

Bergson, Time and Free Will, Chapter 1, §28 "The Intensity of Representative Sensations"

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 IX: "Representative Sensations"

§28 "The Intensity of Representative Sensations. Many also Affective and Intensity is Measured by Reaction called forth. In Others a New Element Enters"

If some sound increases in volume, we may notice that our bodies also vibrate increasingly with the sound. These bodily vibrations are a sort of impression that correlate with the primary sensation of sound. In a sense, the volume-increase is presented in an additional way by means of this extra imprint in our bodies. Bergson calls such sensations "representative sensations." Consider also how one food may taste bitter and another less bitter or even sweet. These qualitative differences might correlate with other representatie sensations of pleasantness and unpleasantness. Another example is when someone turns-up the lights considerably. Besides the sensation of light, we also have the representative sensation that is something like being dazzled.

We have seen already that any sensation whatsoever is only qualitatively different from another one, and not quantitatively different. So the bitter is different than the sweet qualitatively. But also, one sensation of bitter might seem more than another, but really it involved a different number of corresponding muscle reactions, none of which being stronger or weaker, and each of these reactions was qualitatively different. [see this entry for a colorful illustration of qualitative sensation-differences.]

But because we might feel more bodily pull towards the sweet food, we might also consider it to give us more pleasure. And thus we might also quantify the sensation of sweetness or bitterness according to the amount of perceived pleasure it gives us. But here we incorrectly judge the representative sensation as quantitative, which then induces us to incorrectly judge the primary sensation as quantitative as well. (39c)

Consider on the one hand that we are trying to detect a faint smell of gas in the house. It is so difficult to locate, that we must strain very hard. Now imagine on the other hand that we are overwhelmed by so much of a gas smell that we try to escape from it. Because the faint smell requires we strain hard to "pay attention" to it, we think that our sensation of it must be very small. And when the smell is so pervasive that we cannot help but smell it, we think that our sensation of its odor is very great. The stronger our reflex motions to evacuate, the more potent the sensation, we think.

Now also consider that at night, the ticking of a watch sounds far louder than during the day. While lying in bed, our consciousness seems to be almost empty of sensations and ideas. So the watch's ticking has full reign on our awareness. This does not mean that we have a greater sensation of sound. Rather, it means more of our constituent psychic states are 'colored' by the impressions of the faint watch noise.

[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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