1 Jan 2009

Bergson, Time and Free Will, Chapter 1, §45 "Break-down of the Assumption that the Sensation is a Sum, and the Minimum Differences Quantities"

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 XIV: "Psychophysics"

§45 "Break-down of the Assumption that the Sensation is a Sum, and the Minimum Differences Quantities"

Bergson questions the postulate [explicated in the previous section] that a change from one sensation level to another can be quantified by finding the sum of minimal sensations leading up to that second level [for more on this technique, see this entry and the entries for §41; §42; §43; and §44]. Bergson has us imagine that we experience a sensation S. We then increase the stimulus gradually and slowly until we first perceive an increase in sensation. Then, we consider the difference between the first state S and the second state S' as a difference of one unit, which is an arithmetical difference: a difference of one. (65-66)

However, Bergson argues that the only way the transition from S to S' can be considered an arithmetical difference is if we were conscious of an interval between S and S'. We would need to feel the sensation rise from S to S' by means of the addition of something. (66a)

We gave this transition a name: ΔS. By doing so, we made it a thing. We first give it identity, which means we thereby give it reality. Then, after considering it as something real, we regard it as a quantity, that is, as a unit of numerical value. (66b)

But Bergson argues that the transition from S to S' is not a reality, because the only realities we experienced were the S and S' that we passed-through (66b.c).

So if on the other hand, S and S' were numbers, then we could assert that there is some reality between them, because there is a series of smaller values making-up the arithmetical difference between them.

Yet, if S and S' prime are just simple states of sensation, with none felt between them, then what would constitute the interval between them? It would seem that the transition only can be conceived when we abstractly think of S and S' as numbers, and then impose on them arithmetical properties. But really, S and S' are unique singular states with no numerical values between them. [for Deleuze's application of Bergson's idea to Spinoza's affection, see the middle of the entry on Deleuze's Cours Vincennes: 20/01/1981.]

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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.

Available online at:


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