19 Jan 2009

Bergson, Time and Free Will, Chapter 1, §8 "The Emotions of Joy and Sorrow."

by Corry Shores
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[The following is summary; my commentary is in brackets.]

Bergson, Time and Free Will

Chapter I, "The Intensity of Psychic States"

Part II: "Deep-Seated Feelings"

§8 "The Emotions of Joy and Sorrow. Their Successive Stages Correspond to Qualitative Changes in the Whole of Our Psychic States"

Bergson now considers purely psychic states. His example is joy or sorrow that seem to increase in intensity, but without accompanying physical symptoms.

In his previous example, desire seemed to begin in a separate part of us, then gradually spread. Bergson argues that really all our thousands of constituent states were colored a certain way, and as the desire gradually overcomes us, they become colored another way.

Likewise for inner joy and passion. Neither one begins as an isolated inner state that gradually spreads. Rather, joy at its lowest level is more of a tendency:

At its lowest level it is very like a turning of our states of consciousness towards the future.


A son plus bas degré, elle ressemble assez à une orientation de nos états de conscience dans le sens l'avenir.


But then, these tendencies actualize, and there is an acceleration in the qualitative changes of constituent states:

Then, as if their weight were diminished by this attraction, our ideas and sensations succeed one another with greater rapidity; our movements no longer cost us the same effort.


Puis, comme si cette attraction diminuait leur pesanteur, nos idées et nos sensations se succèdent avec plus de rapidité ; nos mouvements ne nous coûtent plus le même effort.


If our joy becomes extreme, it is not because our perceptions and memories increase in any way. It is rather because they are tinged with an "indefinable quality" that we never experienced before.

This joy is a purely psychical state. It changes qualitatively in successive stages. This allows us to "set up points of division in the interval which separates two successive forms of joy." We notice that there is a gradual transition between those designated stages. And we notice that in the later stages more of our constituent impressions were pervaded by joy. But the total number of constituent states stays relatively the same. So even in the highest joy, there might be at least one or so other constituent states which is colored differently. This coloring is not somehow a more-0r-less than a constituent state tinged with joy. It is merely qualitatively different. But we are able to analyze only one shading, in this case joy. And we can compare across intervals to see that in a later state we had more constituent states shaded with joy. But the net sum of sensation is no greater, only one analyzed qualification applies to more of the inner constitution of the experience.

Joy was a tendency or turning towards the future. Sorrow is a facing or tending towards the past. This results in a slowing of the changes in our constituent states, "as if the future were in some way stopped up."

And it ends with an impression of crushing failure, the effect of which is that we aspire to nothingness, while every new misfortune, by making us understand better the uselessness of the struggle, causes us a bitter pleasure.


Et elle finit par une impression d'écrasement, qui fait que nous aspirons au néant, et que chaque nouvelle disgrâce, en nous faisant mieux comprendre l'inutilité de la lutte, nous cause un plaisir amer.


[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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