5 Feb 2009

Bergson, Time and Free Will, Chapter 2, §59 "Homogeneous Time as the Medium in which Conscious States Form Discrete Series..."

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

Bergson, Time and Free Will

Chapter II, "The Multiplicity of Conscious States," "The Idea of Duration"

Part XVI: Numerical Multiplicity and Space

§59 "Homogeneous Time as the Medium in which Conscious States Form Discrete Series. This Time is Nothing but Space, and Pure Duration is Something Different"

Bergson will continue his thought from the last section: matter's impenetrability is a property we first ascribe to numbers, then apply to sensed objects. Before that we saw how we place mental states into ideal spaces so to count them. But when we place conscious states in space, does that change how we perceive them?

[We hear a loud awful sound. Our faces cringe. It gets louder. Our shoulders twist. Now it grows so loud it hurts. We reflexively cover our ears. It increases more. Sensing harm to our hearing, we instinctively flee. We think we are having one sensation: hearing a sound. But we learned that we always have thousands of constituent sensations. The ones we did not consider are the protective muscle-reactions urging us to escape. These peripheral sensations "represented" the sound sensations. This is why we incorrectly assessed that the sound sensation increased its intensity. Really what happened was more of our body's muscles became involved in the sensation. Each muscle

1) produced a qualitatively different sensation from the other muscles and

2) underwent a progression through a series of qualitatively different states.

But, we associated the qualitative differences with the sound's increasing amplitude. So, ] although representative sensations by themselves look purely qualitative, when we consider their cause's extensive quantities, they seem to have quantities of intensity. So, our projection of external causes onto internal effects led us to perceive our sensations differently.

[Now consider our mental state when hearing the awful sound. As a subjective state, we immediately perceive all the constituent states, but not explicitly. But then, while still hearing the sound, we draw our attention to a simpler state that was "colored" by fear. But to draw our attention this way is to change another state from one quality to the quality of being focused or being selectively aware. Our total state is the synthesis of all its parts. So as soon as we are selectively aware of one part of our consciousness, the whole of our consciousness changes.] Thus, when we want to count our constituent psychic states, and we thereby place them in ideal space, we have also changed their character somewhat, which "gives them in reflective consciousness a new form." (90c)

We also saw that the way we place mental states in ideal space is by

1) attending to each part during a different moment, and

2) placing those moments in different ideal locations.

So we think that there are different moments of our reflective consciousness. Thus time for us is "a homogeneous medium in which our conscious states are ranged alongside one another as in space, so as to form a discrete multiplicity." (90cd)

Bergson would like us to conduct a strange and difficult exercise to help us experience the difference

a) between duration and time, and

b) between multiplicity and number.

Close your eyes. You still hear things. But you see and think things in your mind too. Ignore the sounds. Forget what you smell and touch. Only pay attention to what is in your mind. It is unprovoked by the outside world...

Was your mind a confusion of many things? Did you see moving colors, at the same time running through associated images? Did ideas hover nearby, while you heard yourself chattering away? How strong was the correspondence between all these many constituent mind elements? Did they chaotically go their own way? Were they loosely related? Or united in full around one common object?

What happened to time when the outer-world had no influence? Did you experience it the same way? Did you experience time at all?

Bergson believes that we did not experience time. There may have been change and diversity. But there was no space. And because there was no space, we could not place moments next to each other in ideal space. We did not sense time. We experienced pure duration.

But what do we need for there to be time? Extension, namely temporal extension. Time only manifests to us when we place moments beside each other. We saw that to do this we must give them spatial place. This allows us to put them in a "discrete series" so that we may count them. Time is a medium for making spatialized distinctions between mental states. Time is just space.

Thus whenever we imagine time and succession, we borrow from space its property of extension. Pure duration however is something else.

We began by analyzing the notion of discrete multiplicity. We noted that our psychic states are multiplicities. We found that when we count moments, we spatialize duration so to produce time. This has produced a number of unanswered questions. We proceed to answer them now by studying directly

a) the idea of space and the idea of time, and

b) their mutual relations. (91d)

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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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