6 Feb 2009

Bergson, Time and Free Will, Chapter 2, §62 "This Act Consists in the Intuition of an Empty Homogeneous Medium: Perhaps Peculiar to Man..."

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 XVII: Space and Homogeneity

§62 "This Act Consists in the Intuition of an Empty Homogeneous Medium: Perhaps Peculiar to Man and not Shared by Animals"

Previously we discussed how our minds place unextensive sensations into spatialized relations, in a manner similar to Kant's a priori sensibility. Bergson will now characterize this particular act of our minds.

As we noted in §57, space is the medium that allows us to distinguish a number of identical and simultaneous sensations from one another: "it is thus a principle of differentiation other than that of qualitative differentiation, and consequently it is a reality with no quality" (95b).

However, we might consider Lotze's theory of local signs, which says that simultaneous sensations are never identical. So imagine that we are looking at a table top. The points on the left-end and on the right-end both give us visual sensations. And presume that the table's surface is homogeneous, so that we wonder if the two sensations are qualitatively identical. Nonetheless, says Lotze, these two points will always cause a different sensation, on account of the extra-impression that "codes" the point of sensation, if you will.

However, Bergson notes that in order for us to later "decode" these extra-impressions or local signs, we will need to have an idea of the homogeneous medium of space that separates the points on the object that is stimulating us. (95cd)

Bergson claims that our species has the tendency to distinguish homogeneous space from perceptions of extensity. (96b) Each type of animal, it seems, has its own way of interacting with space. Some by smell, others by magnetic currents that allow for a compass-like orientation. So the feeling of a direction for each species might have its own qualitative "shading." (96d) Bergson thinks that it is easy to imagine that animals distinguish directions like we distinguish colors, in other words, as being different qualities of space. But humans have a concept of space as an empty homogeneous medium. He thinks it is "a kind of reaction against that heterogeneity which is the very ground of our experience." (97bc) So instead of saying that animals have their own special senses of direction, we should instead say that men have the faculty to conceive space without quality. (97c)

Now, when we use abstraction when conceiving symbols and concepts that are cleanly distinct from each other, we are presupposing that they may occupy different "ideal" places. So our faculty of abstraction presupposes our concept of a homogeneous spatial medium. Thus our concept of space is not an abstraction. (97c) For, it is the ground of abstraction.

So humans deal with two different kinds of reality:

1) a heterogeneous reality of sensible qualities, and

2) the homogeneous reality of space. The human intellect conceives this homogeneous medium, which allows us to "use clean-cut distinctions, to count, to abstract, and perhaps also to speak." (97d)

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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).

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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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