6 Feb 2009

Bergson, Time and Free Will, Chapter 2, §64 "Mistake of the Attempt to Derive Relations of Extensity from Those of Succession..."

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 XIX: Duration, Succession and Space

§64 "Mistake of the Attempt to Derive Relations of Extensity from Those of Succession. The Conception of 'Pure Duration'"

To understand how the English school reduces relations of extensity to relations of time, Bergson has us conduct a demonstration. We close our eyes and run our hands along some surface. While doing so, at each moment we felt something different, at least because our joints continuously reposition themselves in the process. This series of sensations differ only in quality and their order in succession. (99d) Thus we sense the surface's extent not so much spatially as much as temporally. In fact, we can reverse the movement and undergo the same sensation in the opposite order. This might suggest that we can define spatial relations as "reversible relations of succession in time." (100a) However, according to Bergson's view, to place moments in succession is already to spatialize them. Hence this definition of space involves a vicious circle "or at least a very superficial idea of time." (100ab)

Bergson claims there are two possible conceptions of time:

1) one made impure by contaminating it with spatiality, and

2) one pure of any spatialization.

This second kind is pure duration, which is the form that "the succession of our conscious states assumes when our ego lets itself live, when it refrains from separating its present state from its former states." (100b) If we are concerned with the conscious states that are passing away, then our consciousness will move into the past. Hence it will not endure. However, we need not also forget our former mental states. All we need to do is make sure that when we recall prior mental states, we do not set them alongside the present state "as one point alongside another." Rather, we form "both the past and the present states into an organic whole, as happens when we recall the notes of a tune, melting, so to speak, into one another." (100c) Although we hear each note in succession, we "perceive them in one another." We may compare their totality to "a living being whose parts, although distinct, permeate one another just because they are so closely connected." (100d) We may confirm that this is so by dwelling for too long on any one note. We notice that there is a qualitative change in the way the whole musical phrase sounds. Thus we may "conceive of succession without distinction, and think of it as a mutual penetration, an interconnection and organization of elements, each one of which represents the whole, and cannot be distinguished or isolated from it except by abstract thought." (101ab) This is pure duration. Someone who experiences mental states this way would be "a being who was ever the same and ever changing, and who had no idea of space." (101b)

Yet, we have at our disposal the concept of space. And we smuggle it into our experience of pure succession. This allows us to perceive the moments simultaneously, "no longer in one another, but alongside one another." (101bc) In this way, we project time into space, and we express duration in terms of extensity. Succession then takes-on the form of a continuous line or a chain. Each link or point touches, but none interpentatrate each other. (101c) By arranging them spatially in a line, we may then say that one moment comes before or after another. Also, this spatialized version of duration would say that it is impossible for there to be "a succession which is only a succession, and which nevertheless was contained in one and the same instant." (101d)

But a succession that is ordered places the moments into spatialized relations, hence it has been made extensive. In this way we convert the pure succession into simultaneity, and project it onto space.

So we run our hands along a surface, and we feel a series of qualitatively different sensations. Either of two things may happen then:

1) while experiencing the succession of sensations, we never perceive any as distinct yet simultaneous with any other. We only picture the sensations in pure duration only. Or,

2) As the sensations succeed one another, we distinguish each one. Then we place them along a line of succession. In this way we already possess the idea of space.

Thus even if we take up the English school's position and define extensity in terms of a succession of qualitatively different sensations, we still are thereby spatializing them. Thus we never succeed in reducing space to time, for the temporality their method produces is a spatialized time. (102d)

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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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