7 Feb 2009

Bergson, Time and Free Will, Chapter 2, §66 "Pure Duration is Wholly Qualitative. It cannot be Measured unless Symbolically Represented in Space"

by Corry Shores
[Search Blog Here. Index-tags are found on the bottom of the left column.]

[Central Entry Directory]
[Bergson, Entry Directory]
[Bergson Time and Free Will, Entry Directory]

[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 XX: Pure Duration

§66 "Pure Duration is Wholly Qualitative. It cannot be Measured unless Symbolically Represented in Space"

We often count time. So it seems to be measurable. A wall clock's pendulum beats a cycle per second. After sixty oscillations, we say a minute has passed. But to group all sixty beats together into one mental perception places them on a straight line, in a sense. Each point on the line symbolizes one pendulum-oscillation. But here each moment-point is simultaneous with the rest. Otherwise they could not be placed together at once. So we depart from the idea of their succession in order to count them.

However, we might instead want to imagine each of the sixty oscillations as they related to space in reality, rather than how we related them to ideal space as being points on a line. In reality, space does not retain the passing moments. But we want to think these moments in a way that is authentic to how they actually occur spatially. Thus we will need to think only of each oscillation by itself. We cannot recall the others. Each previous moment disappears from space. So we must exclude each prior moment from our consciousness: "space has preserved no trace of it." (105a) Yet, when we think of the moments this way, we condemn ourselves to "remain forever in the the present." And if we are ever in the present, then we are no longer able to consider a succession or duration. (105ab)

But imagine instead that we do recollect the previous pendulum-oscillation, and retain it so to juxtapose it with the image of the present oscillation. One of two things will happen. Either,

1) we will set the images side-by-side, which spatializes them. But of course we thereby make the moments simultaneous. And hence we do not consider them in their duration. Or,

2) we perceive "one in the other, each permeating the other and organizing themselves like the notes of a tune, so as to form what we shall call a continuous or qualitative multiplicity with no resemblance to number." (105b) This way we obtain the image of pure duration. However we also thereby lose the idea of a homogeneous temporal medium or a measurable quantity of time. When we represent duration symbolically, we spatialize it. But when we refrain from symbolizing time, we experience pure duration.

Bergson illustrates. We are lying in bed. All is silent, except for the pendulum's steady beating. After a little while, we drift-off to sleep. What was the cause? Bergson considers possible explanations.

1) After some specific beat, we fall asleep. Did that last beat cause our sleep? But it is the same as all the preceding ones. Any of them should have caused the sleep as well. So the last beat did not cause our sleep.

2) Before falling asleep, we juxtapose this last beat with all the preceding ones. Does our recollection of their long homogeneous extent cause us to fall asleep? The next day while awake we could recall this same extension of homogeneous beats. So this recollection alone is not enough to cause us to sleep. (105d)

Instead, the sounds combined into a rhythmically organized whole. Their action on our mind had nothing to do with the quantity of beats. However, their particular rhythmic organization has a qualitative effect as well. And it is the quality of the rhythm's organic whole that makes us sleepy.

We hear a slight hum in the background. It maintains its tone and volume. It causes no dynamics in our sensation. But consider a violin playing a melody, with its changes in pitch, timbre, and volume. Each new change adds to the previous ones. Not as in a line, but as in one organic whole with a unique quality having some effect on us. Now, each single change in the progression alters the whole melody. But we are 'in the moment.' So it seems that we might always be at the tail end of the melody. Yet, more musical changes continue. This "produces on us the effect of a musical phrase which is constantly on the point of ending and constantly altered in its totality by the addition of some new note." (106b)

This totality we said gives us a sensation. And the sensation is continually produced by the same violin. So we might think that throughout the melody it is the same sensation. But in this case we are considering the sensation's spatially-located objective cause and not just the sensation by itself. In this way we spatialize the sensation, which makes it seem concrete. And also we thereby stretch-out the sensation lengthwise, and in this way set it in "juxtaposition to itself without limit." (106c) But instead we could have considered the sensation more accurately as an organism that develops by means of changes that permeate each other. Hence it is a mistake to think that the sensation remains the same.

Our consciousness really perceives pure duration. Because duration is non-extensive, it is like what some call an intensive magnitude. But as soon as we try to measure duration, we "unwittingly replace it by space." Duration, however, is not spacial. Hence it is not a quantity or magnitude, intensive or otherwise. (106d)

[Next entry in this series.]

[Directory of other entries 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.

Available online at:


No comments:

Post a Comment