15 Mar 2009

Bergson, Time and Free Will, Chapter 2, §75 "Two Kinds of Multiplicity: Two Senses of the Word 'Distinguish.'..."

by Corry Shores
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Henri Bergson

Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience

Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness

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

Part XXVI: Two Kinds of Multiplicity

§75 "Two Kinds of Multiplicity: Two Senses of the Word 'Distinguish.' The One Qualitative and the Other Quantitative."

Previously we discussed the way that bodies move through a continuum of space. Each place in space is distinct from the other. This makes them like numbers, which as well are distinct from each other and fall along a continuum. But to each place in an object's motion corresponds a moment of duration in our minds. And these instants of consciousness are not a part of an extensive continuum like space is. So there are not spaces between each mental state. And each mental state does not take up temporal "space." But because there is no space between these discrete consciousness states, they interpermeate [or "contract"] into each other.

Our conscious states are made-up of a discrete multiplicity. But they interpermeate, unlike numbers. Hence when we regard conscious states in their "original purity" [that is, in terms of their duration], we see that they are not multiple in the same way that numbers are multiple. So we must distinguish two types of multiplicity. But to do so, we need to look at other fundamental differences, namely, between qualitative and quantitative distinctions, and between same and other.

[Imagine that we are reading a book and there are illustrations on each page. Our friend later asks us about what we have read. We then recall one-by-one each page, based on the illustrations we saw. And we are able to describe what we learned from each page. Then our friend asks how many pages we have read. To give the answer, we must go back through and imagine each page, and count them one-by-one. So we see that we very easily made qualitative distinctions between each page. But we did not thereby count them or consider them quantitatively.]

Sometimes we first distinguish the parts of multiplicities qualitatively, but not yet quantitatively. Then afterward we might quantify them. In this way, the heterogeneous multiplicities potentially contain number, as Aristotle might say. [Here Bergson might be referring to Aristotle's distinction between actual and potential infinities. If we obtain an infinity by a continuous process of division or addition, then it is potentially infinite, but not actually infinite. For, it is obtained by means of an endless process.] So in this way we may have a multiplicity without quantity. (121-122)

We learned previously what we do when we count the parts of multiplicities. We distribute them into distinct places in real or idea space, even if they are durational, like successive tolls of a bell [see §57.] So it is by means of spatialization that we may have a multiplicity with a quantity.

The problem is that we normally confuse these two types of multiplicities, quantitative and qualitative. For, we often
a) use the same word for both,
b) use one of the two meanings to illustrate the other,
c) perceive one as being a part of the other, and thus we often
d) find it difficult to distinguish them or express their distinction in words.

Even Bergson has walked into this confusion when previously speaking of the multiplicity of conscious states. He has written of there being "several" conscious states that
1) are organized into a whole,
2) permeate one another, and
3) gradually gain a richer content.

The very fact that Bergson uses the term "several" shows that he has
a) isolated these states,
b) externalized them in relation to one another, and thereby
c) set them side-by-side.

So the language Bergson felt compelled to use reveals his deeply ingrained habit of extending-out time into a linear spatiality. So we are accustomed to think about multiplicity and time in this way. But then we might also want to describe our mental state before its sense of duration is extended into space. To do so, we often fall-upon our usual terminology that is based on the spatialization of multiplicity and temporality. Thereby we misrepresent the pre-spatiality of these things.

So in our pure reflective thought, we may conceive the idea of a multiplicity that does not relate to number or space. However, when we translate this idea into the language of common sense, we end-up using misleading terms. So when we speak of non-numerical multiplicities we are inclined to use the language of space and number. Likewise, we have difficulty thinking of a discrete numerical multiplicity without also conceiving it as a qualitative multiplicity. Imagine an anvil. Heavy hammers fall mercilessly upon it. If it could feel, it would sense each blow as being qualitatively different. But as well these qualitatively unique experiences become organized in the depths of our souls in a "wholly dynamic process." This primordial ordering founds the basis for our subsequent homogenization of each instance so that we may regard them as identically the same things being repeated. Thereby we may place them in homogeneous space so that we may "explicitly count units by stringing them along a spatial line." (123a.b)

The anvil dreads each succeeding blow. Numbers have a qualitative, emotional basis. We would feel different if something were to cost one monetary unit more. This is why tradesmen often price things just a couple cents below a round unit. This way we feel better about spending our money.

Thus there are two sides to our process of counting multiplicities.
1) we assume that the units are identical. This we may only do if we range the unites alongside each other in a homogeneous medium (space). Yet,
2) every unit is primordially a qualitatively unique emotional state. The number 1 has a certain "feel" to it. We might think of beginnings, wholes, unity, and so forth. Then when we add another one, we obtain 2, which also has its own "feel." It might cause us to think about linearity, divisibility, evenness, and so forth. It might also give us a "rhythmic" feeling of steadiness. Now we add another to obtain three. We imagine a triangle. We might also think-of oddness or unequal divisibility. And we might feel an uneven "rhythm." So when we add a third unit upon two others, we change the nature, appearance, and rhythm of the whole. Thus we form the idea of a quantity without quality only by means of qualities of quantities. (123d)

[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:


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