16 Mar 2009

Bergson, Time and Free Will, Chapter 2, §77 "Eliminate the Superficial Psychic States and We no longer Perceive a Homogeneous Time ..."

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 XXVII: Real Duration

§77 "Eliminate the Superficial Psychic States and We no longer Perceive a Homogeneous Time or Measure Duration, but Feel It as a Quality"

Recall Bergson's experiment: we close our eyes and block-out the external world. We no longer experience linear homogeneous time. Rather, we experience just pure duration. [see §59 ]

We noted previously that we have an inner and outer psychic life. The inner life is made-up of a manifold of qualitatively different mental states. Nothing spans between them. So they all contract or interpermeate into one another. Hence these states do not fall along a linear continuum. So we cannot say that one comes before or after another. The outer psychic layer can place its segments along a temporal continuum that has been homogenized from our spatializing our durations. So on this higher level we can have sequential orders of distinguishable mental states. Thus the inner domain of pure consciousness uses this outer circle of psychic states as a "balance-wheel" to keep itself related to an ordered medium. Recall again the experiment when we block-out the higher level. Doing so eliminated our experience of homogeneous time and caused us to sense pure duration. But ordinarily when we speak of time, we mean this homogenized temporality. Yet, we only obtained this homogenized temporality by connecting real inner psychic states to symbolized and spatialized outer sensations. So it is only by means of the "gradual incursion of space into the domain of pure consciousness" that we obtain our ordinary sense of duration as spatialized homogeneous time. (126c.d)

[Consider a possible dream. We and our brother are flying somehow in the air. Our brother is talking about earlier times when we visited our grandparents. He tells us about the toy room. Now we find ourselves there as children in that toy room. But we also notice that we are no longer flying. Just then we observe that our brother is wearing a superhero cape from a costume we used to wear when playing. Yes, we have such a cape on too. Then we realize that we were not flying before, but just pretending. Here we see how we do not experience time as a temporal continuum in our dreams. Something new that happens changes the past, as though the present were more "prior" to the past. We were flying. Then we were playing. Therefore, we were not flying, but instead really playing. The posterior is prior to the anterior. The effect brings about the cause. We see that we do not experience linear temporality in dreams. Rather, each new event contracts with the rest. In this way, they all passively synthesize.]

When we dream, our ego no longer communicates in the same way with the outer world. This is also like the meditation demonstration when we block out the external world around us. And in both cases, we feel pure duration rather than measure it as a linear continuous extension. When awake, time is quantitative. But when asleep, it is qualitative. Our waken consciousness mathematically estimates past time. But when we are asleep, we lose this ability to apply mathematics to duration. Instead, our confused instincts take over. As instincts, they are capable of acting at times quite erroneously and at other times very skillfully.

So when we dream we experience this qualitative duration. And probably this is the duration that animals experience too. But even when awake we sometimes distinguish qualitative duration from the materialized quantitative time that has been extended into a spatial medium.

Bergson evokes an example. He is writing this book. Just now he hears a bell toll the hour. But he was so engrossed in his writing that he did not start paying close attention until after several tolls had transpired. Now he wants to learn the time. To do so, he goes back into his memory and recalls the different tolls that have already transpired. Then he adds them to those now occurring. But, he did not originally count the first tolls. Rather, each one "melted" into each other. Together they made a musical phrase that as a whole has a peculiar quality. Then afterward, he is able to distinguish each toll according to its qualitative differences. Thereby he counts four tolls and adds them to the remaining sounds.

And he obtained the number four by means of a qualitative criteria:
1) First he went back into his memory. He imagines one stroke. But this one stroke does not have the same qualitative feel as four.
2) Then he imagines two strokes. Again, the two strokes do not have the same qualitative feel as four strokes do. So once more, he imagines a stroke. But three still feel different than the qualitative feeling of the whole melodic phrase.
3) Finally he imagines four strokes. Together these four imagined strokes have the same qualitative feel as his impression of the whole phrase. Now he knows to stop counting the multiplicity.

So we see that we perceived the number of strokes firstly as a quality and not as a quantity. Likewise, duration is presented to our immediate consciousness in this qualitative form that has not yet obtain any quantitative characteristics. And, the duration remains in this qualitative form until we render it as a "symbolic representation derived from extensity." (128a)

[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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