20 Jul 2009

Contracting Habits. §39, Matter and Memory. Bergson

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Contracting Habits

Henri Bergson

Matter and Memory

Matière et mémoire

Chapter II

Of the Recognition of Images. Memory and the Brain

Chapitre II

De la reconnaissance des images la mémoire et le cerveau


To learn by heart is to create a cerebral mechanism, a habit of the body.

Previously, Bergson posed three hypotheses:

I. The past survives under two distinct forms: first, in motor mechanisms; secondly, in independent recollections.

II. The recognition of a present object is effected by movements when it proceeds from the object, by representations when it issues from the subject.

III. We pass, by imperceptible stages, from recollections strung out along the course of time to the movements which indicate their nascent or possible action in space. Lesions of the brain may affect these movements, but not these recollections.

Bergson will now see if our experiences verify these hypotheses. His first way is to compare two sorts of memory.

He offers this example: we will learn a lesson by heart. So we read it once, “accentuating every line.” Then we repeat the reading some number of times. With each repetition we learn it better: “the words are more and more linked together, and at last make a continuous whole.” At this point, we know the lesson by heart, and it is imprinted in our memory. (89a.b)

We will review this learning process in all its successive phases.

There were numerous instances of our reading the lesson. Each one had its own individuality. For, we can still recall the circumstances and setting that attended it. And, we may distinguish it as occurring before a certain other instance, and as falling after some other one. Thus each such instance is an event in our personal history.

We recall these images from our memory. So we say that they are recollections; and we also then say that they are imprints in our memory. Bergson now wonders, does ‘recollection’ and ‘memory’ mean the same thing?

We learned the lesson by heart. In that sense, we remember it. And our memory of it has “all the marks of a habit.” (89d) [When we learned this lesson, we went through the parts piece-by-piece, over-and-over. Hence,] like all habits, “it demands first a decomposition and then a recomposition of the whole action.” (89-90) Also, it is a habit stored in our body’s behaviors. It is like a mechanism. We just need to start the chain of motions with a little first push, and the rest will follow in due order and time: "it is stored up in a mechanism which is set in motion as a whole by an initial impulse, in a closed system of automatic movements which succeed each other in the same order, and, together, take the same length of time.” (90a)

Images from the English translation [click to enlarge]

Images from the original French [click to enlarge]

Bergson, Henri. Matière et mémoire: Essai sur la relation du corps à l'esprit. Ed. Félix Alcan. Paris: Ancienne Librairie Germer Bailliere et Cie, 1903. Available online at:http://www.archive.org/details/matireetmmoiree01berggoog

Bergson, Henri. Matter and Memory. Transl. Nancy Margaret Paul & W. Scott Palmer. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 2004; originally published by George Allen & Co., Ltd., London, 1912. Available online at:http://www.archive.org/details/mattermemory00berg

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