21 Jul 2009

Graceful Motors. §49, Matter and Memory. Bergson

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Graceful Motors

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

§49 In one kind of recognition the basis of the sense of familiarity is the consciousness of a well-ordered motor accompaniment.

Consider. We have seen something before. Now we see it again. It feels familiar. For, we recognize it.

Bergson will discuss one kind of recognition. It’s bodily. And it’s instantaneous.

There is, in the first place, if we carry the process to the extreme, an instantaneous recognition, of which the body is capable by itself, without the help of any explicit memory-image. (109d, boldface and underline mine)

Il y a d’abord, à la limite, une reconnaissance dans l’instantané, une reconnaissance dont le corps tout seul est capable, sans qu’aucun souvenir explicite intervienne. (93a)

Take for example when we are in a new place. We are indecisive about where to turn. So our bodies might jerk one way, while also feeling pulled other directions. This makes our bodily motions discontinuous. For, there is no predicting or indicating where we turn next. [Thus our motion lacks grace. For more, see Time and Free Will §9, and the entry comparing Herbert Spencer and Bergson’s theories of grace.] Bergson writes:

For instance, I take a walk in a town seen then for the first time. At every street corner I hesitate, uncertain where I am going. I am in doubt; and I mean by this that alternatives are offered to my body, that my movement as a whole is discontinuous, that there is nothing in one attitude which foretells and prepares future attitudes. (110a.b, emphasis mine)

Je me promène dans une ville, par exemple, pour la première fois. A chaque tournant de rue, j’hésite, ne sachant où je vais. Je suis dans l’incertitude, et j’entends par là que des alternatives se posent à mon corps, que mon mouvement est discontinu dans son ensemble, qu’il n’y a rien, dans une des attitudes, qui annonce et prépare les attitudes à venir. (93a)

But, we continue exploring the new town. Before long, we come to anticipate what lies at every turn. So our bodies move more fluidly. And we come no longer to have distinct perceptions of our surroundings.

Later, after prolonged sojourn in the town, I shall go about it mechanically, without having any distinct perception of the objects which I am passing. (110b)

Plus tard, après un long séjour dans la ville, j’y circulerai machinalement, sans avoir la perception distincte des objets devant lesquels je passe. (93b)

At the one extreme, we are disoriented, our bodies disorganized, and our motions are uncertain and graceless. As well, we seem to be hyper-aware of all the confusing details around us. We do not yet know which ones are important to observe, and which others bear no relation to our interests. Yet, the familiarity we come to develop places us at the other extreme. Then we are so well oriented that we move about without much explicit awareness of our surroundings, as though we were on ‘autopilot.’ Our minds can be somewhere else, because we already know which external details we need to observe, and all the rest we can ignore. Our bodies move gracefully and organically, because they know in advance what to expect with each change of direction.

In the beginning, we perceive things happening all around us. But we do not yet know what to do with that information. So these perceptions do not organize our responding motions. And after our full familiarity, our motions are so well organized that they have no need any longer of our perceptions. Our bodies can get around without needing us pay much attention to what is going on around us.

Bergson addresses that period of adjustment between these two extremes. In such cases, we are still perceiving the world around us, but also these perceptions induce fluidly-mechanical (continuous) motions. So initially we are fully perceptive but not motionally automatic. And much later we will move automatically, while perceiving almost nothing. In between these states are phases where there is both perception and automation; for, during this period, our automatic movements are induced by our perceptions.

So Bergson has us consider two things together:

1) As we are becoming familiar with our surroundings, we will have perceptions that guide our bodies to perform the appropriate reactions.

2) We would call these perceptions of familiar things ‘recognitions.’

Because recognitions produce automatic motor behaviors, we might conclude that “the consciousness of a well-regulated motor accompaniment, of an organized motor reaction, is here the foundation of the sense of familiarity;” and so “at the basis of recognition there would thus be a phenomenon of a motor order.” (111a)

Bergson provides further reason to think so. When we recognize some common object, we thereby recall how we use it. And knowing how to use something means that we are familiar with the sorts of motions we would undertake when putting it to use. Hence we see also that our habits involved in using objects organize our perceptions together with our motions. This is the foundation of recognition. (111b.c)

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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