20 Jul 2009

Habitual Liberations. §40, Matter and Memory. Bergson

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Habitual Liberations

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 recall the successive stages of learning by heart is to appeal to an independent memory.

Previously we looked at the memories involved in habitual actions. For example, we read a lesson over-and-over until we learned it by heart. Then, we were able to recite it word-for-word, merely by making the effort to start with the first word of the lesson. Then the rest followed mechanically. All the previous instances of reciting the lesson altogether contributed to a whole habit of recalling it.

So we read the lesson many times. All of them became imprinted in our memory. Together they form the habit of recalling the whole thing. But each memory of a particular instance does not itself alone bear the “marks of a habit.” (90b) Rather, we may recall it individually. It is stamped with a date and thus can never occur again. Further repetitions will only make this one easier to recall, yet it will remain largely the same memory from that time forward. (90b.c)

So let’s clarify this distinction. We have a multiplicity of memories, one for each particular instance of our reading the lesson. We also have a memory of the whole lesson itself as one (contracted) thing (it is a multiplicity of memories contracted into one habit of recollection). For, when we rehearse it, we only recite one lesson.

So the first sort of recollection would involve us recalling any one single instance of a multiplicity of recurrences. In the second type we recall the whole multiplicity but as a single contraction into one recollection.

Bergson now addresses a counter-argument. One may object that these two types of recollections are not different kinds of memory. For, the contracted recollection is really only different from the single one in degree: with each new repetition, the contracted habit becomes easier to recall than any one single instance. (90d)

Bergson responds. Each single one (even the most recent) stands on its own as an individual memory: it “is entirely sufficient to itself, subsists exactly as it occurred, and constitutes with all its concomitant perceptions an original moment of my history.”(91a)

So the two types of memory are different in kind. The memory of any one single instance is a representation; we may grasp “the whole of it instantaneously, as in one picture.” (91b) However, our memory of the learned lesson requires that it be reviewed during a set amount of time during which we “develop one by one, were it only in imagination, all the articulatory movements that are necessary: it is no longer a representation, it is an action.” (91bc) As well, the lesson is not really something that is in our past. We carry it around with us in the present as an always accessible habit “exactly like my habit of walking or of writing; it is lived and acted, rather than represented.” (91d)

Hence the representations that contracted into the habit are independent to that living memory, just as the lived habit is in no need of those prior representations. (91-92)

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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