28 Jul 2009

Our Minds Illumine Memories Immediately Useful, And the All the Rest Demures Obscure. §83, Matter and Memory. Bergson

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Our Minds Illumine Memories Immediately Useful

And the All the Rest Demures Obscure

Henri Bergson

Matter and Memory

Matière et mémoire

Chapter III.

Of the Survival of Images. Memory and Mind.

Chapitre III.

De la survivance des images la mémoire et l’esprit

Section XXII

Relation of Past and Present

Rapport du passé au présent

§83 The past has not ceased to exist;

it has only ceased to be useful.

Just as soon as we sense something now, we at the same time project upon that sensation a memory from the past. Together they form a perception. Those contractions then immediately contract with the forthcoming perception. So in a sense, the past never goes away. And also, we are never in a pure instantaneous present.

Bergson now addresses the question of how these past perceptions are preserved in our memories. But he explains that perceptions never cease existing. They merely cease being useful. So all remembered perceptions have been contracted together already, and they all are found in this current moment that is bridging the past and the present. However, we only notice the ones that are relevant for attending to our current sensation.

If we think that perceptions happen within an instantaneous present, “the indivisible limit which divides the past form the future,” then we are speaking of nothing, really. For, if we consider the present in terms of what is about to begin to happen, then it is not yet existing. But if instead we regard the present as what is currently passing, then we are thinking of it as just having been, and thus also as not existing. (193d)

So our consciousness does not experience the present as being instantaneously now. Rather, the present for us involves the immediate past as well.

in truth, every perception is already memory. Practically we perceive only the past, the pure present being the invisible progress of the past gnawing into the future.

Consciousness, then, illumines, at each moment of time, that immediate part of the past which, impending over the future, seeks to realize and to associate with it. Solely preoccupied in thus determining an undetermined future, consciousness may shed a little of its light on those of our states, more remote in the past, which can be usefully combined with our present state, that is to say, with our immediate past: the resent remains in the dark. (194a.c)

à vrai dire, toute perception est déjà mémoire. Nous ne percevons, pratiquement, que le passé, le présent pur étant l’insaisissable progrès du passé rongeant l’avenir.

La conscience éclaire donc de sa lueur, à tout moment, cette partie immédiate du passé qui, penchée sur l’avenir, travaille à le réaliser et à se l’adjoindre. Uniquement préoccupée de déterminer ainsi un avenir indéterminé, elle pourra répandre un peu de sa lumière sur ceux de nos états plus reculés dans le passé qui s’organiseraient utilement avec notre état présent, c’est-à-dire avec notre passé immédiat ; le reste demeure obscur. (163)

We only notice the parts of the past that are relevant now. That makes us think that when we do not notice them, they must be stored somewhere else. But really, they are all always there in every perception we undergo, and we ignore most of them for practical purposes. (194d)

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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