13 Jul 2009

Perceptions under Memory’s Contractions. §13, Matter and Memory. Bergson

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Perceptions under Memory’s Contractions

Henri Bergson

Matter and Memory

Matière et mémoire

Chapter I

“Of the Selection of Images For Conscious Presentation. What our Body Means and Does.”


‘What then becomes of Consciousness? Preliminary Hints.’

Previously Bergson explained that perceptions usually lead to actions. In lower life-forms, a perception automatically brings-about a reaction. In humans, there is more cerebral deliberation. But we can expect that eventually a reaction will result.

We relate to things that we perceive. But because a human does not react immediately to them, there is a "zone of indetermination which surrounds its activity." (23a)

Bergson now wonders why this more-or-less distant relation to objects takes the form of conscious perception. We receive movements through our nervous systems. Our brains will delay reaction. During this time, the motions are active in our brains. When we do act, the movements are sent back through the nerves to cause us our bodies to act. But all these motions are involved in our indeterminate action and not necessarily in representation. Because our actions are indeterminate, our perceptions are necessarily variable relations between us and “the more or less distant influence of the objects” that interest us. (24a) Bergson asks why such a perception is consciousness, and why it seems as if our consciousness originates in “the internal movements” of the brain.

Bergson will first simplify the conditions for conscious perception.

All perceptions are “full of memories.” Our senses give us data right now in the present. These sense data “mingle with a thousand details out of our past experience.” The memories usually take the place of the perceptions we are actually then experiencing. What we retain from them are “only a few hints” that we use “merely as ‘signs’ that recall to us former images.” (24bc) Perceptions come so rapidly that we are left with these traces.

Bergson will now consider a perception that is not so laden with memory. It would be “confined to the present and absorbed, to the exclusion of all else, in the task of moulding itself upon the external object.” (24d) Philosophers so far have not recognized such an impersonal perception. They never distinguished it from what memory adds to or subtracts from it, they have taken perception as a whole for a kind of interior and subjective vision, which would then differ from memory only by its greater intensity. (25a.b)

This first hypothesis leads to yet another. A perception might be very brief. Yet it always occupies a certain duration, and involves consequently an effort of memory which prolongs one into another a plurality of moments. (25bc) In this way, memory contracts the different moments of perception.

As we shall endeavor to show, even the subjectivity of sensible qualities consists above all else in a kind of contraction of the real, effected by our memory. In short, memory in these two forms, covering as it does with a cloak of recollections a core of immediate perception, and also contracting a number of external moments into a single internal moment, constitutes the principal share of individual consciousness in perception, the subjective side of the knowledge of things. (25c, emphasis mine)

Même, comme nous essaierons de le montrer, la « subjectivité » des qualités sensibles consiste surtout dans une espèce de contraction du réel, opérée par notre mémoire. Bref, la mémoire sous ces deux formes, en tant quelle recouvre dune nappe de souvenirs un fond de perception immédiate et en tant aussi quelle contracte une multiplicité de moments, constitue le principal apport de la conscience individuelle dans la perception, le côte subjectif de notre connaissance des choses. (21bc, emphasis mine)

Bergson will proceed now to discuss perception in its purity, and not as it is enlarged by memories and offers a certain breadth of duration. (26a) Bergson says that by pure perception,

I mean a perception which exists in theory rather than in fact and would be possessed by a being placed where I am, living as I live, but absorbed in the present and capable, by giving up every form of memory, of obtaining a vision of matter both immediate and instantaneous. (26b, emphasis mine)

une perception qui existe en droit plutôt quen fait, celle quaurait un être placé où je suis, vivant comme je vis, mais absorbé dans le présent, et capable, par l’élimination de la mémoire sous toutes ses formes, dobtenir de la matière une vision à la fois immédiate et instantanée. (21-22, emphasis mine)

Bergson will now proceed to discuss conscious perception.

Images from the English translation.

Images from the original French.

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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