26 Jul 2009

Present Tendencies Contracted. §73, Matter and Memory. Bergson

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Present Tendencies Contracted

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 XIX.

What the Present Is

En quoi consiste le présent

§73 But memory is radically different from perception.

The past is powerless;

the present is sensori-motor,

and therefore active.

Previously Bergson discussed how psychologists and philosophers often make this mistake: they incorrectly think that a memory is merely a diminished perception. And for this reason they wrongly imply that there is only a difference in degree between perception and memory. [Consider for comparison Hume’s difference between impressions and ideas as being one of different degrees of vivacity.]

This error is based on a false view of external perceptions. It regards us as spirits that are interested in the abstract information that perceptions give us. We hold that information in the form of memories, which are about objects that are no longer present. So when we have a new perception, the previous one is replaced by a stronger image. New perceptions “throw memories back into the past.” Their precedence in the present results from their superior strength: their “right is might.” (176a) Hence according to the erroneous perspective, memories are weaker forms of perception.

We will now try to characterize memories. To do so, we will need first to determine what the present is for us. Time is something that passes, and its moment of passing is the present.

The essence of time is that it goes by; time already gone by is the past, and we call the present the instant in which it goes by. (176c, emphasis mine)

Le propre du temps est de s’écouler ; le temps déjà écoulé est le passé, et nous appelons présent l’instant où il s’écoule. (148)

We can think abstractly about the present. Then we might consider it to be something like an indivisible limit in calculus, lying between the past and the future. However, we do not experience such a durationless moment. But we could in fact consider the present as the contraction between two tendencies: the tendency tending-into the present, and the tendency tending-out of the present. The past has the tendency to project onto the present. And the present has the tendency to wildly break-free into the future. These double tensions felt together at once is our experience of duration. Duration is never experienced as an instantaneity, but it is felt as the ongoing instantaneous contraction of two tendencies pushing-and-pulling the present in two directions at once. [See this entry on Deleuze’s Cinema 2].

But there can be no question here of a mathematical instant. No doubt there is an ideal present – a pure conception, the indivisible limit which separates past from future. But the real, concrete live present – that of which I speak when I speak of my present perception – that present necessarily occupies a duration. Where then is this duration placed? Is it on the hither or on the further side of the mathematical point which I determine ideally when I think of the present instant? [176-177] Quite evidently, it is both on this side and on that; and what I call ‘my present’ has one foot in my past and another in my future. In my past, first, because ‘the moment in which I am speaking is already far from me’; in my future, next, because this moment is impending over the future: it is to the future that I am tending, and could I fix this indivisible present, this infinitesimal element of the curve of time, it is the direction of the future that it would indicate. The psychical state, then, that I call ‘my present,’ must be both a perception of the immediate past and a determination of the immediate future. (177, emphasis mine)

Mais il ne peut être question ici d'un instant mathématique. Sans doute il y a un présent idéal, purement conçu, limite indivisible qui séparerait le passé de l'avenir. Mais le présent réel, concret, vécu, celui dont je parle quand je parle de ma perception présente, celui-là occupe nécessairement une durée. Où est donc située cette durée? Est-ce en deçà, est-ce au delà du point ma thématique que je détermine idéalement quand je pense à l'instant présent? II est trop évident quelle est en deçà et au delà tout à la fois, et que ce que j'appelle « mon présent » empiète tout à la fois sur mon passé et sur mon avenir. [148-149] Sur mon passé d'abord, car « le moment où je parle est déjà loin de moi » ; sur mon avenir ensuite, car c'est sur l'avenir que ce moment est penché, c'est à l'avenir que je tends, et si je pouvais fixer cet indivisible présent, cet élément infinitésimal de la courbe du temps, c'est la direction de l'avenir qu'il montrerait. Il faut donc que l'état psychologique que j'appelle « mon présent » soit tout à la fois une perception du passé immédiat et une détermination de l'avenir immédiat. (149)

What has just past is a sensation. It determines our reaction. Hence what is just about to come is movement and action. Our present is “an undivided whole.” Thus it is a “joint system of sensations and movements;” it is sensori-motor. (177c.d)

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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