25 Oct 2009

Bergson, Time and Free Will, Chapter 3, §117 The two fallacies involved

by Corry Shores
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[The following is summary. My commentary is in brackets.]

Henri Bergson

Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience

Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness

Chapter III. "The Organization of Conscious States. Free Will."
Chapitre III. "De l'organisation des états de conscience : la liberté."

Part LII: Real Duration and Prediction
"La durée réelle et la contingence"

§117 The two fallacies involved: (1) regarding intensity as a magnitude, not a quality; (2) substituting material symbol for dynamic process.

Previously we summed-up the reason why we cannot determine someone else's decisions. It requires either of two self-defeating possibilities:
(1) we live that person's life up-to now; but then we are not predicting her action but rather making it for her; or,
(2) we know abstractly the 'intensity' or importance of all her psychic states up to now; but that requires we know a fuller picture including her future, and then we already know what we should instead be predicting.

Now Bergson discusses the fallacies involved in wrongly making this determinist claim.

1: Intensity is not a quantity.
We noted that one way to predict someone's decision is to know all their psychic states up to now, along with their intensity. This intensity would be given as a more-or-less quantification. But we learned in the first chapter that intensities are not quantities of different psychic states. Rather, they are different qualitative 'shadings' of them.

2: Consciousness is not an abstraction.
Consciousness is a dynamic process with implicit tendencies. When someone is just about to make a decision, there is currently implicit aspects of her mind-state that cannot at that time be represented explicitly. Only later when we see her future mind-states and decisions will we have a fuller picture of the importance of all the antecedent states. So if we think we can predict someone's future actions based on her pasts states, then we are replacing the dynamic process happening now with an abstract representation all all her states from past to future. [Consult the original text to check against my interpretation: "The second consists in substituting for the concrete reality or dynamic progress, which consciousness perceives, the material symbol of this progress when it has already reached its end, that is to say, of the act already accomplished together with the series of its antecedents. Certainly, once the final act is completed, I can ascribe to all the antecedents their proper value, and picture the interplay of these various elements as a conflict or a composition of forces" (190bc) La seconde consiste à remplacer la réalité concrète, le progrès dynamique que la conscience perçoit, par le symbole matériel de ce progrès arrivé à son terme, c'est-à-dire du fait accompli joint à la somme de ses antécédents (145b).]

Images from the English translation [click for an enlargement]:

Images from the original French [click for an enlargement]:

Bergson, Henri. Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness, Transl. F. L. Pogson, (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 2001).

Available online at:


French text from:

Bergson, Henri. Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience. Originally published Paris: Les Presses universitaires de France, 1888.

Available online at:


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