25 Oct 2009

Bergson, Time and Free Will, Chapter 3, §118 Claiming to foresee an action always comes back to confusing time with space

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"

§118 Claiming to foresee an action always comes back to confusing time with space

Previusly Bergson discussed two fallacies that determinists commit when they claim they can predict someone's future decisions:
1) They wrongly think that intensity is a quantity, when really it is a qualitative shading.
2) They incorrectly conceive of consciousness as an abstraction encompassing all its past and future states, rather than as a dynamic process happening now, with all its implicit tendencies.

Bergson now says that they commit a third fallacy too:
3) They confuse space with duration.

He previously used the example characters, Peter & Paul.

Paul is a philosopher trying to predict Peter's behavior.

The course of Peter's life is like a wavy line. Let's say it passes through successive conscious-states M, O, X, and Y.

Paul first blocks-out O X Y. And on the basis of M O, he wants to predict O X.

Now, we see that these lines are curvy. They are tending in many directions at different times. For all we can tell, point O will just want to keep going straight along its current path.

We will not know that O is tending other directions also at that point, unless we see as well how those tendencies become explicit in the future.

[Consult Bergson's writing to check my interpretation: "You thus materialize these conditions; you make the time to come into a road already marked out across the plain, which we can contemplate from the top of the mountain, even if we have not traversed it and are never to do so. But, now, you soon notice that the knowledge of the part M O of the curve would not be enough, unless you were shown the position of the points of this line, not only in relation to one another, but also in relation to the points of the whole line M O X Y; which would amount to being given in advance the very elements which have to be determined" (191c.d). / "Vous matérialisiez ainsi ces conditions ; vous faisiez du temps à venir une route déjà tracée dans la plaine, et que l'on peut contempler du haut de la montagne sans l'avoir parcourue, sans devoir la parcourir jamais. Mais vous n'avez pas tardé à vous apercevoir que la connaissance de la partie MO de la courbe serait insuffisante, à moins toutefois qu'on ne vous indiquât la position des points de cette ligne, non seulement par rapport les uns aux autres, mais encore par rapport aux points de la ligne MOXY tout entière ; ce qui reviendrait à se donner par avance les éléments mêmes qu'il s'agit de déterminer" (146b.c).]

At this point, Paul realizes that it is impossible to predict Peter's future from the outside. He must get inside Peter's mind, and be there following his line and feeling its implicit tendencies. But then Paul is no longer predicting Peter's behavior. He instead is conducting it himself. [Now recall Begson's example of the point in movement. He can feel his movement. We can see it is in a line. But he cannot see that, because he is just living each moment of it from the inside. He is only able to notice that his own motion is linear when lifts himself up out of his own movement and somehow sees it from above. Then he may juxtapose a past position with a current one, as if they were simultaneous. In this way he can spacialize the time of his motion. But while living it, he cannot confuse time with space, or motion with space.] So even if Paul lives through the movements of Peter's consciousness, he will still not know where they are tending, unless he also stands outside them to see their spatial trajectories. But doing so mistakes time with space. Hence the determinist commits the more fundamental fallacy of confusing duration with space.

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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