26 Oct 2009

Bergson, Time and Free Will, Chapter 3, §123 Difference between past and future duration in this respect

[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"

§123 Difference between past and future duration in this respect

Previously Bergson explained that our consciousness' concretely-experienced duration is quite unlike astronomical time, even though mental duration is the basis for this more scientific sort of temporality. An astronomer can predict future eclipses by skipping-over all the mental duration between them. However, if that is all we do, then it does not matter how much duration spans between the eclipses. They could happen in a flash of our consciousness, or take a very long time instead. Hence we need concretely-experienced duration as a standard to fill that time, so that the predictions are meaningful in the first place.

Now Bergson returns to the determinist claim: we may predict a person's future actions if only we knew enough about the history of their mental life. [If we do so, then we would be saying that after some extent of time, the person will perform a certain action.] But this ignores the concrete duration that the person must undergo in the meantime.

One of our psychic states will undergo a certain qualitative progress. When it reaches what we might call an ending point, then we can take the whole progress together as one thing. We may conceive it all at once, even though it really is something whose essential trait is that it has concretely-experienced incompressible duration. This is what the astronomer does when she imagines the future position of the heavenly body: she regards the whole motion as one thing, even if it takes many years to transpire. We do this also when we think about our past actions. We shorten the duration of the experience and regard it all as one thing.

But now let's consider the determinist who wants to predict someone's future behavior. He will do it solely on the basis of his knowledge of the person's antecedent mental states. But, what he will need to do is determine the influence that these previous mental states have on future decisions. If we want to know the influence of the mental states, we need to view them in their dynamic state, as the concrete and incompressible processes that they are. If instead we just see them as static abstractions, then we do not know how they act on future behavior. Because their dynamic influence is also their duration, we cannot compress them. As well, we cannot compress the future duration intervening between now and the coming decision. It too has a dynamic influence that cannot be rendered into a static abstraction. Our only option then is to live that person's duration as it unfolds. Hence "As far as deep-seated psychic states are concerned, there is no perceptible difference between foreseeing, seeing, and acting" (198d).

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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