26 Oct 2009

Bergson, Time and Free Will, Chapter 3, §122 In dealing with states of consciousness we cannot vary their duration without altering their nature

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"

§122 In dealing with states of consciousness we cannot vary their duration without altering their nature

Previously Bergson explained how astronomers compress time. They do not experience the long durations between eclipses when they predict them in mathematical calculations. However, our consciousness will need to experience the durations between the eclipses if we actually want to see them.

So now Bergson notes that astronomy is not concerned with our mental experience of duration that we feel between heavenly events. Psychology is however interested in these conscious intervals. If time were faster, consciousness would have no objective way to measure it. Nonetheless, it would undergo "a feeling which lasted only half the number of days." This feeling would be different than if we felt time at normal speed; for, it "would lack thousands of impressions which gradually thickened its substance and altered its colour" (196b). States of consciousness are process and not compressible things: "if we denote them each by a single word, it is for the convenience of language; that they are alive and therefore constantly changing; that, in consequence, it is impossible to cut off a moment from them without making them poorer by the loss of some impression, and thus altering their quality" (196c).

We do not need to experience all the planet's orbital motion to notice that it returned to the same place. However, to know some feeling means that we live it from start to finish for its same duration [197a]. At some point this feeling might bring about some action. But just knowing about the act is not enough to see the importance of this feeling in the whole of someone's mental life.

Astronomical predictions empty the interval of time between stellar events. Doing so empties or impoverishes the conscious states that fill those durations. So, the power of prediction is that it can skip-over this duration. But it can only do so because that duration was there in the first place. Astronomers are only able to know the future event, because they are always experiencing the current moment of duration, during which they may make this calculation. If astronomers did not experience an indivisible, incompressible duration in the first place, there would be no need for them to have to use mathematics to skip ever the intervals. And we need some standard of concretely experienced duration, or else all the time between predicted events could be compressed, making the calculations meaningless. Hence, Bergson wonders, "does not the very possibility of seeing an astronomical period in miniature thus imply the impossibility of modifying a psychological series in the same way, since it is only by taking this psychological series as an invariable basis that we shall be able to make an astronomical period vary arbitrarily as regards the unit of duration?" (197c.d)

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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