16 Oct 2009

Departing Individuals. Creative Evolution. Bergson. Ch.1 Part 3: Organized Bodies and Real Duration

by Corry Shores
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Departing Individuals

Henri Bergson

Creative Evolution

Évolution Créatrice

Chapter 1

The Evolution of Life – Mechanism and Teleology

Chapitre Premier

De l’évolution de la vie. – Mécanisme et finalité.

3. Organized Bodies and Real Duration

3. Les corps organisés

Previously Bergson discussed how material objects might seem to exist without being affected by duration. However, like all things, they undergo change throughout durations. As well, material things are never parts of isolated systems.

§ 17 Cutting-Up the World

Material bodies only seem isolated because we want to perform some action that is better served when we demarcate discrete beings around us. We would like to cut paper, so we distinguish the scissors from the table. Then we may handle the tool and use it. This feat that designates a certain body from the flux of reality is in fact performed by another body; it is our own body.

the body which is to perform this action, the body which marks out upon matter the design of its eventual actions even before they are actual, the body that has only to point its sensory organs on the flow of the real in order to make that flow crystallize into definite forms and thus to create all the other bodies in short, the living body. [12-13, emphasis mine]

Mais le corps qui exercera cette action, le corps qui, avant d'accomplir des actions réelles, projette déjà sur la matière le dessin de ses actions virtuelles, le corps qui n'a qu'à braquer ses organes sensoriels sur le flux du réel pour le faire cristalliser en formes définies et créer ainsi tous les autres corps, le corps vivant enfin. [13a, emphasis mine]

Bergson wonders if this body is just like the scissors or any other material body.

§18 Reproducing the Tendency to Reproduce

Our own bodies are at least in some way extensional parts of a larger Whole. So there is some aspect of us that is subject to the laws of physics and chemistry. Now, we can arbitrarily designate some part of the material flux around us as we did with the scissors. But we can then also think of it as being two blades. Our bodies, however, have parts that hang-together so coherently that it seems much less arbitrary to distinguish our body from the world around us. We are individuals. But other objects are not. To be an individual means

a) “being composed of unlike parts that complete each other,” and

b) performing “diverse functions that involve each other” (8bc).

Hence even a crystal is not an individual; for, it has “neither difference of parts nor diversity of functions” (8c). But then, animals and plants could fit these criteria. Later Bergson will discuss the difficulties we would have when trying to determine the individuality of organisms. He will explain that individuality is never found in a pure form. We find different degrees of it, and that holds for humans as well. This is because the vital properties of individuality never materialize completely; really they are tendencies.

A perfect definition applies only to a completed reality; now, vital properties are never entirely realized, though always on the way to become so; they are not so much states as tendencies. And a tendency achieves all that it aims at only if it is not thwarted by another tendency. [13d, emphasis mine]

Une définition parfaite ne s'applique qu'à une réalité faite : or, les propriétés vitales ne sont jamais entièrement réalisées, mais toujours en voie de réalisation ; ce sont moins des états que des tendances. Et une tendance n'obtient tout ce qu'elle vise que si elle n'est contrariée par aucune autre tendance [14a, emphasis mine]

Living individuals have both the tendency to reproduce and the tendency towards being an individual. These tendencies compete, and neither is fully realized. For, when we reproduce, part of us detaches and lives separately. That means there was an independent part of us, and hence we are not entirely individual.

Individuality therefore harbours its enemy at home. Its very need of perpetuating itself in time condemns it never to be complete in space. [14b]

L'individualité loge donc son ennemi chez elle. Le besoin même qu'elle éprouve de se perpétuer dans le temps la condamne à n'être jamais complète dans l'espace. [14c]

Biologists, then, would not be able to fully define individuality.

§19 The Coherence of Cut Worms

The complexity of life forms causes us to be mistaken about their individuality. We might for example observe an animal that breaks into pieces that then regenerate. We see this with Lumbriculus worms,


and sea urchin eggs. [The image depicts urchin egg cleavage, which may or may not be the ‘fragments’ Bergson here references].

But consider instead if we tip a dresser and all its drawers fall out. We previously thought it was one individual, but now it is many. Yet unlike the regeneration of Lumbriculus worms for example, there is nothing more to the dresser and its parts than were there when it was first made. The dresser is an unorganized body, and so it is regulated by the following law:

the present contains nothing more than the past, and what is found in the effect was already in the cause. [15a]

le présent ne contient rien de plus que le passé, et ce qu'on trouve dans l'effet était déjà dans as a cause. [15b]

However in organized bodies such as our own, we begin as one being, and result in many beings through reproduction. Organized bodies are individuals because before dividing into fragments, our parts cohered into a system that was reproduced in the new being. So it may be difficult to find absolute individuals in the organic world. Yet,

life nevertheless manifests a search for individuality, as if it strove to constitute systems naturally isolated, naturally closed. [15d]

la vie n'en manifeste pas moins une recherche de l'individualité et qu'elle tend à constituer des systèmes naturellement isolés, naturellement clos. [16a]

Images from the English translation [click to enlarge]:

Images from the original French [click to enlarge]

Bergson, Henri. L'Évolution Créatrice. Ed. Felix Alcan. Paris: Librairies Félix Alcan et Guillaumin Réunies, 1908. Available online athttp://www.archive.org/details/levolutioncreatr00berguoft

Bergson, Henri. Creative Evolution. Transl. Arthur Mitchell. London: MacMillan and Co., 1922. Available online at:http://www.archive.org/details/creativeevolutio00berguoft

Hydra Regeneration

Lumbriculus regenation

Sea Urchin cleavage

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