Memory’s Multileveled Manifold
Matter and Memory
Matière et mémoire
Memory and General Ideas
L’idée générale et la mémoire
§ 91 And the general idea is always in movement between
the plane of action and that of pure memory.
Previously Bergson discussed general and specific ideas. A cow (or some other herbivorous animal) is attracted to the color and smell of grass. So it is grass in general that attracts the cow. A plant likewise grows toward the sun or some other light source, and hence it is attracted to light in general. But in both cases, there can be any of a wide variety of grasses or types of light sources. So our minds have the ability to generalize an idea because we have a common practical response or attitude for a variety of possible specific stimuli.
When we recognize something, this involves us projecting an image from the past onto our current perception. Recall the circuit diagram. If current is moving toward the light bulb, at the same time current on the other side of the bulb moves away from it, around the circuit. In the same way, just as soon as we sense something, our mind projects upon those sensations our memories from the past. By this means we have a full perception, and then we can recognize what we see.
The process repeats with each new moment of perception.
And note that often times we respond with habitual actions to certain stimuli. For example, our feet automatically press the brakes when we see a red light. In a sense, all the previous contracted memories of red lights all contracted into that one perception. And because all perception-memories are contracted to every other one, our whole body of memories is always there whenever we experience something specific, like red lights. In fact, we did not notice any of them in our minds. Our bodies merely reacted. In that case, all our memory contracted tightly into our current perception. Recall Bergson’s cone diagram.
Plane P represents the automatic habitual actions we take. When we hit the brakes, all our memories contracted into that one action. We were not explicitly aware of any of these memories. So that act would be like being at the point S. Now, when we are asleep and dreaming, we are not acting. Yet our memories are explicitly vivid. In a way, they have expanded. So dreaming would be like being at the cone’s top “base” AB. When we are in that mode, our memories are the least contracted into a present perception/habitual action.
Bergson now explains that when we are thinking in terms of general ideas, we are moving up-and-down through the cone’s levels of contraction. So he has us now imagine the cone with thousands of layers, but his diagram will only depict two more.
So again, “at S is the present perception which I have of my body.” And across “the surface of the base AB are spread, we may say, my recollections in their totality.” Our general ideas “oscillate” between the top and bottom of the memory/action cone. The general idea at point/moment S “would take the clearly defined form of a bodily attitude or of an uttered word.” But at AB “it would wear the aspect, no less defined, of the thousand individual images into which its fragile unity would break up.” (210d) Normally, psychological theories of general and specific ideas only look at two things: 1) the active moment S where we perceive some specific instance (that we contractually generalize) and 2) the base AB where we have images that are the most removed from active experience. But according to Bergson’s model, general ideas are always found at some level in between. That means, we contract specific perceptions with all our memories, but we do so having some degree of awareness of the similar past images. When we automatically hit the breaks, we are not aware of all our previous perceptions of red lights, however we are actively contracting them to the present experience. And when we are thinking very abstractly about the idea of a red light, we do not notice that very slightly there is an imperceptible twitch of the leg, as though it were ready to brake at a moment’s notice.
So really when we actually perceive the red light, we are not so aware that flashing in our minds are memories of red lights. Hence it would be at a level closer to habitual motor actions where memories are more contracted.
But when we are thinking abstractly about red lights, the images are more expanded in our minds to allow us to consider them individually; however our bodies are also readying to respond as though we might need to break at any moment. So contemplating the abstract general idea would be found at a higher level.
...but still not at the highest.
Hence our general ideas are never found at the absolute extremities of contraction or expansion. Rather, the general idea
consists in the double current which goes from the one to the other, – always ready either to crystallize into uttered words or to evaporate into memories. (211b, emphasis mine)
consiste dans le double courant qui va de l’une à l’autre, – toujours prête, soit à se cristalliser en mots prononcés, soit à s’évaporer en souvenirs. (177)
[In a forthcoming entry, we will discuss Deleuze’s elaboration of Bergson’s perception in terms of the “crystal image.”]
Images from the English translation [click to enlarge]
Images from the original French [click to enlarge]
Bergson, Henri. Matière et mémoire: Essai sur la relation du corps à l'esprit. Ed. Félix Alcan. Paris: Ancienne Librairie Germer Bailliere et Cie, 1903. Available online at:http://www.archive.org/details/matireetmmoiree01berggoog
Bergson, Henri. Matter and Memory. Transl. Nancy Margaret Paul & W. Scott Palmer.