20 Jan 2010

House of Recall. TF §80 One of Which is Due to the Solidifying Influence of External Objects and Language...Bergson. Time and Free Will

by Corry Shores
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House of Recall

Henri Bergson

Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness
Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience

Ch. II, "The Multiplicity of Conscious States," "The Idea of Duration"
De la multiplicité des états de conscience : l'idée
de durée

Part XXVIII: The Two Aspects of the Self
Les deux aspects de moi

Previously Bergson distinguished two aspects of our conscious states:

The first is: inner, non-spatial, heterogeneous, continuous (inter-melting, confused), primary.

The second is: outer, spatial, homogenous, discontinuous (discrete states), symbolically mediated, secondary.

§80 One of Which is Due to the Solidifying Influence of External Objects and Language on Our Constantly Changing Feelings

Bergson now illustrates with an example. We are taking our first stroll through a new town we will live in. On the one hand, we have impressions of the homes we see. We retain these impressions, which will allow us to recognize the homes on our next walk. Yet on the other hand, we experience the houses in a very unique way at that moment. We notice these divergent sorts of impressions more-and-more each day when we repeat our stroll. During every new walk, we may recognize and identify each house. But if during one of these later strolls we try to recall our impressions from the first one, we notice that the houses seem different now. Each time we see the house, we have a unique and new impression of it, which cannot be reduced to all the others. [Yet also, we group the similar impressions under a common symbol or name, which allows us to recognize them.] Hence there is a difference between perceive something and recognizing it. So even when we recognize something, we also in another way perceive it for the first time, as a unique experience. The distinctness of each recurrence allows us to learn new things, while the similarities [mediated symbolically] enable us to remember past unique experiences.

When e.g. I take my first walk in a town in which I am going to live, my environment produces on me two impressions at the same time, one of which is destined to last while the other will constantly change. Every day I perceive the same houses, and as I know that they are the same objects, I always call them by the same name and I also fancy that they always look the same to me. But if I recur, at the end of a sufficiently long period, to the impression which I experienced during the first few years, I am surprised at the remarkable, inexplicable, and indeed inexpressible change which has taken place. It seems that these objects, continually perceived by me and constantly impressing themselves on my mind, have ended by borrowing from me something of my own conscious existence; like myself they have lived, and like myself they have grown old. This is not a mere illusion; for if to-day's impression were absolutely identical with that of yesterday, what difference would there be between perceiving and recognizing, between learning and remembering? (129-130)

Quand je me promène pour la première fois, par exemple, dans une ville où je séjournerai, les choses qui m'entourent produisent en même temps sur moi une impression qui est destinée à durer, et une impression qui se modifiera sans cesse. Tous les jours j'aperçois les mêmes maisons, et comme je sais que ce sont les mêmes objets, je les désigne constamment par le même nom, et je m'imagine aussi qu'elles m'apparaissent toujours de la même manière. Pourtant, si je me reporte, au bout d'un assez long temps, à l'impression que j'éprouvai pendant les premières années, je m'étonne du changement singulier, inexplicable et surtout inexprimable, qui s'est accompli en elle. Il semble que ces objets, continuellement perçus par moi et se peignant sans cesse dans mon esprit, aient fini par m'emprunter quelque chose de mon existence consciente ; comme moi ils ont vécu, et comme moi vieilli. Ce n'est pas là illusion pure ; car si l'impression d'aujourd'hui était absolument identique à celle d'hier, quelle différence y aurait-il entre percevoir et reconnaître, entre apprendre et se souvenir ? (89b-d)

Our outer, social life is more practically important to us. This prevents us from noticing our deeper experiences of continual alteration. Instead of attending to the continuous variety of experience, we solidify sections of experience and express them symbolically in language. [For example, as we walk past a house, we continually experience it as new, every moment. However, we block that continuous heterogeneous manifold into one impression that we betoken with terminology, perhaps, 'the red house on the corner.' Also consider how we then regard the house as some spatial object that is the same house across its extent. This strips from it the temporal character it expressed by continually altering as we walked past it. And by correlating this stabilized and spatialized object to a continuously changing inner experience of duration, we fix our inner ego's impermanent moments to fixed external objects.]

Hence we confuse the feeling itself, which is in a perpetual state of becoming, with its permanent external object, and especially with the word which expresses this object. In the same way as the fleeting duration of our ego is fixed by its projection in homogeneous space, our constantly changing impressions, wrapping themselves round the external object which is their cause, take on its definite outlines and its immobility. (130d)

De là vient que nous confondons le sentiment même, qui est dans un perpétuel devenir, avec son objet extérieur permanent, et surtout avec le mot qui exprime cet objet. De même que la durée fuyante de notre moi se fixe par sa projection dans l'espace homogène, ainsi nos impressions sans cesse changeantes, s'enroulant autour de l'objet extérieur qui en est cause, en adoptent les contours précis et l'immobilité. (99b)

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Images from the pages summarized above, in the English Translation [click on the image for an enlargement]:

Images from the pages summarized above, in the original French [click on the image 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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