20 Jan 2010

Exquisite Sensations of Language. TF §81 How Language Gives a Fixed Form to Fleeting Sensations. Bergson. Time and Free Will

by Corry Shores
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Exquisite Sensations of Language

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 discussed our two sorts of impressions. The first kind are immediate experiences of continuous alteration. So if we take a stroll through our neighborhood, every moment is new and absolutely unique. The second kind of impressions are mediated by symbols. We group chunks of our continuously changing awareness into self-same fixed extents of experience. For example, while passing a house, we experience a continuously altering flow of impressions. But for practical reasons, we take that heterogeneous multiplicity together into one fixed impression falling under a single symbolic heading, for instance 'the red house on the corner.' Every time we pass that home, we again have completely unique experiences of it, however, we also fix those experiences and group them, so to be able to recognize the house as being the same as before.

§81 How Language Gives a Fixed Form to Fleeting Sensations

Our simpler sensations are fleeting: "Such and such a flavour, such and such a scent, pleased me when I was a child though I dislike them to-day" (131a). Nonetheless, language allows us to group and solidify sensations: "I still give the same name to the sensation experienced, and I speak as if only my taste had changed, whilst the scent and the flavour have remained the same" (131a). Yet sometimes sensations have changed so much that we recognize more the change rather than a similarity. In such a case, we abstract the changeableness and solidify it with a more general name [for instance, consider how coffee tasted as child compared to now. Perhaps in both cases they tasted bitter. But our taste-experience then and our taste-experience now bear little resemblance. It is as though we are drinking something completely different now. Nonetheless, we might consider both to be experiences of bitterness, even though the common heading masks the undeniable uniqueness of each case. Bergson writes specifically: "when its changeableness becomes so obvious that I cannot help recognizing it, I abstract this changeableness to give it a name of its own and solidify it in the shape of a taste" (131b).]

Now, when we give such a name to a sensation, we in a way treat it as an object. Yet we did not experience it that way: "in reality there are neither identical sensations nor multiple tastes: for sensations and tastes seem to me to be objects as soon as I isolate and name them, and in the human soul there are only processes" / "en réalité il n'y a ni sensations identiques, ni goûts multiples ; car sensations et goûts m'apparaissent comme des choses dès que je les isole et que je les nomme, et il n'y a guère dans l'âme humaine que des progrès" (131bc/99cd). So every moment is absolutely unique. Whenever there seems to be samenesses that extend through time, they are really consequences of our symbolic manner of fixing transient experiences to external objects: "every sensation is altered by repetition, and that if it does not seem to me to change from day to day, it is because I perceive it through the object which is its cause, through the word which translates it" / "toute sensation se modifie en se répétant, et que si elle ne me paraît pas changer du jour au lendemain, c'est parce que je l'aperçois maintenant à travers l'objet qui en est cause, à travers le mot qui la traduit" (131c/99d, emphasis mine).

So language is responsible for our considering fleeting sensations to be unchangeable. Now imagine if someone tells us before eating that the meal will be exquisite. Hearing that word might cause us to enjoy a dish that otherwise we may have found disagreeable. Hence language also deceives us by influencing the nature of our sensations.

In short, the word with well-defined outlines, the rough and ready word, which stores up the stable, common, and consequently impersonal element in the impressions of mankind, overwhelms or at least covers over the delicate and fugitive impressions of our individual consciousness. To maintain the struggle on equal terms, the latter ought to express themselves in precise words ; but these words, as soon as they were formed, would turn against the sensation which gave birth to them, and, invented to show that the sensation is unstable, they would impose on it their own stability. (132a)

Bref, le mot aux contours bien arrêtés, le mot brutal, qui emmagasine ce qu'il y a de stable, de commun et par conséquent d'impersonnel dans les impressions de l'humanité, écrase ou tout au moins recouvre les impressions délicates et fugitives de notre conscience individuelle. Pour lutter à armes égales, celles-ci devraient s'exprimer par des mots précis ; mais ces mots, à peine formés, se retourneraient contre la sensation qui leur donna naissance, et inventés pour témoigner que la sensation est instable, ils lui imposeraient leur propre stabilité. (100b)

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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).

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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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