2 Jan 2010

The Flow of Coincidence: Merleau-Ponty on 'The Bergsonian Coincidence' in his In Praise of Philosophy (Éloge de la philosophie)

[The following is quotation. My commentary is in brackets.]

The Flow of Coincidence:
Merleau-Ponty on 'The Bergsonian Coincidence'

Maurice Merleau-Ponty

In Praise of Philosophy
Éloge de la philosophie


In footnote 23 of chapter 4 in Bergsonism, Deleuze cites pages 14-15 (23-25 in the French) of Merleau-Ponty's In Praise of Philosophy (Éloge de la philosophie). Here Merleau-Ponty speaks of "the famous Bergsonian coincidence" (14d/23a).

[Consider a philosopher profoundly deep in contemplation. Perhaps she reflects so hard that she loses sight of herself, in a sense. Perhaps in a way she comes to merge-into or 'coincide' with her ideas. She might also experience something like pure existence. Or perhaps she wraps her mind so tightly around the thought and feeling of 'being' that she is somehow fully absorbed into being itself. These are not, however, Bergsonian coincidings. Merleau-Ponty writes:] "The famous Bergsonian coincidence certainly does not mean, then, that the philosopher loses himself or is absorbed into being / La fameuse coïncidence bergsonienne ne signifie donc sûrement pas que le philosophe se perde ou se fonde dans l'être" (Merleau-Ponty 24d/23d, boldface mine).

[Now instead consider a philosopher who tries to think about something before her, like a dove. She becomes aware of the dove's flow of existence through time. Then she looks to the nearby stream. Yet she does not lose her awareness of the dove's flux. Rather, she takes into her awareness both the flux of the dove and the flux of the stream. Both flow in her awareness. But they flow together. Her own awareness is flowing too. All three flow together as one flow. Perhaps even she broadens her awareness to include other flows into the one flow. This would be another sort of way that a philosopher could 'coincide' with what she contemplates. And in a way, it allows her to also extend her own existence so to share in the existence of other beings. Hence Merleau-Ponty writes:]

We must say rather that he experiences himself as transcended by being. It is not necessary for him to go outside himself in order to reach the things themselves; he is solicited or haunted by them from within. For an ego which is durée cannot grasp another being except in the form of another durée. By experiencing my own manner of using up time, I grasp it, says Bergson, as a 'choice among an infinity of possible durées.' (Merleau-Ponty 14-15)

Il faudrait dire plutôt s'il s'éprouve dépassé par l'être. Il n'a pas besoin de sortir de soi pour atteindre les choses mêmes : il est intérieurement sollicité ou hanté par elles. Car un moi qui est durée ne peut saisir un autre être que sous la forme d'une autre durée. En éprouvant ma propre manière de consommer le temps, je la saisis, dit Bergson, comme « choix entre une infinité de durées possibles ». (23-24)

[Recall from §35 of Duration and Simultaneity how Bergson universalizes our own duration. Deleuze comments on it in §78 of Bergsonism. We extend our awareness to incorporate the flow of conscious duration experienced by people within our field of perception. Our duration and the other people's durations will be the same, because we are sharing the same experiences, and because we each unify the other flows in our own. We then imagine that there is someone conscious of them. We further imagine enough consciousnesses to fill the world. So long as everyone is aware of some part of the network, there will be just one flow of consciousness. Merleau-Ponty continues:]

There is a 'singular nature' of the durée which makes it at once my manner of being and a universal dimension for other beings in such a way that what is 'superior' and 'inferior' to us still remains 'in a certain sense, interior to us.' (Merleau-Ponty 15b)

Il y a une « nature singulière » de la durée qui fait qu'elle est à la fois ma manière d'être et dimension universelle pour les autres êtres, de sort que ce qui est « supérieur » et « inférieur » à nous reste toujours « en un certain sens, intérieur à nous ». (24a.b)

[Recall from §78 of Bergsonism how Deleuze explains what distinguishes the many different combined durations in the one flow. One person might be living more-or-less in the moment than another person. This means that each person probably feels time pass in a different way. This does not mean that they no longer share a flow. Rather, the same flow feels differently for each person. These differences in 'contraction' are what allow us in a secondary manner to differentiate our flow from others, and to differentiate the flows of other things as well. Now consider also Bergson's example of the melting sugar. His point is that duration has a sort of temporal density, if you will. Let's say that a scientist was curious about how fast sugar melts in water. She wants to know the percentage of sugar left as time progresses. She experiments and devises a chart that correlates time with sugar-dissolution. She sees the upward curve of the graph, all in one glance. In a sense, the diagram allows her to compress a length of time that she had to sit through, and then pack it into an instant. But then she is no longer representing the temporality of the event, because she reduced it to an instantaneity. So for similar reasons, Bergson writes in Creative Evolution, "If I want to mix a glass of sugar and water, I must, willy-nilly, wait until the sugar melts / Si je veux me préparer un verre d'eau sucrée, j'ai beau faire, je dois attendre que le sucre fonde" (Bergson 10b/10c). We might perhaps regard the situation this way. The disolving sugar makes us wait, because it too has a duration, just as my consciousness does. We share that duration together. And the fact that every other thing in the world around us also makes us wait, we can universalize our notion of duration. So keeping in mind what we said above about the network of durations, we see that Merleau-Ponty writes next:]

What I observe is a concordance and a disconcordance of things with my durée; these are the things with me in a lateral relationship of coexistence. I have the idea of a durée of the universe distinct from mine only because it extends the whole length of mine and because it is necessary that something in the melting sugar respond to my waiting for a glass of sugar water. When we are at the source of the durée, we are also at the heart of things because they are the adversity which makes us wait. (Merleau-Ponty 15c)

Ce que je constate, c'est une concordance et une discordance des choses avec ma durée, ce sont les choses avec moi, dans un rapport latéral de coexistence. Je n'ai l'idée d'une durée de l'univers distincte de la mienne que parce qu'elle s'étend tout le long de la mienne et parce qu'il faut bien que quelque chose répondre dans le sucre que fond à mon attente d'un verre d'eau sucrée. Quand nous sommes à la source de la durée, nous sommes aussi au coeur des choses, parce qu'elles sont l'adversité qui nous fait attendre. (24c.d)

[So a philosopher should merge their existence with other beings by becoming aware of the contemporaneity of their life-flows. By doing so, our own consciousness may conceive all fluxes flowing together. And thus we will see that the flow of our own personal consciousness is no different than the flow that unites all fluxes. All fluxes are in relation to each other, one way or another, and hence all have an affect on one another. Thus Merleau-Ponty finishes the paragraph writing:]

The relation of the philosopher to being is not the frontal relation of the spectator to the spectacle; it is a kind of complicity, an oblique and clandestine relationship. We understand now how Bergson can say that the absolute is 'very close to us and, in a certain measure, in us.' It is in the way in which things modulate our durée. (Merleau-Ponty 15c)

Le rapport du philosophe avec l'être n'est pas le rapport frontal du spectateur et du spectacle, c'est comme une complicité, un rapport oblique et clandestin. On comprend maintenant pourquoi Bergson peut dire que l'absolu est « très près de nous, et, dans une certaine mesure, en nous » : il est dans la manière dont les choses modulent notre durée. (24-25)

Bergson, Henri. L'Évolution Créatrice. Ed. Felix Alcan. Paris: Librairies Félix Alcan et Guillaumin Réunies, 1908. Available online at:

Bergson, Henri. Creative Evolution. Transl. Arthur Mitchell. London: MacMillan and Co., 1922. Available online at:

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Éloge de la philosophie. Paris: Gallimard, 1953.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. In Praise of Philosophy. Transls. John Wild & James Edie. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1963.

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