20 Jan 2010

Reason of Dreams. TF §83 On the Surface Our Conscious States Obey the Laws of Association. Bergson. Time and Free Will

by Corry Shores
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Reason of Dreams

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 explained how we distort the complex heterogeneity of emotions by giving them names. This also strips them of their durational character and places them in homogeneous space.

§83 On the Surface Our Conscious States Obey the Laws of Association. Deeper Down They Interpenetrate and Form a Part of Ourselves

When we conceive an idea, it is not a single timeless abstraction. Ideas are conceived in duration, which means they are continuously heterogeneous qualitative multiplicities. But ordinary life's practical concerns demand we render our ideas into abstractions. We do this by breaking up the idea's multiplicity of constituent elements [into discrete and distinct parts]. This is even the case for philosophical discussions.

Bergson says in the next chapter we will see how these are mistakes of associationism ["But when we fancy that the parts thus artificially separated are the genuine threads with which the concrete idea was woven, when, substituting for the interpenetration of the real terms the juxtaposition of their symbols, we claim to make duration out of space, we unavoidably fall into the mistakes of associationism" (134d).]

Our ideas interpenetrate. So when the "color" of one idea matches the rest, and when the idea reflects something about us as a whole, we tend to hold onto that idea and insist upon it (135b). The interpenetration of our ideas causes us to see them organically within the wholes of our intellects. A consequence of this is the "impulsive zeal with which we take sides on certain questions" (134-135).

Yet, we might give an idea a name that other people use as well. But, by giving the idea "that common looking form" when expressing them in words, they no longer have their unique organic coloring. As well, despite the common names for ideas shared between different people, the ideas are not conceived and experienced the same way for each person.

So some ideas integrate organically with the others and express our inner selves. Whatever affects the 'general state of the self' affects them also (135cd). Yet such ideas are not like single cells within a large complex organism. For, "an idea which is truly ours fills the whole of our self" (135d).

Not all ideas have this organic power. Some are too generic or cliché to express our inner diversity.

Many float on the surface, like dead leaves on the water of a pond: the mind, when it thinks them over and over again, finds them ever the same, as if they were external to it. Among these are the ideas which we receive ready made, and which remain in us without ever being properly assimilated, or again the ideas which we have omitted to cherish and which have withered in neglect. (135-136)

Beaucoup flottent a la surface, comme des feuilles mortes sur l'eau d'un étang. Nous entendons par là que notre esprit, lorsqu'il les pense, les retrouve toujours dans une espèce d'immobilité, comme si elles lui étaient extérieures. De ce nombre sont les idées que nous recevons toutes faites, et qui demeurent en nous sans jamais s'assimiler à notre substance, ou bien encore les idées que nous avons négligé d'entretenir, et qui se sont desséchées dans l'abandon. (103b)

So in the deepest layers of our selves, we experience ideas that are full of life, difference, and change. We may abstract these idea-flows and render them into fixed but empty concepts. So the higher we ascend away from our inner core, our conscious states "tend to become more and more lifeless, more and more impersonal" (136ab). [When we strip out the life, heterogeneity, and becoming of a conscious state, we render it vacuous, spatial, non-durational, and homogeneous. So] as a result of our conscious states floating to higher-and-higher levels of abstraction, they "tend more and more to assume the form of a numerical multiplicity, and to spread out in a homogeneous space" (136a, emphasis mine). The less personal the idea, the more it can be expressed in words. Later Bergson will show that the associationist theory only applies to these empty impersonal ideas. "External to one another, they keep up relations among themselves in which the inmost nature of each of them counts for nothing, relations which can therefore be classified" (136b). Hence they associate by contiguity on account of logical reasons. But on the deeper level of consciousness, contiguity is not a matter of logical relation, but interpermeation. Recall that the interpenetrating ideas unfold throughout a continuously altering flow of duration. Each moment is absolutely unique and different from its neighbors. Hence the interpermeating ideas in fact would even seem to bear illogical relations, if isolated and symbolized. This means the illogical permeation of images in dreams and the imagination expresses what happens on the deepest levels of intellectual activity.

But if, digging below the surface of contact between the self and external objects, we penetrate into the depths of the organized and living intelligence, we shall witness the joining together or rather the blending of many ideas which, when once dissociated, seem to exclude one another as logically contradictory terms. The strangest dreams, in which two images overlie one another and show us at the same time two different persons, who yet make only one, will hardly give us an idea of the interweaving of concepts which goes on when we are awake. The imagination of the dreamer, cut off from the external world, imitates with mere images, and parodies in its own way, the process which constantly goes on with regard to ideas in the deeper regions of the intellectual life. (136c-137)

Mais si, creusant au-dessous de la surface de contact entre le moi et les choses extérieures, nous pénétrons dans les profondeurs de l'intelligence organisée et vivante, nous assisterons à la superposition ou plutôt à la fusion intime de bien des idées qui, une fois dissociées, paraissent s'exclure sous forme de termes logiquement contradictoires. Les rêves les plus bizarres, où deux images se recouvrent et nous présentent tout à la fois deux personnes différentes, qui n'en feraient pourtant qu'une, donneront une faible idée de l'interpénétration de nos concepts à l'état de veille. L'imagination du rêveur, isolée du monde externe, reproduit sur de simples images et parodie à sa manière le travail qui se poursuit sans cesse, sur des idées, dans les régions plus profondes de la vie intellectuelle. (103-104)

[Directory of other entries in this series.]

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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