20 Jan 2010

Space, Society & the Denuding of Duration. TF §84. By Separating Our Conscious States We Promote Social Life... Bergson. Time and Free Will

by Corry Shores
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Space, Society & the Denuding of Duration

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 that ideas on the deepest level are not exchangeable, symbolically mediated genera, but are continuously-altering processes. Because they are continuously heterogeneous, each moment of an idea is different from its neighbors, even though we normally group many such contiguous moments together into one concept. This means also an idea is not made up internally of logically related parts. Ideas proceed in the same manner that images in dreams or the imagination melt into one another.

§84 By Separating Our Conscious States We Promote Social Life, but Raise Problems Soluble Only by Recourse to the Concrete and Living Self

Bergson will now verify and illustrate his main point in this section: "conscious life displays two aspects according as we perceive it directly or by refraction through space" (137b). Our deepest conscious states "have no relation to quantity, they are pure quality; they intermingle in such a way that we cannot tell whether they are one or several, nor even examine them form this point of view without at once altering their nature" (137b). Because we cannot tease the states apart, the "duration which they thus create is a duration whose moments do not constitute a numerical multiplicity: to characterize these moments by saying that they encroach on one another would still be to distinguish them" (137c).

[Recall from §57 the example of the bell toll. No tolls are concurrent. However, to count them, our minds might place symbolic tokens for each one in ideal space so that they may be grouped together at once and counted. Also recall from §82 how our feelings are complex multiplicities. When we assign a word for them, we strip them of their heterogeneous and durational character, objectifying them in a way.] Bergson wonders about this situation: we live just a purely individual life without language or society. Would our consciousness then be able to grasp its series of inner states in their unbroken form? Bergson says that we will still interact and perceive the objective exterior world. It gives us the idea of homogeneous space in which objects may be sharply differentiated. [Recall the pendulum example from §68. The pendulum is never in two places at the same time. That is to say, the different moments of the pendulum's swing never coincide. But the moments of our conscious duration do interpenetrate. And, we are conscious of the pendulum. We then correlate moments of our interpenetrating mental states with the non-interpenetrating positions of the pendulum. As a result, we think we are able to distinguish mental states according to external spatial differences, even though mental events are entirely non-spatial. Hence] another reason why we would make use of homogeneous space is "because it is too convenient to set out in such a medium the somewhat cloudy states which first attract the attention of consciousness, in order to resolve them into simpler terms" (137-138).

So regardless we distort our experience of our own inner states by projected them into homogeneous space. This is the basis for our social life. Animals probably do not also "picture to themselves, beside their sensations, as we do, an external world quite distinct from themselves, which is the common property of all conscious beings" (138a). We form clear pictures of the external world of objects as well as their homogeneous spatial medium. Our tendency to do so is the same as our impulse to "live in common and to speak" (138d). And the more we come to socialize, the more we abstract our inner states into objects or things. In this way, "they break off not only from one another, but from ourselves" (138bc). From that point on, "we no longer perceive them except in the homogeneous medium in which we have set their image, and through the word which lends them its commonplace colour" (138c).

In this way, we create second self. Its existence is "made up of distinct moments, whose states are separated from one another and easily expressed in words" (138c). On the one hand, we might be inclined to say there are two selves. Perhaps there is the self who primarily experiences its inner states as continuously heterogeneous, and this self might be opposed to the self who differentiates these states into distinct parts laid-out as symbolic tokens in homogeneous idea space. But when we concentrate our attention on these discretely distinguished states, we see that they "melt into one another like the crystals of a snow-flake when touched for some time with the finger" / "se fondre entre eux comme des aiguilles de neige au contact prolongé de la main" (138-139/105c). Bergson explains that the self who primarily experiences its mental continuity and the self who watches the artificially divided states re-merge are both the very same self. Yet we keep to our distinguished states for the sake of social interaction.

Bergson now considers a superficial sort of psychology. It is concerned with the states as artificially divided. [Because these states are anchored into real inner states], this sort of method might not fall into error. However, such a psychology is dealing with static mental states. So when it wants to understand the dynamics of these states, it is limited only to the "association of terms which are distinct from one another and are set side by side in a homogeneous medium" (139). Hence it would describe the concrete and living self under this framework. But when it does so, it will continue to encounter difficulties [because this is a distortion of the real, fundamental dynamics of the creations of states]. These difficulties will demonstrate the absurdity "of the fundamental hypothesis by which it spreads out time in space and puts succession at the very centre of simultaneity" (139d).

Later, Bergson will explain that this is the source of the contradictions implied in the problems of causality, freedom, and personality. And, if we wish to rid ourselves of these problems, we need to "go back to the real and concrete self and give up its symbolical substitute" (139d).

Images of the pages summarized above, from the English translation [click to enlarge]:

Images of the pages summarized above, from the original French [click to enlarge]:

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: http://www.archive.org/details/timeandfreewill00pogsgoog

Bergson, Henri. Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience. Originally published, Paris: Les Presses universitaires de France, 1888. Available online at: http://www.archive.org/details/essaisurlesdonn00berguoft

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