10 Mar 2010

Don't Forget Why We Take a Stance Against Associationism TF§100. Henri Bergson. Time and Free Will

by Corry Shores
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[The following is summary; my commentary is in brackets.]

Don't Forget Why We Take a Stance Against Associationism

Henri Bergson

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

The Organization of Conscious States; Free Will
De l'organization des états de conscience: la liberté

Part XXXI: Psychological Determinism

Previously Bergson examined associationist determinism. According to this view, the self is made-up of an array of psychic states. But there will be one that prevails over the others. So we might feel torn between conflicting emotions. Yet one will prevail. Bergson ends by saying this is an erroneous view resulting from the limitations of language.

§100 This Erroneous Tendency Aided by Language. Illustration

Bergson begins with an example. We stand-up to open a window. But even before we have stood up all the way, we have already forgotten our purpose of opening the window. One might argue that we associated two ideas: the end we want to attain and the motion necessary for accomplishing it. But then one idea faded away, while the other remained.

Yet, Bergson notes that when we stand-up and forget our reason for doing so, we remain standing. We feel perplexed. So we stay in our position, and study it for clues to remind us why we stood in the first place: "This particular standing still, therefore, is not the same as any other standing still; in the position which I take up the act to be performed is as it were prefigured, so that I have only to keep this position, to study it, or rather to feel it intimately, in order to recover the idea which had vanished for a moment" (160cd). Bergson offers this explanation. The idea of opening the window 'tinges' the 'coloring' of our standing position. If we had some other aim in mind, our position would be tinged a bit differently.

And yet, if we were to use language to describe our standing position, the words would probably be about the same. So the associationist has this problem. She associates the idea of the stance with the idea of the aim. When there is a different aim, then the only thing that changes is the relation between the stance and its aim. But Bergson notes that this ignores the fact that there is more than a difference between their associations. The different aim modifies the stance, even though the two differently-aimed stances appear the same from the outside and receive the same verbal description. So while the two stances are geometrically identical from the outside, they look different on the inside from the perspective of our consciousness. Thus "The mistake of associationism is that it first did away with the qualitative element in the act to be performed and retained only the geometrical and impersonal element: with the idea of this act, thus rendered colourless, it was then necessary to associate some specific difference to distinguish it from many other acts" (161c).

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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