14 Feb 2013

Ch4.Sb1.Ssb2&3 Bergson’s Creative Evolution, ‘Relation of metaphysical problems to the idea of “Nothing”’

by Corry Shores
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Henri Bergson

Creative Evolution
L’évolution creatrice

The cinématographical mechanism of thought and the mechanistic illusion – A glance at the history of systems – Real becoming and false evolutionism

Le mécanisme cinématographique de la pensée et l'illusion mécanistique. — Coup d'oeil sur l'histoire des systèmes. — Le devenir réel et le faux évolutionisme.

Subsection 1
The idea of ‘nothing’
L’existence et le néant

Sub-Subsections 2 & 3 
Relation of metaphysical problems to the idea of “Nothing”

— Real meaning of this idea

Very Brief Summary:

The concept of nothing cannot be imagined, because any effort to do so involves us also imagining either the existence of a subject (outside all the abolished things) or an object (the subject being abolished but seen as an object from the perspective of another subject). Also, there is no way to conceive nothingness. If we think of it as the negation of everything, we are still affirming indeterminately that there is some other unspecified thing to be affirmed.

Brief Summary:

We cannot imagine nothingness. If we imagine the external world disappearing, we automatically then imagine ourselves still remaining; but if we imagine ourselves disappearing, the inner world disappears, but only now to another externalized self witnessing it. So we can think external nought and internal nought independently but not together. It is only when we mistakenly believe that we can think them both together that we have the impression that we can imagine nothingness. And when we think ‘nothing’, we are really thinking of a former remembered thing in a new place or something else in the former thing’s place. Thus our representation of the void has two positive elements: [1] the idea of a substitution (of what is so and what we wish to be so) and [2] the feeling of desire (for what we miss) or regret (that things are not as we wish them to be). We cannot think the non-existence of an object, because to do so means we first think it existing as a possibility, then we add to this concept the notion that it is also not presently actualized. The concept of nothing also is not like negating a proposition, because such negations are not symmetrical with affirmation. They indeterminately suggest that some unspecified proposition should take the affirmation’s place, and they have a non-intellectual component, which is like warning the other person not to affirm that proposition. Also, “The ground is not damp” and “the ground is dry” have entirely different conceptual contents. The second one requires that we have experienced dryness, but the first one does not. Also, when we negate something, we forget it has an affirmative element, and we think that whatever it affirms can be negated, and so on for everything, but every negation is still an affirmation. And this endless negation then also gives us the concept of the All. We believe there is negation on account of practical concerns. We say something is lacking when it lacks the utility we wanted it to have.



Previously Bergson discussed two illusions that result from our practical concerns: [1] we only retain snapshops of the flux of reality we experience, rather than its unbroken changing, and [2] our everyday movement from lack to satisfaction makes us think that first or primarily there is nothingness that is secondarily filled up with things.

In this section, Bergson analyzes the concept of nothingness.

To represent nothingness we must either imagine it or conceive it. What then is the image or the idea of the nought? We begin with the image.

We close our eyes, plug our ears, and block out our exterior sensations one by one. Even though the material world vanishes, we still remain. We still have internal sensations and memories. Even if we forget our memories, we cannot get rid of our present consciousness of our body. We will try to block even the internal sensations. But no sooner than our consciousness disappears has there already appeared another one, there to witness the disappearance of the first.

At the very instant that my consciousness is extinguished, another consciousness lights up or rather, it was already alight: it had arisen the instant before, in order to witness the extinction of the first; for the first could disappear only for another and in the presence of another. (p.302 in French / p. 278 in 1998 English / p.294 of the 1922 English)

Thus we are always perceiving something, either exterior or interior. Our imagination always represents either (or both) an external object or an internal object, even when we imagine ourselves as disappearing, that disappearing self is the object of another imaginary self witnessing it. So the absence of one implies the exclusive presence of the other [to imagine the external world disappearing, we imagine ourselves still remaining; if we imagine ourselves disappearing, the inner world disappears, but only now to another externalized self witnessing it.] So we can think external nought and internal nought, but not both at the same time. But since both can be imagined, we mistakenly assume they can both be imagined at the same time.

But, from the fact that two relative noughts are imaginable in turn, we wrongly conclude that they are imaginable together: a conclusion the absurdity of which must be obvious, for we cannot imagine a nought without perceiving, at least confusedly, that we are imagining it, consequently that we are acting, that we are thinking, and therefore that something still subsists. (302/279/294)

So we can shift between an internal view of exterior nought, or an external view of internal nought. We might attain a half-way state where we seemingly no longer perceive the exterior or the interior world. And it is here that we form the image of “Nothing”. It is already filled by the images of subject and object, so it cannot be the image of nothing that serves as the opposite of being, as what is before or beneath being; for, it already contains the concept of existence in general [the existence of subject and object].

But some might object that the nought in the reasoning of philosophers is not an image but rather an idea. So while we cannot imagine the annihilation of everything, we can still conceive it. Descartes notes that we cannot imagine a thousand sided polygon, but we can conceive it; it is enough that we can clearly represent the possibility of constructing it. We can thus also conceive of the construction of the concept of nothingness. We first conceive of the annihilation of one object by a second, the second by a third, and the nought is the limit towards which this operation tends. But of course we see the absurdity of it [perhaps because there is always another thing to be annihilated thus not end to the operation.] (303-304/280/295-296)

Our minds can represent ideas whose parts can coexist. So we can have an idea of a round circle but not of a square circle. When we try to conceive of the annihilation of the whole, there are incompatible parts to our concept, because we have both the notion of the annihilation of the whole while also having the notion of the existence of either the subject or object. Thus the concept of the nought is self-contradictory and absurd.

So consider if we annihilate the object, leaving nothing in its place. But what remains is still its place, which is a thing of sorts. Consider a creature who has just prevision and memory. They would only be able to grasp the presence of things. But a creature with memory and expectation can recall an object, anticipate it appearing again, but finding instead something else appearing. The creature might consider this an encounter with ‘nothing’. So when we think ‘nothing’, we are really thinking of a former thing in a new place or something else in the former thing’s place.

What  he perceives in | reality, what he will succeed in effectively thinking of, is the presence of the old object in a new place or that of a new object in the old place; the rest, all that is expressed negatively by such words as “nought” or the “void,” is not so much thought as feeling, or, to speak more exactly, it is the tinge that feeling gives to thought [coloration affective de la pensée]. (305/381|282/297)

So we subjectively prefer the object being otherwise, because on the objective side there is a substitution in place of what we want.

In our inner life, there are only presences, of ideas, emotions, etc. If we think of our inner life being interrupted, like sleeping without dreaming or ceasing to exist, we are still doing so on the basis of there being someone watching over the cessation of our mental life. So we cannot conceive of a complete absence. We come upon a concept of a void when we hold onto a recollection while something different is present in our mind. Thus our representation of the void has two positive elements: [1] the idea of a substitution (of what is so and what we wish to be so) and [2] the feeling of desire (for what we miss) or regret (that things are not as we wish them to be). (306-307/283/298-299)

So the idea of total annihilation is an idea that annihilates itself. It is a pseudo-idea or mere word [without coherent conceptual content]. It is as absurd as the idea of a square circle.

Yet despite its absurdity, this illusion persists. One might think that we are going about it wrong by thinking of annihilation, because that would happen in time and space, and time and space are the universal connections binding objects to one another, thus to eliminate one is to replace it with another. Instead, one may propose, we merely think of the non-existence of objects. So instead of annihilating the object, were merely designate it ‘non-existent.’

But we will see that by declaring an object ‘non-existent’, we are thereby affirming its existence. (308/284-285/300)

If we think an object, we thereby think it existent. Kant demonstrates this in his criticism of the ontological argument. The question is not does the conceived thing exist, but rather, does it exist just as an idea or does it also exist in actual fact. To say it does not exist is to add to it the concept of it being excluded by actual reality. So to say that the object does not exist is really to say it exists a particular way, as a possibility, as an ideality. The idea of a non-existing object has more in it than an idea of an existing object, because the non-existing object has the extra notion of this object being excluded from actuality. (310/286/302)

There might be some who object that conceiving the nought is more than merely saying something is non-existent. It is more like a logical operation of ‘not’ or negation of the concept [of being]. Bergson says that the problem with this approach is that it considers negation and affirmation to be symmetrical, because it supposes that negation is self-sufficient like affirmation is.

By affirming one thing, and then another, and so on ad infinitum, I form the idea of “All”; so, by denying one thing and then other things, finally by denying All, I arrive at the idea of Nothing. But it is just this assimilation which is arbitrary. (311/287/303)

But this approach fails to see that there is a non-intellectual element of negation.

Suppose we say “This table is black.” It is a judgment on what we have seen, the black table. Now consider if we say “This table is not white”. We perceived black and not the absence of white. So we are not making a judgment of the table. Rather, we are making a judgment of another judgment which would say that the table is white. [We are saying that it is not the case that the table is white, rather than saying the table is not-white.] Thus we judge a judgment and not a table. If we say '”This table is not white,” then we are implying that either [1] we otherwise could have believed it were white, [2] we did once believe it was white, or [3] we are going to believe it to be white. Affirmation (the table is white) bears directly upon the thing (we are affirming something about the subject of the judgment, the table). But negation bears upon an affirmative statement (it is not the case that ‘the table is white’) so it aims at the thing indirectly, through the interposed affirmative judgment. In a sense, a negation affirms something about an affirmative judgment, [for it affirms that the judgment cannot be taken as true.]

An affirmative proposition expresses a judgment on an object; a negative proposition expresses a judgment on a judgment. Negation, therefore, differs from affirmation properly so called in that it is an affirmation of the second degree: it affirms something of an affirmation which itself affirms something of an object. (312/288/304)

Negation is not simply a person an object, like when someone says to oneself “the table is black”. Negating is the negation of someone else’s statement, so it aims at a person as well as a thing. Were it just a person and thing, it would be purely intellectual. But there is also something like a warning another person or setting him straight.  [This concludes Bergson’s second point about negation, which was that it has a non-intellectual element, perhaps being the warning implied to the other person.]

The first point was that negation is only half an intellectual act, with the other half being indeterminate. So we say to someone “The table is not white.” We are telling them they need to replace their judgment that the table is white with another judgment. But we do not specify what that other judgment is.

A negative judgment is therefore really one which indicates a need of substituting for an affirmative judgment another affirmative judgment, the nature of which, however, is not specified, sometimes because it is not known, more often because it fails to offer any actual interest, the attention bearing only on the substance of the first. (313/289/305)

So when we deny something, we commit two actions:  [1] we interest ourselves in someone else’s proposition, and [2] we announce that some other unspecified affirmation will need to take the place of the one being denied. [Because we  negate someone else’s statement, it seems that we are creating a new one, since it is new for us, thus] the sui generis character of negation derives from the first act being superimposed upon the second one. So negation is not symmetrical to affirmation’s power to produce ideas sui generis.

[Previously we were considering attributive judgments, because we attributed for example black to the table.] Now we consider existential instead of attributive judgments. If we say object A does not exist, we first are saying it exists as a possibility, or that it has or will exist. When we add “is not” we are saying that if we were to take the extra step of positing the possible object as a real object, we will be mistaken, so the possibility of object A is excluded from actual reality because it is incompatible with it. [The French text formulates this last point as a question. (314/290/306)] So when we judge something as non-existing, we [a] note the contrast between two kinds of existing, as the possible (being merely thought) and the actual (being in fact found), and we [b] are saying that some person, whether real or imaginary, wrongly believes that some possibility is realized when in fact it is not. But in the context of making this judgment, we are only so far concerned with the possibility which is not being realized, rather than with the actuality that in fact is realized, which is why the negation leaves the proper affirmation indeterminate. But our negations still implicitly affirms that there is a determinable affirmation that should replace the first.

Consider if we say either “The ground is damp” or “The ground is not damp". Both cases use symbols for human created concepts of ground and damp, and they social and pedagogical purposes, since the first tries to propagate a truth and the second to prevent errors [in others]. From the view of formal logic, affirmation and denial are mutually symmetrical acts. Now consider if humans lost their language. If they feel damp ground, there is still affirmed in their mind a vague idea that the ground is damp, even though they are not using concepts or are trying to spread truths and prevent errors. Under these conditions, we would not have need to deny this truth, and we would not receive some impression of negation from the experience. It is only when we formulate the disappointment of a real or possible expectation and correct an actual or possible error that we come to make negations of propositions or judgments.

Now we must note that “The ground is not damp” and “the ground is dry” have entirely different conceptual contents. The second one requires that we have experienced dryness, but the first one does not [because in the first formulation one is merely speaking of the possibility that the judgment is wrong without specifying the correct judgment that reflects actual fact.] So “The ground is not damp” means two things [1] someone might believe the ground is damp and [2] the [possible or proposed] dampness of the ground is replaced in actual fact with a certain quality x that we leave indeterminate, either because we have no positive knowledge of it or because the person whose statement we are negating is not interested in that determination. So when we deny, we are presenting a system of two affirmations but we formulate them in abridged form. [a] The first affirmation is determinate, because it applies to a certain possible [we are affirming the possible dampness of the ground, a determinate property]. And [b] The second affirmation is indeterminate, because it refers to an unknown or indifferent reality that supplants the possibility affirmed in the first affirmation [we are affirming that rather than being wet the ground is something else, but we are not affirming specifically the actual determination that it is dry.]

The second affirmation is virtually contained in the judgment || we apply to the first, a judgment which is negation itself. (317/293/309||310, emphasis mine)

But if we merely follow the course of our experience [like the languageless people would] we would be no nought or negation. It would only affirming the existing things, states and events that are actually happening at a given moment.

No consider a mind with memory and the ability to dissociate [with present actuality] and distinguishing [things from what they are not]. Such a mind sees more than just the present state of the passing reality. It will see a contrast between what things were like previously and with how the are now. Also, both things remembered and imagined are regarded as possible. (318/294/310)

Now in order to consider the disappearance of something, we need to do  more than note the contrast of the past and present; we need also to turn our back on the present to dwell on the past so we may contrast the past and present in terms of the past only, “without letting the present appear in it.” [So perhaps if we remain aware of the present while reflecting on the past, we are contaminating the past with the present, but if we forget that we are in the present moment, we can think of something as entirely passed and thus not existing.]

[If the idea of annihilation were pure, it would not need two things, namely the the past and our disappointment that it is not present. So] the idea of annihilation is not a pure idea, because it implies that we regret the past [as not being present] and that we have reason to linger over that past. [There is the phenomenon of substitution where we say something is not as stated, but is otherwise indeterminately.] The idea of annihilation arises when the substitution involved in negation is limited to the first part where were merely say things are not so, and we forget the second part which is an affirmation that something else is the case. We only consider the first half because that is the only part of the situation that interests us when we negate, but if we put aside our feelings about things [our desires for things to be otherwise] we only have a flowing reality impressing us in the present.

We have dealt with annihilation, where we drew a contrast between what was and what is. Now to move to negation, we need only add to this that we represent a contrast with both what has been and with what might have been. But we do so by looking just at the possible while affirming the existence of the actual. So we are not merely disappointed things are not as they once were; we are warning another of their error of thinking things are a certain way when in fact they are otherwise.

Affirmation affirms an objective reality, and it seems negation affirms an equally objective  non-reality, so affirmation and negation appear symmetrical in this sense. But we are wrong here because negation cannot be objectified, yet we are right that negation does make an affirmation [but not of a non-reality but rather of another reality.] When we negate something, we might forget its affirmative element, so we form the idea of void or partial nought by supposing that something is being replaced by such a void. We then suppose this operation is performed on everything, which gives us the idea of absolute Nothing. [A negation is a affirmation of the existence of something otherwise, so] at bottom, the idea of the Nothing is the idea of Everything that we are conceiving by moving our mind to any sort of thing, saying it is not so, and then rather than affirming what it really is, we jump to something else and say it is not so, and so on. So in a way, the concept of the Nought is full of reference to everything that is. (320/296/312)

Despite all this, there is still the persistence in thinking that there is Nothing. It comes from a certain feeling and from a social and practical element. The purpose of our thinking is action. The habits of our action influence the habits of our thought, and our mind perceives things in the same order as when we picture them in order to act on them. We noted before that all human actions begin with a dissatisfaction and thus a feeling of absence. It is only because we lack something that we make it the end our action strives for. So we move from nothing to something. But what is absent is not so much a thing as a utility. So consider if we show someone a room with no furnishings. We say it is empty, because it lacks the utility of being a place where one can sit. However, we also know it is full of air and thus technically is not empty. [If we were in outer space showing a space capsule, we would not say it is empty but rather filled with air.] [We do not so much work to create things as much as utilities, uses that the things can fulfill. But if we already have something’s use, it would be useless to have another thing with that use. Thus the utilities we produce are ones we lack.] Human work is generally the creation of utility, and so long as the work is not yet completed, there is “nothing”, the utility we are lacking. We spend our lives filling these voids. Our speculations are not considered with specific voids, so they move to the absolute sense of void, since we think of things rather than their uses when we speculate in this way. It is on this basis that we assume that a Nothing precedes or underlies reality, that reality fills a void. But we have seen that idea of Nothing seen as the annihilation of all things is a self-contradictory notion, and also the idea of Nothing seen truly as an idea [of non-existence] has in it as much content as the idea of the All. (322/298/314)

From the English translation:

Bergson. Creative Evolution. 1911 creativeevolutio00berguof.test.t_Page_307Bergson. Creative Evolution. 1911 creativeevolutio00berguof.test.t_Page_308Bergson. Creative Evolution. 1911 creativeevolutio00berguof.test.t_Page_309Bergson. Creative Evolution. 1911 creativeevolutio00berguof.test.t_Page_310Bergson. Creative Evolution. 1911 creativeevolutio00berguof.test.t_Page_311Bergson. Creative Evolution. 1911 creativeevolutio00berguof.test.t_Page_312Bergson. Creative Evolution. 1911 creativeevolutio00berguof.test.t_Page_313Bergson. Creative Evolution. 1911 creativeevolutio00berguof.test.t_Page_314

Bergson. Creative Evolution. 1911 creativeevolutio00berguof.test.t_Page_315Bergson. Creative Evolution. 1911 creativeevolutio00berguof.test.t_Page_316Bergson. Creative Evolution. 1911 creativeevolutio00berguof.test.t_Page_317Bergson. Creative Evolution. 1911 creativeevolutio00berguof.test.t_Page_318Bergson. Creative Evolution. 1911 creativeevolutio00berguof.test.t_Page_319Bergson. Creative Evolution. 1911 creativeevolutio00berguof.test.t_Page_320Bergson. Creative Evolution. 1911 creativeevolutio00berguof.test.t_Page_321Bergson. Creative Evolution. 1911 creativeevolutio00berguof.test.t_Page_322Bergson. Creative Evolution. 1911 creativeevolutio00berguof.test.t_Page_323Bergson. Creative Evolution. 1911 creativeevolutio00berguof.test.t_Page_324Bergson. Creative Evolution. 1911 creativeevolutio00berguof.test.t_Page_325Bergson. Creative Evolution. 1911 creativeevolutio00berguof.test.t_Page_326Bergson. Creative Evolution. 1911 creativeevolutio00berguof.test.t_Page_327Bergson. Creative Evolution. 1911 creativeevolutio00berguof.test.t_Page_328


the French:


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:


Bergson, Henri. Creative Evolution. Transl. Arthur Mitchell. Mineola, New York: Dover, 1998.

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