22 May 2017

Bergson (4.3) Creative Evolution, “[durational reality and the non-primacy of nothingness]”, summary


by Corry Shores


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[The following is summary. Boldface in quotation and bracketed commentary are my own. Proofreading is incomplete, so please forgive my typos. Citations give the pages for the 1941 French edition first; then the 1922 English; and finally the 1998 English. Or they will indicate the publication’s date before the page number. Paragraph and section divisions follow those in the French edition.]



Summary of


Henri Bergson


L’évolution creatrice

Creative Evolution



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.

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



[durational reality and the non-primacy of nothingness]



Brief summary:

Reality must be conceived as undergoing continuous variation in a flux of becoming. But we cannot conceptualize reality this way if we begin with the notion that nothingness is metaphysically primary and that things are put into it. For, this understands things as primarily outside the durational flux of becoming, which we know them not to be. Our own consciousness gives to us a durational flux of becoming, so we might turn to it in order to better understand this flux.







[If we conceive of reality as filling a more metaphysically primary nothingness, then we regard Being as being originally outside of time and thus as non-durational. But we know that reality is durational, so we should think of being as given primarily in a durational flux. Our own consciousness is such a duration.]


[Let us recall some of the important points from the prior two sections. In section 4.1, we noted how certain practical concerns cause us to hold two erroneous ideas, namely, seeing reality as being made of discrete parts and as filling a nothingness. In the first case, our minds can only take snapshots of the continuous flow of consciousness and becoming. Practical concerns cause us to select only the snapshots we think we need. Then later, we erroneously think that we can reconstruct that original flow by putting together the snapshots. However, the original flow did not admit of such discrete partitions. In the second case, we have certain needs we try to fill. On the basis of that structure, we obtain the metaphysical belief that reality is primarily a void into which actual things are filled. In section 4.2, Bergson further argues against the notion of nothingness as metaphysically primary, but here his approach is to show that it cannot be conceptualized as primary. We cannot think nothingness in itself, because either of two things would happen. Suppose we conceive nothing by thinking of the world disappearing. In such an imagining, we would have to think of ourselves as observers remaining, and thus there is not pure nothingness. Suppose instead we think of our inner world disappearing. We would also need to imagine there being some external observer witnessing it. So we can conceive of an external nothing and an internal nothing, but never the both together. Moreover, our conceptions of nothing will often need to involve a negation of another thing or proposition. Here the first thing must be initially affirmed, thus again we do not have a pure concept of nothing.] Bergson begins by writing: “This long analysis has been necessary to show that a self-sufficient reality is not necessarily a reality foreign to duration.” [I am not entirely certain, but the idea here might be the following. The notion we will want to have is that reality or being is in flux and thus is a matter of duration. In this conception, reality/being and duration are more or less one in the same or are profoundly related. His next point is that if we conceive being through nothingness, we come to a static notion of being. But I do not understand why that would be. I will guess. If we begin by saying that reality fills a nothingness, then we are considering real things as somehow being not a part of the world initially and then as being added to it secondarily. And the world it is put into, which begins as nothingness, comes to be in durational flux. So by thinking of being apart from a more original nothingness, we have de-temporalized it. If instead we want to do real justice to the nature of reality, we must assume that reality is primarily being (rather than nothing) and that real things are primarily in the flux of becoming. And any reification of real things (by means of concepts, impressions, imaginings, etc.) are misrepresentations of their non-reified originality. The next point might be the following. Our consciousness is fundamentally this sort of durational flux of becoming, so we should turn to our consciousness to better grasp the durational nature of reality. Let me quote, as I may have this wrong.]

Cette longue analyse était nécessaire pour montrer qu'une réalité qui se suffit à elle-même n'est pas nécessairement une réalité étrangère à la durée. Si l'on passe (consciemment ou inconsciemment) par l'idée du néant pour arriver à celle de l'Être, l'Être auquel on aboutit est une essence logique ou mathéma­ti­que, partant intemporelle. Et, dès lors, une conception statique du réel s'impo­se : tout paraît donné en une seule fois, dans l'éternité. Mais il faut s'habituer à penser l'Être directement, sans faire un détour, sans s'adresser d'abord au fantôme de néant qui s'interpose entre lui et nous. Il faut tâcher ici de voir pour voir, et non plus de voir pour agir. Alors l'Absolu se révèle très près de nous et, dans une certaine mesure, en nous. Il est d'essence psycho­logique, et non pas mathématique ou logique. Il vit avec nous. Comme nous, mais, par certains côtés, infiniment plus concentré et plus ramassé sur lui-même, il dure.

(1941: 298, copied from UQAC)


This long analysis has been necessary to show that a self-sufficient reality is not necessarily a reality foreign to duration. If we pass (consciously or unconsciously) | through the idea of the nought in order to reach that of being, the being to which we come is a logical or mathematical essence, therefore non-temporal. And, consequently, a static conception of the real is forced on us: everything appears given once for all, in eternity. But we must accustom ourselves to think being directly, without making a detour, without first appealing to the phantom of the nought which interposes itself between it and us. We must strive to see in order to see, and no longer to see in order to act. Then the Absolute || is revealed very near us and, in a certain measure, in us. It is of psychological and not of mathematical nor logical essence. It lives with us. Like us, but in certain aspects infinitely more concentrated and more gathered up in itself, it endures.

(1922: 314|315; 1998: 298||299. copied from Project Gutenberg)







Bergson, Henri. 1941. L’évolution créatrice. Paris: Quadridge / Presses Universitaires de France.

PDF available at:


Text copied from the 1907 edition, available at:


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

PDF available at:


Text copied from the 1911 edition, available at:



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




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