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« Bergson, "The possible and the real" (part 2) | Main | Rilke, "Abend" »

Bergson, "The possible and the real" (part 1)

The first part to an essay by this philosopher and man of letters.  You can read the original as part of this collection.

I would like to return to a subject I mentioned before: the continual creation of unpredictable novelty that seems to keep happening in the universe.  For my part, I believe I feel it every second.  I am fond of imagining the details of what is going to occur; and how feeble, abstract and schematic is my imagination in comparison to the event actually produced!  This realization brings with it an unpredictable nothing that changes everything.  Say, for example, that I have to attend a meeting.  I know what people I'll find there, around what table and in what order they will be seated, and what problem they will discuss.  Yet they can arrive, sit down and begin to talk just as I have imagined, and say what I indeed thought they would, and still the constellation of this data gives me a unique and new impression, as if it were drawn as a single original trait by the hand of an artist.  Farewell, image I had fashioned for myself, simple juxtaposition that could be calculated in advance of things already known! 

Now I do not want this image to have the same artistic value as a painting by Rembrandt or Velasquez; nevertheless it is just as unexpected and, in this respect, just as original.  One might claim that I did not know the details of these circumstances, that I was ignorant of these persons, their gestures, and their attitudes, and that if the totality of this picture seems new to me, it is because there exists a surplus of elements.  And yet I possess the same impression of novelty with regard to my internal life.  I feel it more than ever with regard to acts of exclusively my own volition.  If I deliberate before I act, the moments of deliberation are summoned by my consciousness as successive sketches, each one of its own kind, which a painter might make of his painting; and the act itself, in taking place, will arise from what is desired and hence from what is foreseen, and yet has no less of an original form.  

Be that as it may, one may say; perhaps there is something original and unique in a state of the soul.  But the matter is repetition; and the outside word adheres to mathematical laws, superhuman intelligence that would know the position, the direction and the speed of all the atoms and electrons of the material universe at a given moment, and could calculate any future state of this universe as we calculate a solar or lunar eclipse.  Such a conclusion is possible if we are dealing with an inert world, and here the matter may become debatable, at least for elementary phenomena.  But this world is nothing more than an abstraction.  Concrete reality encompasses living, conscious beings encapsulated in inorganic matter.  I say living and conscious because I believe that whatever is living is conscious de jure; it becomes unconscious de facto when consciousness falls asleep.  But up to those areas in which consciousness gets drowsy, in the vegetable state, for example, there is regulated evolution, defined progress, ageing – in short, all the outward signs of duration which characterize consciousness. 

Why then would one speak of inert matter in which life and consciousness would be inserted as within a frame?  How can we even speak of an inert state to begin with?  The ancients imagined a Soul of the World which would assure the continuity of the existence of the material universe.  Stripping this concept of its mythical components, I would say that the inorganic world is a series of infinitely fast repetitions or quasi-repetitions which are summoned in visible and foreseeable changes.  I would compare them to the oscillations in the pendulum of a clock: some are attached to the continued relaxing of a spring that connects them to one another and from which they declaim progress; others pace life of conscious beings and measure their duration.  In this way, a living being lasts in essence: he lasts simply because he designs and plans unceasingly and because there can be no design or plan without research, and no research without groping about.  Time is this very hesitation, or it's nothing at all.  Suppress the conscious and the living (and you will only be able to do so by means of an artificial effort of abstraction since the material world may imply, once more, the necessary presence of consciousness and of life), and you obtain in effect a universe in which successive states are theoretically calculable in advance like images juxtaposed upon a film before the film itself rolls.  Why does reality unfurl?  How is it not unfurled?  What purpose does time serve (I speak here of real, concrete time, and not of abstract time which is merely the fourth dimension of space***)?  Such was once the starting point of my reflections.  About fifty years ago, I was strongly attached to the philosophy of Spencer.  One fine day I realized that time served no purpose and did nothing.  For something that does nothing is itself nothing.  Nevertheless, I said to myself, time is something.  Thus it does something, it acts.  What could it do, then?  Simple common sense replied: time is that which impedes everything from occurring all at once.  It delays, or, rather, it is delay.  It must be, therefore, development and planning.  Could it not then be the vehicle of creation and choice?  Doesn't the existence of time prove the indeterminacy of things?  Isn't time this very indeterminacy?

If such is not the opinion of most philosophers, it is because human intelligence is designed precisely so as to understand things from the opposite point of view.  I say intelligence; I do not say thought; I do not say mind.  Astride intelligence there is the effect of immediate perception, for each of us, of our own activity and the conditions in which it occurs.  Call it what you will: it is the feeling that we have to be creators of our intentions, our decisions, and our acts, and thereby of our habits, our character, and ourselves.  Artisans of our life – artists even, when we want to be – we work continuously, with the matter furnished by the past and present, by heredity and by circumstance, at molding a single, new, original figure, as unpredictable as the form the sculptor bestows upon the clay earth.  Doubtless, we are aware of this work and of what makes it unique while it is taking place; but the main thing is that we do it.  We do not need to deepen it, nor is it necessary that we be fully conscious of it.  No more, in any case, than the artist needs to analyze his own creative power; this concern he leaves to the philosopher and he contents himself with creating.  On the other hand, the sculptor does indeed need to know the techniques of his art and everything that he could possibly learn about them, and these techniques relate first and foremost to what his oeuvre has in common with other oeuvres.  These techniques are dictated by the demands of the matter upon which they operate and which impose themselves upon the artist as they do upon all artists: in short, they engage, in art, what is repetition or fabrication, and not creation itself.  Upon these techniques the artist concentrates what I would call his intellect.

By the same token, in the creation of our character we know very little about our own creative power.  To learn about it, we would have to return to ourselves, to philosophize, to climb back up the slope of nature, because nature has always wanted action and has hardly ever thought about speculation.  As soon as it is no longer a matter of simply feeling within ourselves a certain impetus and assuring ourselves that we may act, but of returning the thought upon itself so that we might seize this power and grab hold of this impetus, the difficulty becomes so great as to oblige us to invert consciousness's normal direction.  On the contrary, we have an enormous interest in familiarizing ourselves with the techniques of our actions, that is to say, to extract, from the conditions in which our actions occur, everything that could provide us with general recipes and rules on which our conduct would be based.  There would be no novelty in our acts apart from what repetition we would find in things.  Our normal faculty of knowing is thus in essence the power of extracting what stability and regularity there might be in the flow of the real. 

Is this a matter of perceiving?  Perception seizes upon on infinitely repeated shocks which are, for example, light or heat, and contracts them into relatively invariable sensations.  There are trillions of external oscillations which perception condenses for our eyes in the fraction of a second, the vision of a color.  Is this a matter of conceiving?  Forming a general idea means abstracting from diverse and changing things a common aspect that does not change or, at least, that offers an invariable hold for our action.  The constancy of our attitude, the identity of our potential or virtual reaction to the multiplicity and the variability of represented objects – here is what first marks and outlines the generality of an idea.  Finally, is this a matter of understanding?  This is simply a question of finding connections, establishing stable relationships between the facts that take place and revealing laws – an operation as perfect as the relationship is precise or the law mathematical.  All these functions are constitutive of intelligence.  And intelligence is in the right as long as it befriends and attaches itself to regularity and stability, to what is stable and regular in the real, to materiality.  Thus it touches one of the sides of the absolute, just as our consciousness touches another such side when it seizes within us a perpetual efflorescence of novelty or when, enlarging itself, it sympathizes with the indefinitely renovative effort of nature.  Error begins when intelligence attempts to think of one of these aspects as it thinks of another, and puts it to a use for which it was not made.            


*** We were able to demonstrate in our Essay on the immediate data of consciousness, Paris, 1889, p. 82, that measurable Time could be considered to be "the fourth dimension of Space."  We were dealing there, of course, with pure Space, and not the amalgamation Space-Time of the theory of Relativity, which is something quite different.

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