Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience / Time and free will

(1889) Henri Bergson

Bergson subscribes to a kind of dualism.  Like Descartes’, his cleaves subject and object.  However, in contrast to the Cartesian doctrine, for Bergson this cleft is much more a consequence of rather than a grounding for his philosophy.

The deeper distinction for Bergson lies between what he calls the quantative and the qualitative [1]. One important difference that sets these apart lies in the nature of the multiplicity which is inhered.  Quantitative multiplicity consists in juxtaposition, making it possible to speak of discrete ‘objects’.  Qualitative multiplicity, on the other hand, consists in interpenetration.  Unlike the former, the latter is not amenable to division, with major consequences for epistemology.

For Bergson, matter is to be treated quantitatively, at least in so far as the relations between objects are concerned.  Conscious phenomena, on the other hand, ‘contain’ or ‘are diffused with’ preceding ones.  Consequently, they are to be treated qualitatively [2,3] and cannot be treated in terms of constituent elements.  ‘Love’, ‘anger’, and ‘the taste of sourness’, for example, are irredicible qualities or ‘shades’ of inner life.

And then there are concepts, which for Bergson include numbers and other abstracta.  He argues that the form that concepts take is borrowed from perception of the outside world, with its discrete objects.  To this extent, his is an empiricist philosophy.  However, because of the inescapably quantitative nature of concepts, their use is inappropriate in the analysis of phenomena of the inner conscious world [4].

[1] [Question: is this distinction itself quantitative or qualitative?]

[2] [Question: how is this fundamentally different from the way newly arising configurations of matter in the Universe relate to earlier configurations?  Cf. the Second Law’s upward flow of Entropy.]

[3] [All of this was long before Quantum Mechanics, remember.  Still, it is somewhat surprising how absolutely Bergson holds to the individuation of physical objects.  Are individual clouds in a whirling cloudfield not perhaps more than just analogous to the multiplicity of conscious ‘elements’?]

[4] [It must here be remarked that Bergson’s concepts exhibit juxtaposable multiplicity.  If so, does a person’s use of a concept then not necessarily call for the existence or occurrence of a discrete mental phenomenon, somewhere?  Bergson does not address this tension.]

[Lithograph: Maurits Cornelis Escher (1955), Liberation]

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