READING BERGSON - I
READING BERGSON – I
D. R. Khashaba
Nothing shows the sorry state of recent and contemporary philosophy more clearly than the consideration that the most original philosophers of the twentieth century, such as Bergson, Whitehead, Santayana, are the most neglected. If they are read at all today, it is outside academia.
Bergson begins Time and Free Will (originally published as Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience in 1889) by introducing the distinction between the quantitative and the qualitative. This distinction should be obvious to plain commonsense were it not that the whole progress of science, theoretical and applied, for the past four centuries has been founded on the quantification of all phenomena so that it is very difficult for the modern mind to see anything as real that cannot be measured, weighed, or numbered. The artificiality and illusoriness of discrete quantity was revealed in the paradoxes of Zeno of Elea two-and-a-half millennia ago, but so enormous have the practical benefits of quantification proved that the immediate testimony of our living experience and the immediacy of subjective awareness were denied in favour of the reports of objective empirical observation and the returns of measuring instruments. Whitehead tried to correct the falsity in the scientific picture of reality by his doctrine of the Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness, but Whitehead’s approach was half-hearted since he could not free himself from the objective attitude od science.
Bergson needlessly exerts himself to establish by argument and by introspection the distinction between the qualitative and the quantitative, to show the error of thinking of intensity as a magnitude in the same sense as extensive magnitude, when all that he needed was to assert boldly that the subjective immediacy of the ‘what’ is the reality of which we are immediately and indubitably aware. Perhaps the fact that this was his doctoral dissertation explains why he was necessitated to go through all this needless argumentation. His introspective observations would be appropriate in a stream-of-consciousness novel but in a philosophical essay they merely obscure the fundamental insight.
Philosophy is creative thinking and should present its insights oracularly. Only Plato among ancients and Nietzsche among moderns understood this. In the first part of Jenseits von Gut ind Böse Nietzsche clearly spells this out, and I believe that this has not received the attention it deserves.
Bergson speaking of the subjective feeling of aesthetic grace, specifically in movement, says that we “could hardly make out why it affords us such pleasure if it were nothing but a saving of effort, as Spencer maintains”. I find this significant. Herbert Spencer could only see what can be objectively observed and measured. He would not see Bergson’s point as long as it was supposed that the two of them were speaking of the same thing. All philosophical argument about what is metaphysically real makes no sense to the scientific mentality when it is assumed that philosophy and science deal with the same world. Philosophers to gain any credibility with the modern mind must make it clear that they are concerned with a radically distinct world. But philosophers first need to come around to seeing this themselves. Scientists do not quarrel with poets about their visions: when it is realized that philosophers offer creative visions that claim no objective factuality the endless idealist-empiricist controversies should end.
Bergson gains nothing by his extended analyses of aesthetic feelings and moral feelings. He had no need to show that the increasing intensity of feeling is not quantitative. We should appeal simply to our intuitive experience to affirm that the qualitative and the quantitative are radically heterogeneous. Any translation of the one into the other must be an arbitrary artificial move to serve specific purposes. Bergson says: “There is hardly any passion or desire, any joy or sorrow, which is not accompanied by physical symptoms; and, where these symptoms occur, they probably count for something in the estimate of intensities. As for the sensations properly so called, they are manifestly connected with their external cause, and though the intensity of the sensation cannot be defined by the magnitude of its cause, there undoubtedly exists some relation between these two terms. In some of its manifestations consciousness even appears to spread outwards, as if intensity were being developed into extensity, e.g. in the case of muscular effort.” He apparently thinks this concession militates against his position and that he has to argue his way out of the difficulty. That would be so only if we assume that the subjective (intensity) and the objective (extensity) are two separate substances as in Descates’s system which gave rise to all the mind-body quandaries. But the human person is an integral entity: the subjective and the objective are the inside and the outside that can never be separated nor can the one ever be changed into the other. Dementia and brain deterioration go hand in hand but that does not mean that the brain is the mind. All the empirical arguments either way can be matched by counter-arguments and we get nowhere.
Cairo, October 22