READING BERGSON - II
READING BERGSON – II
Chapter 2 is titled “The Multiplicity of Consciousness; The Idea of Duration”. So again the chapter title introduces two creative notions, integrative wholeness and duration. Besides Bergson Whitehead was the only other philosopher in whose philosophy duration was fundamental. But again Bergson proceeds argumentatively. Whitehead, mathematician and scientist though he was, did philosophy philosophically. Even in Process and Reality he does not seek to establish anything demonstratively but presents his creative notions affirmatively. He presents the notion of duration by appeal to the experience of short-term memory. The simplest sentence we utter is generated in the mind as a whole: it could never come to be if it were put together word by word and syllable by syllable.
Bergson says: “When we assert that number is a unit, we understand by this that we master the whole of it by a simple and indivisible intuition of the mind”. This says it all and no argument is needed, and this says no more than what Socrates said when he would not accept that two is made either by adding one to one or by dividing one into two; that two is two by the idea Two.
One section-rubric reads: “Does space exist independently of its contents, as Kant held?” This reveals a gross misunderstanding of Kant. I have been passing cursorily over the preceding sections. This section probably calls for detailed comment. Bergson begins by asserting “the absolute reality of space”: It seems that Bergson here is following Descartes. But what does that really mean? Only an insane person can doubt that we live in a spatial, spaced, or extended world. But the properties of space, that divisibility that Bergson has been referring to all the time, the geometrical characteristics that Euclid expounded, are they in the nature of things? Kant said they are concepts of the understanding. This is not to make “space exist independently of its contents”, which is an inconceivable absurdity. It is this absurdity that Bergson takes to be Kant’s conception of space — “endowing space with an existence independent of its content”! Bergson’s misunderstanding is doubly odd since he could have found support in Kant for his own view of extensity as a (conceptual) abstraction. He thinks Kant “disregarded the activity of the mind” along with the materialists. What was the Copernican revolution all about then? Perhaps it is a measure of Kant’s originality that he has been so little understood. There is no point in commenting further since Bergson’s argument is based on this gross misunderstanding.
Further on he says that for the co-existence of inextensive sensations “to give rise to space, there must be an act of the mind which takes them in all at the same time and sets them in juxtaposition : this unique act is very like what Kant calls an a priori form of sensibility”. How then could he read into Kant the absurdity he so confidently ascribes to him?
I can’t understand Bergson’s homogeneous time that is reducible to space. That is a conceptual abstraction. All we need is to distinguish between abstract time and real duration. It is the notion of duration that is original in Bergson and Whitehead. In Chapter XV of Quest of Reality (2013) I distinguished time, duration, and eternity — eternity not as endless extension of time but as creative transcendence. I believe philosophy badly needs to appropriate the creative notions of duration and eternity. The pseudo-problem of the freedom of the will cannot be resolved otherwise. (I am eager to see how Bergson deals with it in the next chapter.)
Bergson says that “the homogeneous is thus supposed to take two forms, according as its contents co-exist or follow one another”. The contents that co-exist and the contents that follow one another were the material out of which Zeno formed his paradoxes. Our clever logicians who find ways to unriddle Zeno’s riddles miss the point, that abstract space and abstract time are fictions; useful fictions that serve our practical needs and our scientific needs, but fictions nevertheless.Bergson, in discussing the ‘paradoxes of the Eleatics’ shows that he is aware of this. Further on this comes out more clearly where he says that “science cannot deal with time and motion except on condition of first eliminating the essential and qualitative element of time, duration, and of motion, mobility.” But he harms his own case by his involved arguments which obscure the creative notions he is introducing. Argument, demonstration, proof are the bane of philosophy.
“Outside ourselves we should find only space, and consequently nothing but simultaneities, of which we could not even say that they are objectively successive, since succession can only be thought through comparing the present with the past.” This is fine in so far as it indicates that the real is only to be found within us, in creative intelligence, But Bergson’s failure to understand Kant makes him speak of space ‘outside ourselves’. Outside us there is only an inchoate nebulous totality to imagine which we have literally to go out of our mind. Soon after our birth our mind orders the nebula in distinct things, patterns, distances, and we distinguish ourselves from our surroundings. That is why it is impossible for us to imagine what the world is like ‘in itself’, without the mind.
The rubric to the concluding section of Chapter 1 reads: “Conclusion: space alone is homogeneous; duration and succession belong not to the external world, but to the conscious mind”. Here again I think it a mistake to single out space as belonging to the world and not to the conscious mind. In the case of space it is more difficult for us to conceive it as “belonging to the conscious mind”, but I bel9eve that Kant was right in seeing space as a mode of the understanding.
It is odd that Bergson did not once refer to creativity as the best exemplification of duration. A lyric, a song, a drama, are examples of duration in which multiplicity and succession are transcended in a creative whole.
Cairo, October, 23, 2015.