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Henri Bergson and the Perception of Time

Know the name, can’t quite recall what he thought? John-Francis Phipps explains the surprising ideas of the philosopher of vitalism.

Bergson’s name is not usually included on shortlists of the philosophical greats, so it’s quite easy to miss him. I first came across him many years ago, when I read Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy. Russell clearly disliked Bergson’s philosophy and provided unconvincing reasons to justify his prejudice. This made me want to read Bergson and judge for myself, which I duly did and soon saw how wrong Russell was. I eventually wrote an introductory booklet on Bergson entitled A Living Philosophy (Now out of print, although most of the text is still available in another publication.)

Henri Who?

When I started reading Bergson’s works, I immediately took to his philosophy and writing style, although there are places where his argument is not easy to follow and some of the subtler nuances of his thought get lost in translation. Despite this, it was like reaching an oasis of wisdom after fruitless wanderings in arid deserts claiming the noble name of ‘philosophy’, which are in some cases branches of grammar, linguistics or casuistry – modern secular versions of counting angels on pin-heads.

Henri Bergson was born in Paris in 1859 and died there in 1941. His mother was Anglo-Irish and his father Polish and an accomplished musician. Bergson uses musical analogies and writes with gallic panache and imagination, drawing freely from the metaphysician and artist in himself. One can see why his style, imagery and free usage of terms such as ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’ did not appeal to the logical positivists.

In 1891 he married Louise Neuburger, a cousin of Marcel Proust, who was greatly influenced by Bergson’s theories on time and memory. Quite early in his professional teaching career, Bergson had one of those life-changing eureka moments. Until then he had been “Wholly imbued with mechanistic theories”, as he himself put it some years later in a letter to his friend, the American philosopher, William James. Bergson’s main critique of the mechanistic view centred on the perception of time: “It was the analysis of the notion of time, as that enters into mechanics and physics, which overturned all my ideas. I saw, to my great astonishment, that scientific time does not endure. This led me to change my point of view completely” (Encyc. Brit. article on Bergson)

His doctoral thesis was on Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness (1889). Here Bergson distinguished between time as we actually experience it, lived time – which he called ‘real duration’ (durée réelle) – and the mechanistic time of science. This, he argued, is based on a misperception: it consists of superimposing spatial concepts onto time, which then becomes a distorted version of the real thing. So time is perceived via a succession of separate, discrete, spatial constructs – just like seeing a film. We think we’re seeing a continuous flow of movement, but in reality what we’re seeing is a succession of fixed frames or stills. To claim that one can measure real duration by counting separate spatial constructs is an illusion: “We give a mechanical explanation of a fact and then substitute the explanation for the fact itself”, he wrote.

His next major work, Matter and Memory (1896), was an essay on the relation between mind and body. In his preface, Bergson affirms the reality of mind and the reality of matter and tries to determine the relation of the one to the other by the study of memory, which he saw as the intersection or convergence of mind and matter. He regarded the brain as an organ of choice, with a practical role. Its main function is to filter mental images, allowing through to consciousness those impressions, thoughts or ideas that are of practical biological value. (Time and Free Will, p.181)

He spent five years researching all the psychological, medical and other literature then available on memory. He focussed in particular on the condition known as aphasia – loss of the ability to use language. The aphasiac understands what people are saying, knows what he or she wants to say, suffers no paralysis of the speech organs, and yet is unable to speak. This, Bergson argued, shows that it is not memory as such that is lost, but the bodily mechanism that is needed to express it. From this observation he concluded that memory, and so mind, makes use of the physical brain to carry out its own purposes.

Clearly there is vastly more in a given occasion of consciousness than in the corresponding brain state. This is surely a perfectly natural, normal, everyday part of human experience – a common-sense, empirical fact of life. We don’t really experience life as a succession of separate conscious states, progressing along an imaginary line. Instead, we feel time as a continuous flow, with no clearly demarcated beginnings and ends. We should not therefore confuse an abstract, arbitrary notion of practical convenience with the underlying truth that is continuously confirmed by our own experience.

Bergson uses one of his musical analogies to make the point: “As the symphony overflows the movements which scan it, so the mental/spiritual life overflows the cerebral/intellectual life. The brain keeps consciousness, feeling and thought tensely strained on life, and consequently makes them capable of efficacious action. The brain is the organ of attention to life.” (l’Energie Spirituelle 1910, p.47)

In his best known work, Creative Evolution (1907), Bergson made it clear that he accepted evolution as a scientifically established fact. He was born the year The Origin of Species was published and Creative Evolution adds a vital missing dimension to Darwinian theory. He believed that the failure to take into account the real time underlying the whole process results in the failure to appreciate the uniqueness of life. Bergson proposed that the evolutionary process should be seen as the expression of an enduring life force (élan vital), that is continually developing. Evolution has at its very heart this life force or vital impulse.

In An Introduction to Metaphysics (1912), Bergson expands on the central role of intuition. The true purpose of knowledge is to know things deeply, to touch the inner essence of things via a form of empathy: “A true empiricism”, he wrote, “is that which proposes to get as near to the original itself as possible, to search deeply into its life, and so, by a kind of intellectual auscultation, to feel the throbbings of its soul.”

Auscultation is listening to the internal organs through a stethoscope. Just as the physician does this to find out what is happening within the patient’s body, so the metaphysician practises a mental equivalent of auscultation to apprehend the inner essence of things.

Bergson also served on French diplomatic missions and from 1921-26 acted as president of the committee on international cooperation of the League of Nations. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1927 and in 1932 published his last major work, The Two Sources of Morality and Religion. On the one hand, there’s the closed society based on conformity to rules and moral codes, interpreted in a strict, legalistic, literal way. On the other hand, there’s the open society, which expresses creativity, imagination and spirituality via the arts, music, poetry, philosophy and mystical experience. The source of the former is the intellect and the source of the latter is intuition.

In The Two Sources Bergson seemed to subscribe to a more traditional Christian theological notion of God. He acknowledged that his reflections had in fact brought him closer to the Roman Catholic position, which he saw as the fulfillment of his Judaic faith. But he never actually became a Catholic: “I would have become a convert”, he wrote, “had I not foreseen for years a formidable wave of anti-semitism about to break upon the world. I wanted to remain among those who tomorrow were to be persecuted”. Only weeks before his death in 1941 and despite being seriously ill, Bergson insisted on registering as a Jew, even though he had been offered exemption by the Vichy government.

Why Vitalism is Vital

With the ascendancy of the mechanistic outlook throughout most of the twentieth century, ‘vitalism’ became a dirty word in scientific circles. For a biologist to be accused of vitalist tendencies was equivalent to a charge of heresy. When Rupert Sheldrake’s book A New Science of Life came out in 1981, the editor of a leading scientific journal used language more appropriate to the time of the Inquisition, in calling for it to be burnt.

The mechanistic view alone is singularly ill-equipped to understand the immense variety and depth of human experience, to say nothing of the more subtle aspects of the phenomenon of consciousness. Whenever any given outlook – scientific, philosophical, political, economic or religious – becomes closed and dogmatic, it sooner or later has to undergo its own creative evolution and become more open to new ideas and insights. The fact that a mechanistic approach is essential for many aspects of scientific research does not mean that everything in life can be accounted for in reductionist, nothing-but mechanistic terms.

From the 1960’s onwards, some scientists became increasingly aware that something vital was missing from the prevailing worldview. In his book The Living Stream, for example, the eminent marine biologist, Professor Sir Alister Hardy FRS, stressed the importance of non-material aspects of evolution. The subtitle reads: A Restatement of Evolution Theory and its Relation to the Spirit of Man. In order to investigate methodically this aspect of human experience, Hardy set up a research unit, originally at Oxford. It is now at the University of Wales at Lampeter and is named after its founder (The Alister Hardy Research Centre).

It was William James who had originally pioneered this work over a century ago and not much was done in this field until the Hardy unit was set up in 1969.

Bergson believed that mental and spiritual aspects of human experience were greatly neglected as a result of focussing so single-mindedly on the physical and material. He once speculated on how things might have developed had modern science devoted more attention to exploring the non-material realm. He believed that we would by now have had a psychology of which today we can form no idea, any more than before Galileo people could have imagined what our physics would be like. A biology quite different to ours would also have emerged: “A vitalist biology which would have sought, behind the sensible forms of living beings, the inward invisible force of which the sensible forms are the manifestations. On this force we have today taken no hold precisely because our science of mind is in its infancy ...” He went on to say: “Together with this vitalist biology there would have arisen a medical practice which would have sought to remedy directly the insufficiencies of the vital force: it would have aimed at the cause and not the effects, at the centre instead of at the periphery ...”

Over the past twenty or thirty years, there has been an ever-increasing growth in demand for many varieties of alternative healing, some of which are becoming part of medical practice, the development of psychosomatic medicine and many different therapies. Quite apart from the efficacy of any given remedy or therapeutic technique, this growth represents a widespread revolt against reductionist, materialist, mechanistic fundamentalism.

Terms such as ‘life force’ and ‘vital energy’ are now back in general usage. Recent advances in the new physics and cosmology have also led to a radical reappraisal of old ways of thinking about time and causality, subject/object, observer/observed.

Bergson is sometimes claimed to have anticipated features of relativity theory. He wrote a paper on ‘Duration and Simultaneity with regard to Einstein’s Theory’ (1921). In the public debate between the two, it was generally held that Einstein ‘won’. But there aren’t really winners or losers in any debate about time.

The way we perceive time is surely a core perception, which affects all other perceptions. It determines our philosophy of life, matters of war and peace, how we perceive work and the amount of quality time we devote to the people and things that really matter.

Despite the recovery of a more vitalistic outlook in attitudes towards physical and mental wellbeing, the main underlying perception of our modern, urban-industrial society remains mechanistic and soulless. Over the years, the dominant western worldview has become de-vitalised and devalued, especially in politics and economics. Let’s suppose things had developed in a more balanced, Bergsonian way over the sixty years or more since his death: reason and intuition, intellect and imagination, matter and mind, the physical and the spiritual. Perhaps we would have learned from this a greater respect for all expressions of the life force, including our own species.

To extend Bergson’s speculations, let’s imagine that the present green awakening and concern over the environment had started to get under way sixty years ago – I mean really take off, not just lone voices in the wilderness, such as Rachel Carson. By now we would have had an environmentally-friendly form of global politics that we can barely imagine. Had such a re-valuation of our natural habitat and its human, plant and animal inhabitants taken place half a century ago, our planet would probably be in much better shape today, allowing us to pass it on in a healthy state to our descendants. Political and economic priorities would by now have changed radically and war would be seen as an absolute last resort. There can be no place in a genuinely ethical foreign policy for the doctrine that might is right. There could therefore be no question of any nation, however powerful, embarking on pre-emptive wars against any other nation.

With a more vitalistic perception, the intrinsic value of others and of humanity as a whole would by now have become something so written into our lives that it would be that much harder to demonise those we disliked. In order to exploit and abuse others and make war against them, you first have to devalue them. Seeing them as of no greater value than devitalized machines is one way of doing this.

Writing in The Independent (14 May 04), Terence Blacker observed that the fascination of cruelty is now so pervasive that we hardly notice it’s there. He believes there is a direct line from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq to millions of home computers across the western world. Pictures not at all dissimilar to the shocking images from Abu Ghraib are available as a form of home entertainment. “If you tap the words ‘torture’, ‘rape’ or ‘slave’ into a search engine,” wrote Blacker, “You will not be led to human rights organizations or academic reports, but to thousand upon thousand of websites specialising in recreational sadism. All this is mind-bogglingly profitable, because it taps into the age’s most compelling vices and weaknesses: cruelty, voyeurism, boredom. The problem is consumers are never satisfied by what they’re offered.”

The production line mindset defines the consumer as a buying machine with an insatiable appetite, whose tastes, fads and fashions can be manipulated, via advertising, with artificially contrived, largely unnecessary and usually environmentally destructive, wants. When one buying machine finally breaks down (when a customer dies), it is replaced by a new one, already well groomed in the dark arts of consumption. Underlying the consumerist juggernaut is the mechanistic view of time, the great fear of boredom that goes with it and the compulsion to fill up every waking moment with more and more graphic images, leaving less and less time for the things that really matter.

Our deeper needs are vitally real – not at all the same thing as contrived wants. One of our deepest needs is to find and express that vital creative spark that lies somewhere in all of us. If we saw ourselves as potentially creative artists of one kind or another, if this was the main view of ourselves and each other, we would spend more time creating our own images, writing our own stories, rediscovering our own myths. The artist is not a special kind of person. Every person is a special kind of artist.

In a society that put greater emphasis on creation than production, boredom would not even be an issue. Instead of fearing time and thinking of it as an endless space that has to be filled in, we would value it more and make sure we had time to express our own particular form of creativity, time to dream, time to do nothing in particular, to have a fallow period, time to sit silently, or walk mindfully.

In The Rebel (l’Homme Révolté, first published in 1951), Albert Camus observed that the society based on production is only productive, not creative. We’ve grown so used to living in a society ruled by production that we can barely even imagine one ruled by creation. Bergson enables us to envisage a society based more on creativity than the soulless, mechanistic, produce consume model. His philosophy offers a more integrated view of life, where science, technology, art, economics, politics and spirituality can all work together.

You do not need to subscribe to any kind of religious faith, or belief in the supernatural, to stand in awe at the creative beauty of the evolutionary life force in all its incredibly varied and wonderful manifestations. This sense of wonder comes as naturally to a person of scientific inclination as it does to an artistic or spiritually-minded person. Bergson’s philosophy has the effect of opening doors in the mind, enabling us to think more deeply about the nature of time and how we, in our western culture, perceive it – or rather, misperceive it. Above all, his philosophy provides a basis for a more creative, revalued and revitalized general outlook.

© John-Francis Phipps 2004

John-Francis Phipps lives in Oxfordshire. The most recent of his many books and pamphlets is On Being Alive: Reflections After 11th September. See www.john-francis-phipps.co.uk.

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