Henri Bergson, Neoplatonist, and the Cubist Aesthetic: Part Five

Bergson held that change is the essence of life, that states of being do not exist distinct from each other, but as an endless flow – ‘there is only one unique duration, which carries everything with it – a bottomless, bankless river’.1 But the change of which Bergson wrote takes place not in objective reality but in the duration of ‘mind’. This change applies even to a motionless object

‘Let us take the most stable of internal states, the visual perception of a motionless external object. The object may remain the same, I may look at it from the same side, at the same angle, in the same light; nevertheless the vision I now have of it differs from that which I have just had, even if only because the one is an instant older than the other. My memory is there, which conveys something of the past into the present. My mental state, as it advances on the road of time, is continually swelling with the duration which it accumulates.’2

Bergson urged that change and duration need to be grasped in their mobility, that we need to recapture this essence of reality by moving back into duration

‘No more inert states, no more dead things; nothing but the mobility of which the stability of life is made. A vision of this kind, where reality appears as continuous and indivisible, is on the road which leads to philosophical intuition’3

Bergson’s dualism is again apparent in his notion of reality – that it is both external and given immediately to ‘the mind’ – the latter being the site of duration.

In our perception, Bergson thought that we take ‘snapshots’ or ‘instantaneous views’ of flowing reality which we join together to give the appearance of becoming. He compared this with cinematography (‘the cinematographical instinct of our thought’).4 These solid points of support are necessary for living and for ‘positive’ science but they allow the essence of reality to escape.

Bergson argued that the elements of the spatial world are perpetually simultaneous with duration, whereas consciousness is pure duration and its states cannot be adequately represented as being extended in space. Objects in the material world are mutually external and only succeed each other in so far as they are remembered as doing so by an observer. Mental states succeed each other and to regard them as in anyway juxtaposed is to admit the validity of a translation of the continuity and interpenetration of mental life into spatial terms. Simultaneity is a thing of space and the external world, duration exists in the flow of memory

‘We perceive the physical world and this perception appears, rightly or wrongly, to be inside and outside us at one and the same time; in one way it is a state of consciousness; in another, a surface film of matter in which perceiver and perceived coincide (my italics). To each moment of our inner life there thus corresponds a moment of our body and of all environing matter that is “simultaneous” with it; this matter then seems to participate in our conscious duration. Gradually we extend this duration to the whole physical world, because we see no reason to limit it to the immediate vicinity of our body.’5

In its passage from what has been to what is, memory binds together and constitutes inner duration. Without the survival of the past in the present, there can only be a sequence of separate moments

‘There is no doubt but that for us time is at first identical with the continuity of our inner life. What is this continuity? That of a flow or passage, but a self-sufficient flow or passage, the flow not implying a thing that flows and the passing not presupposing states through which we pass; the thing and the state are only artificially taken snapshots of the transition; and this transition, all that is naturally experienced, is duration itself. It is memory…within change itself…that prolongs the before into the after, keeping them from being mere snap-shots appearing and disappearing in a present ceaselessly reborn.’6

In reality, the body has no form (since form is immobile) and is changing constantly. Form can only be an instantaneous view of change. Similarly states of ‘mind’

‘there is no state of mind, however simple, which does not change every moment, since there is no consciousness without memory; and no continuation of a state without the addition, to the present feeling, of the memory of past moments.’7

Part five/to be continued…


1. An Introduction to Metaphysics, op. cit., 48

2. Selections from Bergson, op. cit., 58

3. Ibid. 111

4. Creative Evolution, op. cit., 316

5. H. Bergson, Duration and Simultaneity, with Reference to Einstein’s Theory, trans., L. Jacobson, 1922, reprint., New York, 1965, 45

6. Ibid., 44. For Bergson, form is a snapshot of eternal truth in duration. But Plotinus put another Realm above the Intellectual which is formless – i.e. the One. Therefore for Plotinus, Form itself is an image of The One.

7. Selections from Bergson, op. cit., 23

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