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

Bergson’s view of man as a creator, above the approval of fellow humanity, reads as Nietzschean. In Mind – Energy he wrote ‘the joy he feels is the joy of a god.’1 He equated this person with ‘superman’2 – in Nietzsche’s philosophy the higher state of Übermensch embodies the ‘will to power’ and creation.

Another parallel between these two philosophies is that just as creative intuition entails a willed effort to transcend logical patterns of thought, Bergson’s élan vital and Nietzsche’s ‘will to power’ both represent a struggle to gain freedom from the social and material environment. Bergson also distinguished between the artist or poet and ‘the common herd.’3 He wrote that the aim of art is to lay bare the secret and tragic element in our character,4 and that ‘True  pity consists  not  so much in fearing suffering as in desiring it.’5

Bergson wrote that the ‘inward states’ of creative emotion are the most intense as well as the most violent.6 His words ‘for what interests us in the work of the poet is the glimpse we get of certain profound moods or inner struggles’7 are closely echoed in those Picasso used with regard to Cézanne and Van Gogh.

‘It is not what the artist does that counts, but what he is…What forces our interest is Cézanne’s anxiety – that’s Cézanne’s lesson; the torments of Van Gogh – that is the actual drama of the man. The rest is a sham.’8

Bergson held that the object of art is to put to sleep the resistance of the viewer’s personality (a spiritualised hypnosis), to bring the viewer ‘into a state of perfect responsiveness, in which we realise the idea that is suggested to us and sympathise with the feeling that is expressed.’9 To provoke an intuitive response, the elements of the canvas must first arouse the viewer’s emotions and sensitivity to the flow of true duration.10 This can be achieved in a number of ways. Devices include the rhythmical arrangement and effect of line and words

Juan Gris. Still Life with Checkered Tablecloth, 1915, Private collection

Juan Gris. Still Life with Checkered Tablecloth, 1915, Private collection

‘it is the emotion, the original mood, to which they (artists) attain in its undefiled essence. And then, to induce us to make the same effort ourselves they contrive to make us see something of what they have seen: by rhythmical arrangement of words.’11

Bergson also gave the example of letters (of words) which are parts of a poem which one knows, but randomly mixed. Because one knows the poem, one can immediately reconstitute the poem as a whole. This is an example of the reconstitution of the real parts of intuition (and metaphysics), distinct from the partial notations of analysis and the positive sciences, which cannot be reconstituted.

It was Bergson’s philosophy that the Cubists drew on in their use not only of material not previously associated with art (sand, wallpaper etc.) but also of part words and lettering.

‘Now beneath all the sketches he has made at Paris the visitor will probably, by way of memento, write the word “Paris”. And as he has really seen Paris, he will be able, with the help of the original intuition he had of the whole, to place his sketches therein, and so join them up together.’12 Negation also affirms and suggests aspects of an object.13

Another device is the conveyance of the notion of passage. The technique of passage derives from Cézanne, but its stimulus may well lie in Bergson’s philosophy.14 Not only did Cubism develop on this, a similar treatment can be seen in art contemporary with it and which has established connections with Bergson’s philosophy – that of Gleizes, Metzinger, the Futurists and Delaunay.15 Bergson wrote of flexibility, mobility, ‘almost fluid representations, always ready to mould themselves on the fleeting forms of intuition.’16 Evocative of the refined and far more relaxed methods of so-called Synthetic Cubism are Bergson’s words ‘Intuition, bound up to a duration which is growth, perceives in it an uninterrupted continuity of unforeseeable novelty.’17

Pablo Picasso, 'Ma Jolie', 1913-14, oil on canvas, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis (Image, Wikipedia)

Pablo Picasso, ‘Ma Jolie’, 1913-14, oil on canvas, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis

‘So art, whether it be painting or sculpture, poetry or music, has no other object than to brush aside the utilitarian symbols, the conventional and socially accepted generalities, in short, everything that veils reality from us, in order to bring us face to face with reality itself…realism is in the work when idealism is in the soul and…it is only through ideality that we can resume contact with reality.’18

Bergson’s entire philosophy, and the fundamental problem with it, lies in his distinction between the ‘mind’ (consciousness) and the brain, between subjective reality and objective reality. This is encapsulated in the following

‘That there is a close connection between a state of consciousness and the brain we do no dispute. But there is also a close connection between a coat and the nail on which it hangs, for if the nail is pulled out, the coat falls to the ground. Shall we say, then, that the shape of the nail gives us the shape of the coat, or in any way corresponds to it? No more are we entitled to conclude, because the physical fact is hung onto a cerebral state, that there is any parallelism between the two series psychical and physiological.’19

Georges Braque. Pitcher and Violin, 1910

Georges Braque, Violin and Pitcher, 1910

It is my contention that it was very likely to this most fundamental of philosophical issues than a play on illusion that the nail in Braque’s Pitcher and Violin 1909-10, referred. As Bergson and Braque would have been aware – a lot hangs on it.

Part thirteen/to be continued…


1. Selections from Bergson, op. cit., 114

2. Ibid., 101, from Creative Evolution, op. cit.

3. Laughter, op. cit., 151

4. Ibid., 160

5. Time and Free Will, op. cit., 19

6. Laughter, op. cit., 158

7. Ibid., 166

8. From an interview with M. de Zayas in Theories of Modern Art, op. cit., 272

9. Time and Free Will, op. cit., 14

10. Antliff wrote that for Bergson, the provocation of an intuition depends on the activation of the beholder’s subliminal ‘mind’.

11. Laughter, op. cit., 156

12. An Introduction to Metaphysics, op. cit., 33

13. Creative Evolution, op. cit., 288

14. See G. Hamilton, ‘Cézanne, Bergson and the Image of Time’ Art Journal, xvi, Fall, 1956, 2-12

15. See Antliff on the use of passage to evoke the apprehension of the dynamism of form. Definition was not sought but suggestion ‘so that the mind of the spectator is the chosen place of their concrete birth.’ Inventing Bergson, op. cit., 52

16. The Creative Mind, op. cit., 198

17. Ibid., 39

18. Laughter, op. cit., 157

19. Matter and Memory, op. cit., 13

Image sources: 1st/2nd/3rd

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

While Bergson’s claim that reality can be perceived by non-intellectual intuition appears to contradict Plato’s philosophy, in which knowledge of reality (the realm of Ideas or Forms) is attained through reason, the issue depends on what exactly constitute the ‘intuition’ and ‘reason’ of both. For Bergson and Plato they amount to the same contemplation of perfection in ‘mind’.

Their philosophies are dependent on the ‘reality’ of ‘mind’ being more ‘real’ than that of the senses – the latter having a lower status than the realm of truth. The relationship Bergson drew between knowledge and the emotions is consistent with Plato’s philosophy.1

Bergson believed that intuitive knowledge could nourish and illuminate everyday life, since the world of our senses is no more than a shadow and is as cold as death.2 He wrote that a philosophy of intuition will be swept away by the ‘positive’ sciences ‘if it does not resolve to see the life of the body just where it really is, on the road that leads to the life of the spirit.’3

Intuition or ‘mind’ introduces us to the unity of spiritual life.4 Bergson’s intuition amounts to knowledge of the soul in its eternal movement.

According to Bergson there are two ways to apprehend reality – by the analysis and understanding of partial notations (the way of science) or by the metaphysical intuition of real parts (the way of creation and art).5

Analysis breaks up duration into static fragmentary concepts and is compelled to move around the object it desires to embrace.6 Intuition or ‘intellectual sympathy7 probes the flow of duration in its concreteness, by placing one within an object and giving an absolute.

Analysis reduces an object to elements common to it and other objects, intuition allows one to experience its inexpressible uniqueness. Analysis always deals with the immobile and cannot be reconstituted, intuition places itself in mobility and can be reconstituted in consciousness. It is a simple act, whereas

‘analysis multiplies without end the number of its points of view in order to complete its always incomplete representation; and ceaselessly varies its symbols that it may perfect the always imperfect translation. It goes on therefore to infinity.’8

Bergson thought that one can pass from the reality of intuition to the concepts of analysis, but never in reverse order. Even then ‘the intuition of duration, when exposed to the rays of the understanding…quickly congeals into fixed, distinct and immobile concepts.’9

Bergson applied the term ‘subjective’ to what is given in intuition (that which can be completely known) and ‘objective’ to what is given through analysis (a constantly increasing number of new impressions).

For him the intellect is bound to misunderstand motion and change, reducing such phenomena to points and instants. It is spatially orientated and unavoidably tends to separate states of ‘mind’. In duration, states of ‘mind’ flow into and interpenetrate each other.

Bergson believed that we have almost completely sacrificed intuition to intellect and wanted to develop a philosophy in which intuition subsumed intellect – ‘Intellect leaves us in the darkness of night.’10

For Bergson, there are two levels of conscious life – ‘a superficial level composed of discrete sensations and separate states and a deeper level where there is no separation but a pure continuity.’11 We constantly tend to assimilate the latter to the former through separating moments and the use of words.

Language reduces the expression and particularity of individual experience to shared conventions. This criticism is most relevant to emotional expression. To put a feeling into words conveys only the shadow of the feeling since it is inevitably bound up with a multitude of feelings. Similarly with ideas (Ideas).

‘We see that the intellect, so skilful in dealing with the inert, is awkward the moment it touches the living. Whether it wants to treat the life of the body or the life of the mind, it proceeds with the rigour, the stiffness and the brutality of an instrument not designed for such use…The intellect is characterised by a natural inability to comprehend life.’12

Since ‘mental’ reality does not exist in space, the intellect, which does and deals with spatiality, cannot grasp it. ‘Mental’ reality can only be intuited because it lies beyond spatial explanation.

Although the intellect can give an increasingly complete account of the material world, it can only offer a reduction of life into terms of mechanics. Intuition is the faculty of grasping the pure flow of consciousness before the intellect fragments it into separate states and parts.

Part eight/to be continued…


1. For example Plato on the imagination and divine inspiration of a poet (Ion), on the love of beauty and sexual love (Phaedrus). Plotinus developed this relation between inspiration, Form as focus for the emotions and truth. Deleuze noted that Bergson’s intuition is Platonic in inspiration, in Bergsonism, op. cit., 22.

2. Selections from Bergson, op. cit., 111. Compare with the simile of the cave in The Republic, op. cit., 316-325

3. Creative Evolution, op. cit., 269

4. Ibid., 268

5. Carr suggests that perception is the revelation of matter and memory is the revelation of spirit, each being the awareness of a different reality. H. Carr, The Philosophy of Change, London 1914, 90

6. An Introduction to Metaphysics, op. cit., 24. Representations taken from successive points of view belong to analysis which can never go beyond the surface of an object. A major point in my thesis will be that the application and retention of the misnomer ‘Analytic’ to the early development of Cubism by Picasso and Braque shows both how little understood is both Bergson’s philosophy and its enormous impact on Cubism and the origins of Modernism. The Cubists rejected the art of illusional appearance and I believe what they most directly built upon is expressed in Bergson’s philosophy.

7. Selections from Bergson, op. cit., 4

8. An Introduction to Metaphysics, op. cit., 24

9. The Creative Mind, op. cit., 228

10. Creative Evolution, op. cit., 268

11. A. Pilkington, Bergson and his Influence, A Reassessment, Cambridge, 1976, 5

12. Selections from Bergson, op. cit., 88

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

Bergson thought that there could be a possible interpenetration of human consciousnesses, that two consciousnesses can be united in a single experience, into a single duration1 and that intuition possibly opens the way into consciousness in general.2

Again, he thought that an impersonal consciousness linked our conscious ‘minds’ with all nature.

‘Such a consciousness would grasp, in a single, instantaneous perception, multiple events lying at different points in space; simultaneity would be precisely the possibility of two or more events entering within a single, instantaneous perception. What is true and what illusory, in this way of seeing things?’3

The more conscious we become of our progress in pure duration, the more we press against the future and know freedom.

For Bergson, memory is not a function of the brain but is independent of matter and ‘there is not merely a difference of degree, but of kind, between perception and recollection.’4 The brain is only an intermediary between sensation and duration – ‘in no case can the brain store up recollections or images’.5

‘Memory, inseparable in practice from perception, imports the past into the present, contracts into a single intuition many moments of duration and thus by a twofold operation compels us, de facto, to perceive matter in ourselves, whereas we, de jure, perceive matter within matter.’6

Memory gives us access to pure duration which is spirit – ‘pure memory is a spiritual manifestation. With memory we are, in truth, in the domain of spirit.’7

In reference to Platonism Bergson wrote

‘an invisible current (duration) makes modern philosophy tend to lift the Soul above the Idea. In this as in modern science and even more so, it tends to move in the opposite direction from ancient thought.’8

Not only is his terminology Neoplatonic, his philosophical heritage is clear

And this double movement of memory between its two extreme limits…sketches out…the first general ideas – motor habits ascending to seek similar images, in order to extract resemblances from them, and similar images coming down toward motor habits, to fuse themselves, for instance, in the automatic utterance of the word which makes them one. (my italics)’9

Bergson’s central thesis is that ‘reality’ must be grasped by intuition. Intuition is the immediate non-intellectual knowledge not of discontinuous moments but of the indivisible flow of ‘real’ time, comprising a plurality of multiple aspects and meanings.

Bergson defined intuition as ‘the metaphysical investigation of what is essential and unique in the object’10 and as the ability to immediately discern our own inner being as well as the thoughts of others.11 In apprehending reality in its true duration, we enter into the experience or thing itself.

Bergson referred to Schelling’s and Schopenhauer’s use of the concept ‘intuition’ in their search for the eternal whereas for him, it was a question of finding true duration. Not only is his work informed by Neoplatonism and peppered with concepts such as ‘essence’, ‘absolute’, ‘truth’, ‘perfection’ and ‘God’, for example

‘Coincidence with the person or object can alone give one the absolute. It is in this sense, and in this sense only, that absolute is synonymous with perfection,’12

consider the final sentence in two of his most influential books

‘Spirit borrows from matter the perceptions on which it feeds and restores them to matter in the form of movements which it has stamped with its own freedom’13

‘The animal takes its stand on the plant, man bestrides animality, and the whole of humanity, in space and time, is one immense army galloping beside and before and behind each of us in an overwhelming charge able to beat down every resistance and clear the most formidable obstacles, perhaps even death.’14

Intuition unites science and metaphysics in ‘the absolute’. It deals with mobility, and as I have shown earlier, this mobility applies also to the motionless.

To grasp the essence of a thing is to intuit it in its becoming, its movement. We must place ourselves within this evolution. This amounts to the coincidence of consciousness with ‘the living principle’ from which it derives. So duration is the intuitive apprehension of the passage of time.

Intuition is extremely difficult, since it requires us to use our ‘minds’ in a direction and manner the opposite of which our brains are used to function in, to reach ‘the inward life of things’.15

It therefore requires not only the act of seeing (the already-made) but that this be combined with the act of willing (the being-made). Intuition enables us to grasp reality directly, not superficially but in depth, unmediated by intellectual apprehension. Through intuition we can probe the meaning and nature of life and of evolution itself.

Part seven/to be continued…


1. Duration and Simultaneity, op. cit., 46-47

2. The Creative Mind, op. cit., 36

3. Duration and Simultaneity, op. cit., 45

4. Matter and Memory, op. cit., 236

5. Ibid., 225

6. Selections from Bergson, op. cit., 49

7. Matter and Memory, op. cit., 240

8. The Creative Mind, op. cit., 229

9. Matter and Memory, op. cit., 243

10. An Introduction to Metaphysics, op. cit., 28

11. Inventing Bergson, op. cit., 40

12. Selections from Bergson, op. cit., 3

13. Matter and Memory, op. cit., 249

14. From Creative Evolution in Selections from Bergson, op. cit., 105

15. An Introduction to Metaphysics, op. cit., 51

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

Pablo Picasso, Maquette for a sculpture of a guitar; paperboard, cardboard, paper, string, wire, before November 15, 1913. Museum of Modern Art, New York

Pablo Picasso, Maquette for a sculpture of a guitar; paperboard, cardboard, paper, string, wire, before November 15, 1913. Museum of Modern Art, New York

Bergson held that because the brain is a ‘biological instrument’ its capacity for intelligence is restricted to the taking of ‘snapshots’. Modern science likewise substitutes signs for the objects themselves. These signs or Ideas are the moments of becoming and are plucked from eternity – ‘we end in the philosophy of Ideas when we apply the cinematographical mechanism of the intellect to the analysis of the real’.1

The above may appear to contradict my thesis that Bergsonism was an adaptation of Platonism and Neoplatonism. However, not only did Bergson use Platonic terminology and do so in often contradictory ways as I have shown, his maintenance of the relationship between eternal truth (as duration) and appearance (as snapshots of that truth), and of the way by which that truth can be attained (through non-propositional intuition) derives from a Platonic and particularly Neoplatonic heritage.2

Bergson argued that an accumulation of points of view place one outside the subject and that the only way of attaining the subject’s essence (the absolute, perfection) would be by coinciding internally with the subject, by placing oneself within it. By entering it we attain absolute knowledge, by moving around it and remaining on its exterior we can acquire only relative knowledge.

‘Were all the photographs of a town, taken from all possible points of view, to go on indefinitely completing one another, they would never be equivalent to the solid town in which we walk about.’3

Cubism and photography

Through entering and identifying with the original, we become it. Bergson’s distinction between an accumulation of points revealing a subject and its perfect essence is the same as Plato made between the art of representation and truth. The former is a long way removed.4

In his philosophy, Bergson sought to bring the flow of reality to consciousness as opposed to a succession of changing states. He thought that it is only by an effort that we can overcome our natural practice of taking ‘views’ of reality and apprehending a succession of changing states. Antliff suggests that these multiple views can be interpreted as a Kantian attempt to grasp the thing-in-itself.5

Bergson however referred to Kant’s thing-in-itself and stated we can know part of reality – ourselves – in our ‘natural purity.’ The taking of ‘snapshots’ is a function of the brain and is necessary for mere existence. Duration, which is entirely different, is a function of consciousness which in turn is distinct from the brain. Although Bergson acknowledged objective reality, ‘true’ reality lay only in conscious duration.6

In Creative Evolution, Bergson addressed the difficulty of portraying the marching past of a regiment. He wrote that we could take a series of snapshots and throw them on a screen so they very rapidly replace each other. But photography is not animation and from this we could never get movement. Even the motion in film can’t bring us to the full duration of this event. To do so, we must attach the images to an invisible becoming ‘situated at the back of the apparatus of knowledge, in order to imitate what there is that is characteristic in this becoming itself’.7

Even when they are successive, states of consciousness permeate one another ‘and in the simplest of them the whole soul can be reflected’.8 Memory, which is the progression from past to present, enables us to place ourselves immediately in the past.

‘We start from a “virtual state” which we lead onwards, step-by-step, through a series of different planes of consciousness, up to the goal where it is materialised in an actual perception; that is to say, up to the point where it becomes a present, active state – up to that extreme plane of our consciousness against which our body stands out. In this virtual state, pure memory consists.’9

Cubism and photography 1

For Bergson, these planes of consciousness move between the plane of ‘pure’ memory and the plane of action. He believed that between these two planes are thousands of different planes of consciousness. The plane of ‘pure’ memory is the place of dreaming. The plane of action is the plane of ‘motor habits’. Bergson referred to these planes of consciousness as an infinite number of planes of memory.10 Further, ‘These planes…exist virtually, with that existence which is proper to things of the spirit’.11

Part six/to be continued…


1. Creative Evolution, op. cit., 315. This quotation appears to contradict my thesis, but the contradiction is Bergson’s – see next note.

2. Numerous connections can be argued between Plato, Plotinus and Bergson. Some more will be argued by myself and quoted from Bergson in this essay. Also, for example ‘ “And what about life? Is not that a function of mind?” “Very much so”, he said’, Plato, The Republic, trans. D. Lee, London, 1984, 100. This essay is primarily a setting out of Bergson’s philosophy. Where Plato’s Ideas exist in stasis, Plotinus incorporated them (in his second hypostasis) into a profoundly dynamic system of emanation and return.

3. An Introduction to Metaphysics, op. cit., 22

4. ‘The art of representation is therefore a long way removed from truth and it is able to reproduce everything because it has little grasp of anything, and that little is of a mere phenomenal appearance. For example, a painter can paint a portrait of a shoemaker or a carpenter or any other craftsman without understanding any of their crafts.’ The Republic, op. cit., 426. Also, the well-known example of the painter of a bed being at third remove from God’s creation.

5. R. Antliff, ‘Bergson and Cubism: A Reassessment’, op. cit., 342

6. The Creative Mind, op. cit., 30

7. In A. Papanicolaou, P. Gunter, eds., Bergson and Modern Thought, Towards A Unified Science, London, 1987, 220

8. Time and Free Will, op. cit., 98

9. Matter and Memory, op. cit., 239

10. Ibid., 170

11. Ibid., 242

Image sources:


– black and white, Cubism, Edward F. Fry, Thames and Hudson, London, 1978

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

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

Bergson equated consciousness with memory. Hence duration is essentially conscious memory. The preservation of the past and the interpenetration of which Bergson wrote is enabled by memory and belongs therefore to ‘the mind’ only and not the objective world. In duration, there is no distinction between the present and the past and the emotions are paramount, entailing the addition to a present feeling of the memory of past moments.

‘Inner duration is the continuous life of a memory which prolongs the past into the present, the present either containing within it in a distinct form the ceaselessly growing image of the past, or, more probably, showing by its continual change of quality the heavier and still heavier load we drag behind us as we grow older.’1

For Bergson, there are different types of memory – memory applicable to daily existence (perception, ‘motor habits’, impulse) and memory attuned with the past (recollection). Referring to the two durations (not only do most commentators on Bergson incorrectly recognise only one – the ‘true’ or ‘inner’ duration – Bergson, as he frequently did, contradicted himself on this point) Bergson wrote of this interpenetration of memories

‘The duration wherein we see ourselves acting, and in which it is useful that we should see ourselves, is a duration whose elements are dissociated and juxtaposed. The duration wherein we act is a duration wherein our states melt into each other (my italics). It is within this that we should try to replace ourselves by thought’2

Memory is a synthesis of past and present with a view to the future and duration is resistant to law and measurement.3 Our perceptions are infused with memories and our memories are activated by what we see – ‘these two complimentary memories insert themselves each into the other.’4

‘If, in order to count states of consciousness, we have to represent them symbolically in space, is it not likely that this symbolical representation will alter the normal conditions of inner perception?…our projection of our psychic states into space in order to form a discrete multiplicity is likely to influence these states themselves and to give them in reflective consciousness a new form, which immediate perception did not attribute to them.’5

Not only do our different types of memory interpenetrate and interact in duration, any symbolic representation of this process will have further influence on our mental states. Further ‘there are always some dominant memories, shining points round which the others form a vague nebulosity.’6 On recollection, Bergson wrote

Subject and object would unite (my italics) in an extended perception, the subjective side of perception being the contraction effected by memory, and the objective reality of matter fusing with the multitudinous and successive vibrations into which the perception can be internally broken up…Questions relating to subject and object, to their distinction and their union, should be put in terms of time, rather than of space.’7

For Bergson, the synthesis performed by our consciousness of what is and what was, results in a permeation, completion and continuation.

Part four/to be continued…


1. An Introduction to Metaphysics, op. cit., 40

2. H. Bergson, Matter and Memory, 1896; trans. N. Paul, W. Palmer, New York, 1988, 186. On the quality of Bergson’s thought, it is worth noting that he wrote in this book ‘there can be no question here of constructing a theory of matter’, 188

3. Selections from Bergson, op. cit., 108

4. Matter and Memory, op. cit., 153

5. Time and Free Will, op. cit., 90. For Bergson, ‘space’ is a site of infinitely complex ‘mental interaction’, to which I will return.

6. Matter and Memory, op. cit., 171

7. Ibid., 70

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

Bergson distinguished between the ‘everyday’, ‘positive’ sciences which are characteristic of the intellect, remain ‘external’ to the object with the use of symbols, are restricted to separate moments, giving us a relative, convenient knowledge, and ‘true’ science which is obtained by the ascension to Ideas. This science is metaphysics which supposedly dispenses with symbols, is ‘preformulated’ in nature and is capable of attaining the absolute.

‘Science is not then, a human construction. It is prior to our intellect, independent of it, veritably the generator of Things.’1

Bergson acknowledged his profound obligation to Plotinus2 and gave a course of lectures on him at the College de France in 1897-98. The metaphysical vision of Creative Evolution has been compared with that of Plotinus.3 In this book Bergson suggested the possibility of applying the term ‘God’ to the source from which all things flow. In ‘The Two Sources of Morality and Religion’, the primal energy at the heart of the universe is stated to be love.

Creative Evolution is based on élan vital which for Bergson is the actualisation of memory in duration. This élan vital drives life to ‘overcome’ matter. Bergson believed there is a ‘tremendous push’ in nature which unites all nature and carries it along.4

‘As the smallest grain of dust is bound up with our entire solar system, drawn along with it in that undivided movement of descent which is materiality itself, so all organised beings, from the humblest to the highest, from the first origins of life to the time in which we are, and in all places as in all times, do but evidence a single impulsion, the inverse of the movement of matter, and in itself indivisible.’5

As in his theorising about science, Bergson’s dualism is again evident in his treatment of the concepts ‘time’ and ‘duration’ (durée) which are fundamental to his philosophy. There is ‘intellectual’ time – that which can be subject to analysis, and ‘real’ time – the time of psychological experience. There is ‘mere’ duration – the general flow in time of all things (‘the phantom of duration’6) and ‘pure’ duration, the non-material basis and origin of all things. It is dynamic, creative and irreversible – ‘Duration is the continuous progress of the past which gnaws into the future and which swells as it advances’.7

Knowledge of duration can only be obtained by intuition – a direct, non-conceptual perception in which the act of knowing coincides with the person, experience or object in duration. Duration cannot be ‘spatialised’ i.e. divided into units. According to Bergson we do break movement and change it into simultaneous moments (‘simultaneity’) in order to act upon change. It is in our ‘inner’ life that the reality of change is revealed as indivisible, and it is this indivisible continuity of change which constitutes true duration. ‘Real’ time and ‘true’ duration are the same.

Bergson criticised Plato and Plotinus for turning away from practical life, for ‘escaping’ change and raising themselves above time, but this is precisely what Bergson did when he distinguished between time of the intellect and time of the immaterial ‘mind’. This ‘succession of qualitative changes, which melt into and permeate one another, without precise outlines’ (my emphasis)8 is the site of Platonic (i.e. Neoplatonic) reality.

Bergson wrote ’(Plato) in his magnificent language…says that God, unable to make the world eternal, gave it Time, “a moving image of eternity.”’9 The Time referred to here is ‘intellectual’ time (that of Plotinus’ second hypostasis, Intellect), the ‘eternity’ is Bergson’s ‘pure’ duration. He regarded duration and consciousness as inseparable. Inner duration is perceived by consciousness and ‘is nothing else but the melting of states of consciousness into one another.’ (my emphasis) 10

‘these distinct states of the external world give rise to states of consciousness which permeate one another, imperceptibly organise themselves into a whole, and bind the past to the present by this very process of connection.’11

Part three/to be continued…


1. Creative Evolution, op. cit., 321.

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

3. ‘And, faithful to the spirit of Plato, he (Plotinus) thought that the discovery of truth demanded a conversion of the mind, which breaks away from the appearances here below and attaches itself to the realities above: “Let us flee to our beloved homeland!” ’, H. Bergson, The Creative Mind, trans., M. Andison, New York, 1946, 163.

4. Creative Evolution, op. cit., 270. Bergson’s vitalism was popular in literary circles, but was not accepted by many philosophers and scientists. Antliff quoted R. Grogin in noting that the greatest intellectual assault on the rationalist bases of French democracy before World War One came from Bergsonian vitalism. Antliff argued that Bergson’s theories bore comparison with precepts underpinning fascism. Inventing Bergson op. cit., 11.

5. Creative Evolution, op. cit., 270.

6. The Creative Mind, op. cit., 34.

7. Creative Evolution, op. cit., 4.

8. H. Bergson, Time and Free Will, An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness, trans., F. Pogson, London, 1910, reprint., 1950, 104.

9. In G. Beck, ‘Movement and Reality: Bergson and Cubism’, The Structurist, 15/16, 1975/1976, 112. Cf. Plotinus – he also quoted Plato on this.

10. Time and Free Will, op. cit., 107.

11. Ibid., 121.