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.