Issue #39 April 2021

Inverting Philosophy: A Commentary on Henri Bergson’s ‘An Introduction to Metaphysics’

Илья Репин - Какой простор (1903)

Henri Bergson’s An Introduction to Metaphysics is one of my favourite works of philosophy. It is just over ninety pages long, but it gives a simple, powerful, and compelling metaphysical picture, and is a succinct summary of his most important views. My goal here is to write a commentary on the text and expand the vision presented in the final pages of the work. It leaves out some of his philosophy’s more puzzling aspects; it consists more in laying the metaphysical groundwork for future philosophy and science. More than anything, it is a methodological text. He is incredibly underrated as a thinker, and this text is an excellent introduction to his work. That being said, he does most of the heavy lifting and argumentation for the claims in his longer works. Thus, my commentary draws extensively on his other works to contextualise the claims made in this one, though it also leaves some aspects out that are missing in this text.1placeholder

The first section of An Introduction to Metaphysics is sixty-four pages and consists of a description of his method of doing metaphysics, intuition, and the fruits of that investigation. The second section (the one we are concerned with) concludes with the formulation, “as precisely as we can, the principles on which [intuition] rests.”2placeholder The section is broken up into nine parts, each expressing a different (though intimately related) conclusion. It is these conclusions which I summarise, explain, and expand on by drawing on his other work. Therefore the ‘commentary’ proper is broken up into nine parts denoted by the roman numerals (including the conclusion). However, these parts are organised under seven subheadings (including an introductory section), denoted by numbers, which group these parts thematically.

My original intention in writing this was to give short summaries of each point as a personal exercise. What ended up happening was that I was reminded of the profundity and depth of Bergson’s thought and ended up inspired and pleased with how much he lines up with my own thinking. It turned more into a project of seeing what interesting directions his thought could take us. Thus, I take some liberties. I stretch, project, and develop my own ideas through his philosophy. Not in any apocryphal way, I do not think. Mainly later in the essay, I spell out the potential philosophical and methodological worldviews that, while lacking from the text itself, follow from a genuinely Bergsonian philosophy as I see it. For this reason, the working title “A Commentary on Bergson’s An Introduction to Metaphysics” seemed less honest than “A Bergsonian Manifesto” which I think captures it better. I see myself as a Bergsonian, and I see the present work as spelling out precisely what that means with some of my own twists and improvements. (Perhaps it could more aptly be titled “A Bergsonian’s Manifesto”).


0: The Problem of Metaphysics

Before jumping into the commentary, it is worth sketching a preliminary account of what angle Bergson is coming at traditional metaphysics and the errors he is attempting to overcome. He seeks to overcome the traditional opposition of realism and idealism by pointing out the flaw common to both. It also serves as a primer for the next section’s treatment of his theory of perception.

Bergson takes issue with both the realism and idealism of his time. Both theories are representational – they distinguish between the ideas, impressions, or representations given to the mind and the world as it is. He writes that “for realism as for idealism, perceptions are ‘veridical hallucinations,’ states of the subject projected outside himself; and the two doctrines differ in merely this: that in one these states constitute reality, in the other they are sent forth to unite with it.”3placeholder Each system takes two levels of being as fundamentally separate from the other – consciousness, un-extended and ideal, and the rest of the universe, extended and real – and tries to reduce one to the other. Bergson’s goal with perception is to bring both realms into an immanent relationship.  Here is an outline of both views:

  • The realist starts from the universe, the aggregate of all things, law-governed and apprehended by physics. Eventually, the realist realises that nature’s apprehension relies on perceptions or consciousness, something mysterious and fixed to one aspect of the universe, the human. However, it is obvious that the world, absent of human perception, must subsist independently. Thus the materialist must explain consciousness as some mechanistic epiphenomenon, illusion, or try to eliminate it altogether.
  • The idealist begins from perceptions and postulates that that is all there is. However, this kind of subjectivism is unsatisfying – the images given to perception seem neither arbitrary nor able to be manipulated by an agent; there must be some regulative principles of perception that explain their coherence. Therefore, idealist philosophers must hold that there is some God-given pre-established harmony (Leibniz) or universal and objective laws between sense and understanding (Kant).4placeholder

Bergson writes of these two parties: “The whole discussion turns upon the importance to be attributed to this knowledge as compared with scientific knowledge. The one doctrine [realism] starts from the order required by science and sees in perception only a confused and provisional science. The other puts perception in the first place, erects it into an absolute, and then holds science to be a symbolic expression of the real. But, for both parties, to perceive means above all to know. Now it is just this postulate that we dispute.”5placeholder

The importance these traditional theories put on the objects of perception as the yardstick for metaphysical knowledge is something Bergson repeatedly repudiates throughout his work. It is ultimately the structure of perception, its relation to the world, and the underlying movement that makes it possible which Bergson takes to be the insights to construct his metaphysical system. This is the subject of his first conclusion in Introduction to Metaphysics, and the subject of the next section.


1: Immanentizing Perception

I: “There is a reality that is external and yet given immediately to the mind.”6placeholder

Summary: Bergson, contra Kant and Hume, posits an external world that is not only knowable but that since we are immersed in it, we, in some sense, have direct access to it. He does this by collapsing the distinction between supposedly ‘un-extended’ perceptions on the one hand and extended reality on the other. This section will outline Bergson’s theory of perception which is related to and alludes to points he makes later on in the essay.

In summary, ‘pure perception’ (perception without the influence of memory) is an immanent and extended relation between two parts of reality, not between a disembodied mind perceiving an ontologically separate material reality. Bergson argues for this by the hypothesis that perception, rather than being performed by the mind, as the substrate that documents impressions or constructs intuitions, is fundamentally co-extensive and of the same kind as the things it perceives. He argues the body is a part of things and all that is needed to explain perception is that it is not a mysterious ideal instrument of representation but a faculty that has evolved alongside the entire rest of the universe in a reciprocal relationship. Its function is to measure the bodies’ possible action on the world, and in this way, perception is no different in kind from nerve endings, which we have no trouble giving a complete description of without adding in-extensive entities. The second part of his theory of perception is that, while we see the world directly, its apparent boundaries are drawn according to practical needs, not as they are. He does not defend these theses in the text, but we can refer here to things he has said in Matter and Memory and Creative Evolution.

Explanation: Bergson has a problem with Kant’s formulation of ‘things-in-themselves’ – the world as it really is, which, it is supposed, we cannot know. According to Kant, all we can know is the content of our perceptions (empirical intuitions) and their transcendental conditions that structure them (pure intuitions). Things-in-themselves are entirely appropriated to the mind which produces causally unrelated structured and lawful representations that we perceive and judge through the categories of the understanding. In Kant’s view, this is all there is to the mind. Its nature and the relation to things-themselves remains fundamentally mysterious.

For Bergson, the mind is not merely equal to the unity of pure intuitions structuring experience (though it does have them), it overflows these structures. Therefore, he distinguishes the ‘intellect’ as a faculty (the Kantian conditions and concepts the mind uses to produce form and matter from the things-in-themselves), and the mind as an evolved imperfect and changing whole. Instead of saying that the matter determines the form of the intellect (realism) or that the intellect determines the form of matter (idealism) he wants to say that matter and intellect have progressively evolved and adapted themselves to each other in a reciprocal relationship. He writes (somewhat prosaically): “intellect and matter have progressively adapted themselves one to the other in order to attain at last a common form. This adaptation has, moreover, been brought about quite naturally, because it is the same inversion of the same movement which creates at once the intellectuality of mind and the materiality of things.”7placeholder How are we to make sense of this?

Bergson sees himself as replying to two mistaken assumptions made by the metaphysics of his time. Firstly, the mistake of the Kantian idealist is to take the mind as being a different kind of stuff to things-in-themselves, or more precisely he is pessimistic that we have any insight into the metaphysical nature of the mind and its ability to tell us about the nature of the world as it really is. Against this, Bergson stipulates that the activity we call the mind or perception is the same kind of stuff as the universe (whatever it may be), that evolved in a historical impulse to life and reproduction. (If you accept scientific accounts of emergence and evolution or are a materialist this view should not sound strange to you.) It boils down to the assumption that we are of and amongst the world and without this assumption perception would not be possible.8placeholder

Secondly, the mistake of naïve materialism and idealism is that they both take ‘representative’ perception and their particular content and apparent in-extensive nature as the fundamental datum for speculative metaphysics. Instead, Bergson thinks the point from which we ought to speculate is to ask, what makes perception and experience possible in light of the fact that its working is one with the rest of the world.

The argument for the truth of the first hypothesis, while a seemingly obvious point in some ways, is not so easily attained – Kant said what he said for a reason. Luckily, we have Nietzsche to put the fatal point better than I:

“If one is to pursue physiology with a good conscience one is compelled to insist that the organs of sense are not phenomena in the sense of idealist philosophy: for if they were they could not be causes! …and others even go as far as to say that the external world is the work of our organs? But then our body, as a piece of this external world, would be the work of our organs! But then our organs themselves would be – the work of our organs! This, it seems to me, is a complete reductio ad absurdum, supposing that the concept causa sui is something altogether absurd. Consequently the external world is not the work of our organs –?”9placeholder

While this is not necessarily a knockdown argument,10placeholder it is incompatible with a much more straightforward and intuitive thesis that we will take up: that perceptions are simply the work of our bodies immediately apprehending (in ways that you will see soon) the external world (albeit from a human perspective).

Because of the peculiar ubiquity and starkness of perception, of the five senses as opposed to other bodily functions, in guiding our lives, philosophers have seen it as the paradigmatic human instrument for delivering knowledge about reality. However, if we take up the point of view that perception is just the body apprehending the world, is there any reason to think there is a difference in kind between so-called representative bodily functions such as eyes from more automatic bodily functions such as the spinal cord? What about the systems of nerves throughout our bodies? Or any other evolved feature of our human capacity? They are all dynamic and complex systems reproduced in certain parts of reality (human beings), evolved to interact fruitfully with their immediately apprehended environment.

Akseli Gallen-Kallela - Clouds above a lake (ca. 1904)

The body is fundamentally an instrument of action and “no more in the higher centres of the cortex than in the spinal cord do the nervous elements work with a view to knowledge: they do but indicate a number of possible actions at once.”11placeholder There is no difference in kind between these things, only of degree. The alternative for those that sustain the reality of un-extended representations must also say that our spinal cord, or fingers, produce them too which does not seem right.

Thus, if the spinal cord does not ‘represent’ anything un-extended to the body, nor do eyes, ears, the nose, or the brain. If we have no trouble saying the ‘perceptions’ of the spinal cord are extended, we should have no problem saying visual or tactile ‘perceptions’ are extended. They are all organs delivering different levels of preparation for, or the suggestion of, reflexive action to the body in its immediate relation with the rest of the world. Thus, there is no confusing mix of un-extended representations floating free of material reality, a connection only God or the categories of the understanding could guarantee. Pure perception is just the immanent relation of part to part between bodies, subject is identified with object and object with subject.

If the mind is the same kind of thing as the world, along with a metaphysical theory of evolution and complexity that at least vaguely resembles natural selection, then certain things follow. Bergson writes: “suppose that my conscious perception has an entirely practical destination, that it simply indicates, in the aggregate that of things, that which interests my possible action upon them. I can then understand that all the rest escapes me, and that, nevertheless, all the rest is of the same nature as what I perceive.”12placeholder If perception is a bodily faculty evolved for survival, it is entirely immanent with the world. There is no longer an ontological separation between mind and matter, because “the relation between the ‘phenomenon’ and the ‘thing’ is not that of appearance to reality, but merely that of the part to the whole.”13placeholder Perception is an extended thing, a reciprocal relationship between two parts of the same substrate; subject and object.

Thus, we have our conclusion, our refutation of Kant, and the affirmation of Bergson’s first conclusion in the text. But isn’t this just a return to realism, perhaps even a kind of reductive or eliminative materialism, a modern naturalism that situates everything in space, accepts the postulates of science, and shelves consciousness? Not quite, the static objects and concepts of science do not satisfy Bergson for the purpose of metaphysics. His theory of perception tells us that breaking it down into divisions is not going to work.

Even though we perceive the world directly, the divisions presented to the intellect are not real distinctions, but practical ones. If the spinal cord’s function is to supply the body with information for its survival, why should we not think that perception is the same? Therefore, we have no reason to believe the common-sense view of perception as immediately apprehending metaphysical objects and states. Why should an evolved faculty track reality as it is? Bergson tells a more compelling story. He thinks that the things we see as objects or entities are merely our perceptions marking out divisions in reality, according to its practical needs. He writes:

“That which is commonly called a fact is not reality as it appears to immediate intuition, but an adaptation of the real to the interests of practice and to the exigencies of social life. Pure intuition, external or internal, is that of an undivided continuity. We break up this continuity into elements laid side by side, which correspond in the one case to distinct words, in the other to independent objects.”14placeholder

In support of this, he also thinks the unreality of metaphysical divisions is the cause of the apparent vagueness between things:

“the separation between a thing and its environment cannot be absolutely definite and clear cut; there is a passage by insensible gradations from the one to the other: the close solidarity which binds all the objects of the material universe, the perpetuity of their reciprocal actions and reactions, is sufficient to prove that they have not the precise limits which we attribute to them. Our perception outlines, so to speak, the form of their nucleus; it terminates them at the point where our possible action upon them ceases, where, consequently, they cease to interest our needs. Such is the primary and the most apparent operation of the perceiving mind: it marks out divisions in the continuity of the extended, simply following the suggestions of our requirement and the needs of practical life.”15placeholder

This intellect is in the business of seizing the crust of reality, taking aspects of it and representing them as the static constituents of the world. This is the process of ‘spatialisation’ by the intellect and will be explicated later in the essay.16placeholder


2: An Undulating Reality

II: “This reality is mobility. Not things made, but things in the making, not self-maintaining states, but only changing states, exist. Rest is never more than apparent, or, rather, relative. The consciousness we have of our own self in its continual flux introduces us to the interior of a reality, on the model of which we must represent other realities.”17placeholder

Summary: There are four statements being made here. In order, they are:

(1)   “Reality is mobility.” (Other ways one might say this is that reality is in perpetual flux, a continuous unfolding, a constant state of change, or that there is real duration. The important part is that there is real movement.)

(2)   There are no real divisions in the world. (Whether it be objects, states, subjects – everything bleeds into each other, reality is an interpenetrating heterogeneity).

(3)   Absolute rest is an illusion. (It either pragmatically denotes metastability or it is a construct for the purpose of science or language.)

(4) The nature of reality, its movement, is something observable to us in consciousness.

Explanation: I will not be going too in-depth here on each issue, especially (2), since they will be explicated and fleshed out in the following sections. This section attempts to establish that, if there are no real divisions, then movement is real and ubiquitous. As he argued for these points in the body of the text, this section is written strangely for our purposes. Thus, for our needs: (2) follows from the earlier section. (4) follows from it being the only discernible methodological truth from the point of view of (2). Finally, (1) and (3) fall directly out of the conclusion of (4).

The argument for (2) is that it follows from the previous section. We have eliminated the need for substantial souls and minds to explain the apparent in-extensity of representative perceptions by showing how they are no different in kind to other (what we would typically call causal) relations in the world. We have shown how Bergson thinks that objective divisions of facts and objects are merely the evolved faculties of the body carving up the world according to its needs, not as it is. Therefore, there is nothing left for us to say to explain beyond the fact that: there is undivided existence. We are left with One; reality is One.18placeholder

At the minute, we need only be agnostic about the nature of the One – it does not preclude physicalism or idealism – but in a way, a name would be superfluous. It is the undivided stuff of the world. In Matter and Memory, Bergson calls it extensity (meant free from spatial connotations) so we will call it that. The other thing to note is that Bergson affirming monism is not to deny the rich qualitative complexity of the living world à la Parmenides; he is reaffirming it. While there are no real discrete distinctions, the world is still just as rich, structurally complex, and incredibly variable in its qualities – exactly as much as it seems to us in our ever-deepening knowledge of its workings, in fact even more so. This is made possible by its movement (as will be seen). It is systems that rely on quantitative differences in the world, made up of objects or countable states, that fail to capture its complexity. Postulating a kind necessarily suspends the unique intrinsic difference between each potential part of the world and assumes they are the same.19placeholder

The following sections will deal with (4) in a more in-depth way, but the basic idea is as follows. Even if all perceptions are the product of an evolved faculty for picking out images or distinctions that are ultimately metaphysical illusions, we discern one real thing, despite this. This reality is motion, and it is immediately given to us in perception. When I move my hand from point A to point B, the hand as a discrete object is an illusion, but the qualitative movement of reality cannot be false. It must undertake this movement because, since we are parts of the world (per section I), motion being real is a transcendental condition for our perceptions – which cannot be denied. “That there is real motion no one can seriously deny: if there were not, nothing in the universe would change; and, above all, there would be no meaning in the consciousness which we have of our own movements.”20placeholder If there is movement, there must be something moving. And since there is only One, we conclude (1), that “reality is mobility.”

Since there can only be One, and there must be real movement, and therefore a Real Moving One – there is no referent to the idea of rest. ‘Rest’, in the pragmatic everyday sense, merely denotes the relative qualitative stability of a specific aspect of the world as opposed to some other aspect. That is, rest can only be relative, not absolute.

We can save some pragmatic notion of rest by appealing to degrees of apparent change. We might call some aspect of the One at rest if it appears ‘meta-stable’ (not absolutely stable, but stable relative to some other thing), which is to say it retains qualitative continuity over a substantial duration such as a chair, rock, or car. These are things we would typically call objects. Some aspect is not meta-stable as far as it does not have stable, qualitative continuity over an insubstantial duration, such as an explosion or a car crashing. These are things we might typically call processes or events. The important part is that talk of this extends along a continuum, so there is no difference in kind between each aspect, just that they can be compared relative to each other’s stability. This notion of rest, and the relatively similar biological substrate of human perception, allows us effective intersubjective validity through reference and object-talk across domains without direct one-to-one correspondence to some reality. This can be done through pragmatics alone (see section 5). It is still movement, or things moving, all the way down. One thinks of the elegant phrasing of Nelson Goodman: “an object is a monotonous process.”21placeholder

The other way rest is used is as a construct for science and mathematics, which tries to construct a world, fundamentally of movement, out of these static constructions. This is the subject of the following section.


3: Lifeless Reconstruction

III: “Our mind, which seeks for solid points of support, has for its main function in the ordinary course of life that of representing states and things.”22placeholder

Explanation: Here, Bergson is expanding on the idea that the ‘intellect’ is a faculty for picking out and carving up undivided reality. In the ordinary course of life, the mind as an evolved organism is optimised for practical action and survival. As a necessary condition for the execution of common sense, language, all practical life and even the natural sciences, the intellect must represent ‘states and things’ and conceive of experience as atomistic sensations and ideas. The intellect carves joints where there are none.

The commonality between each domain the intellect enables (common sense, language, science) requires divisions. It requires reality to be ‘spatialised’ by the mind, represented quantitatively, as matter. Matter means two things here. The first is that it must be able to be divided infinitely by the mind. Secondly that a piece of matter logically excludes any other piece of matter being in the same space.23placeholder This is the way the intellect structures reality for practical purposes; it necessitates division. “In this way it substitutes for the continuous the discontinuous, for motion stability, for tendency in a process of change, fixed points marking a direction of change and tendency.” This spatialisation by the intellect is the origin of practical life and has extended its abstractions to all domains. In ordinary language, we see this in words and sentences, which pretend to express eternally valid propositions about perpetually perishing reality. When we talk about any object, in what sense can it still be the same identical object as each moment passes? In what sense can it be said to be metaphysically distinct from the rest of reality? Reality is pure interpenetrating heterogeneity.

Bergson writes what needs to be said better than I: “Our intellect…starts from the immobile, and only conceives and expresses movement as a function of immobility. It takes up its position in ready-made concepts, and endeavours to catch in them, as in a net, something of the reality which passes. This is certainly not done in order to obtain an internal and metaphysical knowledge of the real, but simply in order to utilise the real, each concept (as also each sensation) being a practical question which our activity puts to reality and to which reality replies, as must be done in business, by a Yes or a No.” And most importantly, “in doing that, it lets that which is its very essence escape from the real.”24placeholder

What this means ultimately is that the static quantitative method of language and the natural sciences, while approximating the world in some sense, fails to pick it out as it really is. This includes, most importantly, the concept of space and the metaphysical reconstructions attempted with it. All of these accounts leave out movement and thus, reality. The next section discusses how space or any other metaphysical divisions must preclude movement.

Winslow Homer - Summer Night (1890)

IV: “The inherent difficulties of metaphysics, the antinomies which it gives rise to, and the contradictions into which it falls, the division into antagonistic schools, and the irreducible opposition between systems are largely the result of our applying to the disinterested knowledge of the real, processes which we generally employ for practical ends.”25placeholder

Explanation: Bergson thinks that all metaphysics that begins from these intellectual abstractions is doomed to contradiction. They will never be able to reconstruct mobility from immobility. The paradigm case of this, and one Bergson continues to return to in his work is Zeno’s paradoxes. Here are two of Zeno’s paradoxes, the first concerning space and the second concerning time:

(1)   The Dichotomy: Suppose Rowan wants to walk across the road. If he is to get across the road, he must pass the halfway point. Before he gets halfway, he must get a quarter of the way. Before he gets a quarter of the way, he must get an eighth of the way across. This process of halving the distance can go on ad infinitum. Rowan is required to complete an infinite number of tasks in crossing the road, which is impossible.26placeholder Thus, motion is an illusion.

(2)   The Arrow: Imagine an arrow flying towards a target. For motion to occur, it must change positions. However, if you take the arrow at any instant of time, it is motionless. Therefore, every point of the trajectory of the arrow is motionless. But if at every point in time the arrow is motionless, it is motionless at all times during its movement. Thus, motion is an illusion.

Two points. First, we have already determined that rest must be the illusion, not motion. So this argument never gets off the ground here. Nevertheless, it will be telling to outline exactly what is going wrong in Zeno. Secondly, we will see that the second paradox is not concerning time as separate from space; it concerns a conception of time that presupposes space. More precisely, it assumes the intellect’s spatialisation is reality; thus ruling out a priori, real movement.

The confusion of Zeno’s paradoxes is between motion and space. It is assumed by Zeno that the act of crossing the road (movement), which can be represented by a line AB, has the very same properties as the line representing me crossing the road (space). The line symbolises some movement already lapsed and is retroactively decomposable in an infinite number of ways or according to any law whatsoever. However, my movement across the road is simple and indivisible. You cannot literally divide my movement from A to B – I pass from one side of the road to the other right in front of your very eyes; unperturbed by the mathematician’s incisions through my path. This is a truth encountered every day at every moment of our lives. Movement is an undivided fact, whereas the spatial trajectory of that movement is infinitely divisible. And while we can move from duration, the movement, to this representative abstraction, we can never move in the other direction, from immobility to mobility. This is what the paradoxes prove, “that it is impossible to construct, a priori, movement with immobilities.”27placeholder

While this could seem a relatively small point, it generalises to all metaphysical change and being. It is a primary argument for the claim made earlier that “there are no real divisions in the world.” The pragmatic objects of the intellect, thus all concepts used by humans, are not joints carved in the being of the world but imagined possible stops in the continuity of becoming. For example, take the concept of age. We conceive of there being relatively clear-cut stages of life that humans go through – for example, infancy, adolescence, adulthood, and old age. Yet, these concepts are not quantitatively precise. There is no specific age at which we can attribute each label to a person. For example, if adulthood is 18 years, what about someone who is 17 and 364 days old? Or 18 years minus one second old – are they an adult? Perhaps you think of this as a matter of language where we can simply decide these things. It is not so simple.

What these concepts are is conventionally or habitually affixed descriptions that purport to describe some qualitative phenomena that repeat themselves similarly and often enough that it is more useful than not to be able to talk about it as if it were a metaphysically independent object.28placeholder It is not that childhood and adulthood are illusions or anything; there is a genuine sense in which someone transitions from childhood to adulthood (like how there is a genuine sense in which people cross the road) and those terms really point to some reality. It is just that the qualitative transition, occurring over some duration, is the reality, not the snapshots we decompose it into after the fact. Once again, it is mistaking the trajectory (the representation) for the reality (movement) – the map for the territory.

Whether in language, science, or mathematics, symbolic representation is fundamentally atomic, discrete, and quantitative. Reality is monistic, continuous, and qualitative. The constant use by the intellect of this way of thinking has habituated us so thoroughly into its grip that we think it can be used to build up reality like a Lego house. A Bergsonian sees the natural sciences as that Cartographers Guild who sketched out a map of the Empire, point for point the size of the Empire.29placeholder No matter how closely it approximates and represents reality, it never is reality itself.

Bergson sums it up nicely:

“The truth is that if language here were moulded on reality, we should not say “The child becomes the man,” but “There is becoming from the child to the man.” In the first proposition, “becomes” is a verb of indeterminate meaning, intended to mask the absurdity into which we fall when we attribute the state “man” to the subject “child.” It behaves in much the same way as the movement, always the same, of the cinematographical film, a movement hidden in the apparatus and whose function it is to superpose the successive pictures on one another in order to imitate the movement of the real object. In the second proposition, “becoming” is a subject. It comes to the front. It is the reality itself; childhood and manhood are then only possible stops, mere views of the mind…”30placeholder

Perhaps it might be thought that the second paradox, ‘the arrow’ concerning time as separate from space, escapes this conclusion. The idea is that without invoking space at all, Zeno shows that Bergson’s account of real movement (the analogue of the arrow) is subject to the same treatment. It seems that if one takes all of continually changing reality, they can decompose it into instantaneous states. Here reality would be the constant succession of discrete states, instead of a flowing continuity, meaning that movement is the illusion. This is famously Bertrand Russell’s solution – he agrees that motion is an illusion in this sense and redefines it as a change in position over time, where each position is itself ‘motionless’ (in Zeno’s sense). This is what Bergson calls the ‘cinematographical’ method that reality is broken up into discrete motionless moments, like a film.

The problem with this is that this conception of time has already been ‘spatialised’ (assumed to behave as ‘matter’ in the sense outlined above) which is the form the intellect imposes on extensity for practical purposes, not the nature of reality. If this is true, then this form of the paradox makes the same mistake as the first – it assumes that reality is infinitely divisible like abstract space, it mistakes the trajectory for reality. It is easy enough to see that this is precisely what is being done – ‘time’ defined in the paradox just is two different spatial configurations of reality. “Instant of time” is some state abstractly represented, a possible stop in continuity, carved out of the real becoming. Thus, there is no way of reconstructing movement, given by introspection and perception, back out of space.

Thus, Bergson writes: “it is clear that fixed concepts may be extracted by our thought from mobile reality; but there are no means of reconstructing the mobility of the real with fixed concepts. Dogmatism, however, in so far as it has been a builder of systems, has always attempted this reconstruction.31placeholder

This spatialisation thesis extends not just to metaphysical systems that conceive of time and space as discrete, but to any system that proposes any numerical division of any kind, independent of the whole. What this means for all forms of metaphysical pluralism is that each moment, state, entity, object, or event must be somehow sui generis and motionless. One must say reality flickers in and out of existence, consists of constant leaps of being, or bursts of reality, each moment separated from the last and never able to be connected.32placeholder Instead of the alternative: a reality that follows a rich and living continuous qualitative change.

Of course, this is a fair solution to this problem, and one accepted by many philosophers. However, I share with Bergson the plain intuition that a discrete, motionless, and dead world is less likely to be the case than real continuous movement. Indeed, how could we even think without an active substrate continuously constituting us? Perhaps each view has its theoretical virtues and vices, and, once spelled out, one is no weirder than the other. Regardless, I think, and Bergson thought, that reality is not like a film. From my reading, this is the fulcrum in which the entire Bergsonian philosophy turns. It is the problem he keeps returning to. There are two directions one can take from these conclusions. Firstly, one can accept monism and treat Zeno’s paradox as a reductio ad absurdum by postulating motion as primitive (Bergson, and perhaps Heraclitus33placeholder). Secondly, one can accept the conclusions of Zeno and deny the reality of motion. You can do this in a couple of different ways: you accept monism and Zeno’s paradox (Parmenides), or you reject monism and postulate strange motionless sui generis entities (Russell, Whitehead). Finally, you could live in thoroughgoing bad faith and denial that this is a problem (you, reader).

Delightful writer that he is, Bergson sums up nicely the ground we have covered:

“there is room, between metaphysical dogmatism on the one hand and critical philosophy on the other, for a doctrine which regards homogeneous space and time as principles of division and of solidification introduced into the real with a view to action and not with a view to knowledge, which attributes to things a real duration and a real extensity, and which, in the end, sees the source of all difficulty no longer in that duration and in that extensity (which really belong to things and are directly manifest to the mind), but in the homogeneous space and time which we stretch out beneath them in order to divide the continuous, to fix the becoming, and provide our activity with points to which it can be applied.”34placeholder


4: Intuition, Beyond the Intellect

V: “But because we fail to reconstruct the living reality with stiff and ready-made concepts, it does not follow that we cannot grasp it in some other way. The demonstrations which have been given of the relativity of our knowledge are therefore tainted with an original vice; they imply, like the dogmatism they attack that all knowledge must necessarily start from concepts with fixed outlines, in order to clasp with them the reality which flows.35placeholder

Explanation: There is not much more given here not already talked about previously. Bergson is alluding to Kant. In his critique of speculative metaphysics, he relegates the possibility of knowledge to representations (lawful and objective as they may be) and away from things-in-themselves. These representations are structured, with rigid boundaries, by the categories of the understanding.  Bergson thinks we must go beyond these categories as they do not even give actual knowledge, just an instrumental, evolved, schematic for action. He wants to reopen the possibility of doing speculative metaphysics, the possibility for knowledge beyond the bounds of sense, beyond the habitual direction of thought.

· · ·

VI: “To philosophise…is to invert the habitual direction of thought.”

Explanation: As noted earlier, he believes that the mind ‘overflows’ the intellect and that the nature and categories of its understanding of the world are something that evolves and changes with time. Kant gives us a static derivation of a mind, independent of its historical and biological environment. By hypothesis, Bergson argues that its true nature is that it has evolved alongside and is the same kind of thing as its environment. Representations are not relative to the mind like in Kant, the mind and its categories are relative to the development of the world. Through this reciprocal relationship, the human being has developed the intellect, the ability to carve up extensity and to enable abstract thought. The categories are merely habitual, contingent, evolutionary directions of thought.

To go beyond these categories is the ‘overflow’ the mind has over the intellect. Bergson thinks that in order to do this, the mind must “reverse the direction of the operation by which it habitually thinks, has perpetually to revise, or rather to recast all its categories.” In other words, to conceive of reality without the metaphysically illusory tools the intellect brings to bear on it every day, without the spatialisation and quantification. It is to conceive of reality as it must be in-itself to make experience possible, stripped bare of the anthropocentric categories perpetually imposed upon it. Following this method, we are left with a reality given by the arguments outlined earlier: a heterogeneous qualitatively complex but ultimately unified reality that is movement. In this reversal, our mind can “place itself within mobile reality, and adopt its ceaselessly changing direction; in short, can grasp by means of that intellectual sympathy which we call intuition.”36placeholder

Thus we have this ‘method’ of ‘intuition’ that Bergson gives to us. You might be thinking: isn’t this something mystical? Isn’t this something metaphysically suspect? Is it an argument for revelation? Bergson’s definition of it is given in this text as: “By intuition is meant the kind of intellectual sympathy by which one places oneself within an object in order to coincide with what is unique in it and consequently inexpressible.” My reading is that Bergson chose an incredibly unfortunate name for something quite innocuous and whatever he means by it is nothing stranger than anything already said above.37placeholder

I suspect that it was somewhat more scandalous to breach the Kantian partition of knowledge at the time and it had to be given a fancy name.38placeholder I think Bergson simply means by intuition “knowledge beyond the categories of the understanding, beyond the intellect” which may be somewhat uncontroversial now for most philosophers – that we can have a picture of the world as it really is, that is mind-independent. Of course, people may depart once they figure out the instrument of this knowledge for Bergson, experience, or introspection instead of science or other abstract systems he thinks fail. He denies the Kantian supposition that “our intellect is incapable of anything but Platonizing – that is, of pouring all possible experience into pre-existing moulds.”39placeholder

The best way to conceive of what he means by intuition is just introspection on the nature of experience and perception. While we cannot wholly escape the form the mind imposes on reality, we can imaginatively infer from the contents and possibility of our own experience what the world is really like by subtracting the effects of the intellect seizing reality. Far from being spooky, intuition yields just the sorts of arguments made in sections 1-3 of the present essay. These mystical feats include such incredulous hypotheses as:

(1) Whatever perception and being a subject consists of, it is continuous with the external world.

(2)  The intimate introspective knowledge we have of the nature of the mind as changing and continuous is thus the nature of all of reality.

(3)  Movement is real, and not a cinematic illusion.

(4)  No state of reality repeats itself, every advance into the future is novel because the present state is always affected by every past state.

All these conclusions Bergson thinks we can get directly from introspecting away from practical perception and towards a view to the world that sees the boundaries drawn as the illusions they are. The data intuition yields are always reducible to or follow from the reality of duration – of qualitative change, such as the fluid, embodied, reciprocal, and continuous nature of the perceiver with the rest of reality.40placeholder This new form of philosophy, of intuition, of reversing habitual modes of thought will “attain to fluid concepts capable of following reality in all its sinuosities and of adopting the very movement of the inward life of things.”41placeholder

At the end of the day inner experience, intuition, will always give something that symbolic representation and practically minded perception never will: that it is a part of things, not mere representation. This is the essence of intuition. To see this just think: there is a difference between taking a photo (like the intellect or philosophers’ representations) of the Basilica of la Sagrada Família, even from every possible mathematical angle and aggregating them, and just walking through the thing (intuition). To experience the reality of duration is to intuit.

Paul Cézanne - Rochers à Bibemus (1839)

5: A New, Fluid Philosophy

Bergson does not spell out much of what he means by this stuff in the following two (and even the previous two) parts. They only span three and two pages of the text, respectively. So, a lot of the following sections are things I have been thinking about in terms of Bergson’s metaphysics: how they have attuned me to the world in radically different and more processual ways.

The new fluid concepts he is talking about concern, most of all, a different way of approaching problems in philosophy and knowledge more generally. This approach includes thinking about complexity, the fundamentally interconnected nature of phenomena; indexicality, the radically novel nature of reality; and finally, conventionality, how explanations and proposed states or cleavages of reality are conventionally and habitually affixed, all the way down. We have the freedom to conceive of the world in a multitude of appropriate ways and its complexity and indexicality demand of us that we answer to its changing reality and not over-fit our explanations. While this is all kind of vague, a real edifying (and I think proper) frame of mind can be gained from his project that I have begun to embody.

Even though it is a metaphysical view, often seen to be of superfluous interest, many possible methodological lessons fall out of it. It also calls for us to take conceptual control of our own reality, to choose languages and concepts that are useful. This is because his metaphysics of qualitative duration entail a kind of scepticism of grand narrative, ideology, and the irrational as explanations, favouring the concrete empirical explanations that can be verified – that can be shown to fit to the world in the right way. Thus, a lot of this section is me going out on a limb a little.

 · · ·

VII: “Modern Mathematics is precisely an effort to…adopt the mobile continuity of the outlines of things. [But] it is confined to the outline, being only the science of magnitudes. Though mathematics is…applicable only to quantities it must not be forgotten that quantity is always quality in a nascent state…It is natural, then, that metaphysics should adopt the generative idea of our mathematics in order to extend it to all qualities, that is, to reality in general…The object of metaphysics is to perform qualitative differentiations and integrations.”42placeholder

Explanation: Bergson thinks that the infinitesimal calculus, “the most powerful of the methods of investigation at the disposal of the human mind,” resulted from this inversion of thought, of intuition. It attempts to grasp the perpetual motion of reality purely from analysis, the translation into symbols. Indeed, “modern mathematics is precisely an effort to substitute the being made  for the ready made…to adopt the mobile continuity of the outlines of things.”43placeholder However, as close as it gets, ultimately calculus is only applicable to quantities and thus abstractions from qualitative reality. It derives its form from concrete reality but can never reconstruct it. It is symbolic representation concerned with practical application. Metaphysics and intuition are the inversion of practising intellect.

That being said, Bergson (in quite a puzzling fashion) thinks that the process of derivation in calculus means that “quantity is always quality in a nascent state…the limiting case of quality.” He goes on: “it is natural, then, that metaphysics should adopt the generative ideas of our mathematics in order to extend it to all qualities; that is, to reality in general.” This cannot be done by moving towards ‘universal mathematics’ but by “getting into contact with the continuity and mobility of the real, just where this contact can be most marvellously utilised.” He concludes this section with: “The object of metaphysics is to perform qualitative differentiations and integrations.” While seeming rather opaque, a little ridiculous, and perhaps rather contradictory to things already said (how are we supposed to do metaphysics without symbols? The language I am using right now?) – I will hazard an interpretation. The generative idea of calculus is in attempting to capture the transitions and not the possible stops; it is this we must do in metaphysics.

The way Bergson sees his contemporary metaphysics is like mathematics without differentials and integrations. It assumes that reality is a linear function. The gradient, trajectory, and therefore structure of reality is lawful, constant, and unchanging. As we have learned earlier, nothing could be further from the truth. Adopting his vision of metaphysics would mean conceiving of reality as something more like an exponential or sine function44placeholder – I think of his words earlier that “all reality…is…an incipient change of direction.”45placeholder

Ultimately, he wants us to change our concepts and rethink our engagement with the world to be more commensurate with its fluid reality. While reality cannot be captured in symbols, our symbolic engagement with the world can take a form more ‘intuitive’, more able to get “into contact with the mobility of the real, just where this contact can be most marvellously utilised.” To take the metaphor further, we can liken the intellect to differentiation (the move away from reality in a picture or tangent) and intuition to integration (the move back into changing reality) and use this metaphor to think about the methodology of practical knowledge and how his metaphysics can improve it.46placeholder

The intellect is the organ of differentiation. It takes reality at its constant rate of change and seizes a static image of some part of it. It constantly expresses derivatives (states and objects) of the function (reality) and mistakes their trajectory for reality. Their actual nature is that they express reality only tangentially and at one point in being’s history – relative to someplace at one imagined stop in the universes’ unfolding. This is also what science does; it isolates certain variables of reality to test their uniformity and thus predict their future repetition based on those tangential trajectories. We can think about this in the context of different domains of knowledge.

In the most concrete of science, physics, the tangents derived have come at such uniformity and average simultaneity that their equations are inferred to be laws of reality as if it were just a linear function. This domain has what I would call a strong ‘fit-to-world.’ What I mean by this is that the average gradient of the differentiated phenomena closely follows the real trajectory of reality. The story told has strong explanatory and predictive power. For all practical purposes, they are laws and reality can be represented by scientific symbolism. However, when these equations are mistaken for reality itself, the same paradoxes of movement arise. Thus, to even get off the ground in the first place, to start investigating reality in this way, we must begin with the intuition of movement (even if we cannot reconstruct it).

This conception of differentiation of reality also has methodological consequences or explanatory power in the softer sciences, such as economics, psychology, and political science, for example. The phenomena or function that these fields purport to differentiate from reality have a much greater rate of change, and thus social scientific explanations (on average) will have a much weaker ‘fit-to-world’ relation. That is, in isolating an effect at some point of reality, its predictive efficacy is weaker because the gradient of the derivatives (of changing reality) at that point predicts a relatively different direction from some future point of retesting. Thus, the predictions of reality in these domains cluster less around some uniform direction, but sporadically and in a sometimes contradictory fashion. The average gradient of the differentiated phenomena strays from the real trajectory of reality.

This could mean that some domains are not as amicable to quantitative methods that take some static abstraction that fails to track social reality’s continually changing direction. It may benefit from integrating qualitative methods that attempt to pin down the twists and contours of the more complex social reality. On the other hand, these domains are not a different kind of thing than the harder sciences; all domains attempt to seize reality’s essential mobility, and all of them will never acquire it. However, they can get closer to it through the development of more fluid and intuitive concepts. Bergson thinks the very questions science asks and attempts to solve begin from an intuition, however many hundreds of years after it uses only analysis, it always starts from a moment of integration. And if we want to get reality itself back, we have to do the same in metaphysics.

The inversion of thought Bergson talks about, intuition, is the method of integration. We can think of integration as transforming derivatives back into the function, reality. Since integration is the inversion of derivation, which we have associated with the intellect, and intuition is the inverse of the intellect, to integrate is to intuit.47placeholder Thus, when Bergson talks about integration in metaphysics, he means taking the derivatives produced by the intellect and transforming them back into reality; restoring and inserting ourselves into the world’s qualitative mobility away from the jagged, discrete, givens of everyday practicality. These givens pretend, through habit, to point along the path of reality but relate only tangentially to it. He wants us to transform our concepts of the world, so they approximate its changing reality much closer, so that we do not merely capture its tangents, but the area following the function. What this might look like is not discussed by Bergson, but what I have taken away from it will be sketched out in the next part.

· · ·

VIII: “Science and metaphysics therefore come together in intuition. A truly intuitive philosophy would realise the much-desired union of science and metaphysics. While it would make of metaphysics a positive science – that is, a progressive and indefinitely perfectible one – it would at the same time lead the positive sciences, properly so called to become conscious of their true scope, often far greater than they imagine. It would put more science into metaphysics, and more metaphysics into science.”48placeholder

Explanation: In this part, Bergson raises basically the same concerns as the last. So, I will say a little more about this new methodology. More precisely, about what it would mean both to put more science into metaphysics and more metaphysics into science.

To put more science into metaphysics is to take seriously the idea that the genesis of scientific ideas and entities, while not things that capture reality itself, consist in intuition initially and thus approximate it. The way I understand this point is that Bergson, even though he could be considered a scientific anti-realist in some sense, wants to laud naturalism as a metaphysical theory. It is the form of speculative metaphysics that most closely adheres to the nature of reality because it began from an intuition of the real and has continually attempted to capture it. In Matter and Memory, he even reflects on the postulates of the science of his time becoming ever more diffuse and spread out through the universe – into either movement, force, gravitation, or some other ubiquitous interpenetrating reality resembling his metaphysical view.

Indeed, he might even think a weak form of the thesis that natural science will continue to asymptotically approach the true continuous nature of reality, continually shedding the discontinuous elements, favouring more and more unified continuous explanations, until they get to his. He writes, “the nearer we draw to the ultimate elements of matter the better we note the vanishing of that discontinuity which our senses perceived on the surface. Psychological analysis has already revealed to us that this discontinuity is relative to our needs: every philosophy of nature ends by finding it incompatible with the general properties of matter.”49placeholder In this sense, to put more science into metaphysics is to take it seriously as a metaphysical theory, because its questions are spurred on by the same intuition of movement puzzled over by metaphysicians.

To put more metaphysics into science is perhaps the more pressing issue and consequence of Bergson’s views. What I think we can get from Bergson’s metaphysics is not just insights for science necessarily but all kinds of human knowledge. What I think falls out of his system is three insights: complexity, indexicality, and conventionality. None of these insights are exactly original. More than anything, they are methodological lessons that one internalises when they come to think and conceive of reality in Bergsonian terms. It is a way of thought that privileges the fluid over the static. It is a way of attuning oneself to human knowledge in a different way. These insights are given by reflecting on our intuition of duration.

The first is complexity. We get complexity out of Bergson because of the nature of the intellect and the kind of knowledge it produces. If all we can glean from the nature of reality is in the form of things carved out from it, static derivatives of a changing function, then we must come to terms with the fact that everything is much more dynamic than we could ever know, reproduce in symbols, or talk about. Bergson writes:

“Our thought, in its purely logical form, is incapable of presenting the true nature of life, the full meaning of the evolutionary movement. Created by life, in definite circumstances, to act on definite things, how can it embrace life, of which it is only an emanation or an aspect? Deposited by the evolutionary movement in the course of its way, how can it be applied to the evolutionary movement itself?…In vain we force the living into this or that one of our moulds. All the moulds crack. They are too narrow, above all too rigid, for what we try to put into them. Our reasoning, so sure of itself among things inert, feels ill at ease on this new ground.”50placeholder

This complexity ought to give us some epistemic humility in giving narratives or explanations of phenomena. It ought to make us look to solutions that have worked in the past (derivatives with a slope that are proven to reliably approximate the direction of reality) or turn to those who have intimate local expertise with the thing in question (where smaller scope means a division of epistemological labour that is more likely to produce fitting derivatives to specific questions). It calls for a downscaling of our epistemological aspirations and more small-scale experimentation and repeated testing to see what works.

The conclusions one might want to draw morally may be some sort of pragmatic contextualism. Every morally charged happening is an incredibly complex and fluid process – one where blame and praise may have to be appropriately held in reserve until things are brought to light. Institutions like common law and due process are laudably Bergsonian in this sense. In politics, it might suggest a move away from ideology whose sweeping generalisations are likely to have a weak fit-to-world relationship and are vague enough not to be adequately answerable to reality. Instead, we ought to move towards asking hard empirical questions that answer directly to the state of reality. For example, it suggests a move from macroeconomics to microeconomics. It might suggest a return to localism where problems are best solved by those who suffer them. Thus, it might suggest decentralisation.

The second insight is indexicality, or more specifically, what one might call ontological indexicality. Bergson shows us that every state of reality is necessarily different from the last. This is because reality is always changing, and that duration has an entirely novel past exerting itself on the present. This means that all derivatives taken from reality by the intellect, science, or language are always necessarily capturing a moment that will only ever happen once in the universe’s history. All perceptions, utterances, scientific tests, reading this sentence, walking to work, a ball falling to the ground around nine-point-eight metres per second squared, all these things – everything – is metaphysically one of a kind. (Yes, even supposed instantiations of scientific laws of nature.) They will never occur in the exact circumstance in which they occurred previously. There is only similarity.

Any proposed law is merely a prediction of repetition; there is no logical contradiction in their contrary being true. Thus, there is no contradiction in the sun never setting today, in demand increasing after prices going up, or finally in Murphy’s law not leading us to ruin. The difference between each of these examples of laws is that each derivation can be measured along a continuum of its average fit-to-world – how closely it overlaps with reality. Scientific laws follow reality closely and are as precise as the integration of some function is at finding the area below a curve with rectangles. The others are limited to specific domains and contexts and ought to be subject to rigorous empirical confirmation informing us where to apply them. What ontological indexicality tells us is that everything is an anomaly, and if we want to make inferences from anything, we better be careful.51placeholder

Its normative force is closely entwined with the force of complexity: epistemological humility. But most of all, this is true for messy, high-rate-of-change domains. It might result in restricting the scope, application, and validity of messy social scientific, economic, sociological, linguistic, and even first-person testimonial claims to some small or deflated indexical context. It means demanding some intersubjective and empirically verifiable criteria of confirmation for quantitative claims and demanding that those who are making them show their working. Once again for example, the move from macro- to microeconomics. Alternatively, in some domains, it might mean attempting to follow the contours of reality in some duration with qualitative research such as through ethnography and long-form journalism, that can be applied to other, similar durations of reality.

The final insight in conventionality. The objects that the intellect picks out are not entirely determined by genetic code or our evolved capacities to navigate the world individually (though it is the substrate of such image selection); the way we carve up the world is partially a socio-linguistic matter. The kinds of things paid attention to agglomerate over time according to cultural practices and needs, and these kinds are reified into existent things. However, these things never carve nature at its joints (if you will remember, it does not have joints). Thus, the concepts, things, and real patterns we reify are entirely conventional. This communal reification process implicitly endorses what kind of reality it accepts, but the fundamental reality is kind-less, it is constantly changing. Following this, we may have an obligation to reify the right kinds according to some criteria of approximate truth, fit-to-world, and to bring about justice by reforming oppressive conventions.

Our practices can be harmful in endorsing immutable categories as the only live options, presenting an illusion of necessity. Bergson’s framework tells us that we have total freedom to attempt to describe the world in new and better ways – ways that shed oppressive distinctions and replace them for concepts better fitted to the world.

This is not to say we can describe the world in any way whatsoever. It does not make concept creation a frictionless spinning in the void; it does precisely the opposite. It retains the metaphysical demand that claims are directly amenable to changing reality and fit appropriately to the world. This means that some divisions capture reality well. However, the world is a complicated process, not a set of clear divisions. A Bergsonian frame of mind can help break down harmful and poorly fitted social conventions, which is what social constructionism debates are attempting to do. It can also help create new concepts or images under which to act. This is not only a benefit politically, but individually for our sense of self too. Internalising Bergson’s doctrine is to see every one of our own choices as utterly free. We are a burgeoning creative font, utterly unique, and able to forge new metaphysical reality with each of our choices.52placeholder We are to look at constructions as appropriate to describing some quality of the world, not as denoting some ‘obvious’ discernible division. Thus, the motto we adopt is: all models are (metaphysically) false, some are useful.


6: Inverting Philosophy

XI: “The whole of philosophy which begins with Plato and culminates in Plotinus is the development of a principle which may be formulated this: “There is more in the immutable than in the moving, and we pass from the stable to the unstable by a mere diminution.” Now it is the contrary which is true.”53placeholder

Explanation: Bergson finishes the last part of the essay by reflecting a little on the history of philosophy and his relation to it. He pictures himself as a direct inversion of Platonism, as exemplified primarily by the eternal forms of Plotinus and the immutable categories of Kant. In his doctrine, we have seen the opposite is true.

He reflects on what he has called the relativity of both metaphysics and science: the use of symbols and the move away from becoming towards the static. In philosophy, this mistake finds its inevitable culmination in Kant’s metaphysical symbolism, whom he thinks gives a revived Platonism, where all (knowable) reality falls out of specific immutable moulds. Simultaneously, the scientific symbolism of physics has stripped quality from reality and made all properties relative. In both cases, we have forgotten where we have begun: “the simple act which started the analysis, and which conceals itself behind the analysis, proceeds from a faculty quite different from the analytical. This is, by its very definition, intuition.”54placeholder

I leave you with some a Bergsonian aspiration for philosophy, summing up this text:

“[T]he lead-line sunk to the sea bottom brings up a fluid mass which the sun’s heat quickly dries into solid and discontinuous grains of sand. And the intuition of duration when it is exposed to the rays of the understanding, in like manner quickly turns into fixed, distinct, and immobile concepts. In the living mobility of things the understanding is bent on marking real or virtual stations, it notes departures and arrivals; for this is all that concerns the thought of man in so far as it is simply human. It is more than human to grasp what is happening in the interval. But philosophy can only be an effort to transcend the human condition.”55placeholder

Rowan Anderson is an honours student of philosophy studying at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. Most of the thinkers and ideas he is interested in he pursues outside of formal education for its own sake. You can find his informal writings on philosophy and film at his blog

Works Cited

Bergson, Henri. An Introduction to Metaphysics. Translated by T. E Hulme. New York: G.P Putnam’s Sons, 1907.

Bergson, Henri. Time and Free Will. Translated by F.L. Pogson. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1910.

Bergson, Henri. Matter and Memory. Translated by Nancy Margaret Paul and W. Scott Palmer. New York: Dover Publications, 1912.

Bergson, Henri. Creative Evolution. Translated by Arthur Mitchell. New York: Henry Holt Company, 1911.

Bergson, Henri. The Creative Mind. Translated by Mabelle L. Andison. New York: Dover Publications, 1946.

Borges, Jorge Luis. “On Exactitude in Science.” In Collected Ficciones 704-705. The Penguin Press, 1999.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. New York: Harper and Rowe, 1962.

Nietzsche. Beyond good & Evil. Translated by R. J. Hollingdale. London: Penguin Books, 1973.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness. Translated by Hazel E. Barnes. London: Methuen and Co Ltd, 1969.

Schopenhauer, Arthur. The World is Will and Representation. Translated by E.F.J. Payne. New York: Dover Publications, 1957.

Unger, Peter. “The Problem of the Many.” Midwest Studies in Philosophy 5, no. 1 (1980): 411-468.

Whitehead, Alfred North. Process and Reality. Edited by David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburn. New York: The Free Press, 1978.


The most notable thing missing from this work that is crucial in his other work is memory, he mentions it six times but only in passing and never in the concluding sections I will be overseeing. In other works, memory is crucial to his philosophy and is identified with either consciousness or the soul. Memory for Bergson is that which prolongs the past into the present, that is, the mechanism that makes sense of and gives meaning to the present for a person.  It almost seems here, in this work, the concept of memory can be exchanged with the past. Since he comes off as a monist here, more than anywhere else, it seems memory just is the (causal) influence the past has on the present in producing novel reality. Thus, one should read my conclusions as the Bergson in this text, not necessarily in others.


Bergson, An Introduction to Metaphysics, 65.


Bergson, Matter and Memory, 73.


It is worth pointing out that Bergson sometimes refers to Kant just as a (critical) realist (see Matter and Memory page 307 and Creative Evolution page 357), presumably in the sense that he seeks to ground the natural sciences on an objective and lawful foundation and is a (empirical) realist about those inquiries. Also, because he agrees with Kant’s doctrine of space being an ideal category imposing form on matter not being a fundamental feature of reality, but rather an abstract effort of mind and he wants to keep the title of realist for himself too. Of course, he will end up being a realist with regards to duration and extensity anyway, as will be seen.


Bergson, Matter and Memory, 17.


Bergson, An Introduction to Metaphysics, 65.


Bergson, Creative Evolution, 206.


This point is similar to a point Heidegger makes in Being and Time (page 249) where he chastises Kant (and others) for even entertaining and attempting to ‘refute’ external world scepticism.


Nietzsche, Beyond good & Evil, 45. (Aphorism 15).


I have some sympathies with idealism and Kant would not be worried about how counterintuitive it is. He is making a claim that if science is true, what kind of knowledge is it possible to have is limited by the structure of our cognition. Here, we are going into the realm of pure reason, thus from his point of view, it is we who are in the wrong.


Bergson, Matter and Memory, 20.


Bergson, Matter and Memory, 306.


Bergson, Matter and Memory, 306.


Bergson, Matter and Memory, 238-239.


Bergson, Matter and Memory, 278.


I have dealt with the unreality of objective divisions such as objects and states in the universe in terms of vagueness elsewhere from a Bergsonian perspective. See also: Peter Unger’s “The Problem of the Many.”


Bergson, An Introduction to Metaphysics, 65; emphasis in original.


I use the word ‘One’ but I think, strictly speaking, Bergson might say that reality (as it is in-itself) is not the kind of thing you can count. It is qualitative not quantitative. But if it is undivided and constitutes all of reality, then it is effectively one. Deleuze’s ‘univocity of being’ would be suitably appropriate.


Any use of ‘part’ from Bergson or I in referring to the world are just linguistic conveniences, and they do not mean imply that there are proper parts of reality. ‘Aspect’ is used interchangeably with it throughout to avoid this ambiguity.


Bergson, Matter and Memory, 255.


Attributed to Goodman by Carlo Rovelli in The Order of Time, 2017.


Bergson, An Introduction to Metaphysics, 65.


Bergson makes the point that it is logical proposition not an empirical observation that “two bodies cannot occupy the same place at the same time.”  It follows from the definition of matter not initially from the nature of reality. Because “if impenetrability were really a quality of matter which was known by the senses, it is not at all clear why we should experience more difficulty in conceiving two bodies merging into another than a surface devoid of resistance or a weightless fluid.” (Bergson, Time and Free Will, 88).


Bergson, An Introduction to Metaphysics, 66.


Bergson, An Introduction to Metaphysics, 67.


There is a mathematical solution that uses basic calculus to show that it is possible to complete an infinite number of tasks a finite time, but this solution still denies that there can be real motion as we would like to think of it (the task themselves are motionless). It will end up being an iteration of what Bergson calls the ‘cinematographical method.’ Whether or not the mathematical solution is conceptually airtight or not, it does not escape Zeno’s conclusion, that motion is an illusion. It just shows that appearances may not be entirely deceiving depending on how you define motion. This can be seen once I discuss the arrow, which is the more important for our purposes.


Bergson, Matter and Memory, 251.


These are like Locke’s ‘nominal essences.’


Jorge Luis Borges, “On Exactitude in Science.”


Bergson, Creative Evolution, 313.


Bergson, An Introduction to Metaphysics, 68; emphasis in original.


Even Whitehead, the father of process philosophy, the philosophy of becoming, could not attribute motion to his actual occasions – “an actual entity never moves: it is where it is and what it is” (Process and Reality, 73) – for this same very reason. He knew that if he were to endorse any kind of pluralism, motion becomes impossible because there is an ontological gulf created between each thing. This is also why Leibniz had to postulate pre-established harmony to explain movement in his metaphysics which, genuine sympathies aside, always seemed a little hand wavy. Bergson (after the ancients and scholastics) is the only philosopher to truly treat the Eleatic challenge as a reductio ad absurdum.


Bergson would take exception to being compared to Heraclitus. He writes in a footnote in The Creative Mind, added to this essay after the fact: “Let me insist I am thereby in no way setting aside substance. On the contrary, I affirm the presence of existences. And I believe I have facilitated their representation. How was it ever possible to compare this doctrine with the doctrine of Heraclites?” (Page 222). I think his work on memory is the thing that makes this comparison somewhat untenable, not the affirmation of change as the only substance. In fact, to my mind, this seems like a comparison he ought to embrace. Especially in this text, he seems to be saying exactly what Heraclitus (or perhaps a caricature of Heraclitus) is saying – that reality is at once substantial and changing. Extensity is the unity, or fire, and its duration is the flux. I think he objects more to the spirit of Heraclitus with whom you get chaos and disorder – a universe which is a dust-heap piled up at random. Whereas in Bergson you get stability, novel evolution which respects the past, and an ultimate confidence in the reality of most common-sense things. Even if they are irreducible to static concepts, they are still couched in the substratum of change. Thus, if we do liken them, it is important to emphasise this difference in their system.


Bergson, Matter and Memory, 281-282. This does not reduce science that deals in time and space to pure instrumentalism but instead something that still approximates reality. It is a complex blueprint for action and measurement superimposed over reality in order for us to efficiently investigate its parts.


Bergson, An Introduction to Metaphysics, 68-69; emphasis in original.


Bergson, An Introduction to Metaphysics, 69; emphasis in original.


In a footnote later added to this text in The Creative Mind, Bergson writes “I hesitated a long time before using the term “intuition”; and when I finally decided to do so I designated by this word the metaphysical function of thought: principally the intimate knowledge of the mind by the mind secondarily the knowledge by the mind of what there is essential in matter” (page 222-223). This is in effect the method employed in sections 1 and 2. The current section is just the immediate recognition of this.


Indeed, here too we see in a footnote later added in The Creative Mind – “It must not be forgotten…that the present essay was written at a time when the criticism of Kant and the dogmatism of his successors were fairly generally accepted, if not as a conclusion, at least as a point of departure for philosophical speculation” (page 222) – which lends evidence to my interpretation here.


Bergson, An Introduction to Metaphysics, 85.


The closest thing in form to Bergson’s intuition is Schopenhauer’s account of ‘Will’ in Book II of The World is Will and Representation. The reason I make this comparison is firstly that both thinkers are attempting to overcome the metaphysical quietism in Kantian idealism. Secondly, both thinkers attempt to do this through an appeal to experience and the nature of introspection. The idea inherited from Kant that we cannot know the things-in-themselves even though we ourselves are a thing-in-itself which we cannot have any knowledge of seems silly. The difference between them is that Bergson overcomes Kantian idealism and immanentizes consciousness into one organic reality relative to biology and history that genuinely sees the world, albeit from a certain perspective. Whereas Schopenhauer, while he gets frustratingly close to saying we have knowledge about the world as it actually is in representations, dogmatically retains Kant’s static transcendental idealism with regards to phenomena and postulates the converse side of reality: will.


Bergson, An Introduction to Metaphysics, 69.


Bergson, An Introduction to Metaphysics, 70-72.


Bergson, An Introduction to Metaphysics, 70.


This is only metaphorical. Reality is no doubt a much stranger movement. Plus, by conceiving of it as a line we are already spatialising it and thus making it seem decomposable when it is one undivided continuity.


Bergson, An Introduction to Metaphysics, 65.


I am almost definitely butchering The Math and I apologise in advance to those readers who have any idea what they are talking about when it comes to this stuff. Integration is not exactly the inverse of derivation, but it works for the metaphor (and it is just that) and works for what I am trying to get at.


Bergson writes right at the end of the text: “[intuition] might be defined as integral experience” (An Introduction to Metaphysics, 92) in the double sense that it is a mathematical integration back with reality, but also that it is the experience necessary for getting the whole, absolute reality.


Bergson, An Introduction to Metaphysics, 74.


Bergson, Matter and Memory, 266.


Bergson, Creative Evolution, x.


This is of course closely allied with a point made by David Hume in his criticism of causation and the validity of induction – impressions are never the same just similar, epistemological indexicality. Hume ends up grounding causal inferences in habit. We can justify our practices insofar as we can reasonably predict their repetition and similarity based on previous experience. The Bergsonian solution seems to me to be the same, yet it is justified metaphysically. Hume thought we just perceived similar ideas in the mind and came to think there were such things as necessary connection between objects and thus causal inferences are made merely from habituated association, thus he could only justify inferences pragmatically. A Bergsonian just says that we see the world as it is, and insofar as we see things happen repeatedly and similarly, as they are really happening, we can metaphysically justify the inference that they will happen again as far as similar phenomena repeats.


I have in mind Sartre here when talking about this. I think in Bergson we get almost the same kind of freedom. The difference is that in Bergson, the freedom comes from the insight that our being is a process which no proposed kind can capture. This is remarkably like Sartre’s talk of ‘bad faith’ (Being and Nothingness, part one, chapter two) but Bergson and I will never chastise you for stepping or aspiring into certain role! As long as you know that: we are all completely and utterly metaphysically unique and able to choose our own reality. This is the only kind of freedom we ought to want and need. Talk of determinism is just the invalid move of spatialising the movement inherent in us, that we self-evidently guide with our choices.


Bergson, An Introduction to Metaphysics, 75.


Bergson, An Introduction to Metaphysics, 89.


Bergson, An Introduction to Metaphysics, 76.


April 2021


Gabriel Marcel’s 'Being and Having': An Interpretation of Embodiment and Being

by Jacob Saliba

Emotional Phenomenology: Franz Brentano and Feeling Theory

by Daniel Rhodes

Inverting Philosophy: A Commentary on Henri Bergson’s ‘An Introduction to Metaphysics’

by Rowan Anderson

Pre-Individual Intensities: Revisiting Hume's Identity Problem

by John C. Brady