Issue #51 April 2022

Recollection & Life: Bergson’s Metaphysics of Memory

Vasily Kandinsky - "Kleine Welten IV" - (1922)

“Putting forth its energy in act after act, in a constant progress of novelty, the Soul produces succession as well as act; taking up new purposes added to the old it brings thus into being what had not existed in that former period…Time, then, is contained in the differentiation of Life; the ceaseless forward movement of Life brings with it unending Time; and Life as it achieves its stages constitutes past Time.”

– Plotinus, Enneads 3.7.11.

In the last issue, we concluded our close reading of chapters two and three of Bergson’s Matter and Memory. There we came to have a solid grasp on his theory of memory, its relation to the material and virtual world, and its constitutive operations. However, here I would like to take a more synoptic look at the theory and use it to solve a number of outstanding philosophical problems and sketch Bergson’s complete metaphysics of memory. As it turns out, memory is absolutely central to answering almost all of the big questions in philosophy. I discuss the mind-body problem, personal identity, intersubjectivity, free will, cosmology, and finally the opposition between monism and dualism. I will be drawing primarily on Bergson’s comments in the final chapter and conclusion of Matter and Memory, alongside some made in other works. While this essay stands alone relatively well, I do refer to the previous issue a few times which is where one will find the details that fill in the missing steps of the explanation here. Thus, I do recommend reading it first, though it is not necessary.


Memory as a Solution to the Mind-Body Problem

Throughout Matter and Memory, Bergson constantly reminds us that he is a dualist: “we make a profound distinction between matter and spirit.”1placeholder He resolutely affirms the existence of the body and the soul. On the other hand, he resolutely rejects substance dualism in favour of what looks like monism, a complete rejection of divisibility within being. How can he have it both ways?

In the final chapter, he tells us outright that what we call the mind is found in memory and what we call the body is found in perception. “It is in very truth within matter that pure perception places us, and it is really into spirit that we penetrate by means of memory.”2placeholder Furthermore, he thinks the introspection that we have been doing so far reveals their union. Before we move on to how this is supposed to work, it will be instructive to discuss where he thinks traditional dualism, realism, and idealism have gone wrong. Dualism sets up as substance, two aspects of our understanding that seem obviously to exist: mind and body. Of the former, for example, we have the “I think”, “ideas”, or “representations” of Descartes. These are unextended and qualitative. Further, they seem epistemologically impossible to deny. Of the latter, we have the extension of Descartes. This substance is quantitative (has geometrical properties) and extended. While not taken by Descartes to be epistemologically guaranteed due to his starting point, many of us have an intuitive presumption towards a minimal realism, namely, that something exists outside of our mind. This is also just as hard to deny.

Dualism does justice to both of these intuitions. However, it also produces two insoluble problems that characterise much of post-cartesian metaphysics. Both are downstream from the fact that dualism unequivocally sunders reality into two separate substances, that are ultimately unable to join one another. First, it cannot explain the seeming relationship between mind and body, except by a primitive but opaque interaction between the two or an act of providence. These were indeed the answers posited by Descartes, those advocating parallelism or occasionalism, and Leibniz, who believed in a pre-established harmony ordained by God between mind and body. Second, it creates an epistemological problem: what relationship do our ideas, that are qualitative, unextended, and in the mind, have to the world, which is quantitative, extended, and seemingly outside the mind. They are irreconcilable due to their being fundamentally different in kind. This concern arguably occupied much of the empiricist, Kantian, and post-Kantian philosophies.

From this dualistic starting point, many interesting systems have been spawned. Painting in the broadest strokes, we can place those that rightly reject this kind of dualism into two camps: realist and idealist.

The realist derives the mind from the body, relegates experience to neural activity (or some other embodied phenomenon), and tries to make the mind just more body. It is worth noting here the surprising affinity Bergson has with this thesis, at least when it comes to perception. He entirely agrees with the realist that perception is a relational process between two bodies, occurring entirely within the material world. “Our perception…is originally in things rather than the mind.”3placeholder There is nothing mysterious about the causal circuit created between the body and its environment, and we saw that in discussing habit memory and the phenomenon of recognition. However, as I noted in the previous essay, this view fails to account for memory, the richness of actual experience, and our essential temporal extension. More specifically, it does not account for the phenomenon of attention, which takes the unextended past, memory, and translates it into memory-images then action. This phenomenon, and memory in general, is necessary even for the most basic of actions. The more extreme versions of this view argue that consciousness as a whole is an illusion and that, contra Descartes, we can doubt that we are doubting. Thus, this view gives up not just the mind but all subjective experience, which is unacceptable.

The idealist derives the body from the mind. Usually, the move is to suppose either that, since all we perceive is ideas, that is all there is epistemic warrant to suppose exists, followed by an explanation of how we come to have realist notions. Alternatively, that the forms of cognition construct the thing that we call extension and that they have no existence independent of that cognition, even if they retain their ordinary geometric and realistic properties. The problem with these views is that the direction of explanation seems to be wrong. It seems strange that everything we experience, the external world, is a product of our mind alone. What about our body, which is part of this external world? Is that a product of the mind too? But surely the body is the instrument by which experience is possible? If not, what substrate constitutes the constituting mind that constructs the world? Surely it is the external world we seem to be in and amongst?4placeholder Further, the idealist must explain why changes in experience are rigidly coextensive with changes in the body. There have been many attempts at making a view like this work, some very impressive. But, irrespective of the particularities, this view gives up a notion of mind-independent reality, a world that extends beyond any particular cognition, which also seems unacceptable. The thing we mean by ‘cognition’ in relation to our experience now is something that seems almost trivially to have evolved independently of that kind of cognition.5placeholder Thus, we need an explanation that accounts for the genesis of that cognition – we need some mind-independent reality.

The details of either camp are not so important here, nor can I do justice to their sophistication in such a short space. The main thing to note is that both sides throw away some seemingly indubitable aspect of existence. Bergson’s diagnosis of this problem is that everyone accepted the terms laid down by Descartes prematurely. They accepted that there is an absolute distinction between, on the one hand, the extended and the unextended, and on the other, quality and quantity. The “two doctrines are agreed in maintaining the discontinuity of the different orders of sensible qualities, and also the abrupt transition from that which is purely extended to that which is not extended at all.” Through his analysis of perception and memory, Bergson thinks that he has “perhaps dissociated [dualism’s] contradictory elements.” And that “the theory of pure perception on the one hand, of pure memory on the other, may thus prepare the way for a reconciliation between the unextended and the extended, between quality and quantity.”6placeholder He thinks his analysis of perception can dissolve the distinction between the extended and the unextended, and he thinks his analysis of memory can dissolve the distinction between quality and quantity.

We can dissolve the distinction between the extended and unextended by first interrogating the notion of extension taken up by Descartes. The problem is as follows. He and his successors reasonably suppose that matter has geometrical properties, namely, that it is infinitely divisible. On the other hand, perception appears to be a kind of undivided unity. We cannot divide perception in the way that we seem to divide matter. Thus, we have “a consciousness with inextensive sensations, placed over against an extended multiplicity”7placeholder and now, no hope of union. If Bergson can show that we are just wrong about the infinite divisibility of matter, he can show that a union can be affected.

As we saw in the previous essay with Bergson’s biological theory of knowledge, how we divide up material reality, space itself, is not a feature inherent in the world but something added by perception with a view to action. Bergson sometimes calls this our ‘attention to life.’ In reality, we saw that to explain the perception of change, we are just one aspect of an indivisible becoming. In the memory cone diagram, this is the plane of action, P. (More than just spawning a contradictory notion of time, as discussed here, in this chapter Bergson also shows how the infinite divisibility of space leads us to all kinds of problems related to Zeno’s paradoxes of motion. I discuss this more in-depth here and here.) If we accept this then “Matter thus resolves itself into numberless vibrations, all linked together in uninterrupted continuity, all bound up with each other, and travelling in every direction like shivers through an immense body.”8placeholder Moreover, since our pure perception (in its ‘movement’ phase) is just a thing among other things and not an unextended representation, the relationship between it and the world is not the ontological impasse between subject and object. It is an immanent occurrence resultant upon the relationship between part (perception) and whole (the rest of the world).

The realist is right to assert the world’s existence independent of perception9placeholder but wrong to think it has geometrical properties. These properties are a result of our attention to life, having only psychological, rather than metaphysical, meaning. This allows us to bridge the gap Descartes conceived of between perception and objects, as both perception and the world are an undivided unity. Perception is in the world in that it is a process continuous with the entire universe. Therefore, perception and objects, contra dualism, share a common element: being in the actual world. The particularity of any one person’s perception (why I see the things around me and not the whole universe) is just a result of being in a specific position10placeholder within the universe and thus seeing it from that perspective, plus our particular attention to life. Bergson calls this common world extensity (sometimes “concrete extensity”) to differentiate it from the abstract divisible space we stretch beneath it for action. It has two characteristic features. First, it is in a constant state of flux (to account for perceptual change), and second, it is an undivided unity (to avoid the fallacy of spatialisation and its associated paradoxes).

Vasily Kandinsky - "Kleine Welten II" - (1922)

A great thing about this account of extensity is that we do not need to pare down the reality of perception to eventually only to refer tactile sensations, as the empiricists did. For example, a classic case for the unreality of colours is the following inference. Since colour is superfluous to the scientific explanation of colour experience in the body, colour is not an objective feature of the world. This is still a popular thought, and it only reinforces the dualistic error Bergson opposes. Once we take this route, there is no reason to stop at colours. We may as well say that all qualitative experience is an illusion because, supposedly, none of our physical theories needs to refer to any experience (other than perhaps touch). But trivially, these experiences exist. And now they have been relegated to a realm mysteriously outside space, time, and the purview of science, entrenching the difficulties. This must be false because the very possibility of scientific investigation in the first place presupposes the experience of its methods. Moreover, for Bergson, if any experience is part of the world, to be consistent, all of it must be.

Thus, extensity must include all of perception. This means that colours, smells, tastes, fears, worries, expectations, and joys are not some occult psychic additions but real aspects of extensive reality as it really is, in itself. “The truth is that space is no more without us than within us, and that it does not belong to a privileged group of sensations. All sensations partake of extensity; all are more or less deeply rooted in it.”11placeholder It is not ‘scientifically necessary’ that we eliminate the qualitative features of experience from reality; it is scientifically necessary that we begin with their existence. The mistake, for Bergson, comes from supposing that the nature of such sensations are of an ontologically different kind from the rest of the world, owing to their supposed lack of extension. The reality is that the transition from object to perception to experience is that of a movement which cannot be sundered, lest it breaks down into fictitious infinitesimal moments. Sensations are of, and continuous with, the plane of action.

Bergson sums up the point nicely:

“if the divisibility of matter is entirely relative to our action thereon, that is to say to our faculty of modifying its aspect, if it belongs not to matter itself but to the space which we throw beneath this matter in order to bring it within our grasp, then the difficulty disappears. Extended…possesses in very truth the indivisibility of our perception; so that, inversely, we may without scruple attribute to perception something of the extensity of matter. These two terms, perception and matter, approach each other in the measure that we divest ourselves of what may be called the prejudices of action: sensation recovers extensity, the concrete extended recovers its natural continuity and indivisibility. And homogeneous space, which stood between the two terms like an insurmountable barrier, is then seen to have no other reality than that of a diagram or a symbol.”12placeholder

This is the body in Bergson’s mind-body schema. Namely, pure perception, the knifes edge of material becoming, extensity, which our body inhabits. Onto the soul.

We can dissolve the distinction between the qualitative and the quantitative through Bergson’s notion of memory and his account of temporality. The problem between these terms is as follows. On the one hand, we have heterogeneous qualitative features of experience, such as colour. On the other hand, we have the homogenous and quantitative features of reality posited by science, such as atoms, particles, and fields. The impasse seems ineliminable. However, we find in our overcoming of space through concrete extensity the germ of an idea.

A purely extensive perception is a theoretical limit that exists but is never experienced as such. As I explained in the previous essay, ordinary experience takes part in a duration that extends into the past. For the actual now of action to be a sensation for consciousness, some time must elapse. Thus, by the time we experience some action, we are already inhabiting the past, so to speak. This inhabiting of the past is just memory: the prolongation of the past into the present. And whether it be pulled from the depths of our distant past or retained from the immediately preceding moment, it is still memory. Memory intervenes, and it is this and only this, where consciousness and subjectivity begins. Try to conceive what it would be like to have bodily experience with no preservation of the past in memory whatsoever. You could not even get up to turn on the light, your initial purpose would be forgotten before even getting halfway there. Not only would you be utterly dysfunctional because no real action can be taken that does not require some temporal extension in this way, but you would also have no coherent stream of experience. It would be a perishing without succession. But this is precisely not what we experience, we endure in consciousness, and each phase succeeds the next. Memory must prolong the past into the present. Therefore, what we call the qualitative is the preservation of something purely extensive, perception, into unextended consciousness, into memory images.

The mistake of dualism so far has been to take these processes, perception (the body) on the one hand and memory (the mind) on the other, to subsist in an absolute difference between the quantitative and the qualitative. What our study of attentive perception has shown is that they each admit of degrees. Insofar as some memory is called into perception by the body and is eventually transformed into action, it literally goes from being virtual and unextended to being actual and extended. Insofar as some present action eventually becomes a past sensation and drifts further into the history of becoming due to it having no interest to consciousness, it is translated into a sensation, then an image, and finally into unextended pure memory. It literally goes from being extended and being characteristically “quantitative” in the sense that it is actually out there, to being virtual and being characteristically “qualitative” in the sense that it now supplies the feeling of our subjectivity through our utilisation of memory images, through our prolongation of the past into the present.

Since, as I argued at length in the previous essay, this movement of thought cannot be divided, but must be a movement passing imperceptibly between phases in duration, we can now make perfect sense of the translation between the quantitative and the qualitative. We do this by exchanging a spatial distinction for a temporal one. Descartes and his successors were always stuck thinking of dualism as a static problem where each of the terms must be identified within a single world-state. However, taking the issue to be one of space precludes the possibility of ever uniting what is actually an undivided movement of thought.

The realist never successfully derives the mind from the body because the quantitative and the qualitative cannot be simultaneously located in a single spatial world-state and a mathematical continuum of these world states is all that the realist takes to exist. This is because, at any given moment, extensity (the material world) is pure action, and it is only in some definite duration that quantitative actions can become qualitative sensations, as revealed by our study of memory and perception. The same goes for the idealist. They can never successfully derive the body from the mind because a single qualitative sensation cannot at the same time be located in the material world as an action since it was never granted any existence in time to be translated as such. And since the succession of these sensations is all the idealist takes to exist, the body is never reached. Movements must become sensations over time and sensations must become movements over time. For both schools of thought, their starting point (a single world state or a single sensation) rules out a priori the structure of thought by taking only one phase of it and multiplying it to constitute all of reality. Thus, once we properly analyse our actual experience, and reintroduce duration back into reality, the transition from body to mind is a simple temporal one: it is the transition from the present to the past. Conversely, the transition from the mind to the body is simply the transition from the past to the present in attentive perception. Matter becomes memory and memory becomes matter.

One might wonder whether this just pushes the problem out. Now we have this distinction between matter and memory that extends backwards in time, where “matter is supposed to be in space, spirit to be extra-spatial”, how can there be a transition between them? Is not the movement supposed to be undivided? How do they constitute a difference in kind if they are one? When does one become the other?

A real duration, rather than the mathematical isolation of instants, is perfectly compatible with a diversity of phases, beginning with quantitative extensity and fading into a still existent qualitative virtuality. Once we stop assuming a priori that there can be no translation between matter and memory because we mistakenly think that the world is constructed out of mathematical instants, we can put ourselves back into the concrete and lived temporal reality of attentive perception. Here, a gradual passage between kinds of existences is entirely compatible with an undivided movement. However, I need to say more. I can see two problems that I must elucidate clearly: (1) how is it possible that one kind of existence can become another kind of existence without an ontological leap and (2) if the kinds of existence only differ in degree, why then must we distinguish between matter and memory at all.

On the first. Consider a long strip of paper that is red on one end and blue on the other. Between these points, an infinitely fine and imperceptible gradient of colour changes leads to the other. Each colour interpenetrates the other. We can say in this case that there is only a difference in degree between red and blue, which is captured by the whole strip as a unity. But we can also say that, at the limit, there is a true difference in kind: namely, the colours red and blue. Red is one phase, blue is another. There is no a priori exclusion effected between red and blue; there only would be if we assumed one beforehand. Similarly, in the case of the temporal transition from matter to memory: the passage from quantitative and extensive to qualitative and inextensive is just this. While duration is one undivided movement, it also contains a real diversity in phases, leading to a difference in kind. However, a more accurate picture than the paper strip would be to imagine a red patch of colour fading over time, but in the same place, through each successive shade, into blue. The initial red phase still exists and is the virtual history of the blue phase. We saw that the structure of thought tells us that they are interpenetrating temporal realities, and now we see that the refusal to countenance such a possibility has held back metaphysics since Descartes.

On the second. Even if we accept the account I have given of justifying a difference in kind between phases of duration, it may not appear necessary even to maintain the distinction between matter and memory. For example, I could just say, alongside Heraclitus and (the) Nietzsche (of The Will to Power), that there is being and that all distinctions within it, including mind and body, are illusory. It is in a constant state of becoming, and this becoming explains the seeming emergence of the new. The ontological character of certain phases of this duration is, it could be said, metaphysically superfluous at a fundamental level. Why talk about the colours when we can just talk about the strip by reducing the colours to the structure of the strip? Why even bother with the distinction between matter and memory? Why not just call it extensity, and a day? The problem with this is that it does not account for the dual movement of thought revealed to us in our introspective study of memory.

Vasily Kandinsky - "Kleine Welten VII" - (1922)

There are two reasons we must retain the distinction between matter and memory, mind and body. First, memory accounts for our subjectivity. Without the retention of the past, we would not have a stream of experience at all because we could not represent a virtual platter of possibilities to ourselves in experience through perception and memory-images. Both have it as necessary that the past is prolonged into the present to guide action. Second, the present does not just ceaselessly surge forward like an arrow, leaving behind it a single path. Rather, as we saw, and indeed see in every choice we make, the past is not just an inert record of what has been but is an active movement that grafts itself upon the present, overflowing it and creating realities not deducible purely from the present moment. Attentive perception, our everyday experience utilising memory images, and our essentially temporal nature proves this.

We must retain the distinction between matter and memory because matter is the actual present created, due to be left into the past, while memory is the energy surging forward sustaining the emergence of a new matter. As Bergson notes, “Memory is,…in no degree an emanation of matter; on the contrary, matter, as grasped in concrete perception which always occupies a certain duration, is in great part the work of memory.”13placeholder We would not do justice to what is actually happening by supposing reality to be a simple Heraclitan or Nietzschean movement:

Past ← Present →

Where the rightwards arrow represents becoming, and the leftwards arrow represents the impotence of the past. We must represent it as follows:

Memory ↔ Matter →

The bi-directional arrow represents memory’s surging forward to effect a new present, and matter’s tendency to become the past, to become ineffectual pure memory. The rightwards arrow symbolises the constant emergence of the new in becoming, and the success memory has in continually creating that new actuality. Matter would simply fall back into the past, doomed to a repetition of the same without the creative power of memory.

Thus, I have shown how an ontological difference in kind between matter and memory is both possible and necessary to explain the movement of thought. Now, to sum up the relationship between the soul and the body.

Of this reality, each person’s soul is the history of their body in duration, made up of their entire past existence in pure memory, and their current coincidence with matter through their body. To die is to have no point of communication between memory and extensity because one cannot insert memory-images into actuality to guide its becoming. Since memory is inextensive and qualitative, this explains the subjective character of one’s life because we are not primarily our place in concrete extensity, but our past and possible existence presented to us in attentive perception. Our subjectivity is memory’s past and possible translations into action. Further, while there is a difference in kind between body and soul, there is no problem with their union. The connection between the inextensive and qualitative and the extensive and quantitative is only a temporal distinction between the sensation of an act imagined and planned (if forward-looking) or an act just perceived (if backward-looking) and the act itself.

This can be very hard to conceive of due to our habits of thought that seize and subdivide spatially what are actually temporal movements. However, once thought through, I think Bergson offers a genuinely compelling dissolution of the traditional mind-body problem and in favour of a dualistic ontology that eschews the main problems not only with substance dualism, but with most theories of mind. It took me a long time to understand what he was trying to say, especially on this specific problem and memory in general, but now that I (think I) do understand, I really think there is something here. Now that we have a theory of mind and a more general account of Bergson’s ontology of persons, we go to personal identity.


Memory as Personal Identity (and the Present Prejudice)

Due to our biologically necessary comportment towards the present rather than the past, we come to have an ontological prejudice towards the present. “Our reluctance to admit the integral survival of the past has its origin, then, in the very bent of our psychical life, – an unfolding of states wherein our interest prompts us to look at that which is unrolling, and not at that which is entirely unrolled.” Thus, our metaphysics almost always begins, whether realist or idealist, from the objects furnished to us in present perception. But if Bergson is right, there is a reality of much greater magnitude in tow behind the perishing present, which, it turns out, only makes up a sliver. The body is a mere section of the extended edge of universal becoming, gnawing into the indeterminate future, which in turn is the product of a long-unrolled wealth of accumulated pure memory: the history of duration. This aspect of being, the temporal, is the greater reality. While the present, extensity, is but momentary. This follows from the indivisibility of thought and duration: the pure past is most of it, by definition.

This ought to mean a sort of conceptual upheaval for how we think of ourselves. Ordinarily, we conceive of our bodies as somewhat fully formed autonomous things that ground our individuality in the world. In each moment we are completely present. However, if Bergson is right, what makes you, you, is actually the particular temporal succession of virtual phases accessible by your attention to life, accumulated behind you in your history as a being taking part in universal becoming. Indeed, “our memories form a chain…our character, always present in all our decisions, is indeed the actual synthesis of all our past states. In this epitomised form our previous psychical life exists for us even more than the external world. (Emphasis mine.)” Not only do memories subsist as the unextended and virtual history of duration, but also, in any given moment, more of you is in the past than the present, and more of you acts and decides based on the past, rather than the present. This is true even if we only count the aspects of memory that are useful in some moment.

It is only a manifestation of our ontological prejudice towards the present to think that our self is a collection of momentary presents, when it is glaringly obvious that what makes you a person in some situation is the multitudinous array of unique experiences and modifications you bring to bear on the present through your past, through recollection and attention. We can see this most clearly by looking at the memory cone. Point S coinciding with extensity is merely a point in extensity, while the cone AB is your entire history. Thus, it is no loss that Hume only saw passing impressions but no lasting self. The passing of those impressions is one indivisible movement extending backwards into the history of duration and at the same time advancing forwards into the frontier of absolutely novelty. The whole of this passing is our self.


Memory and Intersubjectivity

How does intersubjectivity and the problem of other minds fit into this picture? Bergson is little concerned with these issues here, but it is something that greatly occupied later phenomenologists, so it is worth bringing up. As I have already noted, we have a flowing mass of becoming gnawing into the future, extensity. Furthermore, we have the history of this becoming which, unthematized, is pure memory. This history allows us not only to recollect the past but also to act at all, as it is necessary to prolong even the most simple or recent movement into a sensation to guide future action. Since our body is just a being amongst other beings in extensity, and pure memory is just the already unrolled phases of this reality, our memories are not strictly private. Instead, they are overlapping. Our memories overlap with others in the sense that most of our actions either coincide with or are proximately near others’ actions.

For example, when a group of friends spend all night together at one of their homes, they do not each privately record their experience in the storehouse of their mind, disconnected from reality. Rather, in actually being there, they share a space in extensity. That is, there is a certain concentrated coincidence of complexity within a local region. As the night unfolds, this shared space becomes ontologically fixed in the annals of virtual history, to be drawn upon. As it goes on, each member prolongs the phases of the night into the present to supply it with new energy, to direct it towards novel paths that continually pique interest. To do this, conversations get built upon and advanced rather than repeated. Jokes get more intricate. Both good conversation and humour succeed only when participants prolong each phase of the night into the present, and it is precisely the virtual endurance of their history in this space together that makes this possible. Both, to succeed, must be new and thus require reference to the old to either differentiate from it or, more often, build upon it. When someone asks the same question or tells the same joke, the subsequent social reprimand is for thoughtlessly disregarding their history together. Thus, successful communication here presupposes a shared reality. It is true that each person carries around a different history and, as such, will experience and recall the night differently. But that is precisely what makes a night interesting: the coming together of variously desynchronised zones of indetermination jointly forging a shared space out of their differences. To succeed, this does require a certain level of already existing overlap. Awkwardness and hostility is the result of rhythms of duration being too desynchronised

Regardless, the lesson here is that there is no ontological separation between persons, only a causal-historical one. Being with others is built into the fact that we share this undivided extensity. The sub-spaces we share in a night are just an aspect of that universal space we share together. To be with others in the social sense is to make history together, it is to mark some unique perturbation in the history of becoming. In fact, since the body’s place in the history of duration constitutes one’s personal identity, and that history is shared with and not separated from, others, these encounters constitute our very being. In terms of the memory cone, which is our bodies’ unique history, we can say that it constantly overlaps and coincides with other’s memory cones. Though this coincidence is never attained perfectly, nor ever from the exact same perspective. Thus, there is always an ineliminable difference of interpretation within experience and being.

This is our human predicament: the constant oscillation between our coincidence with others in duration, securing a sameness of interpretation, and our exclusion from others, producing a difference of interpretation. Neither relation should be thought of as bad in-itself, as both contain particular strengths and defects. Sameness is comforting and can be a source of deep camaraderie, positive loyalties, and joint escapes, but too much can make us confident in revealed untruths and blind to concealed injustices. These defects can only be destroyed or unearthed by difference. Difference is exciting and novel in that it breaks down entrenched habits of thought, revealing relations previously unapprehend, and thus opening up new virtual horizons of action. This mutual and constructive play of differences can be a great source of joy, but too sharp a difference can lead to misunderstanding, misrecognition, and intractable conflict. The asychroneity of difference can only be brought to harmony through some establishment of the same. Thus, life calls for balance. Each of us, with our particular tendencies of movement, has our own rhythm to calibrate towards this balance.

It might be objected that this is not how our experience seem to us. I grant that it might not seem his way sometimes. However, the extent to which we utilise this shared history is perpetually constrained by the dual movements of thought constituting our attention to life. Due to our practical orientation towards the present and the way the body selects and contracts distant memory-images to be relentlessly personal, it often does not seem like we are drawing upon the same pure memory, the same history. Rather, it seems like the traditional picture of the isolated storehouses of the mind is the reality. However, if I am right, this cannot be true. The idea can be seen most clearly in joyous moments spent with others. For example, being within a home crowd at a winning sports game. At the moment of victory, everyone experiences the sensation of the immediately past movement together, sharing a space. These sensations are both shared in that they are continuous with each other in extensity and, since sensations are already memory, it is not merely one moment of extensive becoming shared, but a moment of virtual history shared. Since the entire history of becoming is immanently present, this being alongside others stretches out to all of duration. It begins for a particular ‘person’ when they become capable of recollection.

Vasily Kandinsky - "Kleine Welten I" - (1922)

Memory as Freedom

In a previous work, I referred to the ‘internal autonomy’ and ‘environmental decoupling’ of agents that allow them to break free of their immediate environment and act on their spontaneous choice, rather than according to the fetters of the present moment or of a strictly determined process. The actual mechanism by which this is achieved for Bergson is precisely what we have been talking about: memory. The act of prolonging the past into the present is what a rock or a brick cannot do (to any effective extent) that a human can:

“If matter does not remember the past, it is because it repeats the past unceasingly, because, subject to necessity, it unfolds a series of moments of which each is the equivalent of the preceding moment and may be deduced from it: thus its past is truly given in its present. But a being which evolves more or less freely creates something new every moment: in vain, then, should we seek to read its past in its present unless its past were deposited within it in the form of memory.”14placeholder

We are free because we are not condemned only to call on the immediately past moment to write our action. Instead, we can summon our entire past lives to consciousness, drawing not one predictable path but opening up a multiplicity of virtual possibilities to be prolonged into action, in an almost infinite variety of imperceptibly different ways.

In this moment, I can lift my arm and clap, I can jump for joy, I can stamp my feet and shout. Not because the universe was in state s at time t, but because I drag an entire virtual life behind me that guides me to keep living this one, and enables me to do it, the way I choose. Thus, memory is that which allows us to create an absolutely novel reality. Laplace’s demon cannot deduce my future action from one moment in material reality because, as we have seen, we are essentially temporal beings constituted not by fictitious moments but by an ongoing process of evolutionary becoming. It is evolutionary in this sense: since our unique past subsists and does not merely pass away as we unroll into the future, consciousness can never go through the same state twice. This is because every new phase necessarily has a different past present within it. Thus, every moment is utterly novel in that it evolves through the influence of an ever-growing and changing past. Since our bodies and memories are just another part of the universe, it means the universe itself can never go through the same state twice. Thus, duration is irreversible, and memory guarantees an arrow of time. This brings us to questions of cosmology and Bergson’s next book, Creative Evolution.


Memory as Creative Evolution

The form of freedom humans have is reciprocally determined by the interfacing between matter and memory:

“The progress of living matter consists in a differentiation of function which leads first to the production and then to the increasing complication of a nervous system capable of canalizing excitations and of organizing actions the more the higher centres develop, the more numerous become the motor paths among which the same excitation allows the living being to choose, in order that it may act. An ever greater latitude left to movement in space – this indeed is what is seen. What is not seen is the growing and accompanying tension of consciousness in time. Not only, by its memory of former experience, does this consciousness retain the past better and better, so as to organize it with the present in a newer and richer decision; but, living with an intenser life, contracting, by its memory of the immediate experience, a growing number of external moments in its present duration, it becomes more capable of creating acts of which the inner indetermination, spread over as large a multiplicity of the moments of matter as you please, will pass the more easily through the meshes of necessity.”15placeholder

The body is a highly complex and organised material thing whose constitution in time allows it to call forth the past: this is what we call the mind. And it is the mind which utilises a constantly expanding duration by translating memory into the selection of images and finally into genuine action, some utterly new aspect of material reality, a novel entry in the history of becoming. In this way, the present is constantly being made, not just by its crawl into the future, but also by its past, through human action. Bergson writes: “freedom always seems to have its roots deep in necessity and to be intimately organized with it. Spirit borrows from matter the perceptions on which it feeds, and restores them to matter in the form of movements which it has stamped with its own freedom.”16placeholder Matter is necessary for memory and memory is necessary for matter’s emergence into the new, which we see saw in the solution to the mind-body problem and now in our capacity for free action.

But if humans have memory that allows them to break with the mechanical order by a prolongation of the past into the present, do we have any principled reason not extend to this ability to other aspects of extensity? Are there not other highly complex and organised beings in this world? Can we not hypothesise that other aspects of the universe are also irreducibly temporal, in the sense that their entire history cannot be deduced from one moment of it? This, I believe, is the guiding thought of Creative Evolution. Namely, it asks: what if we generalised our discoveries of attentive perception and the creative power of memory to all of life and the evolution of the universe? Bergson writes: “Continuity of change, preservation of the past in the present, real duration – the living being seems…to share these attributes with consciousness. Can we go further and say that life, like conscious activity, is invention, is unceasing creation?”17placeholder To this, he answers the affirmative.

On this point, I will not say too much other than offering a rough sketch of Bergson’s recollective cosmology. (Most notably, I leave out a discussion of chapter three in Creative Evolution.) Roughly speaking, we can break up the world into organised and unorganised bodies. Unorganised bodies are those sections of material reality whose “present contains nothing more than the past, and what is found in the effect was already in the cause. (Emphasis in original.)”18placeholder In other words, those bodies whose future (and past) can likely be deduced in principle from the present. This includes the bodies studied by physics, artifacts, and non-organic matter. We have an essentially complete and deterministic explanation for these bodies. Of course, as I have already noted, these entities’ outlines are ultimately a function of practical action in perception or the choice of a system of interpretation within different forms of inquiry, not of reality. However, his does not mean the aspects of reality supporting such representations are not in duration. As I said earlier, everything inhabits an indivisible duration. It is just that the ability to contract the past into the present in these sections is at its most constrained.

An organised body, on the other hand, “is that which grows and changes without ceasing.” In other words, something whose existence is essentially temporal in that it must undergo constant change for it to survive. This is the case with living organisms, which must constantly exchange and regulate energy with their environment. Their existence conditions will not be some particular constitution of matter but the fact that they are constantly receiving a new constitution of matter in a particular way that allows them to function. They do all of this while retaining their past through their attention to life in the dual movement of perception and memory. Just as it was the case that humans could not complete even the most basic of intentional actions without memory, neither, by hypothesis, can other organised bodies. They remember their past states in order to continue living in the present. Thus, the state of an organised body cannot be deduced from a moment because it cannot exist in a moment. For Bergson, all living beings, even down to unicellular organisms, are organised bodies in this way and thus prolong the past into the present. However, unlike non-organic matter which seems to melt into its surroundings, these bodies seem to be “closed off by nature herself.”19placeholder Thus, organised bodies can be said to approach the status of an individual.

However, we should be careful here not to grant individuation for free. There are notorious difficulties in deciding whether certain organisms are truly individual or simply reducible to some lesser element. Most seem confident in the case of humans and animals that they are genuine individuals,20placeholder but it becomes harder to say for plants and impossible to say for unorganised bodies. For Bergson, this difficulty stems from the fact that we are still confusing movements with things. What is actually going on cannot be captured in the simple language of individuals. Something being organised or unorganised is not a state of an individual, but a tendency of universal becoming.21placeholder There are two of these tendencies corresponding to the two types of bodies.

Organisation is the tendency towards independence from the immediate environment, the tendency towards individualisation. What we have just called organised bodies, especially humans, are the eventual result of such a tendency. As we have seen in the case of human freedom, this independence is maintained by memory or temporal endurance. And since all organisms are organised, in the sense that they also exist essentially in time, we can infer that they too exhibit a rudimentary form for individuality. This tendency towards “individuality admits of any number of degrees, and…it is not fully realized anywhere, even in man.”22placeholder In other words, this tendency is never ‘completed’ because there is no end-state of a tendency.

This means, in turn, that nothing is ever truly an individual at all, in the traditional metaphysical sense. “That there are, in a sense, multiple objects, that one man is distinct from another man, tree from tree, stone from stone, is an indisputable fact…But the separation between a thing and its environment cannot be absolutely definite and clear cut; there is a passage by insensible gradations from one to the other.”23placeholder If there were such things, they would be entirely separate from the universe itself and be utterly self-sufficient. Instead, there are just aspects of becoming that tend towards self-sufficiency in that they embody some form of functional organisation that demarcates self from other (which is what our attention to life implicitly imposes) and in so far as they prolong the past into the present. This means that each organised body is a zone of indetermination within becoming because the capacity for memory, through organisation, breaks the strict hold of determinism and opens the way for novelty. In our mind-body schema above, this tendency corresponds to the creative movement of memory towards matter because it is through organisation that this creative movement is possible. This movement accounts for the emergence of individual human cognition as we know it today.

Conversely, disorganisation is the opposing tendency towards dependence on the immediate environment and thus the wider universe. This is characteristic of unorganised bodies and explains why we can deduce or predict their past and future action merely from a single world-state. This is the tendency life is always fighting. An organised life eventually succumbs to it in death but fights it in reproduction. In death, all capacity for prolonging the past (but not the existence of it in the history of duration) ceases. Thus, dead and non-organic matter ceases to be independent or free insofar as it fails to tend towards individuality. This is why we can construct laws that govern non-organic matter, because unorganised bodies have virtually no spontaneity. In our mind-body schema, this tendency is the movement from matter towards ineffectual pure memory because it is the unorganised bodies that fail to summon the past beyond the immediately preceding moment. Thus, the majority of their history is lost to duration and has no effect on the making of the present.

Vasily Kandinsky - "Kleine Welten V" - (1922)

In sum, we now have a picture of the two tendencies constitutive of the universe. Our plane of becoming, or material reality, is roughly diversified into sections that exemplify one or the other. Non-organic matter has a place in the unextended history of becoming, but its history is entirely inert because it cannot recollect any further than the immediately preceding extended moment. This is why it acts lawfully. Organic matter also has its place in the history of becoming and, through memory, can utilise its virtual and unextended history to guide action. The extent to which this can be done depends on the organism’s level of individualisation from its environment – its level of organisation. This corresponds to its capacity for memory and freedom. The paradigm case of both organisation and individualisation is the human. And through our study of attentive perception, memory, and freedom, we can see that humans are the highest expression (that we know of) of a tendency permeating all of reality.

Since the universe is undivided and contains organised bodies that endure over some duration, it, as a whole, must also endure and have a duration. Thus, the universe itself has a consciousness capable of prolonging its past into the present. It must have an “original impetus to life”24placeholder implied by its movement. This is precisely Bergson’s controversial élan vital, or vital force. Bergson sees this force as a transcendentally necessary explanation for the evolution of the universe from a relatively formless beginning to where we are now, with all the cosmological novelty, newness of form, and especially the emergence of life as we know it. However, far from being an unnecessary artifact of a scientific dead-end, the élan is straightforwardly entailed by the fact that there are entities extended in time that use memory to supplement present action.

Bergson makes precisely this suggestion, even in Matter and Memory, when he writes: “Only one hypothesis, then, remains possible; namely, that concrete movement, capable, like consciousness, of prolonging its past into its present, capable by repeating, itself, of engendering sensible qualities, already possesses something akin to consciousness, something akin to sensation.” We can picture this by saying: each and every thing (or tendency to be a thing) has its own memory cone, including the entire universe, which spans the entire history of becoming, those things, and their memory cones. Thus, the universe is itself structurally like our own movement of thought depicted by the mind-body schema above. This is not to say that the universe recalls things in the same cognitive way we do. It lacks the organisation for it to be personal or cognitive in the sense we understand it. It is just that it is something that endures in a particular form that is stable and continuous, and this requires the prolongation of the past into the present. Indeed, it is straightforwardly entailed by our own endurance that the universe endures, because we are an aspect of it. And since we are one with the indivisible history of duration, when we recollect, the universe does to. The cumulative action of these two tendencies of reality constitutes its own dual movement of thought, at once towards the creation of novel (though never completely independent) forms, at the same time towards the disintegration and destruction of those forms, into a repetition of the same.

In sum, memory, the ability to prolong the past into the present, allows us to create new, unpredictable, and irreducible elements to reality in action. If we have this ability and we are part of the universe, there is no reason not to suppose that many other features of the universe have this capacity. This explains the genesis of all sorts of evolution, growth, diversity, complex organisation, and the tendency towards the individualisation of form. Most notably, it explains the emergence of life as we know it on earth. When matter self-organises and gains the ability of memory, of prolonging the past into the present, it thenceforth transcends itself and mechanical causality. Immanent within itself, matter contains, through organisation and memory, the conditions for its striving beyond itself. The genesis of the new is in the overflowing of the past into the present. When it remembers and utilises its past, just like we do, the universe frees itself from a repetition of the same, and soars into the creative emergence of the new. This is what life is. Thus, memory is the creative force underlying cosmological evolution.


Monism or Dualism?

One might wonder now how Bergson’s view maps onto the traditional distinction between monism and dualism. On the one hand, he emphatically affirms a kind of dualism, as exemplified by his theory of mind. But on the other hand, in the previous essay, we said duration must be fundamentally indivisible for experience as we know it to be possible. The outline is already there, but here I clear up some of these conceptual issues by making it explicit. Bergson is both a monist and a dualist.

Bergson is a monist insofar as he thinks the universe is an undivided movement.25placeholder Everything that we consider the present, material reality or extensity, and everything that we consider the past, all of history, is a single movement, simultaneously unrolled and unrolling. We can call this duration. Duration names the joint movement of matter and memory together, and it is essentially undivided. However, it is not without diversity. There are many different rhythms to this duration, owing to the varied distribution of organised and unorganised sections that thrust into the future at different paces, with different levels of energy, and with varying degrees of spontaneity. But as I noted earlier, individualisation is never complete, even in organisms. They are only the supreme embodiment of one tendency, in one region of duration. Thus, you never really have pluralism in the traditional sense, just the differentiation of rhythms through organisation. Bergson is a monist about the temporal, which is also the most primitive reality, duration.

One might object that talk of novelty implies new existents that come about as duration unfolds. However, this is not the case. Duration unfolds spontaneously into absolute novelty, but it would be a mistake to suppose that this novelty comes about in drops, slices, or moments. This would be to fall back into the presentist trap, as it supposes that movement is divisible. The answer here is that, while there is a real becoming and real novelty, once that novelty exists, it is always already only a new phase of the whole, not a new division. Thus, once duration evolves, any novel features are still just one aspect of it.

On the other hand, Bergson is a dualist insofar as he thinks that duration has a certain character that can be broken into two kinds. This is not the kind of the substance dualist. Instead, the difference in kind results from an intense difference in degree. Just as red shifts imperceptibly to blue on the paper, matter shifts imperceptibly to memory in duration. In both cases, there are two tendencies subordinated under a whole. And in both cases, the tendencies and the whole are necessary to give a complete explanation. Matter corresponds and accounts for our conception of the body, or extension. Memory corresponds and accounts for our conception of the soul, or our subjectivity. Thus, he is a dualist about mind and body, which are accounted for by the two tendencies inherent in the one duration.



In the previous essay, I began with Bergson’s simple taxonomy of memory. This became the seed that would grow into an entire system. From there, I walked through the rest of chapter two of Matter and Memory, followed by a dive headfirst into the metaphysics of time. After that, I went through chapter three, which gave us a complete analysis of the role of memory in life and an outline of the metaphysical structures that are necessary to support it. In this essay, I discussed how we can use Bergson’s theory of memory to solve some of the greatest outstanding problems in metaphysics. According to Bergson, each of these problems were at a dialectical deadlock that could not be resolved without a radical rethinking of the problem. As he is always repeating, each of these problems arise, even in seemingly indirect ways, from treating time as if it were space, as if it were infinitely divisible.

Bergson puts forward the bold thesis that time is one indivisible but qualitatively heterogenous movement and that any divisions erected within it are fictitious. It is from this radical rethinking of time, I would argue, that the rest of his system follows. The central success of the theory is the unique and compelling solution given to the mind-body problem that retains our two primary intuitions about mind and matter without lapsing into an untenable substance dualism. However, from this I was able to treat a number of other problems that led us to what is essentially a metaphysical theory of everything. Thus, we found out that Bergson’s theory of memory is absolutely central to understanding his metaphysics and indeed his entire corpus. Bergson best summaries the ground we have covered in his own words:

“A great impulse carries beings and things along. We feel ourselves uplifted, carried away, borne along by it. We are more fully alive and this increase of life brings with it the conviction that grave philosophical enigmas can be resolved or even perhaps that they need not be raised, since they arise from a frozen vision of the real and are only the translation, in terms of thought, of a certain artificial weakening of our vitality. In fact, the more we accustom ourselves to think and to perceive all things sub specie durationis, the more we plunge into real duration. And the more we immerse ourselves in it, the more we set ourselves back in the direction of the principle, though it be transcendent, in which we participate and whose eternity is not to be an eternity of immutability, but an eternity of life: how, otherwise, could we live and move in it?”26placeholder

Rowan Anderson is a master’s student of philosophy studying at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. You can find his informal writings on philosophy and film at his blog.

Works Cited

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

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

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

Plotinus. The Enneads. Translated by Stephen MacKenna. London: Penguin Books, 1991.


Bergson, Matter and Memory, 235. ‘Mind’, ‘spirit’, and ‘soul’ are used interchangeably.


Bergson, Matter and Memory, 235.


Bergson, Matter and Memory, 291.


I understand that sophisticated idealists have answers to these questions, and I am aware of some of those answers, but the point is still a strong one.


The sophisticated idealist will have it here that the kind of cognition that we have is the product of some kind of universal cognition or divine consciousness that we emerge or evolve out of that is technically independent of our mind, but not any mind. This will fulfil my requirement but will only be preferable if this proposal makes better sense of the universe than Bergson’s.


Bergson, Matter and Memory, 237.


Bergson, Matter and Memory, 292.


Bergson, Matter and Memory, 276.


This claim amounting to: “if no minds existed, there would still be a world” not “the world is dependent, in its current existence, on the existence of minds.” The latter is trivially true and does not amount to what we mean by idealism.


Note that something can undivided while still having ‘positions’ in a loose sense, as even something undivided has an internal structure.


Bergson, Matter and Memory, 288.


Bergson, Matter and Memory, 292-293.


Bergson, Matter and Memory. 237.


Bergson, Matter and Memory, 297.


Bergson, Matter and Memory, 332.


Bergson, Matter and Memory, 332.


Bergson, Creative Evolution, 23.


Bergson, Creative Evolution, 14.


Bergson, Creative Evolution, 12.


Actually, many philosophers, especially physicalists, think that even organisms are straightforwardly reducible to fundamental physics. If one thinks this, there is no reason to think they exist as individuals at all, one may as well think that all that exists is fundamental particles or fields.


Bergson, Creative Evolution, 13.


Bergson, Creative Evolution, 12.


Bergson, Matter and Memory, 278.


Bergson, Matter and Memory, 96.


Saying ‘one’ would be a little misleading as duration is not the kind of thing you can count. Quantitative measures are something we stretch over duration for practical purposes.


Bergson, The Creative Mind, 132.


April 2022


Recollection & Life: Bergson’s Metaphysics of Memory

by Rowan Anderson

The Reality That Would Be Dreamed: George MacDonald's "Lilith" as a Response to Solipsistic Illusion

by Antonio Wolf

With Them Without Words: A non-dual heritage of future language in Tzara, Derrida, Schlegel, and beyond

by Timothy Lavenz

Mantriatic Reality and Living After Postmodernity

by Diego Galán