Read an Excerpt
The Creative Mind
AN INTRODUCTION TO METAPHYSICS
By HENRI BREGSON, Mabelle L. Andison
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2007 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Growth of Truth. Retrograde Movement of the True
What philosophy has lacked most of all is precision. Philosophical systems are not cut to the measure of the reality in which we live; they are too wide for reality. Examine any one of them, chosen as you see fit, and you will see that it could apply equally well to a world in which neither plants nor animals have existence, only men, and in which men would quite possibly do without eating and drinking, where they would neither sleep nor dream nor let their minds wander; where, born decrepit, they would end as babes-in-arms; where energy would return up the slope of its dispersion; and where everything might just as easily go backwards and be upside down. The fact is that a self-contained (vrai) system is an assemblage of conceptions so abstract, and consequently so vast, that it might contain, aside from the real, all that is possible and even impossible. The only explanation we should accept as satisfactory is one which fits tightly to its object, with no space between them, no crevice in which any other explanation might equally well be lodged; one which fits the object only and to which alone the object lends itself. Scientific explanation can be of such a kind; it involves absolute precision and complete or mounting evidence. Can one say as much for philosophical theories?
There was one doctrine, however, which seemed to me as a youth to be an exception, and that is probably why I was drawn to it. The philosophy of Spencer aimed at taking the impression of things and modelling itself on the facts in every detail. To be sure it still sought its basis in vague generalities, and I was quite conscious of the weak points in his First Principles. But these weaknesses seemed to me to be due to the author's insufficient preparation and his inability to grasp the significance of the "latest ideas" of mechanics; I should have liked to take up this part of his work, complete and consolidate it, and I set to work on this task to the best of my ability. That was what led me to consider the idea of Time; and there a surprise awaited me.
I was indeed very much struck to see how real time, which plays the leading part in any philosophy of evolution, eludes mathematical treatment. Its essence being to flow, not one of its parts is still there when another part comes along. Superposition of one part on another with measurement in view is therefore impossible, unimaginable, inconceivable. There is no doubt but that an element of convention enters into any measurement, and it is seldom that two magnitudes, considered equal, are directly superposable one upon the other. Even then, this superposition must be possible for one of their aspects or effects which preserves something of them: this effect, this aspect then, is what we measure. But in the case of time, the idea of superposition would imply absurdity, for any effect of duration which will be superposable upon itself and consequently measurable, will have as its essence non-duration. Ever since my university days I had been aware that duration is measured by the trajectory of a body in motion and that mathematical time is a line; but I had not yet observed that this operation contrasts radically with all other processes of measurement, for it is not carried out on an aspect or an effect representative of what one wishes to measure, but on something which excludes it. The line one measures is immobile, time is mobility. The line is made, it is complete; time is what is happening, and more than that, it is what causes everything to happen. The measuring of time never deals with duration as duration; what is counted is only a certain number of extremities of intervals, or moments, in short, virtual halts in time. To state that an incident will occur at the end of a certain time t, is simply to say that one will have counted, from now until then, a number t of simultaneities of a certain kind. In between these simultaneities anything you like may happen. Time could be enormously and even infinitely accelerated; nothing would be changed for the mathematician, for the physicist or for the astronomer. And yet the difference with regard to consciousness would be profound (I am speaking naturally of a consciousness which would not be integrated with intra-cerebral movement); the wait from one day to another, from one hour to the next would no longer cause it the same fatigue. Science cannot concern itself with this specific wait (or interval), and its exterior cause: even when it is dealing with time which is passing or which will pass, it treats it as though it had passed. This is, in fact, quite natural; the role of science is to foresee. It extracts and retains from the material world that which can be repeated and calculated, and consequently that which is not in a state of flow. Thus it does nothing but lean in the direction of common sense, which is a beginning of science: usually when we speak of time we think of the measurement of duration, and not of duration itself. But this duration which science eliminates, and which is so difficult to conceive and express, is what one feels and lives. Suppose we try to find out what it is? —How would it appear to a consciousness which desired only to see it without measuring it, which would then grasp it without stopping it, which, in short, would take itself as object, and which, spectator and actor alike, at once spontaneous and reflective, would bring ever closer together—to the point where they would coincide, —the attention which is fixed, and time which passes?
Such was the question; and through it I delved deep into the domain of the inner life, which until then had held no interest for me. I very quickly spotted the inadequacy of the associationist conception of the mind; this conception, then common to most psychologists and philosophers, was the result of an artificial re-grouping of conscious life. What would direct vision give, —immediate vision, with no interposed prejudices? A long series of reflections and analyses made me brush aside one prejudice after another, and abandon many ideas I had accepted without question; finally, I believed I had found pure, unadulterated inner continuity (duration), continuity which was neither unity nor multiplicity, and which did not fit into any of our categories of thought (cadres). That positive science had not been concerned with this duration was, I thought, quite natural: its function after all is to compose a world for us in which we can, for the convenience of action, ignore the effects of time. But how had Spencer's philosophy, a doctrine of evolution constructed to follow reality in its mobility, its progress, its inner maturing, been able to close its eyes to what is change itself?
This question was later to lead me to tackle once again the problem of the evolution of life, taking real time into account; I was to find then that Spencerian "evolutionism" had to be almost completely recast. For the moment, I was absorbed by the vision of duration. In reviewing the different systems, I noticed that philosophers had paid almost no attention to it. All through the history of philosophy time and space have been placed on the same level and treated as things of a kind; the procedure has been to study space, to determine its nature and function, and then to apply to time the conclusions thus reached. The theories of space and time thus become counterparts of one another. To pass from one to the other one had only to change a single word: "juxtaposition" was replaced by "succession." Real duration was systematically avoided. Why? Science has its own reasons for avoiding it, but metaphysics, which preceded science, was already doing so without having the same excuses. As I examined the various doctrines it struck me that language was largely responsible for this confusion; duration is always expressed in terms of extension; the terms which designate time are borrowed from the language of space. When we evoke time, it is space which answers our call. Metaphysics must have conformed to the habits of language, which in turn are governed by the habits of common sense.
But if science and common sense are in agreement on this point, if the intelligence, either spontaneous or reflective, rules out real time, might it not be because the goal of our understanding demands it? That is what I thought I observed in studying the structure of the human understanding. It seemed to me that one of its functions was precisely to mask duration, either in movement or in change.
If it is a question of movement, all the intelligence retains is a series of positions: first one point reached, then another, then still another. But should something happen between these points, immediately the understanding intercalates new positions, and so on indefinitely. It refuses to consider transition; if we insist, it so manages that mobility, pushed back into more and more narrow intervals as the number of considered positions increases—recedes, withdraws and finally disappears into the infinitely small. This is perfectly natural, if the intellect is destined first of all to prepare and bear upon our action on things. Our action exerts itself conveniently only on fixed points; fixity is therefore what our intelligence seeks; it asks itself where the mobile is to be found, where it will be, where it will pass. Even if it takes note of the moment of passing, even if it seems then to be concerned with duration, it restricts itself in that direction to verifying the simultaneity of two virtual halts: the halt of the mobility it is considering and the halt of another mobile whose course is presumed to be that of time. But it is always with immobilities, real or possible, that it seeks to deal. Suppose we skip this intellectual representation of movement, which shows it as a series of positions. Let us go directly to movement and examine it without any interposed concept: we shall find it simple and all-of-a-piece. Let us go further; suppose we get it to coincide with one of those incontestably real and absolute movements which we ourselves produce. This time we have mobility in its essence, and we feel that it mingles with an effort whose duration is an indivisible continuity. But as a certain space will have been crossed, our intelligence, which seeks fixity everywhere, assumes after the event that movement has been exactly fitted on to this space (as though it, movement, could coincide with immobility!) and that the mobile exists in turn in each of the points of the line it is moving along. At most we can say that it would have been at one of these particular points if it had stopped sooner,—if, in view of a shorter movement we had made an entirely different effort. It is only a step from there to seeing in movement just a series of positions; the duration of movement will then break up into "moments" corresponding to each of the positions. But the moments of time and the positions of the mobile are only snapshots which our understanding has taken of the continuity of movement and duration. In these juxtaposed views one has a practical substitute for time and movement which conforms to the exigencies of language until such time as language lends itself to the exigencies of computation; but one has only an artificial means of recomposing: time and movement are something else.
We shall say as much for change; the understanding breaks it up into successive and distinct states, supposed to be invariable. If one looks a little more closely at each of these states, noticing that it varies, asking how it could endure if it did not change, the understanding hastens to replace it by a series of shorter states, which in their turn break up if necessary, and so forth ad infinitum. But how can we help seeing that the essence of duration is to flow, and that the fixed placed side by side with the fixed will never constitute anything which has duration. It is not the "states," simple snapshots we have taken once again along the course of change, that are real; on the contrary, it is flux, the continuity of transition, it is change itself that is real. This change is indivisible, it is even substantial. If our intelligence insists on judging it to be insubstantial, to give it some vague kind of support, it is because it has replaced this change by a series of adjacent states; but this multiplicity is artificial as is also the unity one endows it with. What we have here is merely an uninterrupted thrust of change—of a change always adhering to itself in a duration which extends indefinitely.
These reflections engendered many doubts as well as great hopes in my mind. I told myself that metaphysical problems had perhaps been badly propounded, but that precisely for that reason it was no longer advisable to believe them "eternal," that is, insoluble. Metaphysics dates from the day when Zeno of Elea pointed out the inherent contradictions of movement and change, as our intellect represents them. To surmount these difficulties raised by the intellectual representation of movement and change, to get around them by an increasingly subtle intellectual labour, required the principal effort of ancient and modern philosophers. It is thus that metaphysics was led to seek the reality of things above time, beyond what moves and what changes, and consequently outside what our senses and consciousness perceive. As a result it could be nothing but a more or less artificial arrangement of concepts, a hypothetical construction. It claimed to go beyond experience; what it did in reality was merely to take a full and mobile experience, lending itself to a probing ever-deepening and as a result pregnant with revelations—and to substitute for it a fixed extract, desiccated and empty, a system of abstract general ideas, drawn from that very experience or rather from its most superficial strata. One might as well discourse on the subject of the cocoon from which the butterfly is to emerge, and claim that the fluttering, changing, living butterfly finds its raison d'être and fulfillment in the immutability of its shell. On the contrary, let us unfasten the cocoon, awaken the chrysalis; let us restore to movement its mobility, to change its fluidity, to time its duration. Who knows but what the "great insoluble problems" will remain attached to the outer shell? They were not concerned with either movement or change or time, but solely with the conceptual cocoon which we mistakenly took for them or for their equivalent. Metaphysics will then become experience itself; and duration will be revealed as it really is,—unceasing creation, the uninterrupted up-surge of novelty.
Excerpted from The Creative Mind by HENRI BREGSON, Mabelle L. Andison. Copyright © 2007 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.