Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness

Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness

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by Henri Bergson

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Bergson argues for free will by showing that the arguments against it come from a confusion of different conceptions of time. As opposed to physicists' idea of measurable time, life is perceived in human experience as a continuous and immeasurable flow rather than as a succession of marked-off states of consciousness.  See more details below


Bergson argues for free will by showing that the arguments against it come from a confusion of different conceptions of time. As opposed to physicists' idea of measurable time, life is perceived in human experience as a continuous and immeasurable flow rather than as a succession of marked-off states of consciousness.

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Time and Free Will

An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness

By Henri Bergson, F. L. Pogson

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2001 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-11971-7



IT is usually admitted that states of consciousness, sensations, feelings, passions, efforts, are capable of growth and diminution; we are even told that a sensation can be said to be twice, thrice, four times as intense as another sensation of the same kind. This latter thesis, which is maintained by psychophysicists, we shall examine later; but even the opponents of psychophysics do not see any harm in speaking of one sensation as being more intense than another, of one effort as being greater than another, and in thus setting up differences of quantity between purely internal states. Common sense, moreover, has not the slightest hesitation in giving its verdict on this point; people say they are more or less warm, or more or less sad, and this distinction of more and less, even when it is carried over to the region of subjective facts and unextended objects, surprises nobody. But this involves a very obscure point and a much more important problem than is usually supposed.

Can there be quantitative differences in conscious states P

When we assert that one number is greater than another number or one body greater than another body, we know very well what we mean. For in both cases we allude to unequal spaces, as shall be shown in detail a little further on, and we call that space the greater which contains the other. But how can a more intense sensation contain one of less intensity? Shall we say that the first implies the second, that we reach the sensation of higher intensity only on condition of having first passed through the less intense stages of the same sensation, and that in a certain sense we are concerned, here also, with the relation of container to contained? This conception of intensive magnitude seems, indeed, to be that of common sense, but we cannot advance it as a philosophical explanation without becoming involved in a vicious circle. For it is beyond doubt that, in the natural series of numbers, the later number exceeds the earlier, but the very possibility of arranging the numbers in ascending order arises from their having to each other relations of container and contained, so that we feel ourselves able to explain precisely in what sense one is greater than the other. The question, then, is how we succeed in forming a series of this kind with intensities, which cannot be superposed on each other, and by what sign we recognize that the members of this series increase, for example, instead of diminishing: but this always comes back to the inquiry, why an intensity can be assimilated to a magnitude.

Such differences applicable to magnitudes but not to intensities.

It is only to evade the difficulty to distinguish, as is usually done, between two species of quantity, the first extensive and measurable, the second intensive and not admitting of measure, but of which it can nevertheless be said that it is greater or less than another intensity. For it is recognized thereby that there is something common to these two forms of magnitude, since they are both termed magnitudes and declared to be equally capable of increase and diminution. But, from the point of view of magnitude, what can there be in common between the extensive and the intensive, the extended and the unextended? If, in the first case, we call that which contains the other the greater quantity, why go on speaking of quantity and magnitude when there is no longer a container or a contained? If a quantity can increase and diminish, if we perceive in it, so to speak, the less inside the more, is not such a quantity on this very account divisible, and thereby extended? Is it not then a contradiction to speak of an inextensive quantity? But yet common sense agrees with the philosophers in setting up a pure intensity as a magnitude, just as if it were something extended. And not only do we use the same word, but whether we think of a greater intensity or a greater extensity, we experience in both cases an analogous impression; the terms "greater" and "less" call up in both cases the same idea. If we now ask ourselves in what does this idea consist, our consciousness still offers us the image of a container and a contained. We picture to ourselves, for example, a greater intensity of effort as a greater length of thread rolled up, or as a spring which, in unwinding, will occupy a greater space. In the idea of intensity, and even in the word which expresses it, we shall find the image of a present contraction and consequently a future expansion, the image of something virtually extended, and, if we may say so, of a compressed space. We are thus led to believe that we translate the intensive into the extensive, and that we compare two intensities, or at least express the comparison, by the confused intuition of a relation between two extensities. But it is just the nature of this operation which it is difficult to determine.

Alleged distinction between two kinds of quantity: extensive and intensive magnitude.

The solution which occurs immediately to the mind, once it has entered upon this path, consists in defining the intensity of a sensation, or of any state whatever of the ego, by the number and magnitude of the objective, and therefore measurable, causes which have given rise to it. Doubtless, a more intense sensation of light is the one which has been obtained, or is obtainable, by means of a larger number of luminous sources, provided they be at the same distance and identical with one another. But, in the immense majority of cases, we decide about the intensity of the effect without even knowing the nature of the cause, much less its magnitude: indeed, it is the very intensity of the effect which often leads us to venture an hypothesis as to the number and nature of the causes, and thus to revise the judgment of our senses, which at first represented them as insignificant. And it is no use arguing that we are then comparing the actual state of the ego with some previous state in which the cause was perceived in its entirety at the same time as its effect was experienced. No doubt this is our procedure in a fairly large number of cases; but we cannot then explain the differences of intensity which we recognize between deep-seated psychic phenomena, the cause of which is within us and not outside. On the other hand, we are never so bold in judging the intensity of a psychic state as when the subjective aspect of the phenomenon is the only one to strike us, or when the external cause to which we refer it does not easily admit of measurement. Thus it seems evident that we experience a more intense pain at the pulling out of a tooth than of a hair; the artist knows without the possibility of doubt that the picture of a master affords him more intense pleasure than the signboard of a shop; and there is not the slightest need ever to have heard of forces of cohesion to assert that we expend less effort in bending a steel blade than a bar of iron. Thus the comparison of two intensities is usually made without the least appreciation of the number of causes, their mode of action or their extent.

Attempt to distinguish intensities by objective causes. But we judge of intensity without knowing magnitude or nature o! the cause

There is still room, it is true, for an hypothesis of the same nature, but more subtle. We know that mechanical, and especially kinetic, theories aim at explaining the visible and sensible properties of bodies by well defined movements of their ultimate parts, and many of us foresee the time when the intensive differences of qualities, that is to say, of our sensations, will be reduced to extensive differences between the changes taking place behind them. May it not be maintained that, without knowing these theories, we have a vague surmise of them, that behind the more intense sound we guess the presence of ampler vibrations which are propagated in the disturbed medium, and that it is with a reference to this mathematical relation, precise in itself though confusedly perceived, that we assert the higher intensity of a particular sound? Without even going so far, could it not be laid down that every state of consciousness corresponds to a certain disturbance of the molecules and atoms of the cerebral substance, and that the intensity of a sensation measures the amplitude, the complication or the extent of these molecular movements? This last hypothesis is at least as probable as the other, but it no more solves the problem. For, quite possibly, the intensity of a sensation bears witness to a more or less considerable work accomplished in our organism; but it is the sensation which is given to us in consciousness, and not this mechanical work. Indeed, it is by the intensity of the sensation that we judge of the greater or less amount of work accomplished: intensity then remains, at least apparently, a property of sensation. And still the same question recurs: why do we say of a higher intensity that it is greater? Why do we think of a greater quantity or a greater space?

Attempt to distinguish intensities by atomic movements. But it is the sensation which is given in consciousness, and not the movement.

Perhaps the difficulty of the problem lies chiefly in the fact that we call by the same name, and picture to ourselves in the same way, intensities which are very different in nature, e.g. the intensity of a feeling and that of a sensation or an effort. The effort is accompanied by a muscular sensation, and the sensations themselves are connected with certain physical conditions which probably count for something in the estimate of their intensity: we have here to do with phenomena which take place on the surface of consciousness, and which are always connected, as we shall see further on, with the perception of a movement or of an external object. But certain states of the soul seem to us, rightly or wrongly, to be self-sufficient, such as deep joy or sorrow, a reflective passion or an aesthetic emotion. Pure intensity ought to be more easily definable in these simple cases, where no extensive element seems to be involved. We shall see, in fact, that it is reducible here to a certain quality or shade which spreads over a more or less considerable mass of psychic states, or, if the expression be preferred, to the larger or smaller number of simple states which make up the fundamental emotion.

Different kinds of intensities. (1) deep-seated psychic states (2) muscular effort. Intensity is more easily definable in the former case.

For example, an obscure desire gradually becomes a deep passion. Now, you will see that the feeble intensity of this desire consisted at first in its appearing to be isolated and, as it were, foreign to the remainder of your inner life. But little by little it permeates a larger number of psychic elements, tingeing them, so to speak, with its own colour: and lo! your outlook on the whole of your surroundings seems now to have changed radically. How do you become aware of a deep passion, once it has taken hold of you, if not by perceiving that the same objects no longer impress you in the same manner? All your sensations and all your ideas seem to brighten up: it is like childhood back again. We experience something of the kind in certain dreams, in which we do not imagine anything out of the ordinary, and yet through which there resounds an indescribable note of originality. The fact is that, the further we penetrate into the depths of consciousness, the less right we have to treat psychic phenomena as things which are set side by side. When it is said that an object occupies a large space in the soul or even that it fills it entirely, we ought to understand by this simply that its image has altered the shade of a thousand perceptions or memories, and that in this sense it pervades them, although it does not itself come into view. But this wholly dynamic way of looking at things is repugnant to the reflective consciousness, because the latter delights in clean cut distinctions, which are easily expressed in words, and in things with well-defined outlines, like those which are perceived in space. It will assume then that, everything else remaining identical, such and such a desire has gone up a scale of magnitudes, as though it were permissible still to speak of magnitude where there is neither multiplicity nor space! But just as consciousness (as will be shown later on) concentrates on a given point of the organism the increasing number of muscular contractions which take place on the surface of the body, thus converting them into one single feeling of effort, of growing intensity, so it will hypostatize under the form of a growing desire the gradual alterations which take place in the confused heap of co-existing psychic states. But that is a change of quality rather than of magnitude.

Take, for example, the progress of a desire.

What makes hope such an intense pleasure is the fact that the future, which we dispose of to our liking, appears to us at the same time under a multitude of forms, equally attractive and equally possible. Even if the most coveted of these becomes realized, it will be necessary to give up the others, and we shall have lost a great deal. The idea of the future, pregnant with an infinity of possibilities, is thus more fruitful than the future itself, and this is why we find more charm in hope than in possession, in dreams than in reality.

Let us try to discover the nature of an increasing intensity of joy or sorrow in the exceptional cases where no physical symptom intervenes. Neither inner joy nor passion is an isolated inner state which at first occupies a corner of the soul and gradually spreads. At its lowest level it is very like a turning of our states of consciousness towards the future. Then, as if their weight were diminished by this attraction, our ideas and sensations succeed one another with greater rapidity; our movements no longer cost us the same effort. Finally, in cases of extreme joy, our perceptions and memories become tinged with an indefinable quality, as with a kind of heat or light, so novel that now and then, as we stare at our own self, we wonder how it can really exist. Thus there are several characteristic forms of purely inward joy, all of which are successive stages corresponding to qualitative alterations in the whole of our psychic states. But the number of states which are concerned with each of these alterations is more or less considerable, and, without explicitly counting them, we know very well whether, for example, our joy pervades all the impressions which we receive in the course of the day or whether any escape from its influence. We thus set up points of division in the interval which separates two successive forms of joy, and this gradual transition from one to the other makes them appear in their turn as different intensities of one and the same feeling, which is thus supposed to change in magnitude. It could be easily shown that the different degrees of sorrow also correspond to qualitative changes. Sorrow begins by being nothing more than a facing towards the past, an impoverishment of our sensations and ideas, as if each of them were now contained entirely in the little which it gives out, as if the future were in some way stopped up. And it ends with an impression of crushing failure, the effect of which is that we aspire to nothingness, while every new misfortune, by making us understand better the uselessness of the struggle, causes us a bitter pleasure.


Excerpted from Time and Free Will by Henri Bergson, F. L. Pogson. Copyright © 2001 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.

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Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness 3.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 15 reviews.
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