Henri Bergson On Time

Philosopher Henri Bergson (A.D. 1859-1941) was born in Paris, France. His analysis of Time as presented in his doctoral dissertation, Time and Freewill remains one of the most insightful.

Bergson's fundamental assertion is that the time (he called it "mathematical time") we are accustomed to is not the real time. He called the real Time, pure duration. Bergson wrote: "there are , indeed, as we shall show a little later, two possible conceptions of time, the one free from all alloy, the other, surreptitiously bringing in the idea of space. Pure duration is the form which the succession of our conscious states assume when our ego lets itself live, when it refrains from separating its present state from its former states." How did Bergson show this difference? He began by proposing two types of multiplicities: "that of material objects, to which the conception of number is immediately applicable; and the multiplicity of states of consciousness which cannot be regarded as numerical without the help of some symbolical representation, in which a necessary element is space." Bergson asserted that "these conscious states permeate each other and are quality not quantity and that our projection of our psychic states into space in order to form a discrete multiplicity is likely to influence these states themselves and to give them in reflective consciousness a new form, which immediate perception did not attribute to them." This new form, he believes, is the generally accepted concept of time. But the real Time (pure duration), he believes, is the continuity of our conscious states which freely permeate each other. He asserted that the projection of pure duration into space, produces simultaneity: an intersection of space and pure duration. This simultaneity, he asserted, is what we measure as time. He wrote: "beset by space we introduce it unwittingly into our feeling of pure succession; we set our states of consciousness side by side in such a way as to perceive them simultaneously, no longer in one another but alongside one another, in a word, we project them into space, we express duration in terms of extensity, and succession thus takes the form of a continuous line or chain, the parts of which touch without penetrating one another." According to Bergson, pure duration (the real Time) is "succession without distinction, a mutual penetration, an interconnection and organization of elements, each of which represent the whole, and cannot be distinguished and isolated from it except by abstract thought."

Bergson's conception of Time is profound. Fundamentally, he posited that Time, pure duration is an internal process of conscious states not an external simultaneity. He asserted that this internal process of conscious states is a wholistic continuity of multiplicities that permeate one another. He believes that it is the awareness of space and its contents, coupled with the act of the mind and language, that have externalized Time into measurable intervals of simultaneities that we now call time. He wrote: " Our tendency to form a clear picture of this externality of things and the homogeneity of their medium is the same as the impulse which leads us to live in common and to speak. But, in proportion as the conditions of social life are completely realized, the current which carries our conscious states from within outwards is strengthened; little by little these states are made into objects and things; they break off not only from one another, but from ourselves. Henceforth we no longer perceive them except in the homogeneous medium in which we have set their image, and through the word which lends them its commonplace colour."

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Peter Oye Sagay

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