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Henri Bergson; an account of his life and philosophy online

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If my impression to-day were precisely the same as
that of yesterday then seeing and recognizing, learning
and remembering, would be the same thing. We miss
all this unless we are forewarned of it and examine
ourselves, because our outer and social life is more
to us practically than the life that is interior and
personal. Without thinking about it we tend to
solidify, as it were, our impressions, in order to speak
of them in words. In consequence the feeling itself,
always becoming and changing, is for us confused with
its object, which is external and permanent, and,
above all, with the word which stands for that object.
Just as the moving duration of our self is fixed or
solidified by being mentally projected into space, so



112 HENRI BERGSON

our ever-changing impressions, moulding themselves
upon the external object that is their cause, acquire
its definite outlines and are arrested in its immo-
bility.

The influence of language upon sensation is more
profound than is usually believed. It not only makes
us think that our sensation does not change, but it
misleads us at times as to its nature. The mere word
with its defined outline, ready-made for us and storing
up in itself what is stable and common in the impres-
sions of all men, the impersonal word, overpowers or
conceals the fleeting and delicate impressions of the
individual man. These impressions should have words
new-minted ; but even so, as soon as they were coined
they would give to the unstable sensation for which
they were invented a share in their stability.

Feeling itself lives and grows, therefore it is for
ever changing. How otherwise could it lead us step
by step to resolutions ? But for this, resolution would
be immediate. Feeling lives, because the duration
in which it arises has moments permeating each other.
In dividing these moments, in symbolically translating
time into space, we have taken life and colour from
our feeling ; we have come to stand in face of our
own shadow. A novelist who should tear away the
veil of our conventional self would reveal to us in this
appearance of logic a fundamental absurdity, in this
side-by-side array of simple states the interplay of a
thousand impressions which, as soon as they are
named, have ceased to be. Then we should praise



FREEDOM AND THE WILL 113

him for knowing us better than we knew ourselves.
But he does not ; and the very fact that he, too, paints
our feehng for us on a background of space and sets
out its elements in words shews that he in his turn
gives us no better than a shadow. Yet he has painted
his picture in a manner that leads us to divine the
amazing and illogical character of its subject ; he
compels us to reflect upon its marvel, but it is by
giving outward expression to something of the contra-
diction and interpenetration that are of its very
essence. Stimulated by him we have for a brief instant
drawn aside the curtain we had hung between what
we are accustomed to think about ourselves and what
we really are. He has taken us by the hand and led
us into the presence of our own self.

Again, the beliefs which influence us most powerfully
are often those we should find most difficulty in setting
out in words or justifying by reasons. We value
them because they have a colour matching that of our
other ideas and because we detect in them a reflexion
of ourselves. They live in us, in fact, as cells live
in an organism ; they change with us, as the cell
changes with the organism. But unlike the cell, which
occupies only one place in the organism, an idea truly
our own pervades us through and through. Not all
ideas, however, are in this sense our own. Many
float on our surface, as scattered leaves float on the
surface of a pond ; and these we find always the
same. They do not change with the changing mind ;
they remain as though external to it. Of such are the



114 HENRI BERGSON

ideas coming to us ready-made, retained by us but
never assimilated ; of such, too, are those we have
failed to cherish and allowed to wither in neglect.

Freedom and necessity.

It becomes evident from the foregoing discussion that
the contradictions implicit in the problems of causa-
tion, freedom, and personality arise from presenting
the concrete and living self as an association of elements
separated, or at least separable, from each other, and
setting these side by side in a homogeneous medium
which may be called either time or space. To escape
these contradictions we have but to substitute the
true self for the artificial and symbolic self.

Our enquiry into the psychic process, as far as it has
gone, shows us in the self a peculiar kind of activity.
We see that in contact with the external world it
accepts, in a measure, something of the clear-cut forms
of that world, yet maintains always in its interior
depths mobility, intensity, and qualitative multi-
plicity. We shall see too that the forms in which it
expresses itself are new creations and are therefore
incalculable beforehand. And we only put this in
other words when we say that the self, essentially, is
free, and that its action, when truly its own, must be
regarded as a manifestation of the whole personality
as it is at the moment. Any idea of determinism
brought into this connexion reveals ignorance of the
process of conscious life, which is duration. If we
bear this in mind we shall find it impossible to deny



FREEDOM AND THE WILL 115

freedom as the relation that the concrete self has to
its act ; but on the other hand we shall be compelled
to recognize our inability to define it. We cannot
analyse a process ; we cannot break up duration.
When we try to do so we make the process into a
thing and translate duration in terms of space. We
replace domg by the already done ; and as we thus
stereotype the self we may watch, if we please, spon-
taneity degraded to inertia and freedom crystallized
into necessity. It is thus perfectly clear that a positive
definition of freedom, for which analysis and its conse-
quents are essential, must ensure to determinism the
argumentative victory. Free activity is a fact that \/
we know but cannot prove ; and when once the
problem of freedom is correctly stated we discover
that real freedom presents no problem at all.

All this is in agreement with every man's experience
of the real character of life ; nevertheless it seems
absurd to the ordinary scientific or psychological
determinist. The determinist invokes against freedom
certain definite facts, physical and psychological. He
says that our actions are the necessary outcome of
ideas and feelings and of the whole series of conscious
states that has gone before. He says, too, that our
freedom is incompatible with the fundamental pro-
perties of matter, and comes into direct conflict with
the principle of the conservation of energy. From
this it follows that there are two kinds of determinism
and two ways of empirically proving universal necessity.
It will be shown that these two are one ; in fact that



ii6 HENRI BERGSON

even physical determinism rests upon a psychological
hypothesis.

According to mechanical or rather kinetic theories,
the universe may be resolved by the scientific imagina-
tion into particles which, by their elementary move-
ments of vibration and change of place, give rise to
all the physical phenomena our senses perceive ; to
chemical action, to heat, sound, electricity and so on,
perhaps even to gravity itself. The matter of our
own bodies is subject to the same laws ; and in the
nervous system, for instance, there is nothing but
atoms and molecules in motion, repelling and attract-
ing one another. Our conscious processes are the
results of mechanical causes. And our own reaction
to the external world is, in the last resort, only mole-
cular reaction. Besides, since no exception- is admitted
to the principle of the conservation of energy, it is
impossible to admit that any atom in the universe (of
which the nervous system, after all, is but a part) is
not determined in its movement by the total influence
that other atoms bring to bear upon it. No more
than a knowledge of the present position of all the
atoms in a man's body and in the rest of the universe,
so far as these affect it, is needed to enable a mathe-
matician to calculate accurately the past present and
future action of the man, just as he might predict a
solar eclipse.

Accepting for the moment the scientific position
thus assumed (although it is open in several directions
to scientific criticism), we propose to shew that it does



FREEDOM AND THE WILL 117

not involve the absolute determination of one conscious
state by another, and also that the universality of the
principle of the conservation of energy is inadmissible
except as related to a psychological hypothesis.

Even if we allow that every atom in the brain is at
ev^ery moment determined as to position, velocity and
direction, it does not follow that our psychic life is
subject to the same determination. Before that could
be established we should have to prove that a strictly
determined psychic state corresponds precisely with a
definite state of the brain ; and this has not been
done. We are told of molecular movements taking
place within the brain, consciousness then from time
to time being set free, we know not how, and following
their track as the phosphorescent glow follows in the
wake of a vessel. Or we are to picture a musician
playing out of sight behind the scenes, while the actor
strikes the notes of a soundless keyboard ; and then
we are to imagine that consciousness comes from some
mysterious region and is added to the molecular vibra-
tions, as the music of the concealed piano is added
to the movements of the actor. But nothing of this
kind proves or ever will prove that the conscious fact
is absolutely determined by the molecular vibration.
We may find the reason for one movement in another
movement, but we do not find there the reason for a
conscious state. We only observe that this state
does in fact accompany the movement, and not
indeed invariably, except in some few cases that are
generally admitted to be almost independent of the



ii8 HENRI BERGSON

will. Yet physical determinism says that there is
this accompaniment in every case.

We are aware that most of our actions can be
explained by motives, but this does not prevent us
from believing in our freedom. There are very simple
psychic states which happen as accompaniments to
well-marked physical phenomena, and most of our
sensations seem bound up with well-marked molecular
movements. For a man already sure that psychic
states follow necessarily from circumstances this is
quite enough. He then has no hesitation in picturing
to himself the dramatic play of mind as a literal version
of the play of material atoms in the organism.

But undoubtedly such freedom as remains to us,
after making our life accord with the physical prin-
ciple of the conservation of energy, is very small. Even
if this principle does not regulate our thought it will
at least determine our movements. Up to a point
our interior life will still depend upon ourselves ; but,
looked at from the outside, it will be impossible to
see how our activity differs from that of an automaton.
Here we are driven to acknowledge that a scientific
man who was not prejudiced beforehand against
human freedom, and in whose mind the fact of free-
dom assumed a due importance, would be unlikely
to think of extending that physical principle to all
bodies in nature. To extend it to the human body
seems to imply his prepossession by some psychological
theory.

Further, it is well to avoid estimating too highly the



FREEDOM AND THE WILL 119

share taken by this principle in the natural sciences.
As it exists at present, it indicates an aspect of the
evolution of some sciences ; but we must not say
either that it has been the chief factor in that evolution
or that it is an indispensable postulate in all scientific
investigation. No doubt, in mathematics what is
given is given, and what is not given is not given ; in
whatever order the same terms are added up the same
result ensues ; when we deal with a given quantity
mathematically the permanence of that quantity
throughout our operation is implied, in however many
different ways we split it up. This is no more than
the law of non-contradiction to which science must
always be subject ; it reveals nothing of the nature
of that which we ought to take as given, or of
what remains constant. It tells us that something
cannot arise from nothing ; but experience alone will
tell us which are the manifestations of reality that
must count for ' something ' or for ' nothing ' in
the operations of science.

The principle of the conservation of energy applies,
so far as we know, to all physical and chemical phe-
nomena. But it cannot be denied that the study of
physiological phenomena, and of nervous phenomena
in particular, may well reveal to us besides ' kinetic '
energy and ' potential ' energy another kind differing
from them by escaping the processes of our calculation.
We should then see that systems based on the principle
of the conservation of energy are not the only possible
systems ; and even that, in relation to reality as a



120 HENRI BERGSON

whole, they play the same part as the chemist's atom
plays in relation to bodies and their combinations.
We must observe that in the most thorough-going of
mechanical theories consciousness is taken as an epi-
phenomenon which under certain circumstances super-
venes on molecular movements. But why, if these
movements can produce sensation out of a zero of
consciousness, should not consciousness produce move-
ment either from a zero of physical energy, or by
using that energy after a fashion of its own ? We must
observe, too, that every intelligible application of the
principle refers to a system of which the points, after
moving, can return to their original positions. This
reversal of movement is at least thought of as possible,
and as involving no change in the system as a whole
or in its parts. Time makes no difference here. But
in the realm of life we find a very different state of
affairs. Here there is duration, and it seems to behave
like a cause. The very idea of replacing things as
they were at the end of a certain time seems to us
absurd, not only because in no living being has any
such reversal ever occurred, but because the hypothesis
of reversal is meaningless in relation to conscious
states. In fact the material point, as understood by
the mechanician, is for ever in a present ; but perhaps
for all living bodies, and most certainly for all conscious
beings, the past is truly real. To a system taken as
conservative of its own energy past time brings
neither gain nor loss ; but to the Uving being it may
bring gain, to the conscious being it unquestionably



FREEDOM AND THE WILL 121

is gain. Surely we may say that the hypothesis of a
conscious force, or free will, has much to be said for
it — a force upon which time acts and which stores up
duration, thereby showing that it is beyond the scope
of the principle of the conservation of energy.

That a principle of mechanics has been elevated to
the rank of an universal law is due, then, rather to a
psychological mistake than to any requirement on the
part of the positive sciences. We habitually see our-
selves not directly but under forms transferred from
the external world, and we are thus impelled to regard
the duration lived by consciousness as the same as
that which glides over material atoms without affecting
them. So it comes about that we imagine the same
motives acting a second or a third time on the same
person, and picture them as producing, a second or a
third time, the same effect. This is the psychological
path to the establishment of the principle of the con-
servation of energy as an universal law. The difference
between the outer and the inner worlds, which careful
scrutiny reveals as all-important, is set aside. But
physical science, properly so called, has nothing to do
with this. In the confusion between concrete duration
and abstract time we find evidence that the so-called
physical determinism is at bottom no other than
psychological.

Psychological determinism.

For the newer psychological determinism a state of
consciousness, though regarded as a necessary outcome



122 HENRI BERGSON

of states that went before, is now seen as no geometrical
necessity but rather as a transition from the previous
state, to be explained as though the first were a sum-
mons to the second, the difference of quality between
the two nullifying the attempt to deduce one from the
other a priori. No doubt there is a relation between
an existing state of consciousness and the new state
into which it passes. But the question remains
whether the relation which explains the transition is
the cause of the new state. The truth is that psycho-
logical determinism is compelled to represent the self
as an assemblage of psychic states in which a prevailing
influence is exerted by the most powerful, which
carries the rest with it in its train. Co-existing psychic
phenomena are thus distinguished one from another
like objects in space. The feelings— desire, fear,
temptation, and so on — are made into concrete self-
existing motives among which there may be a real
struggle for mastery. And it is worthy of notice that
the opponents of determinism are willing to follow
their adversaries on to this ground. They also speak
of contests among motives and associated ideas ; and
Fouillee, one of the ablest of them, even regards the
idea of freedom itself as a motive that can overcome
others. Both sides abandon themselves to a confusion,
arising from the fact that language has not been built
up in view of the need to convey fine shades in the
changing colour of our inner states. When we try
to describe and analyse a conscious state, the state,
which is above all personal, is broken up into impersonal



FREEDOM AND THE WILL 123

and mutually external parts, each of which suggests a
class to which it belongs and a particular name that
will match it. When, in place of the concrete pheno-
menon occurring in the mind, we put an artificial
reconstitution of it according to the methods of
philosophy, we fall into a confusion between an
explanation of the fact and the fact itself.

Undoubtedly, as we have said, the self comes super-
ficially into contact with the external world, and its
surface keeps, as it were, an impression of things in
the world ; it will therefore connect together in a sort
of contiguity terms perceived by it as side by side.
Links of this kind, simple and almost impersonal
states, are not perceptibly out of harmony with a
theory which treats them as though they were things.
But the further we penetrate the processes of the
self, leaving behind its surface relations, the further
do its states depart from an apparent juxtaposition
and begin to interweave one with another, to make a
web of living, flowing, changing threads, each tinged
with the colours of all the rest. Every one of us loves
and hates after his own fashion, and in his love or
hate mirrors his whole self. Yet for every one of us
there is only the one word love or the one word hate,
and in these words there is no more than an objective
and impersonal aspect of emotions that stir differently
the depths of every soul. Between mind and language
there is no common measure.

Only when psychology is the dupe of language is it
able to picture the mind as determined this way or



124 HENRI BERGSON

that by this or that interior attraction or aversion,
as though by powers brought to bear upon it. Every
feeUng, if it is profound, represents the whole mind
because the whole content of the mind is mirrored in
it. When the mind is said to be determined by any
feeling it is, in fact, self-determined.

The outward sign of a state in which the whole
personality is represented is a free act ; because the
self alone produces it, and in it all the self is expressed.
We see then that, taken in this way, freedom is not
absolute, as a certain libertarian doctrine pronounces
it ; obviously it has degrees. Conscious states do not
all dissolve in one another like raindrops in a pool.
On the surface, where our life has dealings with space,
independent deposits may be formed and float about.
A hypnotic suggestion seems to possess a life of its
own and invades the mind like a foreign force. A
sudden rage provoked by a casual circumstance acts
almost in the same way. Neither enters into the
compacted mass of the self. And besides such as
these almost independent elements are others, less
simple, which yet always remain imperfectly unified
with the self. Of this kind is the group of feelings
and ideas arising from an education directed more to
the memory than to judgement. This forms a parasitic
self living as it were by the life of the self that is
fundamental. Great numbers of men spend their
existence in this way and die without ever knowing
what true freedom is. But on the other hand, were
the whole self to accept it, even the hypnotic



FREEDOM AND THE WILL 125

suggestion would become possessed of the power to
persuade ; and if a sudden outburst of rage reflects
the whole history of the man, it is no longer a fatal
influence over him but the expression of himself.
If education infringes upon our freedom it is not
merely because it is authoritative, but because, whether
authoritative or not, it fails to convey to us ideas
that we can make tnily our own. A decision to be
free must spring from the whole self; and it will be
more or less free as it springs from more or less of the
real and deepest self.

Plainly, then, free acts are rare, even in men whose
habit it is to govern themselves and think of what
they do. We have seen in the course of our discussion
that our own self is usually perceived by us against
a background of space, that through the influence of
language our changing states of mind come to take
on the look of solid things, and that our living per-
sonalit}^ is thus crusted over by an aggregation of
artificially defined states separated one from another
and therefore deprived of their mobility. We have
seen, too, that in our social dealings, and in our com-
munication by speech with other men, we profit by
accepting this state of things as a faithful representa-
tion of the true facts of life. We must note further
that our everyday actions are evoked far less by our
changing feelings than by the unchanging images to
which these feelings cling — it is often very convenient
to be a conscious automaton. Most of our own
daily acts are done automatically ; because external



126 HENRI BERGSON

impressions summon responses from us which, although
they are conscious and even intelhgent, much resemble
reflex acts. These are, in fact, a consolidated sub-
stratum for free activity, and fulfil the same office
towards it as the functions of our body do towards all
our conscious life. Indeed we must acknowledge that
even in grave circumstances we not infrequently, from
weakness or inertia, abrogate our liberty in favour
of this pseudo-reflex process. But on the other hand,
just when the quasi-automatic act is due, the pro-
founder self sometimes rebels and takes a new decision,
as though, beneath the superficial complex of arguments
and advice and custom, another process had been going
on, a gradual maturing and energizing of emotions and
thoughts. And when we reflect upon what has hap-
pened we may discover that all the time this process
was not so much unknown to us as unregarded. We
find that in those ideas and those emotions we ourselves
were alive, forcing a way to fuller expression ; although
we had, as it were, offered resistance to ourselves.
Then, when we want to know why we changed our
mind, we cannot see that we decided on our new course
for any reason ; we think perhaps that we decided
against reason. But we must learn to recognize that
sometimes this is the best of all reasons. The reasons
we may muster superficially do not express our real
selves ; the act that might have followed them would
not have been truly our own ; the new decision, on
the contrary, accords with all our deepest emotions
thoughts, desires — in short, with what we really are



FREEDOM AND THE WILL 127

in our profoiinder self. It is easy enough to shew
that in everyday circumstances a man decides accord-
ing to some determining motive. We must not look


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Online LibraryAlgot Henrik Leonard RuheHenri Bergson; an account of his life and philosophy → online text (page 8 of 16)