Henri Bergson.

Creative evolution online

. (page 23 of 34)
Online LibraryHenri BergsonCreative evolution → online text (page 23 of 34)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

have always been full, but the liquid it contains nevertheless fills a
void. In the same way, being may have always been there, but the nought
which is filled, and, as it were, stopped up by it, pre-exists for it
none the less, if not in fact at least in right. In short, I cannot get
rid of the idea that the full is an embroidery on the canvas of the
void, that being is superimposed on nothing, and that in the idea of
"nothing" there is _less_ than in that of "something." Hence all the

It is necessary that this mystery should be cleared up. It is more
especially necessary, if we put duration and free choice at the base of
things. For the disdain of metaphysics for all reality that endures
comes precisely from this, that it reaches being only by passing through
"not-being," and that an existence which endures seems to it not strong
enough to conquer non-existence and itself posit itself. It is for this
reason especially that it is inclined to endow true being with a
_logical_, and not a psychological nor a physical existence. For the
nature of a purely logical existence is such that it seems to be
self-sufficient and to posit itself by the effect alone of the force
immanent in truth. If I ask myself why bodies or minds exist rather than
nothing, I find no answer; but that a logical principle, such as A=A,
should have the power of creating itself, triumphing over the nought
throughout eternity, seems to me natural. A circle drawn with chalk on
a blackboard is a thing which needs explanation: this entirely physical
existence has not by itself wherewith to vanquish non-existence. But the
"logical essence" of the circle, that is to say, the possibility of
drawing it according to a certain law - in short, its definition - is a
thing which appears to me eternal: it has neither place nor date; for
nowhere, at no moment, has the drawing of a circle begun to be possible.
Suppose, then, that the principle on which all things rest, and which
all things manifest possesses an existence of the same nature as that of
the definition of the circle, or as that of the axiom A=A: the mystery
of existence vanishes, for the being that is at the base of everything
posits itself then in eternity, as logic itself does. True, it will cost
us rather a heavy sacrifice: if the principle of all things exists after
the manner of a logical axiom or of a mathematical definition, the
things themselves must go forth from this principle like the
applications of an axiom or the consequences of a definition, and there
will no longer be place, either in the things nor in their principle,
for efficient causality understood in the sense of a free choice. Such
are precisely the conclusions of a doctrine like that of Spinoza, or
even that of Leibniz, and such indeed has been their genesis.

Now, if we could prove that the idea of the nought, in the sense in
which we take it when we oppose it to that of existence, is a
pseudo-idea, the problems that are raised around it would become
pseudo-problems. The hypothesis of an absolute that acts freely, that in
an eminent sense endures, would no longer raise up intellectual
prejudices. The road would be cleared for a philosophy more nearly
approaching intuition, and which would no longer ask the same sacrifices
of common sense.

Let us then see what we are thinking about when we speak of "Nothing."
To represent "Nothing," we must either imagine it or conceive it. Let us
examine what this image or this idea may be. First, the image.

I am going to close my eyes, stop my ears, extinguish one by one the
sensations that come to me from the outer world. Now it is done; all my
perceptions vanish, the material universe sinks into silence and the
night. - I subsist, however, and cannot help myself subsisting. I am
still there, with the organic sensations which come to me from the
surface and from the interior of my body, with the recollections which
my past perceptions have left behind them - nay, with the impression,
most positive and full, of the void I have just made about me. How can I
suppress all this? How eliminate myself? I can even, it may be, blot out
and forget my recollections up to my immediate past; but at least I keep
the consciousness of my present reduced to its extremest poverty, that
is to say, of the actual state of my body. I will try, however, to do
away even with this consciousness itself. I will reduce more and more
the sensations my body sends in to me: now they are almost gone; now
they are gone, they have disappeared in the night where all things else
have already died away. But no! At the very instant that my
consciousness is extinguished, another consciousness lights up - or
rather, it was already alight: it had arisen the instant before, in
order to witness the extinction of the first; for the first could
disappear only for another and in the presence of another. I see myself
annihilated only if I have already resuscitated myself by an act which
is positive, however involuntary and unconscious. So, do what I will, I
am always perceiving something, either from without or from within. When
I no longer know anything of external objects, it is because I have
taken refuge in the consciousness that I have of myself. If I abolish
this inner self, its very abolition becomes an object for an imaginary
self which now perceives as an external object the self that is dying
away. Be it external or internal, some object there always is that my
imagination is representing. My imagination, it is true, can go from one
to the other, I can by turns imagine a nought of external perception or
a nought of internal perception, but not both at once, for the absence
of one consists, at bottom, in the exclusive presence of the other. But,
from the fact that two relative noughts are imaginable in turn, we
wrongly conclude that they are imaginable together: a conclusion the
absurdity of which must be obvious, for we cannot imagine a nought
without perceiving, at least confusedly, that we are imagining it,
consequently that we are acting, that we are thinking, and therefore
that something still subsists.

The image, then, properly so called, of a suppression of everything is
never formed by thought. The effort by which we strive to create this
image simply ends in making us swing to and fro between the vision of an
outer and that of an inner reality. In this coming and going of our mind
between the without and the within, there is a point, at equal distance
from both, in which it seems to us that we no longer perceive the one,
and that we do not yet perceive the other: it is there that the image of
"Nothing" is formed. In reality, we then perceive both, having reached
the point where the two terms come together, and the image of Nothing,
so defined, is an image full of things, an image that includes at once
that of the subject and that of the object and, besides, a perpetual
leaping from one to the other and the refusal ever to come to rest
finally on either. Evidently this is not the nothing that we can oppose
to being, and put before or beneath being, for it already includes
existence in general.

But we shall be told that, if the representation of Nothing, visible or
latent, enters into the reasonings of philosophers, it is not as an
image, but as an idea. It may be agreed that we do not imagine the
annihilation of everything, but it will be claimed that we can conceive
it. We conceive a polygon with a thousand sides, said Descartes,
although we do not see it in imagination: it is enough that we can
clearly represent the possibility of constructing it. So with the idea
of the annihilation of everything. Nothing simpler, it will be said,
than the procedure by which we construct the idea of it. There is, in
fact, not a single object of our experience that we cannot suppose
annihilated. Extend this annihilation of a first object to a second,
then to a third, and so on as long as you please: the nought is the
limit toward which the operation tends. And the nought so defined is the
annihilation of everything. That is the theory. We need only consider it
in this form to see the absurdity it involves.

An idea constructed by the mind is an idea only if its pieces are
capable of coexisting; it is reduced to a mere word if the elements that
we bring together to compose it are driven away as fast as we assemble
them. When I have defined the circle, I easily represent a black or a
white circle, a circle in cardboard, iron, or brass, a transparent or an
opaque circle - but not a square circle, because the law of the
generation of the circle excludes the possibility of defining this
figure with straight lines. So my mind can represent any existing thing
whatever as annihilated; - but if the annihilation of anything by the
mind is an operation whose mechanism implies that it works on a part of
the whole, and not on the whole itself, then the extension of such an
operation to the totality of things becomes self-contradictory and
absurd, and the idea of an annihilation of everything presents the same
character as that of a square circle: it is not an idea, it is only a
word. So let us examine more closely the mechanism of the operation.

In fact, the object suppressed is either external or internal: it is a
thing or it is a state of consciousness. Let us consider the first case.
I annihilate in thought an external object: in the place where it was,
there is no longer anything. - No longer anything of that object, of
course, but another object has taken its place: there is no absolute
void in nature. But admit that an absolute void is possible: it is not
of that void that I am thinking when I say that the object, once
annihilated, leaves its place unoccupied; for by the hypothesis it is a
_place_, that is a void limited by precise outlines, or, in other words,
a kind of _thing_. The void of which I speak, therefore, is, at bottom,
only the absence of some definite object, which was here at first, is
now elsewhere and, in so far as it is no longer in its former place,
leaves behind it, so to speak, the void of itself. A being unendowed
with memory or prevision would not use the words "void" or "nought;" he
would express only what is and what is perceived; now, what is, and what
is perceived, is the _presence_ of one thing or of another, never the
_absence_ of anything. There is absence only for a being capable of
remembering and expecting. He remembered an object, and perhaps expected
to encounter it again; he finds another, and he expresses the
disappointment of his expectation (an expectation sprung from
recollection) by saying that he no longer finds anything, that he
encounters "nothing." Even if he did not expect to encounter the object,
it is a possible expectation of it, it is still the falsification of his
eventual expectation that he expresses by saying that the object is no
longer where it was. What he perceives in reality, what he will succeed
in effectively thinking of, is the presence of the old object in a new
place or that of a new object in the old place; the rest, all that is
expressed negatively by such words as "nought" or the "void," is not so
much thought as feeling, or, to speak more exactly, it is the tinge that
feeling gives to thought. The idea of annihilation or of partial
nothingness is therefore formed here in the course of the substitution
of one thing for another, whenever this substitution is thought by a
mind that would prefer to keep the old thing in the place of the new, or
at least conceives this preference as possible. The idea implies on the
subjective side a preference, on the objective side a substitution, and
is nothing else but a combination of, or rather an interference between,
this feeling of preference and this idea of substitution.

Such is the mechanism of the operation by which our mind annihilates an
object and succeeds in representing in the external world a partial
nought. Let us now see how it represents it within itself. We find in
ourselves phenomena that are produced, and not phenomena that are not
produced. I experience a sensation or an emotion, I conceive an idea, I
form a resolution: my consciousness perceives these facts, which are so
many _presences_, and there is no moment in which facts of this kind are
not present to me. I can, no doubt, interrupt by thought the course of
my inner life; I may suppose that I sleep without dreaming or that I
have ceased to exist; but at the very instant when I make this
supposition, I conceive myself, I imagine myself watching over my
slumber or surviving my annihilation, and I give up perceiving myself
from within only by taking refuge in the perception of myself from
without. That is to say that here again the full always succeeds the
full, and that an intelligence that was only intelligence, that had
neither regret nor desire, whose movement was governed by the movement
of its object, could not even conceive an absence or a void. The
conception of a void arises here when consciousness, lagging behind
itself, remains attached to the recollection of an old state when
another state is already present. It is only a comparison between what
is and what could or ought to be, between the full and the full. In a
word, whether it be a void of matter or a void of consciousness, _the
representation of the void is always a representation which is full and
which resolves itself on analysis into two positive elements: the idea,
distinct or confused, of a substitution, and the feeling, experienced or
imagined, of a desire or a regret_.

It follows from this double analysis that the idea of the absolute
nought, in the sense of the annihilation of everything, is a
self-destructive idea, a pseudo-idea, a mere word. If suppressing a
thing consists in replacing it by another, if thinking the absence of
one thing is only possible by the more or less explicit representation
of the presence of some other thing, if, in short, annihilation
signifies before anything else substitution, the idea of an
"annihilation of everything" is as absurd as that of a square circle.
The absurdity is not obvious, because there exists no particular object
that cannot be supposed annihilated; then, from the fact that there is
nothing to prevent each thing in turn being suppressed in thought, we
conclude that it is possible to suppose them suppressed altogether. We
do not see that suppressing each thing in turn consists precisely in
replacing it in proportion and degree by another, and therefore that the
suppression of absolutely everything implies a downright contradiction
in terms, since the operation consists in destroying the very condition
that makes the operation possible.

But the illusion is tenacious. Though suppressing one thing consists _in
fact_ in substituting another for it, we do not conclude, we are
unwilling to conclude, that the annihilation of a thing _in thought_
implies the substitution in thought of a new thing for the old. We agree
that a thing is always replaced by another thing, and even that our mind
cannot think the disappearance of an object, external or internal,
without thinking - under an indeterminate and confused form, it is
true - that another object is substituted for it. But we add that the
representation of a disappearance is that of a phenomenon that is
produced in space or at least in time, that consequently it still
implies the calling up of an image, and that it is precisely here that
we have to free ourselves from the imagination in order to appeal to the
pure understanding. "Let us therefore no longer speak," it will be said,
"of disappearance or annihilation; these are physical operations. Let us
no longer represent the object A as annihilated or absent. Let us say
simply that we think it "non-existent." To annihilate it is to act on it
in time and perhaps also in space; it is to accept, consequently, the
condition of spatial and temporal existence, to accept the universal
connection that binds an object to all others, and prevents it from
disappearing without being at the same time replaced. But we can free
ourselves from these conditions; all that is necessary is that by an
effort of abstraction we should call up the idea of the object A by
itself, that we should agree first to consider it as existing, and then,
by a stroke of the intellectual pen, blot out the clause. The object
will then be, by our decree, non-existent."

Very well, let us strike out the clause. We must not suppose that our
pen-stroke is self-sufficient - that it can be isolated from the rest of
things. We shall see that it carries with it, whether we will or no,
all that we tried to abstract from. Let us compare together the two
ideas - the object A supposed to exist, and the same object supposed

The idea of the object A, supposed existent, is the representation pure
and simple of the object A, for we cannot represent an object without
attributing to it, by the very fact of representing it, a certain
reality. Between thinking an object and thinking it existent, there is
absolutely no difference. Kant has put this point in clear light in his
criticism of the ontological argument. Then, what is it to think the
object A non-existent? To represent it non-existent cannot consist in
withdrawing from the idea of the object A the idea of the attribute
"existence," since, I repeat, the representation of the existence of the
object is inseparable from the representation of the object, and indeed
is one with it. To represent the object A non-existent can only consist,
therefore, in _adding_ something to the idea of this object: we add to
it, in fact, the idea of an _exclusion_ of this particular object by
actual reality in general. To think the object A as non-existent is
first to think the object and consequently to think it existent; it is
then to think that another reality, with which it is incompatible,
supplants it. Only, it is useless to represent this latter reality
explicitly; we are not concerned with what it is; it is enough for us to
know that it drives out the object A, which alone is of interest to us.
That is why we think of the expulsion rather than of the cause which
expels. But this cause is none the less present to the mind; it is there
in the implicit state, that which expels being inseparable from the
expulsion as the hand which drives the pen is inseparable from the
pen-stroke. The act by which we declare an object unreal therefore
posits the existence of the real in general. In other words, to
represent an object as unreal cannot consist in depriving it of every
kind of existence, since the representation of an object is necessarily
that of the object existing. Such an act consists simply in declaring
that the existence attached by our mind to the object, and inseparable
from its representation, is an existence wholly ideal - that of a mere
_possible_. But the "ideality" of an object, and the "simple
possibility" of an object, have meaning only in relation to a reality
that drives into the region of the ideal, or of the merely possible, the
object which is incompatible with it. Suppose the stronger and more
substantial existence annihilated: it is the attenuated and weaker
existence of the merely possible that becomes the reality itself, and
you will no longer be representing the object, then, as non-existent. In
other words, and however strange our assertion may seem, _there is_
more, _and not_ less, _in the idea of an object conceived as "not
existing" than in the idea of this same object conceived as "existing";
for the idea of the object "not existing" is necessarily the idea of the
object "existing" with, in addition, the representation of an exclusion
of this object by the actual reality taken in block_.

But it will be claimed that our idea of the non-existent is not yet
sufficiently cut loose from every imaginative element, that it is not
negative enough. "No matter," we shall be told, "though the unreality of
a thing consist in its exclusion by other things; we want to know
nothing about that. Are we not free to direct our attention where we
please and how we please? Well then, after having called up the idea of
an object, and thereby, if you will have it so, supposed it existent, we
shall merely couple to our affirmation a 'not,' and that will be enough
to make us think it non-existent. This is an operation entirely
intellectual, independent of what happens outside the mind. So let us
think of anything or let us think of the totality of things, and then
write in the margin of our thought the 'not,' which prescribes the
rejection of what it contains: we annihilate everything mentally by the
mere fact of decreeing its annihilation." - Here we have it! The very
root of all the difficulties and errors with which we are confronted is
to be found in the power ascribed here to negation. We represent
negation as exactly symmetrical with affirmation. We imagine that
negation, like affirmation, is self-sufficient. So that negation, like
affirmation, would have the power of creating ideas, with this sole
difference that they would be negative ideas. By affirming one thing,
and then another, and so on _ad infinitum_, I form the idea of "All;"
so, by denying one thing and then other things, finally by denying All,
I arrive at the idea of Nothing. - But it is just this assimilation which
is arbitrary. We fail to see that while affirmation is a complete act of
the mind, which can succeed in building up an idea, negation is but the
half of an intellectual act, of which the other half is understood, or
rather put off to an indefinite future. We fail to see that while
affirmation is a purely intellectual act, there enters into negation an
element which is not intellectual, and that it is precisely to the
intrusion of this foreign element that negation owes its specific

To begin with the second point, let us note that to deny always consists
in setting aside a possible affirmation.[98] Negation is only an
attitude taken by the mind toward an eventual affirmation. When I say,
"This table is black," I am speaking of the table; I have seen it
black, and my judgment expresses what I have seen. But if I say, "This
table is not white," I surely do not express something I have perceived,
for I have seen black, and not an absence of white. It is therefore, at
bottom, not on the table itself that I bring this judgment to bear, but
rather on the judgment that would declare the table white. I judge a
judgment and not the table. The proposition, "This table is not white,"
implies that you might believe it white, that you did believe it such,
or that I was going to believe it such. I warn you or myself that this
judgment is to be replaced by another (which, it is true, I leave
undetermined). Thus, while affirmation bears directly on the thing,
negation aims at the thing only indirectly, through an interposed
affirmation. An affirmative proposition expresses a judgment on an
object; a negative proposition expresses a judgment on a judgment.
_Negation, therefore, differs from affirmation properly so called in
that it is an affirmation of the second degree: it affirms something of
an affirmation which itself affirms something of an object._

But it follows at once from this that negation is not the work of pure
mind, I should say of a mind placed before objects and concerned with
them alone. When we deny, we give a lesson to others, or it may be to
ourselves. We take to task an interlocutor, real or possible, whom we
find mistaken and whom we put on his guard. He was affirming something:
we tell him he ought to affirm something else (though without specifying
the affirmation which must be substituted). There is no longer then,
simply, a person and an object; there is, in face of the object, a
person speaking to a person, opposing him and aiding him at the same
time; there is a beginning of society. Negation aims at some one, and
not only, like a purely intellectual operation, at some thing. It is of
a pedagogical and social nature. It sets straight or rather warns, the
person warned and set straight being possibly, by a kind of doubling,
the very person that speaks.

So much for the second point; now for the first. We said that negation
is but the half of an intellectual act, of which the other half is left
indeterminate. If I pronounce the negative proposition, "This table is
not white," I mean that you ought to substitute for your judgment, "The
table is white," another judgment. I give you an admonition, and the
admonition refers to the necessity of a substitution. As to what you
ought to substitute for your affirmation, I tell you nothing, it is

Online LibraryHenri BergsonCreative evolution → online text (page 23 of 34)