Sunday, May 29, 2005

Bergson as Resonating Existential

I stumbled across an interesting essay by Robert A. Conner, Person as Resonating Existential. Really I should learn to introduce topics. Having posted numerous times on issues of personhood and existentialism, what sense does it make to say that I stumbled across such an essay? Well, I was searching for commentaries about Henri Bergson, and quite understandably Conner's essay caught my attention. Conner's mention of Bergson, via a secondary source, doesn't touch so much on what resonates with me (more of which in a moment), but it does go the reason for my search for commentary, namely to discover why Bergson is held in such disrepute.

Henri Bergson held in disrepute? Indubitably. Outside a Deleuzian revival of Bergson in some quarters, particularly film studies, serious intellectuals scarcely mention Bergson, and if they do, they typically emphasize that he was absolutely wrong. Wrong about what? Life, the universe, everything--whatever it is that philosophers are supposed to get right. In my own intellectual journey, I recall at one time having decided that Bergson was wrong, but I can't put my finger on precisely what he was wrong about or how I came to such a conclusion. I'm sure it had either to do with the constitution of Time or Memory. Oh, that's convincing. Would you care to examine my early refutation of asparagus?

I did, incidentally, escape university with a samizdat copy of Bergson's Laughter, which explores the thesis that "All that is serious in life comes from our freedom." By "samizdat" I mean bought it a used book store and kept it from my professors. Laughter is the finest treatment of its subject this side of Monty Python, evidence of a superlative genius if one were needed.

All kidding aside, at the moment I'm interested in how Bergson wraps up his discussion of duration and extensity at the end of Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness (trans. F. L. Pogson):

Hence there are finally two different selves, one of which is, as it were, the external projection of the other, its spatial and, so to speak, social representation. We reach the former by deep introspection, which leads us to grasp our inner states as living things, constantly becoming, as states not amenable to measure, which permeate one another and of which the succession in duration has nothing in common with juxtaposition in homogeneous space. But the moments at which we thus grasp ourselves are rare, and that is just why we are rarely free. The greater part of the time we live outside ourselves, hardly percieving anything of ourselves but our own ghost, a colourless shadow which pure duration projects into homogeneous space. Hence our life unfolds in space rather than time; we live for the external world rather than for ourselves; we speak rather than think; we "are acted" rather than act oursleves. To act freely is to recover possession of oneself, and to get back into pure duration.

(pp. 231-232)

There you have it: Bergson as resonating existential. And now that my memory's been jogged, I recall having specifically rejected Bergson's idea of "inner experience," though why I should have rejected that idea while tolerating Husserl's "internal time consciousness" or Buber's ich-du (with which I am still in conversation, having reached no firm judgement) is not altogether clear, and quite probably groundless. In any case, my recent foray into the works of Paul Ricoeur has prepared me to revisit the duality of existence, which I might have come to by alternative routes, though Ricoeur's is as good as any and better than most, and that has reawakened my sublimated fascination with Bergson. Ricoeur, of course, being a serious thinker, repudiates Bergson in no uncertain terms--but that's neither here nor there. Actually, it may be instructive to back up and consider the paragraph immediately prior to the one quoted above, which is in fact one that roused my attention.

Inquiring then why this separation of duration and extensity, which science carries out so naturally in the external world, demands such an effort and rouses so much repugnance when it is a question of inner states, we were not long in perceiving the reason. The main object of science is to forecast and measure: now we cannot forecast physical phenomena except on condition that we assume that they do not endure as we do; and, on the other hand, the only thing we are able to measure is space. Hence the breach here comes about of itself between quality and quantity, between true duration and pure extensity. But when we turn to our conscious states, we have everything to gain by keeping up the illusion through which we make them share in the reciprocal externality of outer things, because this distinctness, and at the same time this solidification, enables us to give them fixed names in spite of their interpenetration. It enables us to objectify them, to throw them out into the current of social life.


And henceforth. Here we see the problem for Ricoeur, namely Bergson's positing of Time as immeasurable, and probably the source of my initial dismissal of durée (le temps durée, to be clear) as constituitive of "inner experience." But I suspect it's not very kind to Bergson, certainly on my part, or true to what we might have discovered had we suspended judgement a while longer; because Bergson absolutely did not deny the measurability of le temps espace, and if Ricoeur didn't ponder the same sort of dilemma in a differnt key, I'm a monkey's uncle. Or a yak. Not just any yak, and not the Mad Yak, mind you, but Fido the Yak. I'm very particular about who I claim as relations, you see. So there you have it: Bergson as resonating existential.

posted by Fido the Yak at 10:57 AM.


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