THE REALITY OF CHANGE
Fundamental in Bergson’s philosophy. We are surrounded by changes–we ourselves change–Belief in change–Simplicity of change–Immobility is composite and relative–All movement is indivisible. The fallacy of “states”–Intellect loves the static–Life is dynamic–Change, the very stuff of life, constitutes reality.
Throughout the history of thought we find that the prevailing philosophies have always reflected some of the characteristics of their time. For instance, in those periods when, as historians tell us, the tendency towards unity, conformity, system, order, and authority was strong, we find philosophy reflecting these conditions by emphasizing the unity of the universe; while in those periods in which established order, system, and authority were disturbed, the philosophy of the time emphasizes the idea of multiplicity as opposed to the unity of the universe, laying stress on freedom, creative action, spontaneity of effort, and the reality of change. There can be little doubt that this is the chief reason why Bergson’s philosophy has found such an amount of acceptance in a comparatively short period. The response to his thought may be explained very largely by this, that already his fundamental ideas existed, although implicit, unexpressed, in the minds of a great multitude of thoughtful people, to whom the static conceptions of the universe were inadequate and false.
We must not, on the other hand, overlook the fact that Bergson’s statements have in their turn given an emphasis to all aspects of thought which take account of the reality of change and which realize its importance in all spheres. A writer on world politics very aptly reminds us that “life is change, and a League of Peace that aimed at preserving peace by forbidding change would be a tyranny as oppressive as any Napoleonic dictatorship. These problems called for periodic change. The peril of our future is that, while the need for change is instinctively grasped by some peoples as the fundamental fact of world-politics, to perceive it costs others a difficult effort of thought.” [Footnote: H. N. Brailsford on Peace and Change, Chap. 3 of his Book A League of Nations.] However difficult it may be for some individuals and for some nations to grasp it, the great fact is there–the reality of change is undeniable.
Bergson himself would give to his philosophy the title, The Philosophy of Change, and this for a very good reason, for the principle of Change and an insistence on its reality lies at the root of his thought.[Footnote: He suggested this as a sub-title to Dr. H. Wildon Carr for his little work Henri Bergson (People’s Books). Dr. Wildon Carr’s later and larger work bears this as its full title.] “We know that everything changes,” we find him saying in his London lectures, “but it is mere words. From the earliest times recorded in the history of philosophy, philosophers have never stopped saying that everything changes; but, when the moment came for the practical application of this proposition, they acted as if they believed that at the bottom of things there is immobility and invariability. The greatest difficulties of philosophy are due to not taking account of the fact that Change and Movement are universal. It is not enough to say that everything changes and moves–we must believe it.” [Footnote: Second of the four lectures on La Nature de l’Ame delivered at London University, Oct. 21, 1911. From report in The Times for Oct. 23, 1911, p. 4.] In order to think Change and to see it, a whole mass of prejudices must be swept aside–some artificial, the products of speculative philosophy, and others the natural product of common-sense. We tend to regard immobility as a more simple affair than movement. But what we call immobility is really composite and is merely relative, being a relation between movements. If, for example, there are two trains running in the same direction on parallel lines at exactly the same speed, opposite one another, then the passengers in each train, when observing the other train, will regard the trains as motionless. So, generally, immobility is only apparent, Change is real. We tend to be misled by language; we speak, for instance, of ‘the state of things’; but what we call a state is the appearance which a change assumes in the eyes of a being who, himself, changes according to an identical or analogous rhythm. “Take, for example,” says Bergson, “a summer day. We are stretched on the grass, we look around us–everything is at rest–there is absolute immobility–no change. But the grass is growing, the leaves of the trees are developing or decaying–we ourselves are growing older all the time. That which seems rest, simplicity itself, is but a composite of our ageing with the changes which takes place in the grass, in the leaves, in all that is around us. Change, then, is simple, while ‘the state of things’ as we call it, is composite. Every stable state is the result of the co-existence between that change and the change of the person who perceives it.” [Footnote: La Nature de l’Ame, lecture 2.]
It is an axiom in the philosophy of Bergson that all change or movement is indivisible. He asserts this expressly in Matter and Memory,[Footnote: Matter and Memory, p. 246 ff. (Fr. p. 207 ff).] and again in the second lecture on The Perception of Change he deals with the indivisibility of movement somewhat fully, submitting it to a careful analysis, from which the following quotation is an extract–“My hand is at the point A. I move it to the point B, traversing the interval AB. I say that this movement from A to B is a simple thing–each of us has the sensation of this, direct and immediate. Doubtless, while we carry our hand over from A to B, we say to ourselves that we could stop it at an intermediate point, but then that would no longer be the same movement. There would then be two movements, with an interval of rest. Neither from within, by the muscular sense, nor from without, by sight, should we have the same perception. If we leave our movement from A to B such as it is, we feel it undivided, and we must declare it indivisible. It is true that when I look at my hand, going from A to B, traversing the interval AB, I say to myself ‘the interval AB can be divided into as many parts as I wish, therefore the movement from A to B can be divided into as many parts as I like, since this movement covers this interval,’ or, again, ‘At each moment of its passing, the moving object passes over a certain point, therefore we can distinguish in the movement as many stopping-places as we wish–therefore the movement is infinitely divisible.’ But let us reflect on this for a minute. How can the movement possibly coincide with the space which it traverses? How can the moving coincide with the motionless? How can the object which moves be said to ‘be’ at any point in its path? It passes over, or, in other words, it could ‘be’ there. It would ‘be’ there if it stopped there, but, if it stopped there, it is no longer the same movement with which we are dealing. It is always at one bound that a trajectory is traversed when, on its course, there is no stoppage. The bound may last a few seconds, or it may last for weeks, months, or years, but it is unique and cannot be decomposed. Only, when once the passage has been made, as the path is in space, and space is infinitely divisible, we picture to ourselves the movement itself as infinitely divisible. We like to imagine it thus, because, in a movement it is not the change of position which interests us, it is the positions themselves which the moving object has left, which it will take up, which it might assume if it were to stop in its course. We have need of immobility, and the more we succeed in presenting to ourselves the movement as coinciding with the space which it traverses, the better we think we understand it. Really, there is no true immobility, if we imply by that, an absence of movement.” [Footnote: Translated from La Perception du Changement, pp. 19-20.] This immobility of which we have need for the purposes of action and of practical life, we erect into an absolute reality. It is of course convenient to our sense of sight to lay hold of objects in this way; as pioneer of the sense of touch, it prepares our action on the external world. But, although for all practical purposes we require the notion of immobility as part of our mental equipment, it does not at all help us to grasp reality. Then we habitually regard movement as something superadded to the motionless. This is quite legitimate in the world of affairs; but when we bring this habit into the world of speculation, we misconceive reality, we create lightheartedly insoluble problems, and close our eyes to what is most alive in the real world. For us movement is one position, then another position, and so on indefinitely. It is true that we say there must be something else, viz., the actual passing across the interval which separates those positions. But such a conception of Change is quite false. All true change or movement is indivisible. We, by constructing fictitious states and trying to compose movement out of them, endeavour to make a process coincide with a thing–a movement with an immobility. This is the way to arrive at dilemmas, antinomies, and blind-alleys of thought. The puzzles of Zeno about “Achilles and the Tortoise” and “The Moving Arrow” are classical examples of the error involved in treating movement as divisible.[Footnote: Bergson in Matter and Memory examines Zeno’s four puzzles: “The Dichotomy,” “Achilles and the Tortoise,” “The Arrow” and “The Stadium.”] If movement is not everything, it is nothing, and if we postulate, to begin with, that the motionless is real, then we shall be incapable of grasping reality. The philosophies of Plato, of Aristotle, and of Plotinus were developed from the thesis that there is more in the immutable than in the moving, and that it is by way of diminution that we pass from the stable to the unstable.
The main reason why it is such a difficult matter for us to grasp the reality of continuous change is owing to the limitations of our intellectual nature. “We are made in order to act, as much as and more than in order to think–or, rather, when we follow the bent of our nature, it is in order to act that we think.” [Footnote: Creative Evolution, p. 313 (Fr. p. 321).] Intellect is always trying to carve out for itself stable forms because it is primarily fitted for action, and “is characterized by a natural inability to comprehend life” and grasp Change.[Footnote: Creative Evolution, p. 174 (Fr. p. 179).] Our intellect loves the solid and the static, but life itself is not static–it is dynamic. We might say that the intellect takes views across the ever-moving scene, snapshots of reality. It acts like the camera of the cinematograph operator, which is capable only of producing photographs, successive and static, in a series upon a ribbon. To grasp reality, we have to do what the cinematograph does with the film–that is, introduce or rather, re-introduce movement.[Footnote: Creative Evolution, pp. 320-324 (Fr. pp. 328-332).] The stiff photograph is an abstraction bereft of movement, so, too, our intellectual views of the world and of our own nature are static instead of being dynamic. Human life is not made up of childhood, adolescence, manhood, and old age as “states,” although we tend to speak of it in this way. Life is not a thing, nor the state of a thing–it is a continuous movement or change. The soul itself is a movement, not an entity. In the physical world, light, when examined, proves itself to be a movement. Even physical science, bound, as it would seem, to assert the fixity and rigidity of matter, is now of the opinion that matter is not the solid thing we are apt to think it. The experiments of Kelvin and Lodge and the discovery of radium, have brought forward a new theory of matter; the old-fashioned base, the atom, is now regarded as being essentially movement; matter is as wonderful and mysterious in its character as spirit. Further we must note that the researches of Einstein, culminating in the formulation of his general Theory of Relativity and his special Theory of Gravitation, which are arousing such interest at the present time, threaten very seriously the older static views of the universe and seem to frustrate any efforts to find and denote any stability therein.[Footnote: Consult on this Dr. Einstein’s own work of which the translation by R. W. Lawson is just published: Relativity: The Special and the General Theory. Methuen, 1920.] In the light of these discoveries, Bergson’s views on the reality of Change seem less paradoxical than they might formerly have appeared. The reality of Change is, for Bergson, absolute, and on this, as a fundamental point, he constructs his thought. In conjunction with his study of Memory, it leads up to his discussions of Real Time (la duree), of Freedom, and of Creative Evolution. We must then, at the outset of any study of Bergson’s philosophy, obtain a grasp of this universal ‘becoming’–a vision of the reality of Change. Then we shall realize that Change is substantial, that it constitutes the very stuff of life. “There are changes, but there are not things that change; change does not need a support. There are movements, but there are not, necessarily, constant objects which are moved; movement does not imply something that is movable.” [Footnote: Translated from La Perception du Changement, Lecture 2, p. 24.]
To emphasize and to illustrate this point, so fundamental in his thought, Bergson turns to music. “Let us listen,” he says, “to a melody, letting ourselves be swayed by it; do we not have the clear perception of a movement which is not attached to any mobility–of a change devoid of anything which changes? The change is self-sufficient, it is the thing itself. It avails nothing to say that it takes time, for it is indivisible; if the melody were to stop sooner, it would not be any longer the same volume of sound, but another, equally indivisible. Doubtless we have a tendency to divide it and to represent it to ourselves as a linking together of distinct notes instead of the uninterrupted continuity of the melody. But why? Simply because our auditive perception has assumed the habit of saturating itself with visual images. We hear the melody across the vision which the conductor of the orchestra can have of it in looking at his score. We represent to ourselves notes linked on to notes on an imaginary sheet of paper. We think of a keyboard on which one plays, of the bow of a violin which comes and goes, of the musicians, each one of whom plays his part in conjunction with the others. Let us abstract these spatial images; there remains pure change, self-sufficing, in no way attached to a ‘thing’ which changes.” [Footnote: Translated from La Perception du Changement, pp. 24-25.]
We must conceive reality as a continual flux, then immobility will seem a superficial abstraction hypostatized into states, concepts, and substances, and the old difficulties raised by the ancients, in regard to the problem of Change, will vanish, along with the problems attached to the notion of “substance” in modern thought, because there is nothing substantial but Change. Apart from Change there is no reality. We shall see that all is movement, that we ourselves are movement–part of an elan, a poussee formidable, which carries with it all things and all creatures, and that in this eternity–not of immutability but of life and Change–“we live and move and have our being.” [Footnote: La Perception du Changement, concluding paragraph, p. 37.]