TIME–TRUE AND FALSE
Our ordinary conception of Time false because it is spatial and homogeneous–Real Time (la duree) not spatial or homogeneous–Flow of consciousness a qualitative multiplicity–The real self and the external self. La duree and the life of the self–No repetition–Personality and the accumulation of experience-Change and la duree as vital elements in the universe.
For any proper understanding of Bergson’s thought, it is necessary to grasp his views regarding Time, for they are fundamental factors in his philosophy and serve to distinguish it specially from that of previous thinkers. It is interesting to note however, in passing, that Dr. Ward, in his Realm of Ends, claims to have anticipated Bergson’s view of Concrete Time. In discussing the relation of such Time to the conception of God, he says, “I think I may fairly claim to have anticipated him (Bergson) to some extent. In 1886 I had written a long paragraph on this topic.” [Footnote: See The Realm of Ends’ foot-note on pp. 306-7. Ward is referring to his famous article in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, eleventh edition, Psychology, p. 577 (now revised and issued in book form as Psychological Principles).] Be this as it may, no philosopher has made so much of this view of Time as Bergson. One might say it is the corner-stone of his philosophy, for practically the whole of it is built upon his conception of Time. His first large work, Essai sur les donnees immediates de la conscience, or, to give it its better title, in English, Time and Free Will, appeared in 1889.
Our ordinary conception of Time, that which comes to us from the physical sciences, is, Bergson maintains, a false one. It is false because so far from being temporal in character, it is spatial. We look upon space as a homogeneous medium without boundaries; yet we look on Time too, as just such another medium, homogeneous and unlimited. Now here is an obvious difficulty, for since homogeneity consists in being without qualities, it is difficult to see how one homogeneity can be distinguished from another. This difficulty is usually avoided by the assertion that homogeneity takes two forms, one in which its contents co-exist, and another in which they follow one another. Space, then, we say, is that homogeneous medium in which we are aware of side-by-sideness, Time–that homogeneous medium in which we are aware of an element of succession. But this surely we are not entitled to maintain, for we are then distinguishing two supposed homogeneities by asserting a difference of quality in them. To do so is to take away homogeneity. We must think again and seek a way out of this difficulty. Let us admit space to be a homogeneous medium without bounds. Then every homogeneous medium without bounds must be space. What, then, becomes of Time?–for on this showing, Time becomes space. Yes, says Bergson, that is so, for our common view of Time is a false one, being really a hybrid conception, a spurious concept due to the illicit introduction of the idea of space, and to our application of the notion of space, which is applicable to physical objects, to states of consciousness, to which it is really inapplicable. Objects occupying space are marked out as external to one another, but this cannot be said of conscious states. Yet, in our ordinary speech and conventional view of things, we think of conscious states as separated from one another and as spread out like “things,” in a fictitious, homogeneous medium to which we give the name Time. Bergson says, “At any rate, we cannot finally admit two forms of the homogeneous, Time and Space, without first seeking whether one of them cannot be reduced to the other. Now, externality is the distinguishing mark of things which occupy space, while states of consciousness are not essentially external to one another and become so only by being spread out in Time regarded as a homogeneous medium. If, then, one of these two supposed forms of the homogeneous, viz., Time and Space, is derived from the other, we can surmise a priori that the idea of space is the fundamental datum. Time, conceived under the form of an unbounded and homogeneous medium, is nothing but the ghost of space, haunting the reflective consciousness.” [Footnote: Time and Free Will, p. 98 (Fr. p. 75).] Bergson remarks that Kant’s great mistake was to take Time as a homogeneous medium. [Footnote: Time and Free Will, p. 232 (Fr. p. 178).]
Having asserted the falsity of the view of Time ordinarily held, Bergson proceeds to make clear to us his view of what Real Time is–an undertaking by no means easy for him, endeavouring to lay before us the subtleties of this problem, nor for us who endeavour to interpret his language and grasp his meaning. We are indeed here face to face with what is one of the most difficult sections of his philosophy. An initial difficulty meets us in giving a definite name to the Time which Bergson regards as so real, as opposed to the spatial falsity, masquerading as Time, whose true colours he has revealed. In the original French text Bergson employs the term duree to convey his meaning. But for the translation of this into English there is no term which will suffice and which will adequately convey to the reader, without further exposition, the wealth of meaning intended to be conveyed. “Duration” is usually employed by translators as the nearest approach possible in English. The inadequacy of language is never more keenly felt than in dealing with fundamental problems of thought. Its chief mischief is its all-too-frequent ambiguity. In the following remarks the original French term la duree will be used in preference to the English word “Duration.”
The distinction between the false Time and true Time may be regarded as a distinction between mathematical Time and living Time, or between abstract and concrete Time. This living, concrete Time is that true Time of which Bergson endeavours to give us a conception as la duree. He has criticized the abstract mathematical Time, his attack having been made to open up the way for a treatment of what he really considers Time to be. Now, from the arguments previously mentioned, it follows that Time, Real Time, which is radically different from space, cannot be any homogeneous medium. It is heterogeneous in character. We are aware of it in relation to ourselves, for it has reference not to the existence of a multiplicity of material objects in space, but to a multiplicity of a quite different nature, entirely non-spatial, viz., that of conscious states. Being non-spatial, such a multiplicity cannot be composed of elements which are external to one another as are the objects existing in space. States of consciousness are not in any way external to one another. Indeed, they interpenetrate to such a degree that even the use of the word “state” is apt to be misleading. As we saw in the chapter on The Reality of Change, there can be strictly no states of consciousness, for consciousness is not static but dynamic. Language and conventional figures of speech, of which the word “state” itself is a good example, serve to cut up consciousness artificially, but, in reality, it is, as William James termed it, “a stream” and herein lies the essence of Bergson’s duree–the Real as opposed to the False Time. “Pure Duration” (la duree pure), he says, “is the form which the succession of our conscious states assumes when our Ego lets itself live, when it refrains from separating its present state from its former states. For this purpose, it need not be entirely absorbed in the passing sensation or idea, for then, on the contrary, it would no longer ‘endure.’ Nor need it forget its former states; it is enough that in recalling these states, it does not set them alongside its actual state as one point alongside another, but forms both the past and the present states into an organic whole, as happens when we recall the notes of a tune, melting, so to speak, into one another. Might it not be said that even if these notes succeed one another, yet, we perceive them in one another, and that their totality may be compared to a living being whose parts, although distinct, permeate one another just because they are so closely connected?” [Footnote: Time and Free Will, p. 100 (Fr. p. 76).] Such a duration is Real Time. Unfortunately, we, obsessed by the idea of space, introduce it unwittingly and set our states of consciousness side by side in such a way as to perceive them alongside one another; in a word, we project them into space and we express duree in terms of extensity and succession thus takes the form of a continuous line or a chain–the parts of which touch without interpenetrating one another. [Footnote: Time and Free Will, p. 100 (Fr. p. 76).] Thus is brought to birth that mongrel form, that hybrid conception of False Time criticized above. Real Time, la duree, is not, however, susceptible like False Time to measurement, for it is, strictly speaking, not quantitative in character, but is rather a qualitative multiplicity. “Real Duration (la duree reele) is just what has always been called Time, but it is Time perceived as indivisible.” [Footnote: La Perception du Changement, p. 26. Cf. the whole of the Second Lecture.] Certainly pure consciousness does not perceive Time as a sum of units of duration, for, left to itself, it has no means and even no reason to measure Time, but a feeling which lasted only half the number of days, for example, would no longer be the same feeling for it. It is true that when we give this feeling a certain name, when we treat it as a thing, we believe that we can diminish its duration by half, for example, and also halve the duration of all the rest of our history. It seems that it would still be the same life only on a reduced scale. But we forget that states of consciousness are processes and not things; that they are alive and therefore constantly changing, and that, in consequence, it is impossible to cut off a moment from them without making them poorer by the loss of some impression and thus altering their quality. [Footnote: Time and Free Will, p. 196 (Fr. p. 150).] La duree appears as a “wholly qualitative multiplicity, an absolute heterogeneity of elements which pass over into one another.” [Footnote: Time and Free Will, p. 229 (Fr. p. 176).] Such a time cannot be measured by clocks or dials but only by conscious beings, for “it is the very stuff of which life and consciousness are made.” Intellect does not grasp Real Time–we can only have an intuition of it. “We do not think Real Time–but we live it because life transcends intellect.”
In order to bring out the distinctly qualitative character of such a conception of Time, Bergson says, “When we hear a series of blows of a hammer, the sounds form an indivisible melody in so far as they are pure sensations, and here again give rise to a dynamic progress; but, knowing that the same objective cause is at work, we cut up this progress into phases which we then regard as identical; and this multiplicity of elements no longer being conceivable except by being set out in space–since they have now become identical–we are, necessarily, led to the idea of a homogeneous Time, the symbolical image of la duree.” [Footnote: Time and Free Will, p. 125 (Fr. pp. 94-95).] “Whilst I am writing these lines,” he continues, “the hour strikes on a neighbouring clock, but my inattentive ear does not perceive it until several strokes have made themselves heard. Hence, I have not counted them and yet I only have to turn my attention backwards, to count up the four strokes which have already sounded, and add them to those which I hear. If, then, I question myself carefully on what has just taken place, I perceive that the first four sounds had struck my ear and even affected my consciousness, but that the sensations produced by each one of them, instead of being set side by side, had melted into one another in such a way as to give the whole a peculiar quality, to make a kind of musical phrase out of it. In order, then, to estimate retrospectively, the number of strokes sounded, I tried to reconstruct this phrase in thought; my imagination made one stroke, then two, then three, and as long as it did not reach the exact number, four, my feeling, when consulted, was qualitatively different. It had thus ascertained, in its own way, the succession of four strokes, but quite otherwise than by a process of addition and without bringing in the image of a juxtaposition of distinct terms. In a word, the number of strokes was perceived as a quality and not as a quantity; it is thus that la duree is presented to immediate consciousness and it retains this form so long as it does not give place to a symbolical representation, derived from extensity.” [Footnote: Time and Free Will, pp. 127-8 (Fr. pp. 96-97).] In these words Bergson endeavours to drive home his contention that la duree is essentially qualitative. He is well aware of the results of “the breach between quality and quantity,” between true duration and pure extensity. He sees its implications in regard to vital problems of the self, of causality and of freedom. Its specific bearing on the problems of freedom and causality we shall discuss in the following chapter. As regards the self, Bergson recognizes that we have much to gain by keeping up the illusion through which we make our conscious states share in the reciprocal externality of outer things, because this distinctness and solidification enables us to give them fixed names in spite of their instability, and distinct names in spite of their interpenetration. Above all it enables us to objectify them, to throw them out into the current of social life. But just for this very reason we are in danger of living our lives superficially and of covering up our real self. We are generally content with what is but a shadow of the real self, projected into space. Consciousness, goaded on by an insatiable desire to separate, substitutes the symbol for the reality or perceives the reality only through the symbol. As the self thus refracted and thereby broken in pieces, is much better adapted to the requirements of social life in general, and of language in particular, consciousness prefers it and gradually loses sight of the fundamental self which is a qualitative multiplicity of conscious states flowing, interpenetrating, melting into one another, and forming an organic whole, a living unity or personality. It is through a consideration of la duree and what it implies that Bergson is led on to the distinction of two selves in each of us.
Towards the close of his essay on Time and Free Will, he points out that there are finally two different selves, a fundamental self and a social self. We reach the former by deep introspection which leads us to grasp our inner states as living things, constantly becoming, never amenable to measure, which permeate one another and of which the succession in la duree has nothing in common with side-by-sideness. But the moments at which we thus grasp ourselves are rare; the greater part of our time we live outside ourselves, hardly perceiving anything of ourselves but our own ghost–a colourless shadow which is but the social representation of the real and largely concealed Ego. Hence our life unfolds in space rather than in time. We live for the external world rather than for ourselves, we speak rather than think, we are “acted” rather than “act” ourselves. To act freely, however, is to recover possession of one’s real self and to get back into la duree reele. [Footnote: Time and Free Will, p. 232 (Fr. p. 178).]
Real Time, then, is a living reality, not discrete, not spatial in character–an utter contrast to that fictitious Time with which so many thinkers have busied themselves, setting up “as concrete reality the distinct moments of a Time which they have reduced to powder, while the unity which enables us to call the grains ‘powder’ they hold to be much more artificial. Others place themselves in the eternal. But as their eternity remains, notwithstanding, abstract since it is empty, being the eternity of a concept which by hypothesis excludes from itself the opposing concept, one does not see how this eternity would permit of an indefinite number of moments co-existing in it, an eternity of death, since it is nothing else than the movement emptied of the mobility which made its life.” [Footnote: An Introduction to Metaphysics, pp. 51-54.] The true view of Time, as la duree, would make us see it as a duration which expands, contracts, and intensifies itself more and more; at the limit would be eternity, no longer conceptual eternity, which is an eternity of death, but an eternity of life and change–a living, and therefore still moving, eternity in which our own particular duree would be included as the vibrations are in light, [Footnote: Speaking in Matter and Memory on the Tension of la duree, Bergson calls attention to the “trillions of vibrations” which give rise to our sensation of red light, p. 272 (Fr. p. 229) Cf. La Conscience et la Vie in L’Energie spirituelle, p. 16.] an eternity which would be the concentration of all duree. Altering the old classical phrase sub specie aeternitatis, to suit his special view of Time, Bergson urges us to strive to perceive all things sub specie durationis. [Footnote: La Perception du Changement, p. 36.]
Finally, Bergson reminds us that if our existence were composed of separate states, with an impassive Ego to unite them, for us there would be no duration, for an Ego which does not change, does not endure. La duree, however, is the foundation of our being and is, as we feel, the very substance of the world in which we live. Associating his view of Real Time with the reality of change, he points out that nothing is more resistant or more substantial than la duree, for our duree is not merely one instant replacing another–if it were there would never be anything but the present, no prolonging of the past into the actual, no growth of personality, and no evolution of the universe. La duree is the continuous progress of the past which gnaws into the future and which swells as it advances, leaving on all things its bite, or the mark of its tooth. This being so, consciousness cannot go through the same state twice; history does never really repeat itself. Our personality is being built up each instant with its accumulated experience; it shoots, grows, and ripens without ceasing. We are reminded of George Eliot’s lines:
“Our past still travels with us from afar And what we have been makes us what we are.”
For our consciousness this is what we mean by the term “exist.” “For a conscious being, to exist is to change, to change is to mature, and to go on creating oneself endlessly.” [Footnote: Creative Evolution, p. 8 (Fr. p. 8).] Real Time has, then, a very vital meaning for us as conscious beings, indeed for all that lives, for the organism which lives is a thing that “endures.” “Wherever anything lives,” says Bergson, “there is a register in which Time is being inscribed. This, it will be said, is only a metaphor. It is of the very essence of mechanism in fact, to consider as metaphorical every expression which attributes to Time an effective action and a reality of its own. In vain does immediate experience show us that the very basis of our conscious existence is Memory–that is to say, the prolongation of the past into the present, or in a word, duree, acting and irreversible.” [Footnote: Creative Evolution, p. 17 (Fr. pp. 17-18).] Time is falsely assumed to have just as much reality for a living being as for an hour-glass. But if Time does nothing, it is nothing. It is, however, in Bergson’s view, vital to the whole of the universe. He expressly denies that la duree is merely subjective; the universe “endures” as a whole. In Time and Free Will it did not seem to matter whether we regarded our inner life as having duree or as actually being duree. In the first instance, if we have duree it is then only an aspect of reality, but if our personality itself is duree, then Time is reality itself. He develops this last point of view more explicitly in his later works, and la duree is identified not only with the reality of change, but with memory and with spirit. [Footnote: La Perception du Changement, Lecture 2.] In it he finds the substance of a universe whose reality is change. “God,” said Plato, “being unable to make the world eternal, gave it Time–a moving image of reality.” Bergson himself quotes this remark of Plato, and seems to have a vision like that of Rosetti’s “Blessed Damozel,” who …… “saw Time like a pulse shake fierce Through all the worlds.”
The more we study Time, the more we may grasp this vision ourselves, and then we shall comprehend that la duree implies invention, the creation of new forms, the continual elaboration of the absolutely new–in short, an evolution which is creative.