Sunday, February 09, 2014

On Bergson

Note: I'm trying to put some of my notebook observations on this blog without being so persnickety about the quality.

The thing I never got about the French philosopher Henri Bergson was why he was so popular for a time and why he lost popularity so completely. So often when he was mentioned the standard thing to say about him was that he was the most famous philosopher in the world in the pre-WWI period and then he was forgotten. I remember reading in Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy a dismissive article about Bergson.

It would commonly be said of Bergson that he theorized duree which is our subjective experience of time in contrast to objective, clock time. Like the way boredom makes things slow down and interest makes time go by faster. Didn’t seem like much when described like that. But I knew that Gilles Deleuze wrote a book called Bergsonism and reinterpreted Bergson in the late sixties and saw great insight there. So what was the Bergson story?

Bergson, according to Suzanne Guerlac in her book Thinking in Time: An Introduction to Henri Bergson, is saying that a background presupposition of our taken-for-granted conception of reality - not even to be noted - is space. Whatever happens has to happen within a container, a space, a field, an environment. The place in which things occur.

Bergson contrasts pure duration - duree -which she says he says can be distinguished from “time.” Because space is presupposed to be there holding whatever is, time is conceived along the lines of space, as a holder - past, present, future - of what happens. History happens “in” time (“in” being a spatial category used to described time). As if time is a thing that exists and contains the contents that occur in it.

Bergson is saying that what we experience subjectively are qualities, differences, but not just differences in quantity but difference in quality. So his example of the piece of paper illuminated by four candles and then progressively unilluminated as each candle is blown out. Is there a quantitative reduction in brightness, so that the white paper gradually looks black (after the fourth candle is blown out) or are there a succession of different hues going from white to greys to black? Is objective time and the space everything is happening within the real reality and the subjective experience of qualities the more ephemeral reality? Bergson reverses it so that the world is seen what it looks like when what arises in our experience and its qualities are taken to be fundamental.

Here is the French connection to phenomenology and Buddhist practice. Even Modernist literature and their focus on first-person subjective experience. Perhaps there is a French tradition getting at the lived subjective experience, life as lived, going back to Montaigne. And more recently Maupassant, Bergson, Joyce (in Paris), Beckett (in France), Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Deleuze. Even Foucault and how self and consciousness are formed. And Pierre Hadot and how the Greek philosophers were interested in "spiritual exercises" to train oneself to experience life rightly.