Thursday, 1 December 2011

Mind Energy by Henri Bergson

When Bergson talks to a general audience the categories of realism and idealism which are so fraught by fundamental disagreements are set aside and he brings to bear his acute forensic intelligence on the experimental suggestions which seem to establish a materialist view. The other thing is that his later writing on the subject which was covered in a philosophical context in Matter and Mind shows an awareness of its difficulty. Fifteen years had passed by the time he came to give the Huxley Lecture to the University of Birmingham from the publication of that very difficult work. No doubt the multitude of questions and rebuttals that he had faced in the meantime enabled him to enhance the clarity of his exposition. Life and Consciousness is the title of his lecture and it is collected in the book entitled Mind Energy (pub. 1920) A copy of it is available at Internet Archive in various formats: mind energy

There is also out there on youtube an individual reading The Soul and the Body from that same collection reading
He stops to clarify from time to time. There is an energy that communicates itself.

Bergson says in that first lecture something that gave Wittgenstein an odd feeling:

It is literally impossible for you to prove, either by experience or by reasoning, that I, who am speaking to you at this moment, am a conscious being. I may be an ingeniously constructed natural auto maton, going, coming, discoursing; the very words I am speaking to affirm that I am conscious may be being pronounced unconsciously. Yet you will agree that though it is not impossible that I am an unconscious automaton, it is very improbable.

In each of the lectures he focuses on some aspect of behaviour, conscious or unconscious, and turn a light on its underside.

The amoeba, for instance, when in presence of a substance which can be made food, pushes out towards it filaments able to seize and enfold foreign bodies. These pseudopodia are real organs and therefore mechanisms; but they are only temporary organs created for the particular purpose, and it seems they still show the rudiments of choice.

Here we come to the panpsychism which has been castigated as vitalism or a dormitive explanation. In Creative Evolution Élan vital was translated as vital impetus. 'Whatever' as the man said to the turnip, the difficulty is that when something is 'pan' contriving an explanation which does not include the explanandum is tricky. Can the concept of 'telos' be avoided here? In the ordinary understanding of teleology by its critics it is taken to mean an end or objective that is aimed towards, something to be achieved in the future. In the Aristotelian account of causality the 'end' is something that is operative now. The end of poetry is pleasure or the end of rhetoric is persuasion. The 'what is it for' is the telos. And that is a present experience.

We have good ground, then, for believing that the evolving force bore within it originally, but confused together or rather the one implied in the other, instinct and intelligence.

Things have happened just as though an immense current of consciousness interpenetrated with potentialities of every kind had traversed matter to draw it towards organisation and make it, notwithstanding that it is necessity itself, an instrument of freedom.

The second lecture in the book is entitled The Soul and the Body delivered in Paris in 1912. It covers in a general way the topics first dealt with in Matter and Memory. For those who wish to engage with the startling idea that memory is not wholly stored in brain tissue this is a good place to start. Over several pages he recapitulates the lesion evidence:

Let us go further: science can
localize in definite convolutions of the brain definite
functions of the mind, such as the faculty of perform-
ing voluntary movements, of which you spoke just now.
Lesions of particular points in the Rolandic area, be-
tween the frontal and the parietal lobes, involve the
loss of movements of the arm, of the leg, of the face,
of the tongue, according to the exact spot affected.
Even memory, which you consider an essential function
of the mind, has been partly localized. At the foot of
the third left frontal convolution are seated the mem-
ories of the movements of the articulation of speech ;
in one region between the first and second left temporal
convolutions is preserved the memory of the sound of


words ; at the posterior part of the second left parietal
convolution are deposited the visual images of words,
and of letters, etc. Let us go further still. You said
that in space, as in time, the soul overflows the body
to which it is joined. Let us consider space. It is
true that sight and hearing go beyond the limits of the
body. But why? Because vibrations from afar have
impressed eye and ear and been transmitted to the
brain; there, in the brain, the stimulation has become
auditory or visual sensation; perception is therefore
within the body and not spread abroad. Let us con-
sider time. You claim that the mind embraces the
past, whilst the body is confined within a present which
recommences without ceasing. But we recall the past
only because our body preserves the still present traces
of it. The impressions made by objects on the brain
abide there like the images on a sensitive plate, or the
records on gramophone disks. Just as the disk repeats
the melody when the apparatus is set working, so the
brain revives the memory when the requisite shock is
produced* at the point where the impression is re-
tained. So then, no more in time than in space does
the soul overflow the body. But is there really a soul
distinct from the body? We have just seen that
changes, or, to be more exact, displacements and new
groupings of molecules and atoms are continually go-
ing on in the brain. Some of these express themselves
in what we call sensations, others in memories ; without


any doubt brain-changes correspond to all Intellectual,
sensible and voluntary facts. To them consciousness
is superadded, a kind of phosphorescence ; it is like the
luminous trail of the match we strike on the wall in the
dark. This phosphorescence, being, as it were, a self-
illumination, begets strange internal optical illusions ; so
consciousness imagines itself to be modifying, directing
and producing the movements when in fact it is itself
the result of them. The belief in free will consists in
this. The truth is that could we look through the
skull and observe the inner working of the brain with
instruments magnifying some billion times more than
our most powerful microscopes, if we then should wit-
ness the dance of the molecules, atoms and electrons
of which the cerebral cortex is composed, and if in
addition we possessed the rule for transposing the
cerebral into the mental, — a dictionary, so to speak,
which would enable us to translate each figure of the
dance into the language of thought and feeling, — we
should know, quite as well as the supposed * soul,' what
it was thinking, feeling and wishing, what it would be
believing itself doing freely, though it would only be
acting mechanically. We should know it, indeed, much
better than it could know itself, for tbis so-called con-
scious * soul ' lights up only a small part of the intra-
cerebral dance ; — the soul is only the assemblage of
will-o-the-wisps which hover above certain privileged
groups of atoms ; — whereas we should be observing all


the groups of all the atoms, the whole intra-cerebral
dance. Your * conscious soul ' is at most an effect
which perceives effects : we should be seeing the effects
and the causes."

How he proceeds from this acceptance of the facts of lesion injury and aphasia to his account of Memory and duration is ingenious. An invidious observation perhaps but would Bergson be employable by any Anglo-American philosophy department today? In any case this collection of lectures has the broad brush nature that is a very useful and accessible introduction to the thought of a man who is unfairly relegated to the ranks of the higher hand wavers.

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