Monday, 9 January 2012

Bergson's Cone of Memory



Bergson’s cone is fine as a representation of his thoughts on memory and by implication duration as long as we remember that his view of memory radically diverges from the accepted neuro-scientific picture of both his contemporaries and ours. Memory is stored in the brain. Lesion injury demonstrates this beyond a doubt. That is the modern position. H.B. says ‘no, it’s not and here’s why’. Now I’m not, for now, going to recapitulate the argument which supports his rebuttal but simply go on to sketch the questions which naturally occur to the reader the chief one being: if memory is not located in the brain, where is it?

Looking at the famous diagram again we find that under this new dispensation memory is entering into the plane of history where the human being dwells. This creature is connected to its own personalised cone of memory because that duration or the densification of its history is its own.

My memory is there, which conveys something of the past into the present. My mental state, as it advances on the road of time, is continually dwelling with the duration which it accumulates: it goes on increasing - rolling upon itself, as a snowball on the snow.
(from Chap.I. Creative Evolution Sony Reader pg.8)

As a speculative aside we might consider boundless ‘memory’ or consciousness as the Tailhardian noosphere impinging on the less complex elements of nature thereby creating ‘memory’. In mythic terms we are in the devic realm Mnemosyne, that of the shining ones. Don’t snort in that dismissive fashion, for Plato this was still a way of doing philosophy!

Duration is the continuous progress of the past which gnaws into the future and which swells as it advances...... That is why our duration is irreversible. We could not live over a single moment, for we should have to begin by effacing the memory of all that had followed.
(pg. 9/10 S.R.)

When Thomas Reid said that memory was unaccountable part of what he meant was that memory could not be broken down into simpler fundamental intellectual powers in an analytical fashion. He could not account for the fact that we have memory only of the past and that we are generally barred from ‘memory’ of the future. Bergson’s account departs from the realm of common sense to that of the a posteriori transcendental. In effect he is saying : ‘We can’t be doing what we think we are doing according to neuro-science. We wouldn’t have the knowledge that we have. Here then is a better account which covers the facts.’

Yet at the same time we still want to think of memory quantitatively. After all we fill books with memories so we are inclined to think of them as being located. How do we retrieve them if not from somewhere? In another of his rather fine metaphors Bergson gives an indication of an alternative procedure. Instead of going down to the storehouse of memory with your docket:
Whenever we are trying to recover a recollection, to call up some period of our history, we become conscious of an act sui generis by which we detach ourselves from the present in order to replace ourselves, first in the past in general, then in a certain region of the past—a work of adjustment, something like the focussing of a camera. But our recollection still remains virtual; we simply prepare ourselves to receive it by adopting the appropriate attitude. Little by little it comes into view like a condensing cloud; from the virtual state it passes into the actual; and as its outlines become more distinct and its surface takes on colour, it tends to imitate perception. But it re mains attached to the past by its deepest roots, and if, when once realized, it did not retain something of its original virtuality, if, being a present state, it were not also something which stands out distinct from the present, we should never know it for a memory.

There is still the element of unaccountability in this description, that something that evades the empiric itch, that demand for evidence. We just know its a memory and not a faint perception or sensation or some will o’ the wisp that Locke and Hume chased across a quaking bog.

For Bergson memory is embedded in perception. How often have you been working on something in the house and discovered that a tool you need is in the shed. You go out there but by the time you get there other thoughts have driven the purpose of your mission from your head. Blankly you stare at the bench and tool box. No clue there. You must retrieve your steps, mentally or physically to the job until the memory of what it was you wanted can enter you. The associationist thesis is apparently supported by this procedure but Bergson insists that memory is part of our personality:

We have supposed that our entire personality, with the totality of our recollections, is present, undivided within our actual perception. Then, if this perception evokes in turn different memories, it is not by a mechanical adunction of more and more numerous elements which, while it remains itself unmoved, it attracts around it, but rather by an expansion of the entire consciousness which, spreading out over a larger area, discovers the fuller detail of its wealth. So a nebulous mass, seen through more and more powerful telescopes, resolves itself into an ever greater number of stars.

So Proust’s madeleine was not a portal that brought everything with it automatically. The life of a person has no internal logic so memories are made by one’s own personality.
- But, Proust, you know that never happened.
- Yes, certainly, but it’s really me.

2 comments:

ktismatics said...

"his view of memory radically diverges from the accepted neuro-scientific picture of both his contemporaries and ours"

I had the idea when you first put up this post that I ought to have something to think about it, but I could find no traction, having read no Bergson but at least some psychology of memory. There's this:

"Whenever we are trying to recover a recollection, to call up some period of our history, we become conscious of an act sui generis by which we detach ourselves from the present in order to replace ourselves, first in the past in general, then in a certain region of the past—a work of adjustment, something like the focussing of a camera."

Is the idea, then, that memory is a kind of time portal, and that the past still exists if I can find my way to it?

ombhurbhuva said...

Bergson’s view of memory has been likened to the akashic record espoused by Hindu yogis. Nothing is forgotten by the individual though a great deal of it is not ordinarily retrievable. Memory is not a place or a repository but a power. This is the virtual aspect. Normally through the present moment and its demands memory is evoked. The power of memory is in the personality and to a certain extent makes the personality. We can only remember doing something if we were that person, if there is an identity between the past and the present person.

I don’t think that H.B. would say that the past exists as a place or state that we can make our way back to. A central concept of his that is linked to memory is duration. Duration as I understand it is all our past that is rolled up and there at the present moment. This is represented by the point of the cone.

This is a very complex and original philosophy. I’m just making my way through it and still scratching my puzzled poll.