Thursday, 28 August 2014

William James and Henri Bergson

Bergson and James were friendly and corresponded, the latter aiding in the English translation of Creative Evolution for which he planned to write an introduction but died a year before it came out in 1911. Matter and Memory is a complex work with idiosyncratic uses of 'representation','perception', and 'image'. In broad terms he holds to a developmental view of our conceptual schema. We start life in the midst of things, the blooming, buzzing confusion of James and gradually begin to particularise not by abstraction which is a mature procedure but by innate responses which get laid down in memory and trammelled up with perception. He therefore held that the British Empiricists attempt to account for the sort of schema we have is a sort of futile reverse engineering.

(from Principles of Psychology by William James)
The noticing of any part whatever of our object is an act of discrimination. Already on p. 404 I have described the manner in which we often spontaneously lapse into the undiscriminating state, even with regard to objects which we have already learned to distinguish. Such anæsthetics as chloroform, nitrous oxide, etc., sometimes bring about transient lapses even more total, in which numerical discrimination especially seems gone; for one sees light and hears sound, but whether one or many lights and sounds is quite impossible to tell. Where the parts of an object have already been discerned, and each made the object of a special discriminative act, we can with difficulty feel the object again in its pristine unity; and so prominent may our consciousness of its composition be, that we may hardly believe that it ever could have appeared undivided. But this is an erroneous view, the undeniable fact being that any number of impressions, from any number of sensory sources, falling simultaneously on a mind WHICH HAS NOT YET EXPERIENCED THEM SEPARATELY, will fuse into a single undivided object for that mind. The law is that all things fuse that can fuse, and nothing separates except what must. What makes impressions separate we have to study in this chapter. Although they separate easier if they come in through distinct nerves, yet distinct nerves are not an unconditional ground of their discrimination, as we shall presently see. The baby, assailed by eyes, ears, nose, skin, and entrails at once, feels it all as one great blooming, buzzing confusion; and to the very end of life, our location of all things in one space is due to the fact that the original extents or bignesses of all the sensations which came to our notice at once, coalesced together into one and the same space. There is no other reason than this why "the hand I touch and see coincides spatially with the hand I immediately feel" 

(from Matter and Memory by Henri Bergson)
Whence arises, then, this idea of an external world constructed artificially, piece by piece, out of unextended sensations, though we can neither understand how they come to form an extended surface, nor how they are subsequently projected outside our body? Why insist, in spite of appearances, that I should go from my conscious self to my body, then (pg 45) from my body to other bodies, whereas in fact I place myself at once in the material world in general, and then gradually cut out within it the centre of action which I shall come to call my body and to distinguish from all others? - There are so many illusions gathered round this belief in the originally unextended character of our external perception; there are, in the idea that we project outside ourselves states which are purely internal, so many misconceptions, so many lame answers to badly stated questions, that we cannot hope to throw light on the whole subject at once.

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