Wednesday, 27 April 2016

William James and Henri Bergson


No doubt it is often convenient to formulate the mental facts in an atomistic sort of way, and to treat the higher states of consciousness as if they were all built out of unchanging simple ideas which 'pass and turn again.' It is convenient often to treat curves as if they were composed of small straight lines, and electricity and nerve-force as if they were fluids. But in the one case as in the other we must never forget that we are talking symbolically, and that there is nothing in nature to answer to our words. A permanently existing 'Idea' which makes its appearance before the footlights of consciousness at periodical intervals is as mythological an entity as the Jack of Spades.
(from Vol.1 Principles of Psychology)

Now here it is clear. as he himself admitted, that he came under the influence of Henri Bergson who showed him a way out of his thrall to logical intellectualism.

Let us leave out the soul, then, and confront what I just called the residual dilemma. Can we, on the one hand, give up the logic of identity?—can we, on the other, believe human experience to be fundamentally irrational? Neither is easy, yet it would seem that we must do one or the other………..
I told you that I had long and sincerely wrestled with the dilemma. I have now to confess (and this will probably re-animate your interest) that I should not now be emancipated, not now subordinate logic with so very light a heart, or throw it out of the deeper regions of philosophy to take its rightful and respectable place in the world of simple human practice, if I had not been influenced by a comparatively young and very original French writer, Professor Henri Bergson. Reading his works is what has made me bold. If I had not read Bergson, I should probably still be blackening endless pages of paper privately, in the hope of making ends meet that were never meant to meet, and trying to discover some mode of conceiving the behaviour of reality which should leave no discrepancy between it and the accepted laws of the logic of identity. It is certain, at any rate, that without the confidence which being able to lean on Bergson's authority gives me I should never have ventured to urge these particular views of mine upon this ultra-critical audience.
(from A Pluralistic Universe)

Mathematization of space as useful but untrue is a central theme of Bergson’s. A firm fixed identity to be postulated on the basis of our feeling of it does not line up with the flowing nature of consciousness. It is a logical construction that cannot be built out of the material to hand.

Yet nevertheless we must not dismiss the ultimate given of consciousness:
Consciousness, then, does not appear to itself chopped up in bits. Such words as 'chain' or 'train' do not describe it fitly as it presents itself in the first instance. It is nothing jointed; it flows. A 'river' or a 'stream' are the metaphors by which it is most naturally described. In talking of it hereafter, let us call it the stream of thought, of consciousness, or of subjective life.

The vertiginous topsyturvydom expressed by the Bodhisattva seems to have come on James San:

Empty-handed, I hold a hoe.
Walking on foot, I ride a buffalo
Passing over a bridge, I see
The bridge flow, but not the water.

Roshi’s pandybat hovers.

(more yet to come)

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