Monday, 6 June 2016

James on Bergson / Concepts & Reality

Bergson believes something which appears to flout physical law. Memory he claims can flash our whole life before us in the twinkling of and eye. That suggests the paradox of equivalence in experience of a couple of nano seconds to n years. ‘Memory’ as I understand it in the metaphysics of Bergson is merely consciousness at its most salient. ‘The thoughts of a boy are long, long, thoughts’ said Houseman in a poem but really thoughts as conscious states do not take time but are linked to a precise instant of space/time. This is at the point of the ‘memory cone’ where consciousness meets physics (in the illustration given in Matter and Memory). The mistake made is to extend the conceptualization or intellectualization realized by formal law into physical reality itself. Infinity paradoxes proliferate. Achilles can never catch up with the tortoise.

Bergson and the Critique of Intellectualism is the title of Lecture VI of the Hibbert Lectures given by William James in 1909. It is quite positive about Bergson.

I have to confess that Bergson's originality is so profuse that many of his ideas baffle me entirely. I doubt whether any one understands him all over, so to speak; and I am sure that he would himself be the first to see that this must be, and to confess that things which he himself has not yet thought out clearly, had yet to be mentioned and have a tentative place assigned them in his philosophy. Many of us are profusely original, in that no man can understand us—violently peculiar ways of looking at things are no great rarity. The rarity is when great peculiarity of vision is allied with great lucidity and unusual command of all the classic expository apparatus. Bergson's resources in the way of erudition are remarkable, and in the way of expression they are simply phenomenal.

James’s understanding and clear exposition is a great introduction to the difficulties of Bergon’s thought:

In the first place, logic, giving primarily the relations between concepts as such, and the relations between natural facts only secondarily or so far as the facts have been already identified with concepts and defined by them, must of course stand or fall with the conceptual method. But the conceptual method is a transformation which the flux of life undergoes at our hands in the interests of practice essentially and only subordinately in the interests of theory. We live forward, we understand backward, said a danish writer; and to understand life by concepts is to arrest its movement, cutting it up into bits as if with scissors, and immobilizing these in our logical herbarium where, comparing them as dried specimens, we can ascertain which of them statically includes or excludes which other. This treatment supposes life to have already accomplished itself, for the concepts, being so many views taken after the fact, are retrospective and post mortem.

The practicality of the conceptual method is a clever inversion.


Anonymous said...

ombhurbhuva said...

Thanks for that comment and link.

Am I mistaken in thinking that it is the timing aspect of consciousness which you point to in those experiments. This is the primary source of the idea that your brain decided before ‘you’ did in the Libet experiments as well. The brain as Bergson saw it is the organ of action fixing us to that very point of the ‘memory cone’. That very moment of consciousness could be at the point of ‘unconscious reaction’ or a little further out at the moment of conscious decision. If we think we are at the moment of death and absolved from the need to go on then our perspective can move to the outer side of the cone and see our whole lives much as the view from the mountain top takes in a landscape.