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Space, Action, Language: The Incoherence of Bergson’s Concept

of Duration and the Finitude of Consciousness

Nicholas Malpas

PLEASE DO NOT CIRCULATE OR CITE.

In An Introduction to Metaphysics Henri Bergson lays out his distinction between


intelligence and intuition and argues that metaphysics must be conducted using intuition
which penetrates behind the veil of our everyday practical engagement with the world to
reveal things in their essence1. Intuition apprehends duration - the heterogeneous
multiplicity of change, which Bergson claims is the basic character of reality.
Consciousness is taken by Bergson to be the primary example of duration. From duration
intelligence abstracts or extracts a determinate schemata, in order to better coordinate its
actions and attain its interests, but by doing so it creates insoluble conceptual problems,
such as how motion can be composed of discrete, infinitely divisible parts. Intuition
supposedly overcomes the problems of intelligence which are caused by its tendency
towards spatialized, pragmatic and discursive thinking. However, there are several
problems with Bergson’s account which undermine his conception of intuition and
duration. He conceives of space as homogenous extension, when in fact a different
conception of space would avoid the problems he sees in the spatiality of intelligence. He
also claims that consciousness in duration is devoid of practical interests and unrelated to
action. And finally, he conceives of language as comprised of discrete, immutable

1
Bergson’s work is quite heterogeneous and by no means consistent. There are, however, good reasons for
focusing on An Introduction to Metaphysics, since it frames the general problems with which Bergson was
occupied in all his works and lays out the method of intuition which guided his philosophy. Introduction to
Metaphysics represents Bergson’s predominant position, and it is certainly one which Bergson never
retracted. It would not be within the scope of this essay to range across all of Bergson’s works, in order to
demonstrate their continuity or discontinuity. I will have cause to refer to his other works, where he
sometimes lays out very different positions, but I will indicate to what extent these other works are
consistent with or divergent from the position of Introduction to Metaphysics. I cannot present a
comprehensive account of Bergson’s philosophy in this short essay, but only analyze one strand of his
thought which I think is predominant (but which Bergson himself as other places seems to challenge).
concepts. I will provide alternative analyses of space, action and language which show
how they are essential to the constitution of consciousness and solve the problems
Bergson’s identifies with intelligence. I draw ironically on Kant’s notion of the
transcendental unity of apperception from the Critique of Pure Reason (which Bergson
heavily criticized) to elaborate this critique of duration. This will enable us to see that
duration is a nonsensical and unnecessary concept. However while rejecting Bergson’s
central concept of duration I will uphold the spirit of Bergson’s philosophy which Gilles
Deleuze defined with the slogan ‘The whole is not given’2.

The Problematic Nature of Intelligence

Bergson’s distinguishes in Introduction to Metaphysics faculties of knowledge –


intelligence and intuition. Intelligence moves ‘round the object…depends
on the point of view at which we are placed and on the symbols by which we express
ourselves…[and] may be said to stop at the relative.’3 Intelligence is practical and
analytic – it is exemplified in mathematics and linguistic, conceptual knowledge. It
decomposes objects into simpler parts and represents them with symbols so that it can act
on them more effectively. The symbolic and practical nature of intelligence constitutes its
relativity, and also makes it problematic in Bergson’s eyes. Each symbol ‘retains only
that part of the object which is common to it and to others, and expresses, still more than
the image does, a comparison between the object and others which resemble it.’4 The
symbolic representation seems to give us the power to know everything about an object
by manipulating symbols, thus we ‘persuade ourselves that by setting concept beside
concept we are reconstructing the whole of the object with its parts’5. In this way we
think that reality can be reduced to a closed physical system governed by immutable laws
and that with enough information of the present state of the system we could predict the

2
Gilles Deleuze, Bergsonism, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (New York:Zone Books,
1991), p. 104.
3
Henri Bergson, An Introduction to Metaphysics, trans. T. E. Hulme (Indianapolis: The Bobbs Merril
Company, 1955), p. 21.
4
Ibid, p. 28.
5
Ibid.
state of the system at any point in the future. Intelligence seeks to make time into a
homogenous medium like space so that it can be predicted and controlled. Intelligence
represents each moment of time as isomorphic and juxtaposable with all others. In
representation and measurement time becomes a line6.

Bergson protests that intelligence distorts its object and leads to insuperable conceptual
difficulties, since reconstructing a unity out of the discrete and partial representations is
impossible. Symbols, Bergson claims, reduce objects to the similarities they bear to other
things - concepts are always too large for particular things7. Thus language, mathematics
and science (all conceptual modes of thought) only ever give us an outline or ‘extraction’
of reality relative to particular practical aims. The combination of concepts can only
produce ‘an artificial reconstruction of the object’8 and cannot seize reality, since each
real thing is sui generis and symbols are inherently generalizing. Bergson provides the
following example: ‘Were all the photographs of a town, taken from all possible points of
view, to go on indefinitely completing one another, they would never be equivalent to the
solid town in which we walk about.’ To create an equivalent of the town would involve
literally rebuilding the town, but it would have to have exactly the same spatio-temporal
location and causal history to be truly equivalent – which amounts to saying that no
equivalent can be given for real existent things, but, at the most, only useful translations.

Bergson is most concerned about how the symbolism of intelligence distorts time.
Bergson argues that ‘time is mobility’ and that representing and measuring time
immobilizes time by making it a line, by imagining that we can represent the moments of
time simultaneously9. Time is continuous; it is not reducible to an infinity of discrete
moments. Time is also the occurrence of completely new events, so that it is not even
contained in the past as a possibility. We can regard something as having been possible
only retrospectively once it has become actual10. The spatialization of time attempts to
reduce all future actualities to knowable present possibilities. Intelligence replaces time

6
Henri Bergson, The Creative Mind, trans. Mabelle L. Andison (New York: Citadel Press, 1976), p. 12.
7
Bergson, Introduction to Metaphysics, p. 29.
8
Ibid.
9
Bergson, Creative Mind, p. 12.
10
Ibid, p. 101.
as continuum of creative mobility (which Bergson calls ‘duration’) with a series of
juxtaposed positions. The spatialization of time, by immobilizing it, makes movement
inconceivable, since movement would involve the paradoxical transition from one
discrete point in space to another. Thus Bergson claims that Zeno’s paradoxes arise by
reducing movement to the space it traverses, that is by seeking to reduces mobility to
immobility. To spatialize or represent time is in fact to destroy time itself by robbing it of
its efficacy, for time is the constant arising novelty and unforeseeable, continuous
change. Yet when time is represented, we imagine that every future event is already
contained in the present as a predictable possibility. In Time and Free Will he claims that
language and space are inextricably linked: “The intuition of a homogenous space is
already a step towards social life…Our tendency to form a clear picture of this externality
of things and the homogeneity of their medium is the same as the impulse which leads us
to live in common and to speak.”11 Like space, language externalizes and demarcates
things and forms a medium wherein we suppose everything is contained. We represent
reality symbolically and reduce it to a knowable, calculable whole in order to predict and
control it better. Intelligence is oriented towards practicality, it enhances our ability to act
upon things. In Time and Free Will, Bergson argues that the spatialization of time makes
freedom impossible, since this represents every event to a fully determined, material
mechanism.

Intuition, Duration and Consciousness

Bergson claims that we can only overcome the conceptual problems caused by the rigid
representations of intelligence by giving up the attempt to conceptualize and control
things and immersing ourselves in the creative flow of time (‘duration’) through intuition.
In intuition we ‘enter into’ the object, it ‘neither depends on a point of view nor relies on
any symbol’ and can be said ‘to attain the absolute.’12 The notion of grasping an object
from within in intuition is admittedly very vague, and the metaphorical language of
11
Henri Bergson, Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness, trans. F.L.
Pogson (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1928), p. 138
12
Bergson, Introduction to Metaphysics, p. 21.
within and without obscures the nature of intuition. Indeed, the very act of knowing
seems to imply that we are outside the object. For the moment we can characterize
intuition negatively, in contrast to intelligence, as apprehending reality without regard to
practical interests and without analyzing them or translating them into symbols. Intuition
is therefore fundamentally non-spatial, rather it is pure temporal consciousness – it
‘excludes all idea of juxtaposition, reciprocal externality, and extension.’13

The prime instance Bergson gives of an object known by intuition is our own
consciousness. By intuition, and not by analysis, we seize ‘our own personality in its
flowing through time – our self which endures’ – from within with externality or
juxtaposition. We must certainly grant that we do know ourselves as subjects and not
merely as object, however the way in which Bergson characterizes our consciousness is
much more contentious. Bergson claims that consciousness and duration in general form
a ‘continuous flux’ in which each state in the secession ‘announces that which follows
and contains that which precedes it’, such that we can only say in retrospect ‘where any
one of them finished or where another commenced’, but not as they are being
experienced14. The states of durational consciousness are constituted through their
interpenetration: ‘In reality no one of them begins or ends, but all extend into each
other.’15 Repetition cannot occur in durational consciousness, for even a sensation that is
practically identical to a previous one ‘cannot remain identical with itself for two
consecutive moments, because the second moment always contains, over and above the
first, the memory that the first has bequeathed to it.’16 Bergson thus calls duration a
‘qualitative multiplicity’17 which has ‘variety of qualities, continuity of progress, and
unity of direction.’ Duration cannot therefore be adequately represented by concepts,
since they break up reality, according to Bergson, into an immobile arrangement of
discontinuous objects, thereby reducing the radical novelty of becoming to repetition.

13
Ibid, p. 26.
14
Ibid., p. 25.
15
Ibid.
16
Ibid, p. 26.
17
Bergson, Time and Free Will, p. 224.
Intelligence derives its content from duration, but only by immobilizing what is
essentially mobile18.

The Unity of Consciousness

My starting point for critiquing Bergson’s notion of duration will be to consider what
kind of unity durational consciousness has. Consciousness must have some kind of unity
since its parts are interpenetrating and continuous. Moreover, it would be impossible to
perceive any change if consciousness was not unified across time. Bergson rejects the
empiricist analysis of consciousness into a multiplicity of discrete states which has only a
nominal, symbolic unity, since this unity is purely artificial and incomplete. Unity cannot
be achieved by ‘multiplying points of contact and exploring the intervals’ between
psychic states19. Since this empirical analysis precedes from the assumption that psychic
states are really isolated and discrete it necessarily implies skepticism about any
fundamental unity of consciousness. Bergson sees rationalism as making the same
mistake of seeing psychic states as fragmented and discrete. However rationalism persists
stubbornly with the assertion of the ‘“unity of the ego”’ which ‘can never be more than a
form without content’20. Bergson proposes that a true empiricism of intuition has no
difficulty in perceiving the unity of consciousness which is apparent in experience as the
constitutive interpenetration of conscious states. The intelligence may never be able to
analyze and represent the unity of consciousness, yet it is given in intuition:

It is incontestable that every psychical state, simply because it belongs to a person,


reflects the whole of a personality. Every feeling, however simple it may be,
contains virtually within it the whole past and present of the being experiencing it,
and, consequently, can only be separated and constituted into a “state” by an effort
of abstraction or of analysis.21

18
Bergson, Introduction to Metaphysics, p. 30.
19
Ibid, p. 34.
20
Ibid, p. 36.
21
Ibid, p. 31.
Bergson’s conception of the unity of consciousness is in fact startling similar to Kant’s
account of the unity of consciousness, despite Bergson’s avowed antagonism towards
Kant. Kant runs close to Bergson’s criticism of rationalism by arguing that the unity of
consciousness is purely formal and does not represent an object of possible experience or
knowledge22. He thus rejects the rationalist conception of a simple, substantial, unitary
self23. However Kant also rejects the empiricists dismissal of all unity in consciousness –
Hume’s argument that he could find no impression corresponding to the self is only a
rejection of a substantial self, but does not touch the formal unity of consciousness of
which their can be no impression. The formal unity for which Kant argues is not a mere
empty form to which experience must be fitted, rather, as for Bergson, this form of
consciousness consists merely in the inherent connectivity of all conscious states, which
constitutes those states through their relations24. However, Kant’s theory of apperception
has several features that challenge Bergson’s notion of durational consciousness.

For Kant, the connectivity among conscious states is equivalent to their belonging to a
single consciousness and ‘no cognitions can occur in us, no connection and unity
[obtains] among them, without that unity of consciousness that precedes all data of the
intuitions, and in relation to which all representation of objects is alone possible.’25 What
Bergson fails to recognize is that if all our conscious states are connected (if they form a
continuous, qualitative multiplicity), there must be some similarities and regularities
among them on the basis of which they can be compared and qualitative differences can
be apparent. To imagine two things which are dissimilar in every respect is impossible –
just in virtue of being things, or being imagined they have a minimal similarity. The
connectivity among conscious states means that they must have regularity – for example,
the same object under the same conditions must exhibit the same properties. However
this regularity is not merely ideal or subjective – it does not lie within our choice to

22
Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Paul Guyer and Allen Wood (Cambridge University
Press: Cambridge, 1998), p. 455 (B426-427).
23
This is the theme of the section ‘The paralogisms of pure reason’ in the Critique of Pure Reason (Ibid, p.
411-458 [A341-405/B399-432]).
24
As Kant writes: ‘If every individual representation were foreign to the other, as it were isolated and
separated from it, then there would never arise anything like cognition, which is a whole of compared and
connected representations.’ (Ibid, p. 227-228 [A97]).
25
Ibid, p. 232 (A107).
determine whether two things are similar or not, although we can choose criteria on
which to compare them. The cohesiveness of consciousness must depend upon certain
regularities and connections which are objective and which one cannot alter. But the
apprehension of such objective regularities entails that we apprehend something which is
different from and external to our consciousness – that is an object. Thus the unity of
consciousness is possible only in relation to the intuition of objects external to our
consciousness. This separation of object and consciousness is necessarily spatial, for
space is just the possibility of things existing simultaneously juxtaposed and external to
each other. So it is impossible to have a unified consciousness (or any conscious
experience) which does not orient itself spatially. Indeed we can go further: apprehending
any differences in our experience will involve juxtaposing two different things or psychic
states in simultaneity, i.e., spatially. Even the awareness of duration would involve a
spatial consciousness, since we must compare two different moments in our imagination
our memory (represent them simultaneously) in order to perceive any change. Against
Bergson’s notion of non-spatial durational consciousness we can argue that there is no
consciousness which is not spatialized.

Space as the Qualitatively Differentiated Field of Action

But the spatiality that is inherent in all consciousness is not the homogenous, eternal
medium to which Bergson objects. We saw above that the unity of consciousness and the
concomitant apprehension of objects in intuition depends upon apprehending regularities
(or laws, as Kant calls them) in experience. These regularities are neither simply given in
the world nor implanted in our consciousness as innate ideas, rather these regularities
appear only in relation to our action. As Kant argues in ‘the Second Analogy of
experience’ we apprehend the lawfulness of appearances where we cannot alter the
sequence of appearances either through action or imagination26. That which eludes our
control is objective – I cannot for example alter the fact that every action produces an
equal and opposite reaction. The experience of something which transcends my
26
Ibid, p. 307 (A193/B238).
conscious control is the basis of our original grasp of space. My sense of space is built up
by my movement and action, which discloses an objective environment within which I
orient myself. It might be argued that this environment is not in fact objective, since it is
relative to my action. However the relationship between my action and the objects it
affects is not within my control. Action indeed requires a grasp of my subjective position
and orientation and of the objective relations. The subjective and objective features of
this space of action are in fact mutually constitutive. I determine my own position by
relating to a field of objective relations, yet these objective relations are only apparent to
me from the viewpoint which my bodily location opens up to me. If this space is
constituted in relation to my embodiment and action its features cannot be entirely shared
with other people. Each person’s experiential space will differ depending upon their body
and activity, however their will also be significant overlap since they inhabit the same
physical world.

We can see that the space upon which the unity of consciousness and also the intuition of
objects depends is experiential and formed through our action. Such a space is neither
homogenous, nor merely extensive. On the contrary this space is qualitatively
differentiated. This space of agency is centered around my body as the locus of my
action. Bergson in fact writes that the ‘objects which surround my body reflect its
possible action upon them’27 for my body is the only object which I also know from the
inside through affection and which accompanies all perception. Such an experiential
space of agency will show certain things as more significant and valuable than others,
because they are important to the activities I engage in. The notion of space as a
homogenous container is an abstraction from this original experience of spatiality, which
removes all reference to a particular living body, while retaining the connection with
action. We can then reject the view (shared by Deleuze and Bergson) that ‘space is
nothing other than the location, the environment, the totality of differences in degree.’28
Space as a homogenous medium in which things exist and, which would thus be
independent of things is a theoretical tool, which gives only one partial view of spatiality

27
Henri Bergson Matter and Memory, trans. Nancy Margaret Paul and W. Scott Palmer (London: George
Allen & Co., 1912), p. 6-7.
28
Deleuze, Bergsonism, p. 32.
and reality. Moreover, since homogenous space is abstracted from experiential space,
homogenous space is paradoxical unless it refers back to experience; in itself
homogenous space would rule out the possibility of movement or real change. However,
I am claiming that space is in any sense prior to time. Rather space and time cannot be
reduced one to the other since conceptually and experientially they mutually imply each.
For simultaneity is existence at the same time and the succession of time is apparent only
if we can juxtapose different things and perceive them simultaneously. We can then
retain Bergson’s claim that motion is not reducible to the space (either homogenous or
experiential/qualitative) it passes through. We can also agree with Bergson that
‘mechanistic explanations…hold good for the systems that our thought artificially
detaches from the whole’29, but of the whole itself we cannot give mechanistic
explanations or predictions for we only have partial, successive views of reality – the
whole is never given to us either simultaneously or successively.

The Temporality of Action and the Pragmatic Nature of Consciousness

In Matter and Memory Bergson claims ‘that the distinction between body and mind must
be established in terms not of space but of time’30 since ‘memory…constitutes the
principal share of individual consciousness in perception, the subjective side of the
knowledge of things’31. Matter does not preserve the past in the present as memory does.
Certainly we can agree with him that one’s memories (or, past experience in general)
alters one’s perception, but space is equally necessary for distinguishing between subject
and object. We could have no awareness of changes across time except as the difference
between two rates of changes or between change and the (at least relatively) unchanging,
which requires that things are given simultaneously in juxtaposition (spatially). Also the
spatiality of consciousness is developed through our movement and action in the world,
which obviously could not take place except in time. It then seems strange that Bergson

29
Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution, trans. Arthur Mitchell (New York: Dover Publications Inc., 1998), p.
37.
30
Bergson, Matter and Memory, p. 294.
31
Ibid, p. 25.
should regard homogenous space as an inherently practical construct and durational time
as non-practical32. For the mechanistic determinism of a spatialized view of reality rules
out the possibility of free action originating in a subject (which is necessary for one to
grasp spatiality as such) – totalized, homogenous spatiality is anti-pragmatic. One’s
action must unfold in time, and for it to be mine it cannot be determined in advance as in
a closed physical system. Both time and space are therefore fundamentally practical,
since we become aware of them through action and all action is takes place in space and
time.

As we saw above, Bergson takes a pragmatic view of perception in Matter and Memory:
‘The body, by the place which at each moment it occupies in the universe, indicates the
parts and the aspects of matter on which we can lay hold: our perception, which exactly
measures our virtual action on things, thus limits itself to the objects which actually
influence our organs and prepare our movements.’33 If it is in relation to our action that
we become aware of space and time, and the distinction between objectivity and
consciousness then action is fundamental to all perception. We can only be conscious
insofar as we are active beings, and all perception must be oriented towards potential
action. It is only because we have material bodies inserted into the world that we can
have perception. The action of things upon my body is what allows me to perceive them.
Thus everything which we can be perceived is already something to which we are
causally (and spatio-temporally) related, and upon which we can therefore act. However,
Bergson’s point in connecting action and perception is to show that perceptions do not
coincide with their objects or attain absolute knowledge. Perception because of its
pragmatic orientation ‘consists in detaching from the totality of objects, the possible
action of my body upon them’: perception ‘creates nothing; its office, on the contrary, is
to eliminate from the totality of images all those on which I can have no hold, and then,
from each of those which I retain, all that does not concern the needs of the image which
I call my body.’34 Thus Bergson seems to assume consciousness and the objective world

32
Bergson goes so far as to say that ‘The past has not ceased to exist; it has only ceased to be useful.’ (Ibid,
p. 193.)
33
Ibid, p. 233.
34
Ibid, p. 304.
exist in Cartesian isolation, but contact each other in action and perception. Perception
then always distorts its object and Bergson seems to suggest that we can only overcome
the contradictions of perceptual experience by a retreat into ‘pure’ subjectivity through
intuition. As we have seen consciousness and objectivity are mutually constituting – they
make each other and are made for each other and cannot exist in isolation. Something
which could not be perceived or acted upon would be nothing for us – we could not say
whether or not it exists or not, since only things which enter into experience can be said
to exist. Yet surely we can perceive movement and change (i.e. duration). But on
Bergson’s account duration is supposed to be non-practical and should for that reason be
imperceptible. However, we do have a practical interest in change and movement – they
can both affect us and all action involves change and movement.

By making action fundamental to consciousness we in fact avoid the pitfalls that Bergson
sees in the practical orientation of perception. The problem for Bergson is that when one
is set on pursuing a particular end, one’s view of the world is delimited to what is
relevant to that end. However, our ends are not determined by us in isolation from the
world – consciousness is first constituted through worldly agency. The action through
which we constitute our consciousness and become aware of objectivity is not intentional
nor does it have particular ends, rather it is spontaneous and improvisational – since once
we are conscious can we set particular ends for ourselves. We do not enter the world in
order to pursue predetermined ends, rather we find ourselves inextricably lodged in the
world where we can act. Our ends arise from that particular situation. Perception and
agency are thus mutually constitutive. This allows us to appreciate how our perception of
things is always incomplete. We never grasp things in their totality because we cannot
grasp the infinite causal connections between ourselves and an object and the multitude
of other objects. Our activity must constantly adapt to the world, because the world and
the things in it transcend our action. It is precisely because our perception is geared
towards action and constituted by our active, bodily embeddedness in the world that we
can never grasp objects in their totality. Yet it is also only in virtue of the fact that we
have a particular perspective on the world that anything appears to us at all. In this
respect we can agree with Bergson’s assessment that ‘there is in matter something more
than, but not something different from, that which is actually given’ and thus ‘between
this perception of matter and matter itself there is but a difference of degree and not of
kind, pure perception standing towards matter in the relation of the part to the whole.’
However, we must disagree with the statements where Bergson claims that there is some
absolute which is distorted by our pragmatic engagement with the world.

Reflection and Language

At some points in Matter and Memory Bergson adopts a position that very different from
his position in Introduction to Metaphysics. Bergson writes
The duration wherein we see ourselves acting, and in which it is useful that we
should see ourselves, is a duration whose elements are dissociated and juxtaposed.
The duration wherein we act is a duration wherein our states melt into each other. It
is within this that we should try to replace ourselves by thought, in the exceptional
and unique case when we speculate on the intimate nature of action, that is to say,
when we are discussing human freedom.35
Here it seems the problem lies in reflection and conceptualization of our engagement
with the world, and presumably with the way in which habitual modes of action constrain
our perception. Fundamentally it is taking perception and conceptualization for a true and
adequate representation of reality (assuming that the whole is given), which distorts our
view of reality. But in the consciousness ‘wherein we act’ things do not yet have fixed
outlines and we can be said to be free – it is the immobilization of action which distorts
our view of reality. Thus in Creative Evolution he writes that in action our intellect
‘touches something of the absolute.’36 Each of our particular ways of conceptualizing and
perceiving the world is contingent and limited since it is relative to a particular kind of
action, however in themselves these forms of action disclose a true reality since it has not
yet been totalized in representation. It seems for Bergson that action itself does not
involve any assumption about the whole of reality, and through our action we can always

35
Ibid, p. 243-4.
36
Bergson, Creative Evolution, p. xi.
discover new ways of acting upon seeing it things. Bergson even articulates a concept of
non-homogenous space in Matter and Memory ‘intermediate between divided extension
and pure inextension’, which he calls the ‘extensive’. We ‘consolidate’ and ‘subdivide’
the extensive, which is presumably given in non-reflective action, by stretching an
abstract space beneath it to make action more certain and powerful37. However Bergson’s
notion of the extensive and the duration ‘wherein we act’ are chronically underdeveloped
and stands in flagrant contradiction to his predominant position that duration is non-
practical and that practical demands distort reality.

But even the idea that reflection, representation and language distort reality is a rather
specious claim. The apperceptive unity of consciousness entails that all my experience
must be able to become the object of reflection38. This is not to say that all reflection is
self-conscious, but merely that for a representation to be my own I must be able to
connect it up to all my other representations39. The possibility of consciousness thus
depends on one’s ability to take oneself as an object in reflection – to take an external
view of one’s consciousness in a sense. To make a conscious state the subject of
reflection just means to actively draw explicit connections with other experiences. The
maximal unity of consciousness thus requires a symbolic medium (i.e. language) in
which all my conscious states can be compared and synthesized. In language I identify
myself as a conscious subject, and also form judgments which enable a better grasp of
objectivity and the distinction between myself and the world. Human consciousness is
therefore dependent on the ability to represent my experience to myself in language.

The problems which Bergson raises concerning language arise from a flawed and
arbitrary conception of language. As Muldoon puts it: ‘It is language, Bergson charges,
that deludes us about the multiplicity, heterogeneity, and intensity of experience cogent

37
Bergson, Matter and Memory, p. 326-7.
38
As Kant puts it: ‘The I think must be able to accompany all my representations, for otherwise something
would be represented in me that could not be thought at all, which is as much to say that the representation
would either be impossible or else at least would be nothing for me.’ (Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, p.
246 [B131])
39
In Creative Evolution Bergson even claims that intuition is ‘disinterested, self-conscious, capable of
reflecting upon its object and of enlarging it indefinitely.’ (Bergson, Creative Evolution, p. 176.)
with the duration of the self.’40 Words and concepts according to Bergson distort the
fluctuating, interpenetrating qualities of reality by cutting it up into distinct, repeatable
elements, out of which we attempt to make an artificial unity. In The Creative Mind he
writes that “An idea, no matter how flexible we have made it, will never have the same
flexibility as a thing.”41 Yet, words are things and are just as flexible and multiplicitous.
The meaning of a word is not distinct and fixed, rather their meaning is constituted in
relation to other words in particular sentences and in the language’s lexicon. The meaning
of words is also dependent upon their usage. Sentences only have a meaning by being
part of a linguistic exchange between people which refers to a common reality. The very
fact that a particular word refers to many different things in view of some similarity does
not mean that it homogenizes all of those things, but rather that the meaning of the word
is multiplicitous. Nor is a language a fixed system – rather it is constantly evolving and
changing both to meet new demands and circumstances and also out of sheer creativity
(most evident in linguistic forms of art). Indeed, no matter how hard we try, we cannot
delimit words so that they only have one distinct meaning, for this would involve
defining the word with other words, which would also then stand in need of definition ad
infinitum. Mathematics and logic seem to approach Bergson’s conception of language,
but even here the terms only have a meaning in relation to each other and to their use and
reference. Language only presents a problem when we think that it gives an adequate and
complete representation of its referent. Language has its own kind of multiplicity,
comprised of interpenetrating, relational and non-discrete elements and exhibits great
creativity and novelty. Bergson admits at one stage that language is necessary to intuition
(perhaps glimpsing the way language is necessary to consciousness), but that it must go
beyond the ‘rigid and ready-made concepts’ of habit and create concepts that are ‘mobile,
and almost fluid representations, always ready to mold themselves on the fleeting forms
of intuition.’42 But since Bergson argues that the problem with language is that words
stand for irreducible multitudes, it is difficult to see how such ‘fluid’ concepts could
avoid the same problems, for language inherently involves generalization. But indeed we

40
Mark S Muldoon, ‘Henri Bergson and Postmodernism’, Philosophy Today 34 (1990), pp. 179-190, p.
184.
41
Bergson, Creative Mind, p. 206.
42
Bergson, Introduction to Metaphysics, p. 30.
are not in need of any special ‘fluid’ concepts, since all concepts are fluid and mobile – to
fix the meaning of a concept absolutely is impossible. Language is movement.

Bergson criticizes Kant for positing that the concepts by which we understanding
experience (the ‘categories’) are fixed and given prior to experience: “The whole Critique
of Pure Reason rests also upon the postulate that our thought is incapable of anything
but Platonizing, that is, of pouring the whole of possible experience into pre-existing
moulds.”43 Kant’s project though was to determine the structure that necessarily
underpins experience. Clearly, from the account of consciousness I have given here a
spatio-temporal and conceptual structure is necessary for experience, but it is not given
prior to experience rather it arises with it. Kant does neglect the development of the
structure of consciousness in a person’s lifetime and across evolutionary history44. The
concepts by which we understand reality could indeed be different from those that Kant
proposes, and no doubt people’s grasp of these concepts does vary. Surely, not every one
has an equal ability to distinguish hypothetical and disjunctive judgments, while the fact
that there is no concept of ‘being’ in Mandarin would surely affect the conceptual
repertoire of Chinese people.

A Note on Freedom and Identity

If our consciousness is constituted through action and language, then they must also be
crucial to any concept of freedom. Bergson conceives freedom as the continual
manifestation of novelty in consciousness – which means it cannot be reduced to a
determinate system. However this creativity of consciousness would not be freedom
unless I could identify myself with it. Through action I identify myself in contrast to
objects which I act upon but which elude complete control. By understanding the
objectivity of the world I can locate myself in it and become conscious of my own

43
Bergson, Creative Mind, p. 197.
44
Paolo Marrati writes ‘What is already clear from the Introduction to Creative Evolution is that, for
Bergson, our conceptual schemes are not given once and for all, that there is a historicity proper to reason,
and that this historicity is, in the first place, evolutionary (or biological; if you prefer). Our concepts are
formed in an open-ended process, and, as a consequence, they can be enlarged.’ (Paola Marrati, ‘Time,
Life, Concepts: The Newness of Bergson’, MLN 120 (2005), p. 1102.)
perspective. Through language I also identify myself as a subject with a particular past
and perspective in relation to other people with different lives and perspectives on the
world. Language can thus reveal the multiplicity of perspectives on the world, and enable
me to see the particularity of my own perspective45. Language and action are,
furthermore, inherently creative – how else could I bring about change or become
immersed in the mobility of time. Furthermore, on the account presented here, conscious
states are not determined mechanistically nor are they quantifiable, although they can, to
a certain extent, be explained scientifically.

Conclusion:
The Incoherence of Duration and the Finitude of Consciousness

Consciousness as I have argued is inherently specialized, pragmatic, and discursive.


Therefore we must reject Bergson’s theory of intuition as a mode of non-spatialised, non-
pragmatic, non-discursive consciousness as incoherent. However, this refutation also
provides alternative ways of resolving the conceptual problems that intuition was
supposed to resolve. For Bergson intelligence falsifies reality and creates insuperable
conceptual problems when it assumes ‘that everything is given’, for example when
science assumes that ‘the material universe in its entirety form[s] a [calculable] system’46.
All conceptions of totality substitute one aspect of reality ‘for the rest ostensibly to
explain it’47 – the aspects which are excluded, however, become impossible to explain48.
45
Hannah Arendt lays out a theory that freedom and one’s identity are constituted through public speech
which allows one to become a unique individual with a particular perspective on the world. See Hannah
Arendt, ‘Philosophy and Politics’, Social Research 57 (1990), pp. 73-95.
46
Bergson, Creative Mind, p. 20.
47
Ibid, p. 134
48
Bergson reproaches Kant for placing the things-in-themselves (the noumenon) beyond our knowledge
and experience and interposing the relativizing screens of the understanding and sensibility between our
consciousness and absolute reality (Bergson, Introduction to Metaphysics, p. 57-8 and Creative Mind, p.
127-8). However, this is a misunderstanding of the function the noumenon plays in The Critique of Pure
Reason. Kant’s concept of the noumenon (thing-in-itself) acts to limit the pretension of sensibility and the
understanding to imagine that they apprehend thing-in-themselves, that is the totality of the real. For we
can never apprehend independent of a particular viewpoint. The noumenon is just the concept of totality. In
the Dialectic Kant undertakes to show that more expansive ‘ideas’ of totality such as the self, freedom, the
All such conceptions of totality exclude the movement of time, ‘an uninterrupted
continuity of unforeseeable novelty’49, since if everything is given then ‘the future is
given in the present, that it is theoretically visible in it’50. As Mullarkey writes
intelligence creates ‘false problems’ by simplifying ‘too much in the face of a true,
though unpalatable, multiplication of entities.’51 He proposes that intuition is a ‘method
of multiplication’ which acts as a ‘corrective against the presence of any absolutes in
philosophy, that is, any principles that are either universal or eternal with no potential for
mutation.’52 Deleuze similarly summarizes Bergson’s philosophy as claiming that ‘The
Whole is never “given”’ and ‘in the actual, an irreducible pluralism reigns’53. However
neither Mullarkey nor Deleuze recognize the fundamental problems in the notion of
duration and the method of intuition, which are the most fundamental aspects of his
philosophy.

Our inability to apprehend ‘the whole’ of reality is confirmed by the above analysis of
consciousness, which is inherently spatial, discursive and action-oriented. Consciousness
is constituted by its relation to objects that elude complete control and knowledge. Our
perception is inherently perspectival and relative to our capacity for action. Yet while our
embodied perspective prevents us from apprehending things-in-themselves or even the
totality of perspectives, it is only due to this perspective that anything is given to us at all
in perception. Because language is a medium for connecting experience, it also cannot
reach any completion or finality. Any description of an event is indeterminate, since we
can always connect an event to infinite others in infinite different ways, and our concepts

world, and God are unknowable objects, about which we cannot even say whether they exist or not. Our
knowledge and experience are necessarily limited (which can be seen in the way they are dependent upon
embodiment and agency) and cannot encompass totality. The distinction between noumenon and
phenomenon thus demonstrates the reality of phenomenon as the only possible object of knowledge and
experience. Kant does not destroy the possibility of contact with the real, but merely shows that reality as
contained in experience has a finite, contingent form. Bergson is not overly careful in his reading of Kant,
since we can see here how Bergson’s aversion to conceptions of totality is shared by Kant. In fact
Bergson’s part/whole distinction only repeats the distinction between the phenomenon (appearance) and
noumenon, since the whole is that which always remains hidden, and the part is that which appears.
49
Bergson, Creative Mind, p. 35.
50
Ibid. 19.
51
John Mullarkey, Bergson and Philosophy (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2000),
p. 161.
52
Ibid, p. 162.
53
Deleuze, Bergsonism, p. 104.
themselves are relational and lack finality. Space, language and the practicality of our
perception, when correctly analyzed, in fact confirm that the totality of the real is never
given, and enable us to understand why and how our knowledge and perception are
limited. Bergson’s retreat from space, action and language into intuition is unnecessary to
recognize the lack of any absolute in reality and apprehend the continuity and novelty of
change, and impossible in any case. What is required is radical critique which questions
the bases of all theories and viewpoints, constantly seeks new ways of seeing things,
illuminates the infinite ‘detail of the real’54 and resists all attempt to conceptualize
totality. Such a critique would, as Bergson intended intuition to do, lead us back to the
irreducible pluralism of reality: ‘In this way, as many different systems will spring up as
there are external points of view from which the reality can be examined, or larger circles
in which it can be enclosed.’55

Works Cited

Bergson, Henri, Creative Evolution, trans. Arthur Mitchell (New York: Dover
Publications Inc., 1998).
─────, The Creative Mind, trans. Mabelle L. Andison (New York: Citadel Press,
1976).
─────, An Introduction to Metaphysics, trans. T. E. Hulme (Indianapolis: The Bobbs
Merril Company, 1955).
─────, Matter and Memory, trans. Nancy Margaret Paul and W. Scott Palmer
(London: George Allen & Co., 1912).
─────, Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness, trans.
F.L. Pogson (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1928).

Arendt, Hannah ‘Philosophy and Politics’ Social research, Vol. 57, No. 1 (Spring 1990),
54
Bergson says this of intuition in Creative Evolution, p. 362-3.
55
Bergson Introduction to Metaphysics, p. 29.
pp. 73-95.
Deleuze, Gilles, Bergsonism, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (New York:
Zone Books, 1991).
Kant, Immanuel Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Paul Guyer and Allen Wood (Cambridge
University Press: Cambridge, 1998).
Marrati, Paola, ‘Time, Life, Concepts: The Newness of Bergson’, MLN 120 (2005), pp.
1099-1111.
Muldoon, Mark S., ‘Henri Bergson and Postmodernism’, Philosophy Today 34 (1990),
pp. 179-190.
Mullarkey, John, Bergson and Philosophy (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre
Dame Press, 2000).