Towards an Understanding of Consciousness – Henri Bergson

Henri Bergson (1859-1941) Poster by Granger

In my last article, The Qualia Delusion, I argued that qualia were a second-order, reflective phenomena, rendering the so-called hard (read: impossible) problem of consciousness a non-issue. However, this doesn’t fully explain consciousness. To do this, I’ll need one more article, but in order for anything I expect to say in that article to make sense, we will need a bridging article. All of the concepts I intend to draw on there come from the late 19th, early 20th century French philosopher Henri Bergson, and so this article aims to give a whirlwind primer of Bergson’s philosophy. Strap in and let’s get this show on the road.

Becoming / Continuity

If you had to summarise Bergson’s philosophy in only two words, you could do much worse than go for becoming and continuity. Together, these two concepts describe what we might think of as a kind of metaphysical framework that reality conforms to. Let’s take each of these ideas in turn and flesh them out a little.

Reality is a becoming, a progressing, a continual change. All of these terms are really synonyms that express the idea that the real is a process, rather than a fixed, static thing, or collection of things. The opposite term is being, which entails some kind of finality or completion. Being is, whereas becoming progresses. This might sound kind of underwhelming as far as metaphysical pronouncements go, but it really is the complete antithesis of how we typically think about reality.

Think about your commute to work yesterday. This is an event that happened over a period of time, involving continual change throughout. How is this not a process? Well, it is a process, but when we think about it, we think about it as a thing; that is to say, as completed. Sure, when you describe your commute, you describe events that occurred over time, but there is no real becoming here because in the middle of your account, there is nothing to stop you from suddenly jumping to the end and telling me the last thing you did. This is only possible because the whole commute is already laid out before you, complete and finished. Did I cheat by asking you to recall an event from your past? So think about your commute tomorrow. Describe what you imagine will happen. Lo and behold, we find exactly the same thing. As with your yesterday’s commute, you can jump around in the timeline of tomorrow’s commute. Again, even though it hasn’t happened yet, it is nevertheless already completed in your mind.

At this point, you might accuse me of pulling some sneaky, metaphysical sleight of hand. Of course you can only talk about events as if they are already completed. If you didn’t do this, you couldn’t say, or think, anything! But that is precisely my point. We literally can’t think or talk about genuine becoming. Becoming, progress, change, can only be lived. The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao.

Of course, this is in no way meant to demean our usual (and only) mode of thinking (or talking) about reality; i.e. as being rather than becoming. Indeed, human life would be completely impossible without this capacity. Bergson is merely pointing out that this way of viewing reality is a secondary, derived one; great for human life, but not necessarily a metaphysically ‘true’ characterisation.

Reality is also continuous. As with becoming, this is the precise opposite of how we usually think of reality. What is real? The table in front of you and the chair you are sitting on. Or maybe the particles that make up the table and chair. No matter how you decide to slice it, we see reality as a collection of discrete, particular objects, separated from each other in space, whether we are talking about tables and chairs, electrons and quarks, or divisions at the Planck scale.[1] For Bergson though, this way of talking about reality, while immeasurably useful, is not an accurate description of reality itself. It is another secondary, derived picture.

Imagine a book sitting on a book shelf. How is this not a legitimate thing? Well, we know a book is just a collection of pages. Perhaps the pages are the ‘real’ things? But those are made of molecules. Are the molecules ‘ultimate reality’? I’m sure you can see where this is going, and, in fact, it is a rabbit hole that goes on as far as we care to look. It is tempting to believe there must be an end somewhere. We must eventually get to some incredibly tiny particle which just can’t be further divided. But why should this be the case?

This might sound like I’m just playing seven-year old’s advocate. Why? But why? So, why? However, this is a valid question. Why must there be a tiny particle, presumably made of matter like the book of which it is a tiny part, that cannot be divided anymore? The only response to this is a negative one; i.e. to assert that an infinite regression is impossible. I will explain why this is wrong in a moment. First though, let’s return to our book.

So far, we’ve smashed the book to pieces looking for a fundamental, indivisible thing only to discover that inside, there are just more, smaller things. What about in the other direction? If a book is a clearly delineated thing, what about the stack of books of which our book is a part? How about the room where the stack of books are located? The library? The block? The city? And so on. Each of these ‘units’ are perfectly valid ways of cutting up the reality in which we find our book. This reveals a deep truth. Any discrete unit I carve out of reality is, while not completely arbitrary, arbitrary in the sense that I have chosen it to align with my current goals. If I am looking at a map, it’s no good breaking the world up into books. On the other hand, if I’m looking for a specific book, carving the world up by city blocks won’t help. Either way, reality itself is a continuous whole. The discrete elements are ways we divide this whole up to make it useful.

Now we see that we can easily resist the claim that the impossibility of an infinite regression proves there must be a fundamentally indivisible unit. Quite simply, if reality is continuous, an infinite regression is not impossible. Of course, this doesn’t mean reality is composed of an infinite number of little ‘pieces’ (that would be impossible); it means that reality precisely isn’t composed of any little pieces. The little pieces are abstractions. The whole is the ‘real.’

As with becoming, I am not suggesting here that books aren’t real; simply that they don’t reflect the deeper metaphysical truth that is reality itself. We absolutely have to carve this metaphysical reality up into useful units, or action, intervention in the world, would be impossible. But we aren’t trying to describe human life here. Instead, we’re looking for reality itself. And it turns out to be continuous in nature.

I have separated becoming and continuity above, but in truth they are more like two sides of the same coin. Becoming is really just continuity applied to time, in the same way that continuity is nothing more than becoming applied to matter.

Duration

Another word which is indispensable to Bergson’s philosophy is duration. The best way to approach duration is through its more famous half-brother, time. What is time? If you ask this question these days, you will invariably get a scientific answer; time is the fourth dimension, a structural part of the “block universe” in which spacetime is like the container we move (or think we are moving) through. Note that this definition has literally spatialised time, reducing it to what Bergson calls a “homogeneous medium.” The irony in this is that this bastardised version of time is static. Time is just another dimension, existing all at once (like space), therefore, not flowing. We should be wary of any description of time that doesn’t contain any (temporal) movement.

In order to distinguish ‘real’ time from this tepid imitation, Bergson uses the word “duration,” which preserves two features that are essential to time; first, the fact that it flows, that it is fundamentally a movement; and second, the idea that it is not a vanishingly ‘thin’ sliver of temporal daylight sandwiched between the past and the future. First, movement. Duration is essentially, and irreducibly, a succession of elements. This means that we never have more than one element before us at a time, no pun intended. To reflect on an event (say, the ringing of a bell) is precisely to throw every individual peal (element) down at once, to spread them before me in space, albeit an imaginary space; i.e. to juxtapose the individual peals with each other. There is no succession, hence there is no duration, in this picture. ‘Time’ here is nothing more than a background medium which allows me to structure the individual peals; homogeneous because no one part of this medium is distinguishable from any other; all the ‘moments’ are identical. If they weren’t, the background would be playing an active role in events. So, the succession we are talking about here cannot be that of imaginary elements called ‘moments’ or ‘instants.’ Rather, what are ‘succeeding’ are the events themselves; i.e. the individual peals of the bell. Time isn’t a construct events move through, some kind of temporal ether, as it were; rather, time is the events succeeding themselves.

This brings us to the second essential feature of time; it cannot be reduced to a vanishingly brief element; the ‘instant.’ One popular misconception about time is that only the present is real. The past is mere memory, the future mere anticipation. Since neither exist outside of the mind, they are both illusions. ‘Time’ then becomes nothing more than a fleeting instant within which we are trapped. This doesn’t bear even a passing resemblance to time as experienced in human lives. Rather, time is an enduring. Yes, we experience in the present, but this present experience, far from being a discrete, isolated ‘instant,’ is infused with the past, even as it leans into the future. Bergson describes this enduring as a “mutual penetration” or “interconnexion” of elements. Each element, or event, ‘permeates’ the others in such a way that the whole is a qualitative synthesis of the past in the present, continuously gnawing into a future that is a forever creating itself anew. These two ideas; the succession of events themselves, and an enduring that ‘extends’ beyond the present make up the essence of duration.

Perception

Bergson takes a highly pragmatic and grounded approach to perception. (He actually distinguishes between pure perception and actual perception, but we will only be concerned with the former here). We usually imagine perception to be comprised of two steps; one physical and the other psychical. Physical phenomena (wavelengths of light, the jostling of air molecules, etc.) impinge on sensory organs creating electrical/chemical disturbances which pass down nerves to brain centres where a mental representation (psychical state) is somehow generated. This is nonsense on stilts for Bergson. He finds the notion that extended causes can ever yield unextended effects absolutely incoherent. In this, ironically, Bergson is far more consistent than most materialists who twist themselves into pretzels trying to explain mental representations as illusions or epiphenomena, in effect validating the very thing they deny exists; i.e. mental (unextended, non-physical) representations. The brain is a physical object like all other physical objects. No other physical object creates images, mental or otherwise; why should the brain be any different? So, if perception isn’t comprised of mental images, what is it comprised of?

Imagine there is a red apple on the table in front of you. When you look at it, what do you see? Simple. You see the red apple on the table in front of you! Not a mental representation in between you and something else out there. You see the red apple itself. William of Occam and his razor come in handy here. Why posit a mysterious, unextended ‘mental representation’ that somehow emerges from extended matter and physical causes, when a much simpler explanation is on the offering?

Despite the elegance and simplicity of this idea, we instinctively rebel against it because we know, or think we know, that the object is made of matter and the ‘image’ we perceive is a jumble of nerve signals, synapse firings, and electrochemical activity. These seem like two different things; moreover, two things which can be out of alignment with each other. However, if we dispense with the magical, unexplained (and, in my opinion, inexplicable) emergence of mental representations made out of… well, who knows what, then we notice that our percepts aren’t actually made of anything, because they aren’t actually things. Out of the two, only the concrete object actually qualifies as a thing; the other is more like a reflection in a mirror. The mirror doesn’t ‘create’ anything, we don’t get two separate things (a reflected image and a concrete object), the reflected image is the concrete object, quite literally. People often believe that the reflected image is somehow ‘on’ the surface of the mirror, as if it were different from the concrete object. This is false. Light rays reflecting off the object simply take a circuitous path to your eye. You aren’t seeing anything in the mirror, you are seeing the object precisely where it is. Exactly the same thing happens in perception. I don’t ‘see’ a reproduction of the original concrete object that may then be more or less similar to it. (Can you get any more Cartesian than this!?) I am directly seeing the object. This is quite contrary to current neuroscientific theory, but I’m okay with this given that this theory is the very one that is banging its head against a brick wall trying to explain how non-physical phenomena (somehow) emerge from a (somehow) special physical object.

If our brains were as simple as, say, a pinhole camera, we might be less resistant to Bergson here. A pinhole camera doesn’t do anything to the light waves entering through the aperture; it just funnels them and then projects them on the back wall. Human vision, on the other hand, is a complicated process with many intermediate steps, one of which even involves changing the original medium in which the information is transmitted from light waves to electrical signals. Nevertheless, the mirror analogy still holds. Imagine the light waves bouncing off the mirror were converted into binary before being fed into a computer where those digital signals were then converted into soundwaves, so that you could, literally, hear what the object ‘looked’ like. Even in this case, where we have crossed sensory modalities, the only ‘thing’ that exists is the concrete object in the room (and the equipment we are using, of course, which, in this thought experiment, represents the body and sensory organs). The sound is not a separate thing. Change the object, and you change the sound because the sound just is the object.

One last quick objection. What if there is a problem with my eyesight, so that everything appears blurry? Surely now, I have to admit that my percept, the blurry apply, isn’t the ‘real’ apple? After all, the concrete object isn’t blurry, right? This is still insisting on a division that doesn’t exist, as if there could be a world outside my head and one inside it (see the Cartesian thinking?). Consider someone whose retinal cones were malformed in some way so that they couldn’t see colour. Who would then be seeing the ‘real’ object; the person seeing in colour, or the person seeing in black and white? Now no one gets fooled by this because we all know that wavelengths of light reflecting off the object are colourless in themselves. In fact, the question is a poorly-formed one. Both people are seeing the ‘real’ object, just through different visual systems; i.e. from different perspectives, but, and this is the deeper realisation, there is no ‘true’ external reality independent of our perceptual systems. It makes absolutely no sense to say, light waves are colourless, so if you see colour, you aren’t seeing reality as it really is. It’s exactly the same thing for blurry vision, although I admit, it isn’t quite as obvious. It just makes no sense to say, real things aren’t blurry, so if your vision blurry, you aren’t seeing reality as it really is. ‘Blurry’ only makes sense in opposition to ‘sharply focused,’ but reality is neither of these things. It just is what it is. To see it as collections of clearly defined forms is no closer to the ‘truth’ than to see it in hazy, indistinct forms, for the simple reason that there is no ‘truth’ to the matter.

So, the idea that perception involves the brain generating mental representations of external objects is a myth. Perception is essentially a passive faculty, in the sense that it doesn’t actively create, or add anything to, the physical stimuli it receives. We perceive the object as it is, not a facsimile of it. But it is also, what I’m going to call, a transparent process. Where do our perceptions take place? I see an apple on the table in front of me, but where does the apple I see exist? If we are going to reject the Cartesian theatre (which almost everybody does, even as almost everybody slips it in the backdoor through the ill-conceived notion of brain-generated images), there is only one place it can be; on the table in front of me. My perception, my mind, is quite literally out there in the objects themselves! There is nowhere else for it to be.

Pure Memory

Henri Bergson was a dualist. Fairly uniquely among dualists however, he didn’t make his counterpart to matter an ineffable, ill-defined ‘consciousness’ or ‘mind,’ nor did he try to maintain the contradiction-in-terms that goes by the name ‘immaterial substance.’ Rather, as we will see, he grounded his dualism in time; specifically, what he called pure memory. We can think of memory as a register in which facts and details about our respective histories are inscribed, although we do have to be a little careful that the word ‘register’ doesn’t mislead us into thinking of memory, so closely allied to duration as it is, as a static thing (we will take this up again in the next article). Actually, pure memory is really no different from the past (hence the connection to time), but it is less confusing to use the word ‘memory’ because we tend to think of the past in an abstract, historical sense, rather than a personal one. Memory is basically our personal pasts. The reason Bergson calls this memory ‘pure,’ or ‘true,’ is simply because it excludes habit-memory which is a bodily function, not a mental one.  

Bring to mind an image from your past. Whatever else we can say about this very real experience, it clearly isn’t material or extended. This means that pure memory, whatever it is, isn’t a substance. This will be our starting point; pure memory is unextended. So, where is your memory? Nowhere, right. How could it be somewhere when we have just established that it is unextended? But what if I hadn’t started out defining memory as unextended? And what if my first question, instead of asking where your memory was, had been: where are your memories stored? In that case, we all would have answered: in the brain. We would have qualified this by adding that no one knows exactly how memories are stored in the brain, but obviously that is where they are. I mean they must be, right? Where else could they be? But what of our earlier denial that memories exist anywhere? Ah, memory as we experience it is unextended, but this unextended experience must have a physical, extended cause, and it is this cause that is spatial; i.e. the brain. Enter Henri Bergson, who explicitly rejects this claim. The brain, contrary to popular opinion, does not store memories. Once again, we see Bergson (a dualist remember) out-materialising the materialists. The latter assert that everything is matter, including the brain, but then turn around and insist that this extended, material organ somehow ‘preserves’ in it things which are obviously non-extended and immaterial. Excite these neurons in this particular order, with this particular intensity, and lo! an unextended, immaterial memory ‘emerges.’ Nothing could make less sense for Bergson.

To get some traction on pure memory, or the past, Bergson asks us to consider unperceived objects in space. The objects you currently perceive around you exist. However, outside the room in which you are reading this article, there is a whole universe of objects you are not currently perceiving; i.e. objects you are not currently aware of. Yet we have no problem believing that they nevertheless exist in space somewhere outside our present awareness.[2] Why should this not also hold for objects outside our present awareness in time? Why should objects beyond our present awareness in space retain their ontological clout, while objects beyond our present awareness in time become ontologically impotent? All Bergson is asking us to do, and this is really the heart of his whole philosophy, is take time as seriously as we take space.

We seem to be drawn to two opposite interpretations of time; both of which attempt to get rid of it. One eliminates time by turning it into space, as we saw earlier. The other eliminates time by reducing it to a subjective phantom, as if the mere fact that it cannot be observed and measured; i.e. that it isn’t spatial, means it can’t be real. Time for Bergson, however, is every bit as real as space, if not more real, or at least, more foundational. He illustrates this in Matter and Memory by way of the following diagram:

The line (AB) represents space, as it extends outwards from the local area we currently perceive at (I). It therefore includes all of those unperceived parts of the material universe, to which we do not hesitate to assign concrete existence, even though we are currently unaware of them. The line (CI) represents time. The point at (I) is the only part of time we are currently aware of (the present), while the rest of the line represents all of those parts of time (the past) of which we are presently unaware. Bergson’s assertion is that just as we unquestioningly assign reality to the whole of the line (AB); i.e. including the segments beyond (I), we must do the same with (CI).[3] To do anything else is to deny the reality of time.

We typically recoil at this realist account of pure memory because we can’t help asking: But if the past is ‘real,’ where is it? To which Bergson would reply: It isn’t anywhere, precisely because it isn’t extended. The problem is that our intellects are unashamedly spatially biased; we can’t help thinking in terms of space. This spatial bias has evolved because we are principally, as Bergson stresses again and again, action-oriented. To be able to act in the world requires that we develop the ability to focus on those parts of it that are useful. Currently unperceived parts of space are, despite being outside our present awareness, full of both opportunities and threats which may enter our field of current awareness at any time. If we do not treat them as real, as concretely existing, the effectiveness of our worldly actions will be compromised. On the other hand, pure memory, as that which, by definition, is no longer present for us, is effectively; that is, as far as deliberate action is concerned, almost (although not completely) useless. Our intellects are extensions of our capacity for action, so they are therefore naturally biased towards the (useful) spatial, so much so, that the temporal can only appear to us either as a derivative of space, or a subjective illusion. And that is precisely what we see propounded in virtually all theories of time.

Another objection might be that space is stable, and objects appear in it in a coherent, organised manner. When I cast my gaze over the objects outside my window, I see the lamppost, some rubbish, the stairs, then the building across the way. Of course, these objects might change (perhaps after I go down and pick up the rubbish), but if they do, I can be sure they will change in a predictable, coherent way. I won’t suddenly go from perceiving the lamppost to perceiving the office building downtown. Pure memory, however, is nothing like this. We can jump around it at will without having to go through the intervening periods, and we naturally tend to move through it by invoking images that, rather than being connected in any sequential order, share similarities with other images. Additionally, pure memory is so unreliable and ephemeral that we can’t seriously accord it a concrete reality independent from ourselves, in the same way we can with space.

Concerning these objections, I think Bergson wouldn’t hesitate to agree with the last point, even as he would deny the conclusion. Memory is notoriously unreliable. But are unreliable things unreal? My prediction about who will win the world cup is unreliable. Is it therefore unreal? Memory is ephemeral, if by ephemeral we mean not occurring in space and not precisely quantifiable. But are such things unreal? If this were true, your love for your partner, or your pride in completing that project would both be unreal (best not tell your partner that!). Memory cannot be accorded a concrete reality independent from ourselves. But does this render it unreal? Bergson doesn’t deny that memory is subjective – not subjective as in mere opinion vs. fact, but subjective as in relating to the subject, not the object – he simply argues subjectivity doesn’t mean not real. Pure memory is not real in the same way that space is, but this is only a problem for pure memory if we are arbitrarily excluding from reality anything not describable by science; i.e. anything not spatial, quantifiable, or subject to calculation. As unreliable and unextended as pure memory is, remember that it isn’t the same as imagination; that is, pure fiction. I can’t alter my memories at will to suit my tastes. I can forget things, I can even misremember things, but I can’t deliberately create memories. They surely aren’t as objective as things in space, but (a) even things in space aren’t as objective as we typically think, and (b) it is precisely this objectivity-bias that has turned consciousness into the ‘hard,’ unsolvable mystery that it currently is.

In short, time cannot be understood spatially, but this doesn’t mean that time is not every bit as concretely real as space. Time is real. It is a process of becoming, a continual unfolding in which that which is new and unpredictable is always being created. This means that the past, or pure memory, is equally real; just as real, in fact, as the parts of space beyond my current awareness. Denying concrete reality to time just because of the spatial biases of our intellects (but if the past is real, where is it?) guarantees that an understanding of reality as a whole will forever remain beyond us. How can we expect to understand the whole if we have already written off half as an illusion, or subsumed it under the other half?


The above is by no means a complete summary of Bergson’s philosophy, but it is what we need to conclude the project I (quite unintentionally) began in my last article. At that time, I thought I was just going to make a few quick remarks regarding the nature of qualia, but by the time I finished, I realised that, in dismissing qualia, I had unwittingly cracked open the door to what was a much more substantial problem. It turns out that one cannot ignore an open door like this for long. This article has taken us to the threshold. We’ll cross it in the next, and last, article in this series.


[1] In an interesting semi-confirmation of Bergson, modern physics has also suggested that particles are actually excitations of continuous, quantum fields which extend throughout the universe.

[2] I don’t think we should be seduced into questioning this based on findings in quantum physics for two reasons. First, no one knows what quantum physics means. Of course, it is unparalleled as a tool for successfully predicting experimental results, and manipulating/controlling matter, but conceptually, it basically amounts to a string of propositions that no one can put together in a cohesive whole. Second, although quantum physics apparently contradicts my claim here by asserting that fundamental particles are nowhere (or everywhere) until observed (by the so-called wave-function collapse (don’t even get me started on the many-worlds interpretation)), it doesn’t make any such claim for macro-scale objects. The couch in the other room is just fine where it is, even if you aren’t there to collapse any wave-functions.

[3] Note the line (CI) doesn’t extend past (I) because that part of the diagram represents the future, which hasn’t happened yet.

6 thoughts on “Towards an Understanding of Consciousness – Henri Bergson

  1. Brilliant 👏 thanks for this excellent explanation of Bergson. Where this leaves Sartre’s Nothingness I guess is the veracity of our own pinpointed abstracted beings?
    I know you’ve explored Sartre deeply, and so probably like me are always accessing your lessons of him. He, as you know, respected Bergson (whether he fully understood him, I don’t know). Sartre though also rejected the instant of time, but by way of exploring how because Nothingness is literally nothing, there is then literally nothing separating you from your past or future. So Sartre too appears to “lean in.” And yet, he makes this provision for what? Agency?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Here’s the excerpt I was thinking of. I’m sure you are familiar:
      Sartre: “It remains to explain what this separation is, this disengaging of consciousness which conditions every negation. If we consider the prior consciousness envisaged as motivation, we see suddenly and evidently that *nothing* has just slipped in between that state and the present state. There has been no break in continuity within the flux of the temporal development, for that would force us to return to the inadmissible concept of the infinite divisibility of time and of the temporal point or instant as the limit of the division. Neither has there been an abrupt interpolation of an opaque element to separate prior from subsequent in the way that a knife blade cuts a piece of fruit in two🗡🥝. Nor is there a weakening of the motivating force of the prior consciousness; it remains what it is, it does not lose anything of its urgency. What separates prior from subsequent is exactly *nothing.* This nothing is absolutely impassable, just because it is nothing; for in every obstacle to be cleared there is something positive which gives itself as about to be cleared. The prior consciousness is always *there* (though with the modification of “pastness”). It constantly maintains a relation of interpretation with the present consciousness, but on the basis of this existential relation it is put out of the game, out of the circuit, between parentheses—exactly as in the eyes of one practicing the phenomenological ἐποχή, the world both is within him and outside of him.”
      —Jean-Paul Sartre, “The Origin of Negation” (pps. 27-8) Being and Nothingness (1943)

      Liked by 1 person

    • Great point. I think you nailed it in your second sentence. Sartre is describing (not explaining – he isn’t doing metaphysics) human experience, which is centred on the for-itself; an abstraction from Bergson’s perspective. Of course, because Sartre is concerned with ontology within a broader phenomenological, not metaphysical, project, it isn’t an abstraction for him. On the contrary, it’s ontological bedrock. So, while substance is singular (being-in-itself), being is a duality (for-itself / in-itself). Bergson could, I think, agree with this if we don’t poke around too much under the hood (terminological differences aside).
      Like you said, nothingness, then, is a way of understanding ‘how’ the abstraction (for Bergson) / being-for-itself (for Sartre) arises separated from a wider, continuous plenitude of being-in-itself, despite lacking metaphysical credentials in Bergson’s philosophy, or substance ones in Sartre’s. Bergson might even be able to stretch to accommodate this.
      (True, in Creative Evolution Bergson completely, absolutely, vehemently condemns the idea of nothingness as a pure fiction, but this is because his is a metaphysical project. Phenomenologically, we get a little more elbow room because we are only describing experience. So, I think nothingness can be a concrete part of our philosophy even though it doesn’t correlate with anything substantial (in the sense of ‘substance’).)

      This tentative harmony though occludes a deeper difference. For Sartre, all that is interesting (agency, freedom, intention, temporality, spatiality, etc.) arises through this for-itself ‘imposition’ (and its secretions of nothingness) on a basically inert natural world. Bergson, however, gets those same things from the natural world itself, when it is ‘organised’ in such a way that we get something that endures; i.e. a living being.

      How do you feel about that?

      Thanks for the great comment, John. Once again, I’m pushed to things I would never have thought of on my own.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Fantastic, sir! Thank you very very much. It is *your* explanation of Bergson, (and now this generous organizing around Sartre for me) that finally sticks! I guess now I should actually read Bergson. I’m fairly petrified, to be honest. But this good. I’m rarely so excited.

        I am not going to tax you any further, but Bergson’s genius in the perception department seems to also prefigure Merleau-Ponty? Full disclosure: I am only just now reading Phenomenology of Perception. A tiny, childish voice in my head feebly suggested to me that Sartre’s chapter on the body was sufficient. But not even 11 pages in do I realize this was childish.

        Lastly, the other day I was walking in the snow and voila! evidence of Time, for the person whose boots that left these prints is *not* here. Nothingness again. Time itself as another nihilation! But I rather like your already fitting Sartre and Bergson together like you did. It is the difference in *approach,* as you reveal to me.

        Thank you again, Nathan. You have been one of my greatest teachers for years now. I’d buy you a beer if I could, if anything, just for getting me past Sartre’s “percipi” years ago🍻

        Liked by 1 person

      • Haha, brilliant. I’ll take you up on that beer if you’re ever in South Korea!

        You will enjoy Merleau-Ponty. If you aren’t too far into PoP, you might want to consider going the other way – Bergson first. Compared to Sartre and MP he is much, much easier to read AND there is so much in MP from Bergson. He doesn’t mention him much, but it’s clear that he takes a lot of his cues from Bergson, and the underlying themes are very much Bergsonian in nature. I also think MP will be easier to understand if you have read Bergson first. I wish someone had told me that before I read PoP!

        Liked by 1 person

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