Bergson, Henri-Louis (1859–1941)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DD008-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 08, 2023, from

3. Bergson and Zeno

The ideas so far outlined provide Bergson with a tool which he uses first to deal with Zeno’s paradoxes of motion, but then goes on to apply in other spheres, such as biology and ethics. This tool is the distinction between a movement and its trajectory. The reason that Zeno’s Achilles never overtakes his tortoise is that Zeno insists on applying to the movement, which occurs in time, the infinite process of division that really only applies to the trajectory, which is spatial (see Zeno of Elea §7). The movement is essentially unitary and indivisible. This gives the spirit of Bergson’s views, though only as a rough approximation: evidently Achilles’ movement does have parts – his steps – and it is these that have no parts. But Bergson never seems to succeed in giving adequate criteria for deciding just when a movement is unitary and so has no parts.

The use of this tool in other spheres begins with the treatment of free will in Time and Free Will, where it joins a sort of dialectical device that Bergson repeatedly employs: the insistence that two antagonistic approaches that together dominate a philosophical topic share a common error, though he often admits that his own view lies nearer to one pole than to the other. On free will, the poles are determinism and libertarianism, and the error, as so often, amounts to replacing a movement by its trajectory. Bergson’s own view, that a free act will proceed from the self alone and ‘express the whole of the self’ ([1889] 1990: 165–6), is nearer to libertarianism, but the libertarian, insisting that the agent ‘could have done otherwise’, shares with the determinist the view that the trajectory is already there before the action and that it makes sense to imagine a replay, stopping the action halfway through, as it were, and sending it off on a different course. His point seems to be that there is no ‘halfway through’ at which the action could be stopped; the process flowing from deliberation to completed action (the doing, as opposed to the things done) is unitary and indivisible (see Free will §1–2).

Citing this article:
Lacey, A.R.. Bergson and Zeno. Bergson, Henri-Louis (1859–1941), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DD008-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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