Bergson, Henri-Louis (1859–1941)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DD008-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 01, 2022, from

5. Metaphysics and philosophy of mind

This pragmatism appears again in Bergson’s philosophy of mind, which, as we might expect from the way in which he links duration to consciousness, is itself closely linked to his metaphysics. He repudiates idealism, and begins the introduction to the 1911 edition of Matter and Memory by calling himself a dualist, ‘affirming the reality of spirit and the reality of matter’. But his dualism is not ‘vulgar’. It can be called a dualism of time and space (it is tempting to call it one of movement and trajectory), but from another point of view it could be called one of perception and memory, terms which he constantly contrasts as differing in kind, not in degree.

But though matter and spirit are both real, they differ only in degree, and here we reach a central part of Bergson’s metaphysics, and also his epistemology, for our knowledge of the world is essentially bound up with the nature of the world itself. Bergson is one of the few philosophers to distinguish clearly between sensation and perception. We cannot start with sensations, treated as unextended and inside ourselves, and somehow turn them into perceptions telling us of an extended outer world, just as we cannot get a concept of the past by starting from a momentary present, and treating memories simply as weaker (‘fainter’, as Hume would say) sensations or perceptions. Bergson’s target here is the associationism that underlies so much of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century empiricism, and his criticisms are of fundamental importance, whether or not his own view also faces difficulties.

Although officially dualist, Bergson’s view is somewhat akin to the ‘neutral monism’ of William James and others (see James, W. §6; Neutral monism). Though perception differs in kind from memory, it essentially involves it in varying degrees. Our perceptions are always affected by our experience, and if we had no memories we would have no real perceptions – another important criticism of Humean empiricism. Perception takes place not inside us but where its object is, and a perception unmediated by memory, and in that sense a ‘pure’ perception, is an ideal limit, and not really perception at all; it ‘is really part of matter’. In effect it is the object itself, or rather, since it now lacks duration, it is what we might now describe as a momentary time-slice of the object.

Bergson’s pragmatism reappears here: we perceive what we need to perceive in order to act (we might think this more obviously true in the case of animals), and the function of the brain is to filter memories so that only those enter consciousness which are of practical use, notably in perceiving; he used his study of aphasia to argue that the brain cannot be used as a storehouse for memories. Superficially, his treatment of memory involves an excessively crude dichotomy between picture-memory and habit-memory, but he was not concerned with many of the problems that interest later thinkers.

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