Bergson, Henri-Louis (1859–1941)

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

2. Time and duration

The core of Bergson’s philosophy, which, as he pointed out in a letter of 1915 (1972: 1148), every account of his philosophy must start from and constantly return to, on pain of distortion, is the ‘intuition of duration’. Time, for Bergson, is of two fundamentally different kinds, or better, especially for his later philosophy, appears in two fundamentally different guises. For science, time is essentially particulate. It consists of an infinite, dense set of instants, and science uses the calculus to study the world as it is at these instants. Change is nothing over and above the world’s being in different states at different instants, and the transition from one state to another is something science can take no account of except by using the calculus in this way. (This interpretation of the role of the calculus for Bergson has been disputed: see Milet 1974.) For experience, however, this transition is the very essence of time, now called duration (durée). We do not live from moment to moment, but in a continuous stream of experience (the similarity to William James’ ‘stream of consciousness’ is unsurprising, given the close personal and professional friendship between Bergson and James, who reached their views independently).

One might wonder why change should not consist simply in being in different states at different instants, provided the instants form a dense set, so that no two are adjacent (a feature Bergson unfortunately ignores in his favourite image of time as cinematographic). Bergson’s reply, that this overlooks the phenomenology of experience, surely has merit, and helps to solve several problems. We experience the immediate past, and possibly the immediate future, along with the present, as actual, and we can perhaps avoid objections that have confronted James’ independently developed ‘specious present’ if (with Bergson) we avoid treating the act of experiencing as itself separate and momentary. But be that as it may, Bergson can avoid Augustine’s problem that time vanishes because only the present is actual and the present does not last long enough to be real at all. He also need not worry about how we acquire a concept of the past when experience only ever presents us with the present.

However, problems do arise. Duration is introduced as essentially linked to consciousness; but does duration exist in the outer world? Bergson’s first major book Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience (Time and Free Will) (1889) states unambiguously that it does not, but his next book Matière et mémoire: Essai sur les relations du corps avec l’esprit (Matter and Memory) (1896) does allow duration to the outer world, as do his later works. The change of view was well motivated, for how could a consciousness embedded in duration live in a world devoid of it? Science still treats the world as cinematographic, and so now falsifies it, but inevitably and harmlessly, so long as we do not expect from science more than it can give; it is for metaphysics, using ‘intuition’, to describe the world philosophically, but only science can give us our indispensable practical understanding of the world. Bergson, however, never seemed conscious of a real change of view, and in his much later La pensée et le mouvant: essais et conférences (The Creative Mind) (1934) talks simply of Matter and Memory as getting nearer to what he wanted to say. Nor did he ever satisfactorily explain the extent to which duration is bound up with consciousness.

Bergson’s treatment of time and duration invites comparison with McTaggart’s B-series and A-series respectively. McTaggart wrote in 1908, after Bergson’s main treatments, but Bergson’s later writings show no knowledge of him. In McTaggart’s terms Bergson would be a thoroughgoing A-theorist, especially from Matter and Memory onwards (see McTaggart, J.M.E. §2).

Discrete plurality for Bergson is essentially spatial, and time with its multiplicity of moments is duration spatialized. This contrast between space and genuine time (duration) introduces an asymmetry between space and time which puts Bergson at odds with recent philosophy (which tends to treat them alike), and assimilates him in this respect to older philosophers such as the Greeks. One of his favourite examples for illustrating duration is a melody, which we can only hear as a melody if we hear it as a whole. Critics have pointed out that, similarly, we can only see a circle by seeing it as a whole (Boudot 1980: 349), and have claimed that in order to distinguish space and time Bergson uses a distinction between the psychological and the mathematical that applies within space and time equally (Berthelot 1913: 354–5). The critics are somewhat justified, though Bergson does in a lower key distinguish space from extensity, and could perhaps thereby deal with the circle. But the critics do scant justice to the real asymmetries between space and time in terms of directions and ‘flow’ which support Bergson’s general approach (see Time §1).

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