Bergson’s Critique of Crude Materialism


All questions concerning the mode of the survival of the past will dismiss from the outset any psychological theory trying to locate recollections within the cerebral matter of the brain.To say, with Bergson, that the brain is a mere “central telephonic switchboard” transmitting movements is also “to say [that] it is in vain to attribute to the cerebral substance the property of engendering representations” (ibid.). In fact the final conclusions of Matter and Memory run as follows:“Questions relating to subject and object, to their distinction and their union, must be put in terms of time rather than of space” (ibid., 74/71, emphasis in original). As Frédéric Worms insightfully points out, we are here witnessing a crucial reversal of the relationship between the body and memory.Whereas from a practical point of view, the body is occupying the foreground in the theory of perception, it gets relegated to the background in the theory of memory. Similarly, while memory remains secondary from a practical point of view, it returns as primary with the reintroduction of time, which is to say, of becoming.Worms writes,“At bottom, the stakes are the following: the body, whose existence had been posed as an absolute in the first chapter, now depends on memory for its conservation in time!”26 This is the key to the Virtual informing the Bergsonian unconscious.

Valentine Moulard-Leonard, Transcendental Experience and the Thought of the Virtual, 31


7 thoughts on “Bergson’s Critique of Crude Materialism

  1. i/t/o Bergson’s theory of the diff btwn space/time, which he says German Idealism treats as equally homogeneous (space: homogeneous; time: homogeneous), Bergson argues that time should be described as duration, which is a qualitative multiplicity, making it continuous. Alternately, he argues that space is a quantitative multiplicity, which it makes is discontinuous. Other than being a question of counting, what is the crucial difference between these two types of multiplicities? Division.

    On page 62-3, Moulard-Leonard writes:

    Thus beyond Time and Free Will we must say that there is not only a difference in kind between the two halves of the division between space and duration. Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, “The qualitative difference is entirely on one side,” as Deleuze points out: it is on the side of duration, of temporal difference, because it alone is endowed with the power of qualitatively varying with itself (alteration)—and not only with other things (1998a, 22/1988, 31).

    Let us take, for instance, Bergson’s famous example of the lump of sugar. When we only approach it from the angle of its spatial configuration, all we ever grasp are differences in degree between that lump of sugar and any other thing. But, Deleuze adds,“It also has a duration, a rhythm of duration, a way of being in time which is at least partially revealed in the process of its dissolving, and that shows how this sugar differs in kind not only from other things but first and foremost from itself” (ibid., 23/32).This shows that this internal difference or alteration is “one with the essence or the substance of a thing,” and it “is what we grasp when we conceive it in terms of duration” (ibid., emphasis added).13 In other words, it all happens as if, with the theory of tendencies he proposes in Creative Evolution, Bergson extended the bearing of duration beyond consciousness, to the things themselves. Indeed, this may be the greatest import of Bergsonism— that which, beyond phenomenology, establishes it as signifying the end of the Cartesian era in French philosophy.14

  2. Moulard-Leonard continues on 66 that:
    “Matter is absolute exteriority; insofar as it is extended in space, it must be defined as a present that is always beginning anew.15 Conversely, says Bergson, as a system of sensations and movements and nothing else,“our present is the very materiality of our existence” (ibid., 154/139). In other words, the present is both juxtaposition in space and succession in time, the coexistence of repetition and difference, matter and memory. The validity of this paradoxical claim stems not from a clever logical game on Bergson’s part. For him, this paradox of repetition and difference, which defines the present, refers to a positive reality, namely, the reality of the unconscious.”

  3. Unfortunately, these lines also represent Bergson’s “crude” view of space as dead, fixed, arrested, which is in line with the modernist-bourgeois obsession with time and progress as the only sources of historical movement. Foucault said it long ago: the reductionist celebration of the dynamism of time at the expense of space begins in Bergson. The irony is that Deleuze initially supported this crude opposition between time-life and space-death, only to move away from it in his work with Guattari. But I think that only Lefebvre manages to overcome the space-time dualism by accounting for the spatiality of time and the temporality of space in his analysis of rhythms (the temporality of our 24hour day, after all, is nothing but the result of a spatial-temporal rhythm: the movement-rotation of planet Earth).

    1. Interesting analysis, and it gives me a lot to think through. As an analytic schema, the virtual/actual of Deleuze/Bergson definitely places much more importance on the virtual than the actual but is doesn’t follow the Agambenian argument that the actual degrades the virtual (potential is best when not actualized).

      Both Deleuze and Bergson are clear that actualization changes the virtual, e.g. an organism’s extension is not only necessary but the evolutionary infolding of the internal environment increases its power. Thus in D&G’s work they speak of a rhythm, as you point out, of expansion and contraction. In some places this is also described as the systolic-diastolic pressure that pumps blood through the body as well as the movement of the “origami universe.”

      Thus I wonder:
      Can we maintain Bergson’s distinction between a homogeneous (and differentiated) discontinuous space and heterogeneous (and differenciated) continuous time, without reduce space to deadness and time to activity?

      1. And moreover:
        Could it be that capitalism (or modernity as a historical formation, or whatever) reduces the activity of both time & space by turning space into a dead weight to be used against time?

        Then again, this would be a more Jamesonian type argument (history as an expressive totality), with its own set of metaphysical presuppositions…

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