Bergsonism, or Philosophy of Sub- and Superhuman Durations

Leave a comment
assemblage / Bachelard / becoming / bergson / Deleuze / difference / duration / image / intuition / memory / metaphysics / metapsychology / ontology / problematics / time / virtual / Whitehead


Deleuze, Gilles. Bergsonism. Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam. New York: Zone, 1991.

Bergson on several occassions compares the approach of philosophy to the procedure of infinitesimal calculus: When we have benefited in experience from a little light which shows us a line of articulation, all that remains is to extend it beyond experience—just as mathematicians reconstitute, with the infinitely small elements that they perceive of the real curve, ‘the curve itself stretching out into the darkness behind them.’ In any case, Bergson is not one of those philosophers who ascribes a properly human wisdom and equilibrium to philosophy. To open us up to the inhuman and the superhuman (durations which are inferior or superior to our own), to go beyond the human condition: This is the meaning of philosophy, in so far as our condition condemns us to live among badly analyzed composites, and to be badly analyzed composites ourselves (Gilles Deleuze, Bergsonism pg 27-28).

Deleuze’s project in Bergsonism is to render a systematic understanding of Bergson’s concepts in their interrelations. Of course, this book is an experiment in philosophical buggery, and so there is a clear Deleuzian ring to it. There is much in here that is strictly related to Deleuze’s project, but in itself it still retains a lot of theoretical value and stands as a concise and intriguing reading of Bergson. The first chapter on intuition as method lays out clearly Bergson’s project in three moves: (1) state and create problems; (2) discover the genuine differences in kind; (3) apprehend time in its reality as duration. To construct this method in its rigor, we must set out some rules as we go along.

Rule #1: Apply the test of true and false to problems themselves. Condemn false problems and reconcile truth and creation at the level of problems (15).

Like Bachelard’s insights in The Formation of the Scientific Mind, Bergson argues that true and false are always unsuccessfully applied to solutions because it is the figure of the schoolmaster who gives the problems with presupposed answers. It is in this sense that true freedom lies in a power to decide and constitute problems themselves. Properly stating a speculative problem is the first step to solving it, in the same way that problems get the solutions they deserve based on how well they are formulated.

This line of argumentation is so fundamental to Bergson’s project that he will claim that the history of mankind revolves theoretically and practically around the construction of problems. Becoming conscious of this activity is the undertaking of a conquest of freedom. The goal is not to discover problems, for to discover something is the same as saying that it has always already been there in actuality. The truly creative aspect of thinking confronts the task of inventing new ways of posing the problem, for invention is an actualization of a reality that could have always remained only potential in nature.

Complementary Rule #1: There are two types of false problems: ‘nonexistent problems’ that arise from the confusion of the ‘more’ and the ‘less;’ and ‘badly stated’ questions, so defined because their terms represent badly analyzed composites (17).

To illustrate the first kind of problem Bergson cites the problems of nonbeing, of disorder or of the possible (the problems of knowledge and being)…His analyses…consist in showing that there is not less, but more in the idea of nonbeing than that of being, in disorder than in order, in the possible than in the real. In the idea of nonbeing there is in fact the idea of being, plus a logical operation of generalized negation, plus the particular psychological motive for that operation (such as when a being does not correspond to our expectation and we grasp it purely as the lack, the absence of what interests us) (17).

Bergson here critiques the common understanding of negation because it automatically assumes that nonbeing is quantitatively less than being or that disorder less than order, when in fact these questions are misdirected. He argues that this type of false problem involves a fundamental illusion wherein being, order, and the existent are thought to precede themselves and “project an image of themselves back into a possibility, a disorder, a nonbeing which are supposed to be primordial” (18). Therefore, questions like “Why is there something rather than nothing?” or “Why is there order rather than disorder?” or “Why is there this rather than that (when that was equally possible)?” are false problems because they assume that the negative types pre-exist the positive, as though nonbeing existed before being or the momentary void before the self-generation of God (which contradicts ‘Its’ perfection, theologically and non-anthropomorphically speaking).

The fallacy of the ‘more’ and ‘less’ plagues the simple binary opposition of order/disorder. The reason why this embroils the intellect in false problems is because two or more irreducible orders (mechanism/organism) have been reduced to a general idea of order. But there is no order-in-general just as there is no order-in-itself. This illusion emerges whenever a variety of general ideas are reduced to a general idea encompassing all general ideas. Put another way, the common error of science and metaphysics is to see nothing but differences in degree (quantity) where there are actually only differences in kind (quality). Thus the idea of disorder emerges from the idea of order as a badly analyzed composite, and so the first type of false problem of the ‘more’ and ‘less’ can be considered as a special example of the question of badly analyzed composites.

Like in Kantian critical philosophy, these illusions are due to reason’s own prejudice, so they can not in themselves be removed, only repressed (21). So if the intelligence is the faculty that states problems in general, and the instinct is the faculty that finds solutions, the role of intuition can be best described as a method that distinguishes between true and false problems, even if this means driving the intellect to turn against itself (21).

Rule #2: Struggle against illusion, rediscover true differences in kind or articulations of the real.

With the advent of the theories of relativity in physics, we are quick to mix space and time, constructing a four-dimensional[1] reality. But we find ourselves unable to separate duration from extensity or perception from memory. Intuition focuses on the condition of real (instead of possible) experiences, and this is why it has an obsession with the pure as it is constituted by differences in kind. One question of difference in kind arises in the first chapter of Matter and Memory. Bergson stresses that the body nor the brain are the generating cause behind the faculty of representation; instead, both are involved in a complication of the relationship between a received movement (excitation) and an executed movement (response) (24). Moreover, the brain is not responsible for our representations because it is just another image along with the stimuli in our nervous system and the external world (matter itself being the aggregate of images in their totality). There is no difference in kind between the brain and the body, both are images, and the perception of matter is not different in kind than matter itself (25).

The body’s responsiveness/affectivity gives the subject volume in space insofar as recollections form in memory and link instants together through a conservation of the past in the present. Through a selection of these recollections, memory takes on another form (contraction-memory) by contracting the matter or images that gives the body something other than an instantaneous point through duration and the conjunction of two types of memory (double articulation of memory: re-collecting or assembling fragments and contraction through stabilized reconnection.

Complementary Rule# 2: The real is not only that which is cut out according to natural articulations or differences in kind: it is also that which intersects again along paths converging toward the same ideal or virtual point (29).

This is because duration is not a psychological experience. It is the variable essence of things and is the theme of a complex ontology (34). This ontology is made of two halves: science and metaphysics. Science and metaphysics correspond to the divide between difference in degree and in kind.

Rule #3: State and solve problems in terms of time rather than space.

In its homogeneity, space is nothing but difference in degree, whereas duration takes on all differences in kind because it has the power to qualitatively vary with itself. Thus for Bergson, the qualitative differences are only on the side of time. In space, there is only the ability to diminish or enlarge things—in time, a thing differs from all other things, most of all itself.Alteration is the essence of the individual being in relation to duration (we must wait for sugar to dissolve, as Bergson says). We must wait for a change, because our impatience contrasts with other durations that form a rhythm with mine.

Intuition is not duration but the means by which we emerge from our duration and affirm other durations, above and below us. For inferior and superior durations are not simply quantitative, they are differences in kind. This means that the singular durations are themselves different in kind, and so another individual’s becoming impinges on my duration and a falling-in-and-out-of-step ensues.

Does this mean that humanity can be characterized by its polyphonic harmonies, its syncopated beats, its (war)drum solos? What sort of rhythm and conjunction of durations does it take to throw the individual out-of-step with humanity (to either sub- or super-human ends)?

[1] Whitehead’s really quick to do this, especially in The Concept of Nature published in 1919. There are a number of criticisms that Whitehead levels against Bergson, as well as some positive remarks. However, by the mid-30s in Adventures of Ideas, Whitehead warns us that Nietzsche and Bergson are the two primary negative forces of anti-intellectualism plaguing American philosophy (287). This reaction seems quite arbitrary but can readily be explained: Whitehead sees Bergson as a worthy adversary insofar as he represents the philosopher most capable of resonating systematically with the cosmological implications of the theory of relativity. On the other hand, I would wager that Russell influenced Whitehead’s conception of Nietzsche (Russell’s History of Western Philosophy levies a gross misrepresentation of Nietzsche and constitutes probably the most critical and bitter part of the whole book).

–Taylor Adkins

The Author

Please feel free to email me about anything and everything that's on the site. I love every chance I get to engage in stimulating conversation. Email:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.