- Time and Free Will by Bergson


The 19th. century ended in an emphasis on a scientific and materialist approach to philosophy. Spencer's evolutionism portrayed the world as evolving according to mechanical laws. Associationism, first proposed by Locke within the British empirical tradition, sought to explain all mental operations through the association of ideas. Hume compared the association of ideas with Newton's law of gravity.

Positivism provoked a philosophical reaction which tried to elaborate a philosophy based on awareness and individual experience. This goal is common to Bergson's spiritualism, Husserl's phenomenology and Heidegger's existentialism.

Bergson's approach was through free will which has a long philosophical tradition dating from Plato and Aristotle through Augustine of Hippo, the Medieval philosophy of Aquinas, Duns Scotus and beyond.

Bergson argues that it was Zeno of Elea who began the confusion between motion and space that led to his paradoxes. He further claims that the ancient Greeks' emphasis on eternal immutability was at the root of the problem. He claims that Zeno's error was followed by modern science. In order to rectify this error he affirms that we must base all intelligibility on the internal experience of duration.

According to the author Descartes incorporated the above error into modern philosophical thought. Descartes had to opt between spatialised time, which would be deterministic and deny free will, and the intuition of time which would deny divine providence. His solution was the split between the soul as duration and the body in the same space.

Early modern thinking is based on two shared assumptions: 

- the belief in an afterlife judged on the basis of free will choices and the idea that moral behaviour would not have a reasonable basis without free will

- the belief in determinism made it difficult to explain free will theologically, since God determines events, metaphysically, since events are determined by a cause (Leibnitz and Spinoza), scientifically, since the cartesian view was that the laws of Nature are deterministic.

However, many agreed on three concepts: self-determination; the moral responsibility attached to free will; free will compatible with determinism (rejected by Spinoza and Kant).

Time and Free Will is a criticism of Kant's confused mix of space and time which leads to a deterministic view of freedom. In order to define consciousness and freedom Bergson proposes to separate time and space and thus define awareness as temporal which excludes juxtaposition of events and mechanistic causality. It is in this temporal duration period that he places freedom.

The duration (la dureé) is not quantitative but qualitative. It is a state of awareness in which:

"... several conscious states are organized into a whole, permeate one another, [and] gradually gain a richer content”

Bergson gives the qualitative example of a flock of sheep. If you consciously ignore their spatial surroundings and that they are not identical, you can focus on their totality for meat or wool production. On the contrary, quantitative enumeration leads to a numerical symbol. In a similar manner calendars and clocks are a homogenous format of time.

The moral feeling of sympathy works in the same way through conscious qualitative thinking, according to Bergson. It starts with empathy for another then to not wanting their pain, to a fear that in a similar situation nobody would help me, to helping in order to rectify an injustice. There are several qualitative layers of feeling in the one act of sympathy. They cannot be separated spatially but are juxtaposed and progress in time from one to another. The immediacy of the multiple feelings make them inexpressible in symbols.


In 1888 Bergson submitted his doctoral thesis in Paris: Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience, published as the book Time and Free Will in 1889. It deals mainly with the concept of duration (la dureé) and its multiplicity of states.

Chapter I: "From the intensity of psychological states" 

Bergson chooses dance as an example to demonstrate his concept of time duration (la dureé). Graceful dancing is performed in curves because their lines can change direction and each movement is indicated in the previous one. Each gesture is a stoppage in time which holds the future in the present. When rhythm and music are added there is a further possibility of prediction of future movement. The spectators experience duration through the emotion the artwork evokes in them.

Bergson then applies himself to criticising the positivist theories on sensations. In particular he objects to the transformation known as the Weber-Fechner Law, because it treats sensations as quantities and due to its faulty logic:

"all psychophysics is condemned by its very origin to turn in a vicious circle, because the theoretical postulate on which it rests condemns it to an experimental verification and it can only be verified experimentally if we first admit our postulate."

Chapter II: “On the multiplicity of states of consciousness. The idea of ​​duration ” 

Duration (la dureé) happens when the ego allows a flow between present and past states. It is like the melting of notes together in a melody.

Bergson points out that Kant missed the duration experience because he established a needless parallel between time and space, thus confusing "the true duration and its symbol".

Chapter III: “On the organization of states of consciousness. Freedom."

This chapter deals with the notions of time, intensity, states of consciousness, the subject "me", the question of freedom and its origin in the subject. Regarding the dynamics of freedom he conceives a double force in action: a free movement and matter subject to deterministic laws.

Determining the differing states of consciousness relies on representing them in a spatialised format as they merge and this fits the concept of duration.


Time (la dureé) 

Bergson's concept of time fits with his notion of the brain as an organ of choice. It's goal is to filter mental images and permit those which are of practical biological value to come to consciousness.

In Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness Bergson differentiated between lived time (durée réelle) and the mechanistic time of science which, he argues, is based on a misperception. It superimposes spatial notions on time and so distorts it so that it is perceived as a series of spatial constructs like the 24 still frames per second of a film. Bergson claims that this is an illusion. Time evolves as a dance, a movement of flow. His philosophical criticism of the mechanical explanation is one of faulty logic:

“We give a mechanical explanation of a fact and then substitute the explanation for the fact itself."

Duration for Bergson is the ultimate and irreductible reality. It is the unified flow of time as opposed to the mechanistic interpretation of clockwork time. Duration is the vital force of life (élan vital), not the brute force of Darwinism, but in a spontaneous and creative way. This force can only be captured through intuition and the experience of flux, not by reason.

"It was the analysis of the notion of time, as that enters into mechanics and physics, which overturned all my ideas. I saw, to my great astonishment, that scientific time does not endure. This led me to change my point of view completely."


Within a materialist paradigm it is usual to think of consciousness as a product of the brain, that is, evolving from matter. 

Bergson concedes that in more complex organisms organs are created to specialize in certain functions. However, he adds that the functions existed prior to their localization in organs: the function creates the organ, rather than the organ creating the function.

"...consciousness in man is unquestionably connected with the brain; but it by no means follows that a brain is indispensable to consciousness.”

He then turns to the function of the brain in consciousness. His idea is that more than producing awareness the brain acts as a filter of conscious perception. Raw reality would overwhelm perception of the world, so the brain filters out input according to our needs. We have evolved to see reality not as it actually is, but as we need to see it in order to survive.

There is an experiment which purports to demonstrate that we are only conscious of what we need in a given moment. This leads to inattentive blindness. Try the experiment

Our perception is limited by our motivations. Our aim in a particular situation constrains our awareness by blocking anything that is not relevant to our goal.

Throughout history mystics have experienced transcending the limitations of perceptual awareness. They are able to see beyond the world of abstractions, concepts and language and move into the fullness of reality. 

Free will

To define free will Bergson had to combat determinism without using material dialectics, which he rejected. On the other hand he must link conscience to reality to avoid abstract metaphysics with no practical use. He finds the balance between materialism and idealism by proposing that consciousness decides within time and acts in space. For him, decisions are intuitive, not reflexive or rational and they depend not on space but on time.

In order to justify intuition Bergson needs to define consciousness as dynamic, as an uninterrupted flow. Its freedom must be open to transformation. Instead of having a mirror conscience the author presents a conscience with an internal life which shapes reality.


For Bergson language is linked to the external, social world. It has therefore a immobilising effect on the idea of dynamic consciousness, which it cannot really express. His oblique style is an attempt to communicate a sense of living dynamism of thought when expressed in words. His explanations are attempts to convey not content, but an experience. 

Bergson believes that language is too general to express the individuality of a person or object. Language is spatial; art is temporal and captures the flow of time. It is the poet's task to rebel against the generality of language by using it to express the individual materiality of objects.


Art is beyond the useful since it refuses to be useful. It is a means of breaking with the habitual ways of viewing things. Bergson understands art as an authentic perception which pierces the pragmatic 'veil'. He proposes the example of the impressionists' repeated paintings of the same object in a different light, such as Cezanne's captures of Provence landscapes or Monet's paintings of Rouen cathedral (see below). To achieve this the artist must detach himself from the immediacies of life and relativise their utility.

Philosophy as Attention 

Bergson criticises the philosophical tradition for its abstraction, instead of being attentive to the present world. The determinists held that there are general laws in the universe which cannot be broken, so freedom is an illusion. Bergson, however, claims they did not notice that life is not a repetition of the same laws but a flow in which we age and where there is little repetition. On paying attention we will realise that repetition is a simplified abstraction. 

"My senses and my consciousness, therefore, give me no more than a practical simplification of reality."

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