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Henri Bergson and the Phenomenological Nature of Time

The more we study the nature of time, the more we shall comprehend that duration means invention, the creation of forms, the continual elaboration of the absolutely new.
Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution p. 7

Henri Bergson and the Phenomenological Nature of Time

Henri Bergson and the Phenomenological Nature of Time

Is Bergson on to something here? What exactly does “duration means invention” mean? What does the creation of forms have to do with the perception of time? Finally, what can Bergson imply when he speaks of the “continual elaboration of the absolutely new?” If one also understands Bergson’s earlier comment that “duration [of time] coincides with my impatience” and that the consideration of time is “no longer something thought, it is something lived, then we may be able to make some sense of this phenomenological approach to time in a rational sense.

The idea that the measure of time, the duration of any given event in linear time is directly related to the impatience of the observer is a profound insight. How many times have you been in a situation in which you kept looking at your watch, time seemingly creeping along at a snail’s pace while other times things seem to fly by so fast that time itself is no longer an issue and you find no need to take a peek at your watch. Engaged behavior occurs in the absolute now while disengaged behavior, while still taking place in the now, occurs in the relative now because the end is elusive. It is here where the invention of duration is activated. When fully engaged, when concentration is at its peak, actions are deeply embedded in the now; time seems to stop and duration is not an issue. There is a Talmudic story about several sages at B’nai B’rak who spent all night discussing the Exodus from Egypt until one of their students interrupted reminding them that it was time for Morning Prayers. Here the passage of time made no difference and a reminder of an obligation had to be issued to close the productive discussion. Those times when time stands still, however, when things move so slowly that the clock never seems to advance, that is a wholly different story. Here one’s impatience dictates the speed of advancement of the clock, the duration of the activity, the scope of the project. In the former, time is a lived-experience while in the latter it is something thought and not lived.

When Bergson references the idea of the “continual elaboration of the absolutely new” he is, I think, arguing that the absolute duration of time is not only infinitely brief but that it is something never to be repeated in the experience of the individual. Furthermore, every unique individual experiences the same relative duration of time in his or her own unique manner. In short, each moment is unique for each being to be experienced in one’s own way as something new. This view of time is not unlike the post-modern view that the only experience that qualifies as existence is this very moment, the moment which is always already gone, never to be recovered except as an incomplete trace. And so we come to the idea of the “creation of forms.”

It is possible to understand Bergson’s notion of the “creation of forms” as being similar to the idea of laying down of traces serving as memory engrams, recalled nostalgically to create a past and even to project a future (although the idea of projecting goals is similar to the trace of memory it is likely to be mechanically different). As we invent duration, live our experiences, our absolutely new and unique experiences, we are creating traces or forms that allow us to understand time as linear and history as ‘real’ because we can recall a part of what occurred. Our recall, however, isn’t as focused as the experience itself, rather it is idealized to conform to the underlying story predicted by the prior laying down of traces, reminders of our lived-experience.

While Bergson seems to apply a teleological foundation to his ideas about time, the ideas are more attuned to a randomly constructed universe with no particular purpose in mind. These ideas work just as well, in fact even better, when teleology is removed from the equation. What is important to note, however, is that Bergson’s ideas are flexible enough to provide a base for understanding a non-teleological ethics based on responsibility for the other and embracing the absolute uniqueness of the other.

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