Time and Free Will:
An essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness

Chapter 4: Conclusion

Henri Bergson

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Modern psychology holds that we perceive things through forms borrowed from our own constitution

To sum up the foregoing discussion, we shall put aside for the present Kant's terminology and also his doctrine, to which we shall return later, and we shall take the point of view of common sense. Modern psychology seems to us particularly concerned to prove that we perceive things through the medium of certain forms, borrowed from our own constitution. This tendency has become more and more marked since Kant: while the German philosopher drew a sharp line of separation between time and space, the extensive and the intensive, and, as we should say to-day, consciousness and external perception, the empirical school, carrying analysis still further, tries to reconstruct the extensive out of the intensive, space out of duration, and externality out of inner states. Physics, moreover, comes in to complete the work of psychology in this respect : it shows that, if we wish to forecast

(223) phenomena, we must make a clean sweep of the impression which they produce on consciousness and treat sensations as signs of reality, not as reality itself.

But are not the states of the self perceived through forms borrowed from the external world

It seemed to us that there was good reason to set ourselves the opposite problem and to ask whether the most obvious states of the ego itself, which we believe that we grasp directly, are not mostly perceived through the medium of certain forms borrowed from the external world, which thus gives us back what we have lent it. A Priori it seems fairly probable that this is what happens. For, assuming that the forms alluded to, into which we fit matter, come entirely from the mind, it seems difficult to apply them constantly to objects without the latter soon leaving a mark on them : by then using these forms to gain a knowledge of our own person we run the risk of mistaking for the colouring of the self the reflection of the frame in which we place it, i.e. the external world. But one can go further still and assert that forms applicable to things cannot be entirely our own work, that they must result from a compromise between matter and mind, that if we give much to matter we probably receive something from it, and that thus, when we try to grasp ourselves after an excursion into the external world, we no longer have our hands free.

Now just as, in order to ascertain the real rela-

To understand the intensity, duration and voluntary determination of psychic states, we must eliminate the idea of space.

(224) -tions of physical phenomena to one another, we abstract whatever obviously clashes with them in our way of perceiving and thinking, so, in order to view the self in its original purity, psychology ought to eliminate or correct certain forms which bear the obvious mark of the external world. What are these forms ? When isolated from one another and regarded as so many distinct units, psychic states seem to be more or less intense. Next, looked at in their multiplicity, they unfold in time and constitute duration. Finally, in their relations to one another, and in so far as a certain unity is preserved throughout their multiplicity, they seem to determine one another. Intensity, duration, voluntary determination, these are the three ideas which had to be clarified by ridding them of all that they owe to the intrusion of the sensible world and, in a word, to the obsession of the idea of space.

Intensity is quality and not quantity or magnitude

Examining the first of these ideas, we found, that psychic phenomena were in themselves pure quality or qualitative multiplicity, and that, on the other hand, their cause situated in space was quantity. In so far as this quality becomes the sign of the quantity and we suspect the presence of the latter behind the former, we call it intensity. The intensity of a simple state, therefore, is not quantity but its qualitative sign. You will find that it arises from a compromise between

(225) pure quality, which is the state of consciousness, and pure quantity, which is necessarily space. Now you give up this compromise without the least scruple when you study external things, since you then leave aside the forces themselves, assuming that they exist, and consider only their measurable and extended effects. Why, then, do you keep to this hybrid concept when you analyse in its turn the state of consciousness ? If magnitude, outside you, is never intensive, intensity, within you, is never magnitude. It is through having overlooked this that philosophers have been compelled to distinguish two kinds of quantity, the one extensive, the other intensive, without ever succeeding in explaining what they had in common or how the same words " increase " and " decrease " could be used for things so unlike. In the same way they are responsible for the exaggerations of psychophysics, for as soon as the power of increasing in magnitude is attributed to sensation in any other than a metaphorical sense, we are invited to find out by how much it increases. And, although consciousness does not measure intensive quantity, it does not follow that science may not succeed indirectly in doing so, if it be a magnitude. Hence, either a psychophysical formula is possible or the intensity of a simple psychic state is pure quality.

Turning then to the concept of multiplicity, we saw that to construct a number we must first have the intuition of a homogeneous medium,

Our conscious states not a discrete multiplicity

(226) viz. space, in which terms distinct from one another could be set out in line, and, secondly, a process of permeation and organization by which these units are dynamically added together and form what we called a qualitative multiplicity. It is owing to this dynamic process that the units get added, but it is because of their presence in space that they remain distinct. Hence number or discrete multiplicity also results from a compromise. Now, when we consider material objects in themselves, we give up this compromise, since we regard them as impenetrable and divisible, i.e. endlessly distinct from one another. Therefore, we must give it up, too, when we study our own selves. It is through having failed to do so that associationism has made many mistakes, such as trying to reconstruct a psychic state by the addition of distinct states of consciousness, thus substituting the symbol of the ego for the ego itself.

These preliminary considerations enabled us to approach the principal object of this work, the analysis of the ideas of duration and voluntary determination.

Inner duration is a qualitative multiplicity

What is duration within us ? A qualitative multiplicity, with no likeness to number; an organic evolution which is yet not an increasing quantity ; a pure heterogeneity within which there are no distinct qualities. In a word, the moments of inner duration are not external to one another.

In the external world we find not duration but simultaneity


What duration is there existing outside us? The present only, or, if we prefer the expression, simultaneity. No doubt external things change, but their moments do not succeed one another, if we retain the ordinary meaning of the word, except for a consciousness which keeps them in mind. We observe outside us at a given moment a whole system of simultaneous positions ; of the simultaneities which have preceded them nothing remains. To put duration in space is really to contradict oneself and place succession within simultaneity. Hence we must not say that external things endure, but rather that there is in them sonic inexpressible reason in virtue of which we cannot examine them at successive moments of our own duration without observing that they have changed. But this change does not involve succession unless the word is taken in a new meaning on this point we have noted the agreement of science and common sense.

Thus in consciousness we find states which succeed, without being distinguished from one another; and in space simultaneities which, without succeeding, are distinguished from one another, in the sense that one has ceased to exist when the other appears. Outside us, mutual externality without succession ; within us, succession without mutual externality.

Here again a compromise comes in. To the simultaneities, which constitute the external

The idea of a measurable time arises from compromise between ideas of succession and externality

(228) world, and, although distinct, succeed one another for our consciousness, we attribute measurable time arises succession in themselves. Hence the from. com- idea that things endure as we do ourselves and that time may be brought within space. But while our consciousness thus introduces succession into external things, inversely these things themselves externalize the successive moments of our inner duration in relation to one another. The simultaneities of physical phenomena, absolutely distinct in the sense that the one has ceased to be when the other takes place, cut up into portions, which are also distinct and external to one another, an inner life in which succession implies interpenetration, just as the pendulum of a clock cuts up into distinct fragments and spreads out, so to speak, lengthwise, the dynamic and undivided tension of the spring. Thus, by a real process of endosmosis we get the mixed idea of a measurable time, which is space in so far as it is homogeneity, and duration in so far as it is succession, that is to say, at bottom, the contradictory idea of succession in simultaneity.

As science eliminates duration from the outer, philosophy must eliminate space from the inner world

Now, these two elements, extensity and duration, science tears asunder when it undertakes the close study of external things. For we have pointed out that science the retains nothing of duration but simultaneity, and nothing of motion itself  but the position of the moving body,

(229)  i.e. immobility. A very sharp separation is here made and space gets the best of it.

Therefore the same separation will have to be made again, but this time to the advantage of duration, when inner phenomena are studied, -not inner phenomena once developed, to be sure, or after the discursive reason has separated them and set them -out in a homogeneous medium in order to understand them, but inner phenomena in their developing, and in so far as they make up, by their interpenetration, the continuous evolution of a free person. Duration, thus restored to its original purity, will appear as a wholly qualitative multiplicity, an absolute heterogeneity of elements. which pass over into one another.

The neglect to separate extensity and duration leads one party to deny freedom and the other to define it

Now it is because they have neglected to make this necessary separation that one party has been led to deny freedom and the other to define it, and thereby, involuntarily,  to deny it too. They ask in fact whether the act could or could not be foreseen, the whole of its conditions being given ; and whether they assert it or deny it, they admit that this totality of conditions could be conceived as given in advance: which amounts, as we have shown, to treating duration as a homogeneous thing and intensities as magnitudes. They will either say that the act is determined by its conditions, without perceiving that they are playing on the double sense of the word causality,

(230) and that they are thus giving to duration at the same time two forms which are mutually exclusive. Or else they will appeal to the principle of the conservation of energy, without asking whether this principle is equally applicable to the moments of the external world, which are equivalent to one another, and to the moments of a living and conscious being, which acquire a richer and richer content. In whatever way, in a word, freedom is viewed, it cannot be denied except on condition of identifying time with space; it cannot be defined except on condition of demanding that space should adequately represent time ; it cannot be argued about in one sense or the other except on condition of previously confusing succession and simultaneity. All determinism will thus be refuted by experience, but every attempt to define freedom will open the way to determinism.

This separation favourable to physical science, but against the interests of language and social life

Inquiring then why this separation of duration and extensity, which science carries out so naturally in the external world, demands such an effort and rouses so much repugnance when it is a question of inner states, we were not long in perceiving the reason. The main object of science is to forecast and measure: now we cannot forecast physical phenomena except on condition that we assume that they do not endure as we do ; and, on the other hand, the only thing we are able to measure is space. Hence the breach here comes about of itself between quality and quantity, between true

(231) duration and pure extensity. But when we turn to our conscious states, we have everything to gain by keeping up the illusion through which we make them share in the reciprocal externality of outer things, because this distinctness, and at the same time this solidification, enables us to give them fixed names in spite of their instability, and distinct ones in spite of their interpenetration. It enables us to objectify them, to throw them out into the current of social life.

Hence two different selves: (1) the fundamental self; (2) its spatial and social representation: only the former is free.

Hence there are finally two different selves, one of which is, as it were, the external projection of the other, its spatial and, so to speak, social representation. We reach the former by deep introspection, which leads us to grasp our inner states as living things, constantly becoming, as free states not amenable to measure, which permeate one another and of which the succession in duration has nothing in-common with juxtaposition in homogeneous space. But the moments at which we thus grasp ourselves are rare, and that is just why we are rarely free. The greater part of the time we live outside ourselves, hardly perceiving anything of ourselves but our own ghost, a colourless shadow which pure duration projects into homogeneous space. Hence our life unfolds in space rather than in time ; we live for the external world rather than for ourselves; we speak rather than think ; we "are acted " rather than act ourselves. To act

(232) freely is to recover possession of oneself, and to get back into pure duration.

Kant clung to freedom, but put the self which is free outside both space and time

Kant's great mistake was to take time as a homogeneous medium. He did not notice that real duration is made up of moments inside one another, and that when it seems to assume the form of a homogeneous whole, it is because it gets expressed in space. Thus the very distinction which he makes between space and time amounts at bottom to confusing time with space, and the symbolical representation of the ego with the ego itself. He thought that consciousness was incapable of perceiving psychic states otherwise than by juxtaposition, forgetting that a medium in which these states are set side by side and distinguished from one another is of course space, and not duration. He was thereby led to believe that the same states can recur in the depths of consciousness, just as the same physical phenomena are repeated in space ; this at least is what he implicitly admitted when he ascribed to the causal relation the same meaning and the same function in the inner as in the outer world. Thus freedom was made into an incomprehensible fact. And yet, owing to his unlimited though unconscious confidence in this inner perception whose scope he tried to restrict, his belief in freedom remained unshakable. He therefore raised it to the sphere of noumena ; and as he had

(233) confused duration with space, he made this genuine free self, which is indeed outside space, into a self which is supposed to be outside duration too, and therefore out of the reach of our faculty of knowledge. But the truth is that we perceive this self whenever, by a strenuous effort of reflection, we turn our eyes from the shadow which follows us and retire into ourselves. Though we generally live and act outside our own person, in space rather than in duration, and though by this means we give a handle to the law of causality, which binds the same effects to the same causes, we can nevertheless always get back into pure duration, of which the moments are internal and heterogeneous to one another, and in which a cause cannot repeat its effect since it will never repeat itself.

Kant regarded both time and space as homogeneous

In this very confusion of true duration with its symbol both the strength and the weakness of Kantianism reside. Kant imagines on the one side " things in themselves," and on the other a homogeneous Time and Space, through which the " things in themselves," are refracted : thus are supposed to arise on the one hand the phenomenal self-a self which consciousness perceives-and, on the other, external objects. Time and space on this view would not be any more in us than outside us ; the very distinction of outside and inside would be the work of time and space. This doctrine has the advantage of providing our empirical thought

(234) with a solid foundation, and of guaranteeing that phenomena, as phenomena, are adequately knowable. Indeed, we might set up these phenomena as absolute and do without the incomprehensible "things in themselves," were it not that the Practical Reason, the revealer of duty, came in, like the Platonic reminiscence, to warn us that the " thing in itself " exists, invisible but present. The controlling factor in the whole of this theory is the very sharp distinction between the matter of consciousness and its form, between the homogeneous and the heterogeneous, and this vital distinction would probably never have been made unless time also had been regarded as a medium indifferent to what fills it.

But if time, as duration, were homogeneous, science could deal with it

But if time, as immediate consciousness perceives it, were, like space, a homogeneous medium, science would be able to deal with it, as it can with space. Now we have tried to prove that duration, as duration, and motion, as motion, elude the grasp of mathematics : of time everything slips through its fingers but simultaneity, and of movement everything but immobility. This is what the Kantians and even their opponents do not seem to have perceived : in this so-called phenomenal world, which, we are told, is a world cut out for scientific knowledge, all the relations which cannot be translated into simultaneity, i.e. into space, are scientifically unknowable.

In the second place, in a duration assumed to

And freedom would be incomprehensible. Kant's solution.

(235) be homogeneous, the same states could occur over again, causality would imply necessary determination, and all freedom. Kant's would become incomprehensible. Such, solution. indeed, is the result to which the Critique of Pure Reason leads. But instead of concluding from this that real duration is heterogeneous, which, by clearing up the second difficulty, would have called his attention to the first, Kant preferred to put freedom outside time and to raise an impassable barrier between the world of phenomena, which he hands over root and branch to our understanding, and the world of things in themselves, which he forbids us to enter.

How corrected by taking real duration into account

But perhaps this distinction is too sharply drawn and perhaps the barrier is easier to cross than he supposed. For if perchance the moments of real duration, perceived taking real duration b an attentive consciousness permeated one another instead of lying side by side, and if these moments formed in relation to one another a heterogeneity within which the idea of necessary determination lost every shred of meaning, then the self grasped by consciousness would be a free cause, we should have absolute knowledge of ourselves, and, on the other hand, just because this absolute constantly commingles with phenomena and, while filling itself with them, permeates them, these phenomena themselves would not be as amenable as is claimed to mathematical reasoning.


With Kant, we assume a homogeneous space, the intuition of which is peculiar to man and prepares the way for social life

So we have assumed the existence of a homogeneous Space and, with Kant, distinguished this space from the matter which fills it. With him we have admitted that homogeneous space is a "form of our sensibility " : and we understand by this simply way that other minds, e.g. those of animals, although they perceive objects, do not distinguish them so clearly either- from one another or from themselves. This intuition of a homogeneous medium, an intuition peculiar to man, enables us to externalize our concepts in relation to one another, reveals to us the objectivity of things, and thus, in two ways, on the one hand by getting everything ready for language, and on the other by showing us an external world, quite distinct from ourselves, in the perception of which all minds have a common share, foreshadows and prepares the way for social life.

But if concrete duration is heterogeneous, the relation of psychic state to act is unique and the act is rightly judged free.

Over against this homogeneous space we have put the self as perceived by an attentive consciousness, a living self, whose states, at once undistinguished and unstable, cannot be separated without changing their nature, and cannot receive a fixed form or be expressed in words without becoming public property. How could this self, which distinguishes external objects so sharply and represents them so easily by means of symbols, withstand the temptation to introduce the same distinctions into its own life and to replace the

(237) interpenetration of its psychic states, their wholly qualitative multiplicity, by a numerical plurality of terms which are distinguished from one another, set side by side, and expressed by means of words ? In place of a heterogeneous duration whose moments permeate one another, we thus get a homogeneous time whose moments are strung on a spatial line. In place of an inner life whose successive phases, each unique of its kind, cannot be expressed in the fixed terms of language, we get a self which can be artificially reconstructed, and simple psychic states which can be added to and taken from one another just like the letters of the alphabet in forming words. Now, this must not be thought to be a mode of symbolical representation only, for immediate intuition and discursive thought are one in concrete reality, and the very mechanism by which we only meant at first to explain our conduct will end by also controlling it. Our psychic states, separating then from each other, will get solidified; between our ideas, thus crystallized, and our external movements we shall witness permanent associations being formed ; and little by little, as our consciousness thus imitates the process by which nervous matter procures reflex actions, automatism will cover over freedom.[1] It is just at this point

(238) that the associationists and the determinists come in on the one side, and the Kantians on the other. As they look at only the commonest aspect of our conscious life, they perceive clearly marked states, which can recur in time like physical phenomena, and to which the law of causal determination applies, if we wish, in the same sense as it does to nature. As, on the other hand, the medium in which these psychic states are set side by side exhibits parts external to one another, in which the same facts seem capable of being repeated, they do not hesitate to make time a homogeneous medium and treat it as space. Henceforth all difference between duration and extensity, succession and simultaneity, is abolishedthe only thing left is to turn freedom out of doors, or, if you cannot entirely throw off your traditional respect for it, to escort it with all due ceremony up to the supratemporal domain of " things in themselves," whose mysterious threshold your consciousness cannot cross. But, in our view, there is a third course which might be taken, namely, to carry

(239) ourselves back in thought to those moments of our life when we made some serious decision, moments unique of their kind, which will never be repeated -any more than the past phases in the history of a nation will ever come back again. We should see that if these past states cannot be adequately expressed in words or artificially reconstructed by a juxtaposition of simpler states, it is because in their dynamic unity and wholly qualitative multiplicity they are phases of our real and concrete duration, a heterogeneous duration and a living one. We should see that, if our action was pronounced by us to be free, it is because the relation of this action to the state from which it issued could not be expressed by a law, this psychic state being unique of its kind and unable ever to occur again. We should see, finally, that the very idea of necessary determination here loses every shred of meaning, that there cannot be any question either of foreseeing the act before it is performed or of reasoning about the possibility of the contrary action once the deed is done, for to have all the conditions given is, in concrete duration, to place oneself at the very moment of the act and not to foresee it. But we should also understand the illusion which makes the one party think that they are compelled to deny freedom, and the others that they must define it. It is because the transition is made by imperceptible steps from concrete duration, whose elements permeate one another, to symbolical duration, whose

(240) moments are set side by side, and consequently from free activity to conscious automatism. It is because, although we are free whenever we are willing to get back into ourselves, it seldom happens that we are willing. It is because, finally, even in the cases where the action is freely performed, we cannot reason about it without setting out its conditions externally to one another, therefore in space and no longer in pure duration. The problem of freedom has thus sprung from a misunderstanding : it has been to the moderns what the paradoxes of the Eleatics were to the ancients, and, like these paradoxes, it has its origin in the illusion through which we confuse succession and simultaneity, duration and extensity, quality and quantity.


  1. Renouvier has already spoken of these voluntary acts which may be compared to reflex movements, and he has restricted freedom to moments of crisis. But he does not seem to have noticed that the process of our free activity goes on, as it were, unknown to ourselves, in the obscure depths of our consciousness at every moment of duration, that the very feeling of duration comes from this source, and that without this heterogeneous and continuous duration, in which our self evolves, there would be no moral crisis. The study, even the close study, of a given free action will thus not settle the problem of freedom. The whole series of our heterogeneous states of consciousness must be taken into consideration. In other words, it is in a close analysis of the idea of duration that the key to the problem must be sought.

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