The Structure of the Free Act in Bergson

by Thomas H. Lutzow

Thomas H. Lutzow teaches ethics at Marquette University, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 73-89, Vol. 7, Number 2, Summer, 1977. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


The author reconstructs and explains the necessary conditions of individual free acts treated by Henri Bergson. Bergson’s initial acceptance of the fact of freedom finally includes the entirety of physical and psychic reality as its precondition.


From a purely textual standpoint, there is a sound basis for arguing that Henri Bergson is a rationalist as much as an intuitionist. He attempts to explain rather than merely describe the facts which confront him. His explanation is a cohesive structure resembling in some respects an axiomatic system. Bergson, of course, assumes throughout the correctness of the theory of evolution. All phenomena have resulted from a continuously developing process. None have been present in their existing state from the very beginning. Bergson also assumes that the recurrent appearance of the different life forms in the course of evolution, throughout the various species, is an indication that they are necessary, at least from a practical standpoint. Furthermore, the recurrence of these forms suggests for Bergson that they are intended. Within this context Bergson seeks to account for the existence of a given function by showing "how and why it is necessary to life" (TSMR 196). Following this account, he then attempts to explain "why it is what it is rather than anything else" (CE 167, 244; MM 67). Herein consists the methodological basis for his entire analysis. Why certain forms are necessary to life, and why they are as they are, are questions present at every point in his examination.

This discussion will be limited to the epistemological and physical forms immediately important for freedom. Other forms could be considered, and would have to be in a complete treatment. Man’s social character, for instance, relates necessarily to the possibility of truly free acts, but space forbids introducing it here.

I. The Method and Problematic

Our objective is to reconstruct and explain the necessary conditions of individual free acts treated by Bergson, particularly in Matter and Memory and Creative Evolution. This is a more encompassing and manageable alternative than would be an analysis of the sufficient conditions. It is quite difficult to discern the sufficient conditions of free acts in Bergson’s thought; he makes a deliberate effort not to define such acts. "Any positive definition of freedom will ensure the victory of determinism" (TFW 220). Hence it is nearly impossible to provide the sufficient conditions with any confidence. Bergson begins rather with the experience of freedom as an immediate datum of consciousness; as such it cannot be explained by anything other than itself. Along with duration, the facticity of freedom serves as a postulate for the rest of his thought. "We put duration and free choice at the base of things" (CE 300). Freedom offers Bergson the ground from which he can explain the existence of other realities and at the same time criticize the scientific theories of his day. Freedom and duration are facts of immediate experience. If these facts are inadmissible to science, science must be faulted, not human experience. "We cannot sacrifice experience to the requirements of a system" (CE 45).

Bergson envisions a series of implications resulting from his postulation of freedom as an immediate given. Man experiences himself as acting freely -- that is a primary fact. The problem arises when the possibility of these acts is considered. Bergson’s solution reveals to him a series of necessary conditions, the arrangement of which can be discerned by examining his textual use of terms such as "allows," "symbolizes," "measures, and "must" on the one hand as well as "requires" and "necessitates" on the other.1 These two basic sets of terms have a general difference in that what precedes the first set usually constitutes a necessary condition, whereas what precedes the second will in large measure serve as a sufficient condition. For instance, in Matter and Memory, he states that perception "symbolizes" indeterminacy. The implicative relation in this instance is the reverse, however. He begins with indeterminacy and attempts to show how and why perception must follow. Similar reversals occur with the term "measure. In general these linguistic patterns provide easy access to the internal structure operative in his thought.

Bergson’s problem in large part is modern scientific philosophy. One aspect, the metaphysical, derives from Descartes; the other, the phenomenological, stems from Kant. In the first case the difficulty rests with the nature of materiality. In the Cartesian mode of thought, matter is identified with extension and is subject to a complete and consistent set of mechanical laws. As a result, the possibility of a free act by a material being is precluded. Since all future movement is theoretically determined, the free act is at best an illusion. In the second case the problem rests with the understanding. In the Kantian analysis an act will always occur within the temporal frame and be schematized according to the categories of the understanding. The act can be understood, then, in no other way than as causally determined. Man cannot experience himself as free. Freedom on an empirical level is incomprehensible.

To dismiss both problems, Bergson simply begins with freedom as a fact of immediate experience. "Freedom is therefore a fact, and among the facts which we observe there is none clearer" (TFW 221). Man is aware of himself performing acts which are not foreseeable or explicable in terms of antecedents. Bergson finds in all of life, but particularly in man, centers of indeterminacy, a view which requires that the nature of matter be reexamined. In addition, the fact that indeterminacy is a given of immediate consciousness calls for a reexamination of the limits and function of the intellect. In order to fully understand the axiomatic pattern that issues from this primary fact, it is best to begin with Bergson’s two metabiological principles: matter and the Élan Vital. If matter is defined as a tendency toward extension and mechanism, then it is necessary to introduce a counter-tendency to explain the nonmechanistic life forms. The Élan Vital is this counter-tendency responsible for the various organizations of living matter. Indeterminacy requires both tendencies -- matter to obtain individuation and distinctness (ME 39f; CE 282), the Élan Vital to obtain life and its higher organizations (CE 282f). For free acts to occur matter and spirit must exhibit certain forms. These various forms will subsequently appear in the order of their importance. Beginning with the fact of indeterminacy, Bergson determines the necessity of conscious perception (A). Perception leads additionally to memory (B) and affection (C). Finally, space (D) and the intellect (E) are considered, more or less completing the epistemological consequents of indetermination. However, there are also physical consequents as exhibited in the material body (F). These last complete the order treated in this study. The structure begins with the more primary and inextensive conditions and moves to the more peripheral or extensive conditions. Initially, however, we must consider the metabiological tendencies in order to create a setting for the progression.

Materiality. Bergson places his discussion of materiality within the context of a continuum which has as one terminus pure inextension and as the other pure extension (BEP 304f). Concrete materiality would be best described as existing in a state of "extensity" within these two extremes. Both ends of the continuum must be regarded as limits never fully reached on the concrete level. Inextension in the extreme would be pure spirit; extension in the extreme would be regarded as pure matter, or, to use an identical expression, pure space. "Space [is]... an ideal limit in the direction of which material things develop, but which they do not actually attain" (CE 392, 238). Materiality as extensity is a tendency toward pure space, and, as such, is a tendency toward differentiation, distinction, multiplicity, and individuality. When matter is regarded as extensity, the mechanistic model fails. Future movement in the extensive field is not predictable even theoretically (MM 1; BEP 323f). Furthermore, exact repetition never occurs (CE 52). Material extensity is durational in character, and although there is recurrence, recurrent movement does not involve an exact repeating, i.e., there is an absence of identity in recurrence; previous states cannot be returned to precisely, nor will present states ever repeat themselves exactly. In addition, there is interpenetration, not distinct multiplicity in material extensity (TFW 884 There is differentiation without precise exteriority. In essence the mechanists presume that pure extension is achieved concretely, when in fact it is not (CE 13). Because it is not, the basis for absolute predictability is absent.

The primary analogate for duration, of course, is on the side of pure inextension. It is found most properly in consciousness. Here there is no question of repetition, reversibility, or predictability; they cannot be found (TFW 239; CE 8). Just as on the side of matter there is quantitative differentiation, approaching precise distinction, so on the side of consciousness there is qualitative differentiation approaching intensive unity. If one wishes to speak of a multiplicity of conscious states, they must surely be viewed as interpenetrating. If one wishes to regard consciousness as a unity, it must not be thought of as constant or unchanging. "Thus in consciousness we find states which succeed, without being distinguished from one another" (TFW 227). Like pure extension, a pure intensive consciousness is not concretely available.

Because concrete matter is something other than pure extension, the laws of determinism do not apply. Matter does not exclude the possibility of freedom as the Cartesians imagine. However, were matter to fulfill its tendency, pure extension would be realized, and hence to prevent this turn of events, it is necessary that a counter-tendency be introduced by way of explanation. The Elan Vital, which struggles with matter, frustrates its end. If not counteracted, the material tendency would provide determinism with its needed basis.

Èlan Vital. In Creative Evolution Bergson speaks of the "necessity . . . of a process the inverse of materiality" (CE 268)2 Its necessity is based not only on the need to restrict the material tendency toward torpor, dissociation, and determinism, but also to bring into existence the material and conscious forms which permit the performance of truly free and creative acts. Freedom, for Bergson, in the negative sense of indeterminacy, must ultimately be regarded as the final cause, i.e., the principle which renders the evolutionary struggle intelligible and which accounts for the recurring forms of life.

Were the mechanistic theory correct, life itself, not to mention its higher, more complicated forms, could not possibly have appeared. "Life would be an impossibility were the determinism of matter so absolute as to admit no relaxation" (ME 13). Left to itself, matter should persist in a state governed solely by quantitative relationships, one would think. Given the mechanistic model, there is no explanation of why matter should have sought vital organizations. Moreover, it cannot explain why matter should of itself have sought organizations of particular types and then persist in maintaining these types. Bergson was forced to reject mechanism because both the appearance of life and the diverse forms of life could not possibly be a function of past material states. On the other hand, however, he had to reject a finalism of a metaphysical sort wherein all future developments are logically contained in the structure of the present as predesignated ends (CE 24,45). The qualitative leaps in the evolutionary process were not rationally preordained in some exact way.

As an alternative explanation, Bergson offers a finalism without complete determination of form (CE 46). What is required in his view and what is in fact found is a "continual changing in a definite direction" (CE 96, 132). An effort is being made along generic lines, efficacious within the germ material of the various individuals in the life process, toward the creation of certain forms. This effort is the Élan Vital. Its objective would ultimately explain why vegetative life would function to fabricate energy deposits only to have animal life use these deposits for its more sophisticated activities (CE 269). It would explain why progression has occurred and why similar organic structures appear on different evolutionary lines by dissimilar means (CE 62). If the vital thrust is shared by all living elements and if certain organic forms are sought as necessary for indeterminate activity, then one might imagine why the same forms tend to appear universally. Bergson explains: " When a tendency splits up in the course of its development, each of the special tendencies which thus arise tries to preserve and develop everything in the primitive tendency that is not incompatible with the work for which it is specialized" (CE 132; his italics). He explains elsewhere that this tendency is met with resistance. "The impetus of life . . . consists in the need of creation. It cannot create absolutely, because it is confronted with matter, that is to say with the movement that is the inverse of its own. But it seizes upon this matter, which is necessity itself, and strives to introduce into it the largest possible amount of indetermination and liberty" (CE 274). The conflict between materiality and the Élan Vital results in the creation of certain definite forms which serve as necessary conditions of indeterminacy. Freedom presupposes the success of the vital principle in organizing materiality properly.

II. Indeterminacy and its Presuppositions

In discussing the necessary conditions of the free act, no positive content is sought; in other words, what the free act is, is not as important as the fact that it is. Once freedom is accepted as a fact, one need not define it. One can just as well proceed instead to consider the conditions that make the free act possible. The question then becomes: "What structures or elements in reality, if eliminated, would render the free act impossible?" Within this context freedom and indeterminacy are virtually equivalent in meaning. Bergson begins with indeterminacy as his "true principle" (MM 21) and from that point develops the rest of his thought (MM 67). The progression entailed by this principle involves some degree of reciprocity, but the treatment of this progression here will be linear rather than dialectical.

Bergson begins with the indetermination of the will and attempts to derive conscious perception and memory. Other subjective forms such as space and the intellect can also be derived. On the side of materiality, indetermination requires the nervous system, which in turn implies the remaining systems -- digestive, circulatory, and so on. The subjective or spiritual forms take precedence over the material. Although the nervous system cannot be said to derive from human consciousness, it does, according to Bergson, "measure" the degree of consciousness. The nervous system is required for man to be conscious. Consciousness and the nervous system, Bergson prefers to say, "correspond" (MM 38, 309) or "coincide" (MM 71, 76, 295, 297). "Equally they measure, the one by the complexity of its structure and the other by the intensity of its awareness, the quantity of choice that the living being has at its disposal" (CE 286). He contends that the nervous system and human consciousness both are derivative of a more basic principle, that of indetermination (MM 35).

Bergson’s language suggests a deductive series. In Matter and Memory, he states that he is taking indetermination as his starting point and from there will deduce the "possibility and even the necessity of conscious perception" (MM 21). Conscious perception leads further to affection, as he later says; the "necessity of affection follows from the very existence of perception" (MM 57). Conscious perception also entails memory. "When perception, as we understand it, is once admitted, memory must arise" (MM 38). Although memory clearly follows from conscious perception, it can also be shown to follow directly from indetermination (MM 70, 303). In addition, concrete memory presupposes the perceptual apparatus and the intellect entails memory. We shall examine many, but not all, of these interrelationships.

Throughout his discussion, Bergson presupposes the material field familiar to science. Were the structure of physical matter other than it is, the organization of matter in its living forms would likely be different (CE 280). Our main task here will be to clarify the relationship between indetermination and the nervous system. According to Creative Evolution, the nervous system in higher organisms necessitates its support systems. "The more the nervous function is perfected, the more must the functions required to maintain it develop" (CE 138). Speaking to this same point a bit later, he notes that "the increasing complexity of the organism is . . . due theoretically . . . to the necessity of complexity in the nervous system" (CE 274). In Matter and Memory Bergson adds that indetermination is the cause of conscious perception as it is also the cause of the nervous system (MM 68). This is not to say that indetermination as such requires the nervous system, but that its true form, its higher degrees, do require such a system. In fact the latter’s complexity will symbolize the degree of indetermination available to the agent. Its increasing complexity appears "to allow an even greater latitude to the activity of the living being, the faculty of waiting before reacting, and of putting the excitation received into relation with an even richer variety of motor mechanisms" (MM 68). The verb "to allow" occurs frequently in these contexts. Furthermore, the complexity of the nervous system is called a "material symbol" of an inner independence. If these two terms are axiomatically significant as suggested before, then the implicative relation proceeds from indeterminacy to the nervous system.

A. Perception. "From indetermination accepted as a fact," Bergson claims that he can "infer the necessity of a perception, that is to say, of a variable relation between a living being and the more or less distant influence of objects which interest it" (MM 24). The interesting term here is "necessity." Why is perception required? Again the problem is materiality. The body is part of the material field, governed by laws which for all practical purposes are necessary. How is it possible for a body to exhibit itself as a center of indeterminacy under these conditioning circumstances? The need for conscious perception derives precisely from its function of liberating spirit from what would otherwise be predeterminable material movement (MM 332).

Bergson’s argument here again makes use of a continuum; at one extreme is pure memory wherein every detail of past experience is recorded and retained, and at the other extreme is pure perception wherein spirit is totally conditioned by movements in the material field. There is, however, a form of choice exhibited at this level of pure perception, embodied in the structure of the perceptual apparatus, not made by the individual but by organic life as a whole in terms of its basic needs and interests as reflected in the variety of its fundamental activities and functions (MM 46). In addition, the perceptual apparatus does not transmit all material movement proper to its functions, but only that which is ultimately necessary for the freedom of the agent (MM 30). Although the perceptual apparatus is selective, it remains an integral part of the material field, continuing movements imparted to it and transferring these movements to other elements. It is completely caught up in material relations which are necessary from a practical standpoint. Without the development of a further power, any form of spirit present in pure perception would be subject also to the same laws governing matter. Pure perception "is still in a sense matter" (MM 325). It "is the lowest degree of mind" and "is really part of matter" (MM 50).

The further power, memory, is necessary because it liberates spirit from matter and renders perception conscious. "Eliminate all memory, we should pass thereby from perception to matter, from the subject to the object" (MM 77). Memory contracts and interrupts material movement. Conscious perception is needed in order to reveal and permit a wide range of possible activity to the agent. However, for perception to be conscious, memory is required. Through memory the agent is able to contract material movement, restrict its influence, delay and control its own response. Concrete perception appears precisely at that point where the stimulation received by matter is not prolonged into a necessary action (MM 22). Consider, as Bergson does, the example of red light. He notes that red light exhibits 400 billion vibrations per second; according to Bergson’s estimation, the shortest interval of time consciousness can detect is 1/500 of a second. What renders this movement perceptible, Bergson claims, is memory, which compacts it into units noticeable to consciousness (MM 272f). Contraction permits material movement to be perceived by consciousness; it regulates external duration according to the needs of internal duration and thereby makes it possible for consciousness to act on matter. Without this contracting function of memory, the agent would be entirely subject to the action of matter.

In concrete perception, the material movement ordinarily continued as real movement by nonvital matter is continued as virtual or nascent action by living organisms. That selected movement, proper to the different senses, is received as usual, but instead of being immediately transmitted, there is a delay and a further selection. This selection is made not only in terms of the more general organic interests and functions, but also in terms of particular interests of the singular organism within a unique portion of its duration (MM 304). That movement of interest to the organism is extracted, reflected, and continued along motor tracts in the form of nascent activity. In fact, these motor tracts play an important role in the selection of the movement received; that movement which is not ordinarily continued is absorbed or disregarded.

The representation is a perception to the extent that consciousness is nascently aware of the bodily selection and concurs with it. Perception is a select movement representative of a larger whole. To the degree that consciousness, on this level of pure perception, corresponds to the movement of the body, to that degree is it part of things. "As the chain of nervous elements which receives, arrests, and transmits movements is the seat of this indetermination and gives its measure, our perception will follow all the detail and will appear to express all the variations of the nervous elements themselves" (MM 68). Bergson adds that the body does not cause the perception; it merely selects movement representative of various objects (MM 309). "The body extracts from the material . . . environment whatever has been able to influence it" (CM 55). For this representative movement to be a perception, consciousness must act. Representation at the point of selection is not the content of concrete perception. Consciousness here remains enmeshed in a relatively automatic selective process. It remains subject to the movement of bodily matter. The movement selected by the body in conjunction with the immediate particular consciousness must be contracted by memory (MM 76f). Consciousness is then liberated (MM 279). "Memory, inseparable in practice from perception, imports the past into the present, contracts into a single intuition many moments of duration, and thus by a twofold operation compels us, de facto, to perceive matter in ourselves, whereas we, de jure, perceive matter within matter" (MM 80). Instead of the initial action-reaction sequence involving a continuation of real action, it involves a continuation of virtual action as far as conscious perception is concerned, or nascent action as far as the body is concerned (MM 309, 313). To the extent that it renders this otherwise real action virtual, conscious perception reveals to the agent his possible action on things and inversely the possible action of things on him; this revelation, of course, allows for choice.

Thus within the entirety of the material field, there exist centers of indetermination which participate in and receive various forms of material movement just as any other material object does, but with one difference -- they fail to continue the movement with a necessary response. The effect of material action on these centers is diminished in direct proportion to their indetermination (MM 29). That movement in which these centers have no real interest is left to pass; that movement which can serve to reveal possible activity is reflected in the form of nascent or virtual responses. Through this selection, perception reveals the variety of activity available to the agent. The range of possible activity is determined by the complexity of the nervous system, both on a sensory as well as a motor level (MM 41) -- sensory in that with a system of low complexity, an organism is simply not aware of the vast variety of movements in the material field, motor in that the variety of responses necessary for free activity are not materially accessible (MM 19, 43). Since the quality of perception depends on this level of complexity, Bergson finds it to be an accurate measure of indetermination.

Representation and conscious perception derive from indetermination. Full presence of consciousness to matter would result in the enslavement of consciousness. "To perceive all the influences from all the points of all bodies would be to descend to the condition of a material object" (MM 46). Re-presentation in some form is needed in order for free activity to occur. Indetermination, then, is the final justifying cause.

B. Memory. Thus far conscious perception has been seen to be necessary to the extent that it reveals possible activity to the agent. For perception to be conscious, however, memory must contract a plurality of otherwise unobservable, external movements into recognizable internal movements. Memory ultimately accounts for the liberation of spirit from matter. However, there is another reason for the existence of memory; if the past were not retained, the action of a conscious agent would be considerably restricted. The requirement essential to indetermination is that all responses to life situations "be inspired by past experience" (MM 69) and that they be made in the light of previous, analogous states.3 If freedom is not to be confounded with caprice, then indetermination requires the preservation of the past in the two fundamental forms of motor mechanisms and independent recollections.

The recollective ability of memory is important in that it makes contraction possible; memory must retain the past in order to contract it into perceptible units. In addition, it must be able to deliver to consciousness those previous states which can serve to enrich present perception, indicate alternative courses of action, and enlighten the decision process. Bergson distinguishes between the contractive and recollective abilities of nonmotor memory. The former is required by the need to regulate external duration according to the inner (MM 25), whereas the latter is necessary for the regulation of the inner according to the outer (WD 54). The first is spoken of frequently as the tension of memory; the second is referred to as the attention of memory. Without memory tension, the free act could not be interjected into the material field. Without the attention of memory, there would be "but a passive juxtaposition of sensations, accompanied by a mechanical reaction" (MM 163);4 the latter is necessary in order that the response be chosen in accord with the present state of affairs. The first is more appropriately related to the sensory apparatus, while the second tends to be more associated with the motor sections.

The need for motor mechanisms or motor habits is clear when considering the conscious functions of recognition and generalization. Motor habits constitute a form of memory which is nothing other a complete set of intelligently constructed mechanisms that insure an appropriate response to the various possible demands addressed to the organism (MM 195). Generality and the recognition of different objects presuppose this form of memory, for both are initially based on an awareness of the likeness of bodily attitude or of a similarity of reactions in diverse situations. Also, these motor habits serve as a means whereby memory can insert itself into concrete consciousness. "Memories need, for their actualization, a motor ally, and . . . they require for their recall a kind of mental attitude which must itself be engrafted upon an attitude of the body" (MM 152). These motor habits are necessary not only to supply the basis for generalization, consequently, but also to enable memory to materialize itself (MM 197), presenting concrete consciousness with useful images. This system of habits serves as a governing principle to decipher the useful in memory and to act out the general in the extensive field. They bring memory to bear on the present and help fill conscious memory. What most people refer to as memory is the result of the configurating influence of motor habits.

C. Affection. Bergson also claims that perception necessarily indicates the presence of affection. The body, as was indicated, reflects excitations in order to reveal its possible action on things and the possible action of external objects upon itself. The possible action of external objects is associated with real action in two ways. Firstly, perception results from real movement in the material field but does not continue the movement it receives necessarily, directing it instead into nascent or virtual acts. In this sense, perception definitely presupposes real action, i.e., real action leads to virtual action, to perception. At the same time, virtual action leads to real action. In the case of affection this real action is localized within a definite portion of the body, never to extend beyond it (MM 61). Through perception the virtual or eventual action of things upon the body is noticed. The body is not indifferent to this eventual action; preparations are made immediately not only in motor tracts but in sensory tracts as well. Bergson speaks of the motor tendency of the sensory elements; this tendency is the material seat of affection (MM 56).

If affection is necessary for perception, we must explain why perception would not occur in the absence of affection. Ultimately Bergson’s explanation would base itself on the dependence of perception on the complexity of the sensory-motor system. A completed perception requires a real motor response to the sensory stimulus. From the physical standpoint, these motor responses are affection, specifically localized within varying, but definite, portions of the body. "Every pain is a local effort" (TFW 35). The intensity of affection is determined by the number of such motor responses which enter into the reaction induced by any given stimulus (TFW 36). Affection, consequently, is that element in the perceptual complex which completes the recognition of the object acting on the body either virtually or really. It occurs in those sensory areas wherein real movement is absorbed rather than continued, wherein it is repulsed rather than accepted. In a true sense, the capacity of the body for affection defines the capacity of the body for perception, since it is one with the capacity of the body to respond to its environment. Perception results both from the sensory stimulus received and from the nascent as well as real motor responses that follow; it is as much a response as it is a reception (MM 124). Perception could not occur with one of these ingredients absent. Affection, quantitatively speaking, is a real motor response to objects in the material field, expressed internally in sensory elements.

Perception implies affection in the same way that virtual action implies real action. Virtual action on the body elicits an immediate, estimative, real response which intensifies as the virtual action approaches real action on the body. At no time is the body indifferent to its environment. This lack of indifference is affection. In fact the degree of affection, whether it be pleasure or pain, is determined by the magnitude of this response to stimulation.

Affection too is expressive of indeterminacy. Instead of continuing the stimulus received automatically in nascent action, it responds to it, interpreting it through feeling. Affection measures the complexity of the perceptual apparatus since its response occurs in reference not only to real action present to the body, but also to future action. Affective sensation is "nascent freedom" (TFW 34). Free actions differ from automatic movements principally through the introduction of affective sensation between the initiating external action and the subsequent volitional reaction. Affection is that estimative aspect of perception which reflects the needs and interests of the organism through real although localized responses within the body to external action.

D. Space. The elements dealt with above relate specifically to perception whereas space and intellect relate more directly to conception. Space is a metaphysical as well as epistemological fixture in Bergson’s thought. Metaphysically speaking, it is the principle of exteriority and as such the limit toward which matter is tending. It is also the source of individuality, for space as pure extension individualizes. In another sense, however, as the form of human sensibility, space relates necessarily to indetermination. Homogeneous space expresses, "in an abstract form, the double work of solidification and division which we effect on the moving continuity of the real in order to obtain there a fulcrum of our action" (MM 280). Spatialization establishes within the perceptual field points in reference to which action can be decided. Ultimately it permits the introduction of real changes by the agent. Bergson refers specifically to the necessity of this operation on the perceptual current to allow for action (MM 188). The will cannot manifest itself without spatialization. Through abstract spatialization the agent masters the material continuity within which he finds himself. The agent can thereby decompose extensity according to the exigencies of his activity, recompose it, and establish the objectivity of things which perception has contracted into immobilities (MM 280, 274, 292, 308).

This process need not recognize the natural unity of reality as presented to concrete perception. The spatial diagram renders objectivity in general conceptually divisible according to the agent’s needs and desires. The agent can act in reference to a part of the perceived whole, a part of that part, or any other configuration, irrespective of where the natural lines might be drawn. Space as this homogeneous diagram is clearly presupposed by perception; before natural units can be deciphered, the extensive field must be first submitted to the spatializing function (MM 278). Space is concerned primarily with the divisibility and objectivity of the elements given in perception; it "enables us to externalize our concepts in relation to one another," and "reveals to us the objectivity of things" (TFW 236).

Since "to perceive means to immobilize" (MM 275), space is needed in order to reconstruct and localize objects. Once this operation takes place, the agent can function, for there are present to him focal points in the extensive field in reference to which he can make decisions. Moreover, once the positions x and y are defined, the agent can enter them into a whole variety of relations. If we view the spatial diagram in this manner, we come to recognize that the spatial form is also presupposed by the intellect. The work of the intellect in the anticipation and prediction of movement can occur only if space is first introduced into the perceptual context (CE 399). The intellect can relate elements only if these elements are first established as distinct, whether they be perceptual or conceptual.

E. Intellect and Language. As we have seen, Bergson envisions a conflict taking place between two tendencies at the basis of reality, that toward intensive existence and that toward extensive existence, the ascent and the descent (CE 14). Both are necessary. Both ultimately occur within the realm of consciousness, even the tendency toward pure matter. When and if this tendency were completed, consciousness would have reduced itself to an absolute minimum, expressing itself solely in the form of material recurrence. "Matter . . . will always appear to be a sort of consciousness infinitely diluted and relaxed."5 In order to master this tendency toward exteriority individual consciousness though the efforts of the Elan Vital has had to adapt itself to the material tendency to the extent of becoming almost exclusively intellect (CE 291,179). The adaptation is reciprocal. "Intellect and matter have progressively adapted themselves one to the other in order to attain at last a common form" (CE 225; CE 4011).

The intellect and matter are the same inversion of the life force expressing itself internally in the first instance and externally in the second (CE 225f). This same movement leads to distinct concepts in the human intellect and to material objects relatively exclusive of one another. The more consciousness is intellectualized, the more matter is spatialized. Logical exteriority and spatial exteriority tend to be identical (CE 232, 207). Given the character of the intellect as a function formed in conjunction with matter, it is clear why Bergson should discredit it as a cognitive avenue to freedom. Just as matter is involved in determined relationships, so the intellect can only conceive of its object as involved in similarly necessary relations. "The intellect, turning itself back toward active, that is to say free, consciousness, naturally makes it enter into conceptual forms into which it is accustomed to see matter fit. It will therefore always perceive freedom in the form of necessity" (CE 294). It is only through intuition that the agent is able to discern particular actions as qualitatively free.

The intellect is required by consciousness to master materiality; it does so through fabrication and anticipation, the formal relations for these operations being derived from action. The intellect’s main features indicate the general form of our possible action on matter; even the details of matter are "ruled by the requirements of action" (CE 205). It is said that given indeterminacy as a goal of the real, the form of matter itself has been conditioned from the start.

Fabrication extends the range of possible activity for the agent. The body remains limited in its possible activity. The fabrication of tools and instruments extends the range of possible activity from the limited to the virtually unlimited (CE 155f). The intellect, in other words, is required to increase the spectrum of materially possible choices. "Thus all the elementary forces of the intellect tend to transform matter into an instrument of action, that is, in the etymological sense of the word, into an organ" (CE 178; 201). In the course of time, matter becomes more and more reflective of human freedom.

The intellect also embodies the necessary formal condition for anticipation. If action is not to be misdirected or blind, consciousness must be able to extend itself beyond the immediacy of the present in order to determine future movement, i.e., to anticipate the consequences of one’s own action, the action of others, to pose ends, and the means of obtaining these ends (TSMR 139). "The essential function of our intellect, as the evolution of life has fashioned it, is to be a light for our conduct, to make ready for our action on things, to foresee, for a given situation, the events . . . which may follow thereupon" (CE 34).

To act adequately, the scope of perception must be expanded into the past as well as into the future (CM 131f; ME 10). The first task is completed by memory; memory in conjunction with intellect provides extension toward the future. Through an innate knowledge of materiality, expressed in intellectual categories and relations, consciousness can determine future material movement; the accuracy of this determination is furthered by personal memory in areas that require more than is furnished by a common physical condition. Bergson finds fabrication and anticipation functioning jointly in the invention of new instruments. This creates a material condition resulting in a liberation of man from his lower needs, permitting him to exercise a higher degree of free activity (CE 152f).

Even the formal character of the intellect can be shown to be necessary. From the postulation of action, Bergson claims, the form of the intellect can be deduced (CE 168). Generality results from the lived experience of acting out and among objective similarities, thereby creating certain general bodily attitudes. Generality is the sameness of attitude toward a myriad of objects. Its relation to action is clear; to act the agent must propose ends and the means of achieving them. "This latter operation is possible only if we know what we can reckon on. We must therefore have managed to extract resemblances from nature which enable us to anticipate the future" (CE 50). The more purely formal these resemblances are the less is the intellect confinable to a particular, unique material context. Pure forms can be used to analyze and systematize any context whatsoever (CE 166, 172f). Consciousness, as a result, is not confined to the present, nor is it at the mercy of irregular, random flux.

Language too relates to the liberation of the intellect. The formal character of ideas stems from consciousness having acted out resemblances over and over again. Intellectual forms, then, are spiritual habits. As habits, these forms constitute something from which consciousness must liberate itself. This liberation can occur because these intellectual forms are registered in language and thus are made an object for consciousness, upon which consciousness can reflect. Without language, consciousness would remain at a relatively crude level governed by patterns developed in its association with material movement. However, because language involves a whole series of motor mechanisms of its own, the agent is provided with a means of countering the motor patterns resulting from recurrent movement. "These habits [of language], stored in these mechanisms . . . can hold other motor habits in check, and thereby, in overcoming automatism, set consciousness free" (CE 201). Consciousness which otherwise would have been restricted to the object, or submerged in the performance of an act, is set free. "Without language intelligence would probably have remained riveted to the material objects which it was interested in considering" (CE 175). Released now from the habitual, it is free to pursue the possible. Secondly, language involves a series of objective signs wherein consciousness can materialize itself. As a result, inference is made possible. Distinctions are easily drawn. The content of consciousness is brought from the potential state of dark memory to the actual. Consciousness is able to observe and reflect upon its own internal workings (CE 175f).

F. Organized Matter Bergson maintains, as should be clear at this point, that matter in general must be of a certain form for free acts to be possible. In particular, the material form sustaining life must be of a definite type. Experience points to "the necessity of a certain cerebral substratum for the psychical state" (CE 385). The necessity spoken of here is of a practical sort. It is conceivable, for instance, that with a different concrete material substratum, life might have expressed itself in different forms, with the possible exception of the sensory-motor system (CE 279). It is conceivable too that perception could occur without a nervous system or sensory organs; however, Bergson would regard such a situation as practically impossible, for such perception would be useless to an agent. Hence it is practically necessary that certain organizations of matter exist. In the end the nervous system, together with its support systems, reveals itself as a necessary condition of indeterminacy.

Perception arises from the same cause which has brought into being the chain of nervous elements, with the organs which sustain them and with life in general. It expresses and measures the power of action in a living being, the indetermination of the movement or of the action which will follow the receipt of the stimulus. (MM 68)

Just as perception is required by indeterminacy, revealing possible activity, so the sensory-motor system is required for perception (MM 20f). If perception results from both sensory and motor elements, a sufficient sensory apparatus is needed to detect the variety of movement in the material field, and a sufficient motor system is called for in order to recognize generality (MM 111f) and to make a variety of responses materially possible. Both, then, are entailed by the free act. Without the former, one’s response to the material flow would not be adequate; without the latter, one’s response would be limited (CE 287). The lessening of both would decrease the range of possible activity, decrease the quality of perception and hence eliminate true indeterminacy (MM 36f).

Indeterminacy as such does not involve as a "necessary condition the presence of a nervous system" (CE 122). The more basic organisms exhibit a degree of indeterminacy without such a system. However, for the higher forms of indeterminacy, the sensory-motor system in its present design is clearly required, both because of the nature of materiality and indeterminacy itself (CE 122f). Indetermination minimally requires certain material structures which allow for the expression of nonmaterial functions. In the course of evolution these material structures gradually emerged. However, as a matter continues to grow in a definite direction, it also proceeds to divide (CE 281). Growth is achieved through division. What might have been one system becomes two, related through the original unity. Growth, in other words, expresses itself in a division of systems and functions.

The nervous system is one of the most important of the objectives of the Élan Vital. "A nervous system . . . is a veritable reservoir of indetermination. That the main energy of the vital impulse has been spent in creating apparatus of this kind is, we believe, what a glance over the organized world as a whole easily shows" (CE 140). The nervous system entails other systems as well: the respiratory, osteal, muscle, circulatory, digestive systems, and so on. These serve to "cleanse, repair and protect the nervous system, to make it as independent as possible from external circumstances, but above all to furnish it with energy to be expended in movements" (CE 274).

As Bergson suggests, a further function is called for to support the nervous system, the creation of energy deposits. These deposits are needed both for the independence of the organism from its environment, providing material for heat, for instance, and for the initiation and completion of movements (CE 134f). Spirit moves matter by using matter against itself. The matter used, of course, is found in sources containing captured solar energy which have been created by the chlorophyll function of plant life. "Two things only are necessary: (1) a gradual accumulation of energy; (2) an elastic canalization of this energy in variable and indeterminate directions, at the end of which are free acts" (CE 278; TSMR 255). The former function is found in plant life; the latter is present in animal life. Plant life, because it is essential to the creation of energy for motion, is the final material presupposition of indetermination. "Life is entirely dependent on the chlorophyllian function of the plant" (CE 269).

III. Conclusion

We have sought to show how and why the various epistemological and physical forms relate to one another in the thought of Henri Bergson, given indetermination as a basic axiom. Indetermination is immediately indicated by conscious perception. If conscious perception as equivalent to possible activity were eliminated, freedom would clearly cease to be a fact, almost by definition. Conscious perception liberates us from the bondage of material relations. This liberation would not occur without memory, whose function it is to contract matter, regulating it according to the requirements of an inner duration. There must also be a liberation from the immediacy of the concrete present. Here memory functions to retain the past, accumulating experience which can enlighten activity upon recall and which renders generalization possible. Spatial diagrammatization in turn permits the establishment of objectivity, the reconstruction of objects of which perception has immobile pictures, and the modification of matter. Spatialization allows for the distinguishing of concepts and percepts presupposed by the intellect. Lastly, the intellect itself functions to extend the range of awareness so that the agent can predict and anticipate the consequences of his own activity and the activity of matter. It also permits the agent to create a suitable material environment, one tailored to his interests.

None of these psychic phenomena would be possible without an adequate physical base. Presupposed is a sufficient nervous system. For this system to be truly independent from its environment, various support systems are needed, the most important of which are those which provide the nervous system with energy sources. This leads to the final element in the series, which concerns the manufacture of energy deposits. The implicative chain leads ultimately to plant life and its chlorophyllic function. Bergson’s initial acceptance of the fact of freedom finally includes the entirety of physical and psychic reality as its precondition.



BEP -- P.A.Y. Gunter, ed. Bergson and the Evolution of Physics. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1969.

BPT -- Jacques Maintain. Bergsonian Philosophy and Thomism, translated by Mabelle L. Andison. New York: Philosophical Library, 1955.

CE -- Henri Bergson. Creative Evolution, translated by Arthur Mitchell. New York: Modern Library, 1944.

CM -- Henri Bergson. The Creative Mind, translated by Mabelle L. Andison. Totawa, 1965.

ME -- Henri Bergson. Mind-Energy, translated by H. Wildon Carr. New York: H. Holt, 1920.

MM -- Henri Bergson. Matter and Memory, translated by Nancy Margaret Paul and W. Scott Palmer. London: G. Allen & Co., 1912.

TFW -- Henri Bergson. Time and Free Will, translated by F. L. Pogson. New York: Macmillan, 1960.

TSMR -- Henri Bergson. The Two Sources of Morality and Religion, translated by R. Ashley Audra and Cloudesley Brereton. New York: H. Holt, 1935.

WD -- Henri Bergson. The World of Dreams, translated by Wade Baskin. New York: Philosophical Library, 1958.



1 "Allows" (MM 19, 296), "symbolizes" (MM 31, 37, 56; CE 326), "measures" (MM 23, 28, 30, 68), "must" (MM 55,87, 94, 278, 303), "requires" (MM 69; CE 172), "necessitates" (MM 24, 28, 57, 188, 192, 317; CE 166, 278).

2 Bergson claims that this process. which is inverse to that of matter, creates matter by being somehow interrupted.

3 Maritain is somewhat inexact in claiming that Bergson equates freedom with spontaneity or irresponsible activity, maintaining that in choice motive and reason have no role to play for Bergson (BPT 263-65). John M. Stewart also misinterprets Bergson in regarding the free act as motiveless: A Critical Exposition of Bergson’s Philosophy (London: Macmillan, 1911), P. 247. Unsoeld is more correctly in line for saying that in the free act the agent would be responding to the thrust of his true inner self. If one were looking for a motive or reason, it would be the expression of this inner self which for Bergson could be equated with responsibility itself. Cf. W. F. Unsoeld, "Mysticism, Morality, and Freedom" (Dissertation, University of Washington, 1959), p. 22. Bergson explicitly objects to charges such as Maritain’s "Freedom is not hereby, as has been asserted, reduced to sensible spontaneity" (MM 243).

4 Some interpreters regard the Bergsonian self as a memory only, a collector rather than an agent. Again Maritain is one of these writers, maintaining that Bergson has eliminated efficient causality from the free act (BPT 260). Yet Bergson explicitly identifies efficient causality with the free act (CE 301)

5 Henri Bergson, "The Problem of Personality," Les Études 7 (Paris, 1966), 87.