Matter and Memory Critical Essays

Henri Bergson

Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

MATTER AND MEMORY is Bergson’s second major work, falling between TIME AND FREE WILL, his doctoral thesis, and CREATIVE EVOLUTION, perhaps his best-known work. MATTER AND MEMORY has, however, been called Bergson’s most unjustly neglected volume by Maurice Merleau-Ponty, renowned contemporary existentialist. Like all of his work, it is a philosophical effort to transcend Cartesian dualism, and, without postulating a divinely created spirit in man, to bring back, nevertheless, a more complex and supple sense of the profundity of human nature than that afforded by mechanistic science and philosophy of the nineteenth century.

Bergson begins with a discussion of the brain, of how the science of his day says it works and how he thinks it works. Everywhere Bergson is concerned with the Cartesian problem: the world of spirit and the world of matter, and the Cartesian inability to resolve the distinction in any philosophically satisfactory manner. Bergson shows that, by postulating that all reality is outside the mind, in objects, we reduce the mind to a passive receiver shaped and determined by outer flow. Clearly, our rich inner life and its amazing variety of self-created choices negate these premises of realist philosophy. The opposing point of view—the idealist one as espoused by Bishop Berkeley, that the only reality is within the mind, and the world outside cannot exist, for only our senses can be said to exist—is just as reductive and therefore distorting. Bergson’s effort is to see how mind transcends matter, how it is something more than its capacity to think, because of its power to use images new and old in shaping a present act that did not exist before except in potential.

Arguing that the mind is much more than a complex camera, Bergson analyzes at length the problem of memory. Drawing upon neurologists and psychologists, he observes that memory as we experience it is not localized anywhere in the brain; it is some power beyond impressions contained in cell structures. Through discussing clinical reports of visual and auditory aphasia, Bergson shows us that we cannot say where in the brain memory is. Brain lesions do not destroy memory itself; they merely debilitate the power to use memory.

There are, Bergson theorizes, two kinds of memory, and his new understanding of the mind results from this proposal. Ordinary memory is the string of impressions that have been filed away as they were received by pure—that is, instantaneous—perception. Ordinary memory in the mind operates in much the same way as it does in an electronic computer: the perception programs the mind with a store of impressions. But pure memory is a power, or a spirit, by which we control and organize these impressions. Pure memory is the survival of the perceptions of images, when the perception is no longer there. This is an active, not a passive, function, for we use memory to inform and direct our lives. Such a hypothesis transcends both realism and idealism by...

(The entire section is 1237 words.)